Contemporary American Reform Responsa

61. A Child Raised in Two Religious Traditions

QUESTION: A couple in which the wife is Jewish and the husband is Christian were married by a priest and a rabbi. Their child has been baptized and circumcised. During the early years of the boy's life, he went to religious school sporadically, but now the parents wish to enroll him in Hebrew classes as well as regular religious school class in preparation for Bar Mitzvah. Further probing shows that they also intend to have him prepared for First Communion. What is the status of this child? Should he be enrolled in the Bar Mitzvah program? Would the answer to the question be different if the mother were Christian and the father Jewish? (M. K., St. Louis, MO).

ANSWER: The status of a Jewish child, according to tradition, is determined by the Jewishness of the mother. We, as Reform Jews, changed this through a resolution passed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in 1983, which stated:

"The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parents and child, to Jewish life.

"Depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation). For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi."

This means that the child of a Jewish mother or a Jewish father is potentially Jewish if the parents act to assure the Jewish identity of the child through education, appropriate ceremonies, etc. Here, of course, the parents have done that, but have also, and at the same time, provided the youngster with a Christian identity. Furthermore, we are faced with two religious traditions which place exclusive claims upon a child. Traditional Judaism would insist that this child, by virtue of its Jewish mother, remains Jewish regardless of any actions which may be taken on its behalf or which the child may take. He would be considered an apostate because he is affiliated with Christianity, but he would always be welcome to return to Judaism with a minimum of ceremony. On the other hand, Catholicism places a similarly exclusive claim on the child by virtue of his baptism, although this need not concern us.

We would say to the parents that although their family life thus far has followed a dual path, they have now come to a juncture at which a decision must be made. It would have been much simpler if such a decision had been made at the time of their marriage, then some of these problems would not have arisen. Now, however, the child must follow one religious tradition or another. We can not in good conscience prepare a child for Bar Mitzvah with the knowledge that at the same time he is being prepared for First Communion. Furthermore, the child will not be helped by this equivocal stand of the parents, for he will merely be confused, both now and in the future when his status will remain a puzzle to him. This matter must be settled at this moment, and we must insist on a decision for this child. The rabbi and the congregation should be absolutely certain that the path upon which the parents agree will be followed and should ask for such an agreement in writing.

September 1983

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.