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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When the Mother is Not Jewish

I have addressed questions of the baby's "maternity" in the past.
See here for the question regarding level of observance
See my thought on the 'definition of what makes someone a Jew'
And most relevant to the topic at hand, this discussion of the different pairings of parents looking for a bris or circumcision

I am not judging you, if you and your spouse (or 'significant other') are an example of the statistic under discussion. What I am doing is explaining where I'm coming from when these situations come my way, and why I choose to act in the manner that will be described.

Living in Florida, I have become acutely sensitive to the statistic that America is the home of more than 50% intermarriage rates. I know that even the word "intermarriage" is a taboo and politically insensitive word. But it is a word found in a dictionary, and the Oxford online definition explains it to mean "marriage between people of different races, castes, or religions."

The races or castes definitions are irrelevant to me. This melting pot society doesn't/shouldn't care so much about them anyway. But the "religions" concern - that's a different story.

Other religions (Christianity, Islam) view marriages to non-coreligionist partners as intermarriages. So does Judaism.

What a bunch of insensitive bigots!

Not really. Religion (opium of the masses and all that) is either transmitted by birth or by choice (and education, of course), and only has a real fighting chance to sustain itself in future generations if children are given one message from their parents. And, I am sorry to say, "We will give our child doses of both so s/he can choose what to be when s/he is older" will do more damage and cause more confusion for the child than if you make the choice for your child yourselves.

For example, those who say (and this usually happens in a similar-to-'My-Big-Fat-Greek-Wedding' manner), "We are raising the child Jewish," who plan to introduce the child to ZERO nuances of a different religion simply because the non-Jewish spouse is completely areligious are doing a very different job (to their credit!) than the family who will be celebrating December with a "Hanukkah Bush."

To The Point

An "intermarriage" that I deal with either has (drum roll) the mother as the Jewish partner or the father as the Jewish partner. Jewish law passes Judaism to a child through birth from a Jewish mother. Also known as "Matrilineal Descent." A Jewish woman is either Jewish through her own birth from a Jewish mother, or through conversion. [Conversion these days is unfortunately a complicated discussion. Suffice it to say there are a number of conversion programs that do more for the rabbi and synagogue "sponsoring" the conversion than for the convert.]  It is not determined by a feeling or by a self-identification with the Jewish people. Nor by her having a Jewish father. You may ask, "Why is Judaism passed automatically through the mother?" I'll answer "I don't know. But it's a Tradition." JUST KIDDING! (thank you, Tevye).

One reason is because when a child emerges from his mother, we can be certain of one thing: this woman is his mother. (though nowadays with surrogates... hmmm... let's not go there). While we are very confident as to who the father is (and nowadays we can test with a paternity test) the moment of birth does not prove his paternity in the same way it proves her maternity.

Translation: If the mother is Jewish, her baby is Jewish, and if her baby is a boy, he needs a bris on the 8th day of his life, assuming he is healthy and there is no need for it to be delayed.

You knew there had to be a "But." [This section will typically be irrelevant to a Reform Mohel who will likely accept one Jewish parent as enough to "make a child Jewish." But a Conservative, and certainly an Orthodox mohel will more than likely have similar concerns due to the mother's non-Jewishness, as you will now see.]

But if the baby's father is the Jewish partner, the baby boy that emerges from its non-Jewish mother (whatever technicality makes her not Jewish) is not Jewish. As a non-Jewish baby, he does not need a bris. Not on the 8th day. Not ever.

No person who calls a mohel looking to have a bris done on a son, grandson, or great grandson wants to be told "I understand. But according to Jewish law, the baby is not Jewish and does not require a bris." But if it is only the father who is Jewish, that is the baby's reality.

Some mohels will have the baby undergo what is called a "Milah L'Shem Geirus" (Circumcision as the beginning of the Conversion Process). This means that even the mohel does not view the baby as Jewish, as he is doing a "pseudo-bris" (because the baby is not Jewish), taking care of the "bris element" of the baby's conversion. This means that he starts the ball rolling, leaving the baby to undergo the other two steps of his conversion, dunking in a mikveh and acceptance of his Judaism at age 13, to someone else's turf (some other rabbi perhaps) to follow up with. Most mohels who perform this procedure provide documentation that they did the circumcision, but offer no further follow-up in terms of seeing the child through his complete conversion.

Why do Jewish fathers of non-Jewish babies have their children go through with this? I don't know. But it seems to me that any one of these can be true. And maybe I am missing the boat completely.
1. "I am Jewish, so of course my child is Jewish." [he's not]
2. "I have a bris, so my son needs a bris." [he could be circumcised in the hospital if you want to look the same]
3. "I did not consider the repercussions of marrying a non-Jew in so far as children were concerned. We fell in love. Children were not even on the horizon." [Understood. My job, unfortunately, is to deal with the reality I am dealt.]
4. "Now that I am a father, my Judaism is very important to me." [Fair enough. But I am not looking to give an inauthentic experience and lead you to believe something which is not true. There are other mohels who will. But I am a straight shooter, more willing to give up the job than compromise my principles].]


I have recently told some people in this circumstance that if they want me to provide "circumcision services" for the baby of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother (much as I might for the baby of non-Jewish parents), I would be willing to do so if it is made clear that:
1. This is a circumcision, not a bris.
2. The child is not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.
3. I am not even circumcising "for the sake of conversion" because I generally don't do conversions and do not wish to take that responsibility on my head
4. While I will treat every person I meet with dignity and respect, I do not intend to say any blessings or to make a ceremony seem like it is anything other than a circumcision being done at home.

Most people in this circumstance do not like, and are not willing to accept these conditions.

In conclusion, I have two parting thoughts to share:
1. I wish all new parents the very best for themselves and their children. Raising children is not an easy task. Teaching and modeling good values is a life-long challenge. And transmitting a religion is by no means automatic. It takes hard work, dedication, schooling, dedication, education, dedication, commitment, dedication, consistency, dedication, and a lot of good luck from God above. And did I mention dedication?

2. If a non-Jewish spouse would like to consider undergoing conversion (especially if you're not otherwise committed to your birth religion), here is a reading list that will help get you started in exploring Judaism as an option as a way of life. Any book by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Jewish Literacy, Jewish Wisdom, Jewish Ethics, Jewish Values) is a good place to start. The books of Hayyim Donin are quite informative. Herman Wouk's "This is My God"  is a must-read.

Online resources that can be helpful include:


  1. You wrote:

    "One reason is because when a child emerges from his mother, we can be certain of one thing: this woman is his mother. (though nowadays with surrogates... hmmm... let's not go there). While we are very confident as to who the father is (and nowadays we can test with a paternity test) the moment of birth does not prove his paternity in the same way it proves her maternity".

    Now my turn:

    GESTATIONAL SURROGACY, yes let's go there.

    The Gestational Surrogate is NOT the mother but only a babysitter!

    The moment of birth nowadays DOES prove the father's paternity 100% as a paternity DNA test must be done while the fetus is still in the womb! Likewise it also proves that the Gestational Surrogate is NOT the mother.

    Finally, the baby son of a Jew is being raised by that Jew and not by the Gestational Surrogate who got her monetary reward and forever disappeared.

    1. It is an excellent question. Rabbis have weighed in on different sides of this.
      Some argue that the baby requires conversion
      Some argue that the baby is Jewish from birth.

  2. What about a baby coming out of a Rented Womb (Gestational Surrogate) if the father is 100% known to be a Jew and is 100% known to be the father via a pre delivery paternity test and is raised only by the Jewish father? (the egg donor is an anonymous donor).

    1. Most likely an anonymous donor would require the child to be converted.


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