Contemporary American Reform Responsa

48. Conversion of a Young Child of a First marriage

QUESTION: How shall we deal with the children of a non- Jewish divorced parent, now converted to Judaism, who has married a Jew in her second marriage and wishes her children to be Jewish? (Rabbi J. Folkman, Columbus, OH)

ANSWER: Such a family situation, of course, demands care and sensitivity about the concerns of all parties. The children currently find themselves in a family with Jewish parents, while they remain Christian, but we should not take their conversion or education as Jews for granted. In most, though not all instances, this would require the consent of the natural father. He should also be consulted and in some way he must be included in the ceremonial occasions in the lives of his children.

If there is agreement on these matters, then we should proceed with these children as with any other children who seek to become Jewish. In the previous generation, the religious education of such children and their Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation were considered by the Central Conference of American Rabbis as equivalent to their conversion ("Report on Mixed Marriage and Intermarriage," C.C.A.R. Annual, pp. 158 ff). Today it would be preferable to proceed somewhat differently. Young children in the religious school should not be left uncertain about their Jewish status . Therefore, we should provide an understanding of Judaism at the level appropriate for the child and convert them fully while still young (Ket. 11a).

In the case of boys who are not circumcised, circumcision should occur if at all possible. If a child was already circumcised, some parents may want to undertake tipat dam, but that remains optional. Girls should be entered into the berit with a special ceremony (See S. J. Maslin, Gates of Mitzvah, p. 15).

More traditional parents may also want to have the child undergo tevilah (Yeb. 46a ff; Yad Hil. Issurei Biah 14; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268). It is quite clear from tradition that if such a child at any later time undergoes tevilah, even though not specifically for the purpose of conversion, it would be considered the same as if he had undergone it for this purpose (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268.3). The Talmud debated the need for both circumcision and ritual bath. R. Eliezer (Talmud Yeb. 46a) indicated that a proselyte who was circumcised, and did not take the ritual bath, was considered fully Jewish. The decision went against him. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in our day require it, but we as a movement do not, though in certain areas this has become standard practice as well. Tevilah should, therefore, be considered as optional, as it is with adult converts. The children should be given a Hebrew name, and a certificate of conversion would then be presented to them and their families.

This procedure, as outlined, has the advantage of making the children completely Jewish. They would possess that status throughout their religious education. No question about their status would rise during these years and their education would follow the same pattern as that of every other Jewish child. It should be pointed out that such conversion, while full and complete ritually and legally, obligates the parents to provide a Jewish education, Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation for these children. Only through years devoted to learning will Judaism become meaningful to the children.

According to tradition, of course, such children have the right to challenge their conversion upon reaching majority. When such children reach the age of thirteen for boys and twelve and a half for girls, there is a traditional mechanism by which converted children may reject Judaism without prejudice (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 468.7). In earlier days, a formal process of rejection was required because of the rigidity of the Jewish-Gentile relationship. Nowadays, no such rejection mechanism is necessary, because belonging to the Jewish people and faith is essentially voluntary. This is, therefore, not necessary for us, and Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation would be an equivalent to a young adult's reaffirmation of Judaism.

In summary, we urge that a complete conversion take place for the young individual if it is agreeable to both parents, and then insist that the youngster be provided with a Jewish education.

April 1981

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.