Ruth Goldberger is the Regional Outreach Director for the Mid-Atlantic Council of the Reform movement. She lives in Herndon, Virginia with her husband David and three sons--Ari, Daniel and Zak.
Is Avoiding Birth Ceremonies Really a Good Option?
Birth ceremonies are commonly observed as an official welcome of a child into a religious community. Typically parents introduce their child and announce their intention to raise the child as a member of that community. They promise to teach him/her the beliefs and traditions of the community. Such an event should be a celebratory time--with the family sharing its joy and pride, and the community welcoming and joining in the rejoicing. This presentation of the new child marks not only the continuity of life, but the continuity of a family and a community.
For interfaith couples the joy and happiness at the birth of their child can often be tempered by stresses relating to which, or if, birth ceremonies should be observed. Ideally, a couple will have already made decisions about the religion of any children. If the parents were not able to come to a resolution on this issue before they committed to a future together, they may have risked turmoil, hurt and confusion down the road.
Occasionally I talk to engaged couples who assure me that they will do a bit of both their religions in their home together, or that they haven't decided yet but that it will all work out--that the religion of their children will not be an issue for them. These are often the couples who believe that religion will only play a small part in their lives together and will be easily accommodated. In actuality, these couples often find that because assumptions cannot be made about what holidays and rituals will be celebrated, or how life-cycle events will be marked, religious issues tend to be topics of intense discussion, and religion in general plays a more dominant role in their lives than it would if they had resolved these issues earlier.
Couples who have not made a pre-marital decision about religion for their children often find themselves facing a dilemma as the arrival of a child approaches. In some cases they may even put off having children indefinitely as they struggle with this issue. Pressure is often increased by the parents of the couple asking what decisions have been made, and, if a child is imminent, about plans for some kind of birth ceremony.
This situation can be particularly problematic if one partner is Jewish and one partner comes from a Christian background that places great importance on infant baptism. The tradition in Judaism is for a b'rit milah (ritual circumcision) to occur on the eighth day of life. The timing factor can be especially stressful if a couple waits until the birth of the child--which is a stressful time in itself--to address this issue. Ceremonies for girls are less time sensitive and often celebrated sometime between the 8th and 30th days after birth, if they are held at all. Both boys and girls are often given naming ceremonies in front of the congregation during their early months.
For a couple where one of the partners is from a Christian background that emphasizes infant baptism (or christening), such as Catholicism and several Protestant denominations, there are also time pressures. Although there have been changes in how baptism is understood in the Catholic faith (see article by Fr. Walter Cuenin in this issue of InterfaithFamily.com), many still believe that one must be baptized in order to attain salvation of the soul in the after-life. This naturally makes having the ceremony of great concern to these family members.
It may be tempting for couples to decide that avoiding any birth ceremony is preferable to making a decision about their child's religious identity--particularly if they are not able to agree on what that identity should be, or if they are concerned about hurting their parents. In fact, the issue of not wanting to hurt parents is often the biggest stumbling block. An interfaith couples group or couples counseling may be especially useful to help couples to focus on what is best for them and how to communicate with their parents in a constructive way. While grandparents can suffer great disappointment if grandchildren will be raised in "the other" religion, most will hopefully be supportive and feel some relief to at least know what to expect. Couples can reassure them by telling them that they can still share their own stories and who they are and with their grandchildren--that their tradition and identity will not be invisible or hidden.
If avoiding a birth ceremony is the way couples deal with their own indecision, then I fear their children will not fit comfortably into any religious tradition and may feel torn between their parents. Over time parents and grandparents may be inclined to escalate holiday celebrations in an effort to influence a child's eventual choice--possibly losing much of the real meaning of holidays and the family time that they can enhance. Even if they are able to avoid this, it is almost inevitable that children will feel that by choosing a particular religion, they are choosing one parent over another. It can also be very confusing as one cannot be a believing Christian and a Jew at the same time. One can, however, be raised as either a Christian or a Jew and feel comfortable in that identity, while still having a great understanding of and appreciation for the other tradition and the commonalities between the two.
In choosing a religion for their children, couples have hopefully discussed how they will actively support the chosen religious identity, as well as ways to honor the tradition not chosen. After all, one of the main tenets of religious faiths around the world is to honor one's father and mother.