QUESTION: A couple in which the husband is Jewish and the wife is Catholic were civilly married. When their daughter was born the father was not particularly interested in Judaism and so the child was baptized. Now the father has rediscovered his Jewish identity, joined a congregation in which he is vaguely active and the mother is considering conversion, but in any case intends to raise the child as a Jew. They would like a Jewish naming ceremony for the child. Is this possible? Should we simply consider the child Jewish by patrilineal decent? Would our approach be different for a child already enrolled in a Catholic school program? What are the ramifications as a baptism occurred about a year ago? (Rabbi Jonathan Adland Lexington KY)
ANSWER: There have, of course, been tragic cases in our past when individuals entrusted with the care of a Jewish infant brought it to church to be baptized and later the church as well as the Christian official demanded that the child be surrendered to them. The last instance of this was the infamous Mortara case (1858 - Bologna) in which the child was subsequently kidnapped by church officials. Traditional Judaism does not recognize baptism and would simply look upon such a Jewish child as an apostate. This is in accordance with a decision made for Marrano children by Solomon ben Simon Duran (Responsum #89). In those instances baptism occurred against the will of the parents, which is not our situation. We as Reform Jews look at this situation somewhat differently. First we should note that if there is either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father a presumption of Jewishness exists, but it must be acted upon (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa 547 ff). Here, however, we are dealing with precisely the opposite situation. The parents made a decision for Catholicism and now they have changed their minds. This family illustrates very well the current American situation in which religion is determined less by family background and more by conscience, choice, or whim, at least in families in which a mixed marriage has taken place.
We must ask ourselves whether the presumption once rejected can be activated through a vague kind of Jewish identification; our response needs to be negative. More must be required for otherwise couples like this would simply move back and forth according to the whim of the moment. I am not suggesting that this couple is not serious, but it is easy to imagine others who may not be.
Once a firm action like baptism or enrollment in a Christian religious institution has been taken, then a formal step toward Judaism must be required. This will also settle any doubts about the status of the individual in the future. This little girl should not, later in life, need to respond to an inquiry about her status that although she was baptized she attended a Jewish religious school and now thinks of herself as Jewish. Rather than leaving matters in this indefinite state it would be wise to formally name the child and do so in conjunction with a conversion ceremony appropriate for an infant. The certificate should indicate that a formal conversion took place. If the child is older then the conversion ceremony alone would be appropriate.
This way of approaching the problem will be useful for the child, the parent and the Jewish community. All will understand that this is a serious step taken after considerable deliberation. Furthermore no one will be able to question the status of the child in the future.