Adopted Children, Conversion, and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah

For converted children, bar/bat mitzvah is a time for affirming their connections with Judaism.

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    3.        The child must be immersed in a mikveh or a natural body of water such as the ocean.

When the beit din is assembled and a brit or symbolic brit confirmed (for boys), we are ready for the symbolic dunking. During immersion, the child must be absolutely naked-- no clothes, jewelry, diapers, bandages, nail polish, or anything that will prevent the water from touching every part of the body. The parents bring the child out into the water. If he or she is an infant, I recommend the parent blow on the child's face so that the breath is held. The first dunk is quick. I say two blessings, and the parent dunks the child two more times.

After the child and parent dry off, I say a prayer giving the child a Hebrew name, ending with the words from the traditional brit ceremony, "As this child has entered the Jewish faith today, so may these parents raise their son/daughter to a life of Torah, the marriage canopy, and good deeds." Then I share some brief thoughts with the parents, but my key point is that this entire ceremony is conditional on the children receiving a Jewish education and reaffirming their commitment at the bar/bat mitzvah.

Conversion Without Consent?

What gives me the right to take children, often in their infancy, and convert them to Judaism? Does not conversion require some kind of consent? The Talmud asks this same question (Ketubot 11a). It answers with the Hebrew phrase zachin leadam shelo befanav, meaning that we can act in a way that benefits someone without his or her consent.

However, the Talmud adds that upon reaching the age of consent, (by Jewish law, 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy), the child is permitted to protest. In other words, the entire conversion is conditional. The child has the right to protest when he or she reaches the age of bar/bat mitzvah. Some rabbis formalize this, and actually ask the child upon reaching majority if he or she wishes to protest the conversion. Some rabbis even require re-immersion in a mikveh.

I respectfully disagree. I consider the act of going through the training for a bar or bat mitzvah as a reaffirmation of the conversion, which was often done years earlier. By standing before the congregation, being called to the Torah, reading a haftarah (selection from the Prophets), giving a speech, and participating in synagogue life, the now young adult is giving his or her consent to live life as a Jew. The bar/bat mitzvah becomes the final step in the conversion process.

And so the bar/bat mitzvah day arrives, and with it the reaffirmation of a ceremony performed long before. Some youngsters speak about their conversion, particularly if they have memories of going to the beach. Occasionally a child will say explicitly, "Today I reaffirm the conversion done long before." Most simply speak of their Torah portion and express their appreciation to their parents, their teachers, the cantor, and myself. They are proud to have reached this stage on their way to Jewish adulthood. And I am proud of my role in creating more committed Jewish souls.

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Rabbi Michael Gold

Rabbi Michael Gold is the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac Jewish Center in Tamarac, Florida. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in Moment, Judaism, Jewish Spectator, B'nai Brith International Jewish Monthly, and numerous other publications. He also served as co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on human sexuality.