Interfaith Baby Namings

Planning a ceremony when your family is multi-faith or multi-cultural.

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Today there is a good chance that someone special in your life who isn’t Jewish will be at your bris, simchat bat, or other welcoming ceremony for your new baby. It may be an aunt or uncle, grandparents, or even yourself or your partner: a non-Jewish parent who has pledged to raise this child in a Jewish home. 

Both parents will obviously be involved in the planning of your ceremony, and to a certain extent can tailor it to their personal comfort level. For example, how much is said in English versus Hebrew, how much is focused on the idea of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and how much focuses on more universalistic Jewish ideas and traditions. Welcoming ceremonies for girls, which are a relatively new phenomenon, are not “fixed” as the ancient rite of brit milah, and so there is often far more room for flexibility.

For mohalim--ritual circumcisers (who are in most cases Orthodox)--the mother’s religion is the one that counts when determining if the baby is Jewish according to Jewish law. Ritual circumcision is actually a requirement that a Jewish father must fulfill--or delegate--when he has a son. Part of a traditional brit milah involves the father reciting a line in Hebrew that delegates that responsibility to the mohel. When the father isn’t Jewish, the obligations of traditional Judaism do not bind him, and so the mohel will skip that line. If the baby’s mother is not Jewish, then a traditional mohel will likely agree to perform the circumcision if it is “l’shem gerut”--with the intention that the baby will later be immersed in a mikveh (a ritual bath) to be converted to Judaism. Reform mohalim may, in line with current Reform thinking, consider the baby Jewish if either parent is Jewish.

It will be important to discuss the family’s circumstances with the mohel in advance of the day of the ceremony, and clarify with him which roles you wish to assign to various relatives. It is then that you should ask him about the role that a non-Jewish parent can play.

The honorary roles of carrying the baby into the room for his brit milah and holding him before the mohel does the actual cutting are often given to the grandparents of the new baby. While a rigorously Orthodox mohel may insist that the sandek, the man who holds the baby, be Jewish, there is likely to be no objection to a non-Jewish grandmother carrying the baby into the room.

There is a lot more room for creative inclusion of a non-Jewish parent or other family member at a simchat bat.

Other non-Jewish family members, uncertain about what to expect or their role in the ritual, can feel uncomfortable at a Jewish ritual event. Since it is important that everyone feel welcome, you can alleviate those feelings by explaining to them in advance what will take place, and even take it a step further by making sure that they have an important part in your daughter’s rite of passage. There are several ways in which they can be included with roles integral to the ceremony. As will be the case 13 years down the road at the child's bar or bat mitzvah, there are on this occasion certain roles which both non-Jews and Jews can fill, and others that are most appropriately handled by Jews.   

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.