Baby Talk

Rabbi Lev Baesh

I participated in some fascinating discussions about birth ceremonies last week. The occasion was another excellent Outreach Training Institute program held on June 14, 2007 titled “Embracing the Covenant: Brit Ceremonies in Interfaith Families.” Dr. Paula Brody of the Reform movement’s Northeast Council runs four of these programs a year, funded by CJP, the Boston federation.

One of the most interesting parts of the day was a presentation by Father Walter Cuenin – author of one of the most popular articles ever published on our site, Is Heaven Denied to an Unbaptized Child?. Apparently, Catholic theology and practice has changed in many respects that apply to intermarriage situations, but “the people” aren’t always up to speed on the changes. For example:

• Catholic theology no longer takes what Father Cuenin called a “magical” approach to baptism – it is not essential to salvation, but instead a welcoming into a particular religious community. But even non-religious Catholics expect and want their children baptized – which seemed similar to me to Jews wanting their sons circumcised.
• Catholic theology now holds that it is wrong for children to be baptized without their parents’ consent, even in emergency situations. But we still hear the occasional story that a Catholic grandparent had secretly baptized a grandchild over the kitchen sink.
• It used to be the case that once a person had a Catholic baptism, he or she was considered a Catholic forever. Now, if a Catholic takes another religion, he or she is no longer “bound as a Catholic.”
• An interfaith couple wanting a Catholic wedding no longer has to promise to raise their children Catholic. The Catholic partner has to promise not to give up his or her own faith, and also to provide some exposure to Catholicism to any children. But, according to Father Cuenin, the requirement is worded so as not to preclude the Catholic parent from raising children as Jews.

Another fascinating part of the day was the juxtaposition of a panel of grandparents and couples (including a raised Orthodox Jewish father, his Catholic wife, and their very adorable little boys converted to Judaism under Conservative auspices). One of the parents on the panel used an expression I hadn’t heard before: “ceremonial bris,” referring to a ceremony held on the eighth day after birth, but for a boy who was already circumcised in the hospital. Later in the day, Rabbi Dan Judson reviewed a series of halachic rulings on just that situation – whether an “improperly circumcised” child, i.e. one who had a “medical” circumcision before the eighth day, could properly have a naming ceremony in a synagogue, or whether hatafat dam brit (a ritual drawing of a drop of blood), would be required. It felt like there was a wide gap between the legal requirements and where the lay panelist was, in terms of clearly wanting what she understood to be something very much like a bris for purposes of welcoming her child into her family and her tradition.

In the course of discussing whether a patrilineal male Jew would need to convert to Judaism (with immersion in a mikveh and hatafat dam brit) in order to have a conservative rabbi officiate at his or her wedding, a conservative rabbi made an interesting distinction between Jewish identity and Jewish status. In his view, a patrilineal Jew who was raised in the Reform movement and regarded himself as Jewish clearly has a Jewish identity, but in the eyes of the Conservative movement does not have the Jewish status that conversion would confer. The rabbi used an analogy – I’m not sure how well this works – of a car driven without a state inspection sticker – it’s a car and it drives but it isn’t “legal” for all purposes.

One concrete lesson I took from the day: young couples may not be familiar with Jewish birth rituals, or the significance of a Jewish name, especially if they don’t have friends who have had Jewish birth ceremonies – and this can be as true of the Jewish partner, as of the partner who is not Jewish. There is a great need for model ceremonies – like our Guide to Birth Ceremonies for Interfaith Families and for information geared to grandparents, both Jewish and not Jewish.

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