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Helping Couples Cope with the Bris/Baptism Question

Mary and Jed, married for one year and now pregnant with their first child, were having intense discussions about what to do after the child was born. Mary had agreed to raise the child Jewish, but now that she was pregnant, she began to fear that not having a baptism would mean that her child would not be able to go to heaven.

Jed and Mary had discussed this for many hours before they married and they had agreed that the child would be raised as a Jew. Jed was now terrified. If Mary wanted to baptize their child, then how could they raise the child to be Jewish?

This couple is typical of many who have attended my workshops for interfaith couples considering marriage. For these couples the issues of circumcision and baptism represent a major hurdle.

Often, when a non/Jewish partner makes a commitment to raise their future children as Jews, he or she doesn't realize at first that this means the child will not be baptized. To non/Jewish partners this is frequently a frightening prospect. Their religious upbringing has taught them that baptism is something they must do for the protection of their child. Many of the participants in my workshops express the belief that if they do not baptize their child, the child will not go to "heaven". This weighs very heavily on their minds and consciences.

Communication must be open and sincere regarding this issue. A child cannot be both a Jew and a Christian. The baptism actually affirms the child's and parent's commitment to Christianity, while the brit milah, or circumcision, confirms the child and parent's commitment to raising the child Jewishly.

How can this dilemma be worked out? A choice must be made and of course STUCK with throughout the child's formative years for the sake of the child. Often, in the process of discussing this decision, the non-Jewish partners will express anxiety around losing a "connection" to the child. Their own baptism was frequently an important part of their background and they feel a discontinuity if the child is not baptized.

For those who choose to raise their children as Jews, I try to help the non-Jews understand that their connection to Judaism (and thus their connection to their child) through either the circumcision or the baby naming is a very meaningful religious life-cycle event. I encourage them to see that this connection to Judaism should give them the peace of mind that the child does have a religious identity. The adjustment for the parent, of course, is that this religious connection, this personal identity, is one that the parent did not share as a child.

Their feeling of not having a connection to their child is troublesome. I encourage the parents to accept that they have a connection to the child just because the child is theirs. I point out that after a decision has been made to raise the child Jewish and after actions are taken consistent with that decision--having a circumcision and/or baby naming, attending synagogue together, and sending the child to Hebrew school--then the new religious connection and the bond between parent and child will strengthen as this becomes a part of the lives of each member of the family.

If the baptism issue continues to be a major difficulty between the two partners, then I question their ability to work out a comfortable manner of raising their child in an interfaith family. I hope that couples realize how difficult these decisions are and that there must be a great deal of soul searching and understanding. I caution them to continue the dialogue.

Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Roberta Calderone

Roberta Calderone has been intermarried for the past thirty-one years and has two children. She has facilitated the "Times and Seasons Program" for Temple-Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal for more than a decade. The program allows interfaith couples contemplating marriage to identify and discuss issues they are facing.

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