QUESTION: A Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman, who have no intention of being married, have had a child. They have asked the rabbi to preside at the berit. Is it appropriate for him to do so? (Rabbi Theodore S. Levy, Syracuse NY)
ANSWER: Let us view this question through the eyes of tradition and then seek a modern approach to it. Tradition would not recognize the sexual relations of a Jewish man with a non-Jewish woman. Even if the couple were married civilly or by common law the marriage would not be considered qidushin (Yad Hil Ishut 115; Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 154.23).
Jewish recognition of marriage to non-Jews in a limited non-religious way was provided by the Napoleonic Sanhedrin of 1807 (N. D. Tama (ed) Kirwan (tr) Transactions of the Parisian Sanhedrin Kirwan p 155). We should remember that such marriages were not recognized by the various Christian churches in earlier periods either.
The child of such a union is, of course, traditionally not considered Jewish (Kid 68b; Yeb 23a; Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 4.5 ff). Such a non-Jewish child may then be converted by a bet din and would be accepted as any other infant who was converted to Judaism (Ket 11a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268.7; Shelomo Kluger Tuv Taam Vedaat II 111). We should note that the famous last century controversy (1864) between Rabbi Bernard Illowy and Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer against Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer centered around this matter. Rabbi Illowy of New Orleans felt that a child in that isolated, small Jewish community would probably not be raised as a Jew and might be mistaken as a Jew because of his circumcision.
Subsequent discussions inquired whether the conversion actually benefitted the child; some traditional authorities felt that this would only be true if the child were raised in a traditionally observant household. This consideration, however, represented only a recent modern restriction. The general consensus moved in the direction of permitting such a circumcision. That also was the decision of Moses Sofer (Hatam Sofer Yoreh Deah #253).
We should note Maimonides' decision about Jewish soldiers who cohabited with non-Jewish women during wartime. If these women converted they would, of course, be considered Jews; they could then be married by the soldiers and their offsprings would be Jewish. If, however, a woman decided not to marry her Jewish soldier and continued to live with the soldier for as long as a year, then any child from such a union could be converted by a bet din (Yad Hil Melakhim 8.1-8).
These traditional answers indicated that under a variety of circumstances it would be perfectly possible to have a berit for an infant child whose father was Jewish and whose mother is not Jewish. The berit would be for the sake of conversion and so it should be with us as our resolution on patrilineal descent deals with mixed marriage. It assumes marriage, a stable family and a Jewish education for the child.
In this instance we seem to have some assurance that the child will be raised as a Jew. We should, of course, encourage the mother and father to marry, however, our primary concern here is with the child and not with the status of the parents.