Baby Naming for a Religiously-Mixed Lesbian Couple
A lesbian in my congregation is pregnant through artificial insemination. The sperm donor is Jewish. This woman has a permanent, committed relationship and is living with a woman who is not Jewish. The non-Jewish partner intends to pursue formal adoption proceedings, so that both partners will be the legal parents of the child. At this point, the non-Jewish partner has indicated no intention of converting to Judaism. The Jewish partner wishes to arrange a
formal naming ceremony for the baby (ultrasound indicates that the child will be a girl), but she wants her partner to be included in some way in the ceremony. To what extent may the non-Jewish partner be involved in the naming ritual? Would it be possible to give her a Hebrew name for purposes of the ceremony and to include that name on the child’s naming certificate? (Rabbi Benjamin Lefkowitz, Warwick, RI)
As the sho’el’s wording indicates, the issue we confront here is the participation of a Gentile parent in a Jewish life-cycle ritual involving her child.
This implies, and correctly so, that the sexual orientation of the couple is irrelevant to our she’elah. As far as we or anybody should be concerned, we deal here not with a “lesbian couple” but with a household, one of “the nuclear social and family units that compose our communities and whose strength and stability are primary Jewish religious concerns.” This statement is included in our recent teshuvah “On Homosexual Marriage.” While we were deeply divided in that responsum on the question of rabbinic officiation at same-sex commitment ceremonies, we noted that there is no reason why a gay or lesbian couple, like any other Jewish household, should not observe the significant moments of their religious lives through accepted Jewish rituals performed in the midst of their people. It is also irrelevant to our she’elah that the mother’s partner shall be the adoptive rather than the biological parent of the child. As we have written, the best interpretation of Jewish law erases all invidious distinctions between biological and adopted children; adoptive parents are therefore in every respect the “real”parents of their children.
The question rather is one of community and of our membership in it. We stress here that a baby-naming ceremony is not a private matter but a public Jewish act, a ritual performance by which we as Jews assert our identity as a particular religious community and declare our determination to uphold the terms of that community’s special covenant with God. It is the moment at which Jewish parents accept their obligations toward both the Jewish past and the Jewish future, affirming their readiness to transmit the Torah and the heritage of Israel to the next generation of our people. We surely do not wish to exclude the non-Jewish parent from taking part in this ceremony. Nonetheless, the conferral of a Jewish name upon a newborn is not simply a family simchah but the setting for communal identification; it is a Jewish service, one that should be conducted in a manner coherent with our understanding of Jewish history, destiny, and purpose.
How can the rabbi best balance the Jewish requirements of this service with the family’s desires? We think that our responsum “Gentile Participation in Synagogue Ritual” provides a helpful model. In that teshuvah, we distinguish between the “essential elements” of the synagogue service and all other parts of the service. The essential elements include such rubrics as the recitation of the Shema and its accompanying benedictions, the tefilah, the rituals surrounding the reading of the Torah, and any berakhah, a blessing which begins with the barukh atta formula. Our tradition understands these as liturgical obligations (chiyuvim) deriving from the covenant relationship between God and Israel. Through the performance of these rubrics, the individual reaffirms his or her membership in that covenant, and the congregation constitutes itself as a Jewish religious community. One who recites them in a Jewish religious setting thereby declares him- or herself to be a Jew. It is therefore inappropriate for a Gentile to do so, since the Gentile cannot become a Jew until he or she chooses to do so through the process of conversion. On the other hand, a non-Jew may recite before the congregation a special prayer added to the service, one which is not part of the liturgy’s “essential elements,” so long as the text of that prayer does not entail or imply that the individual who recites it is a Jew.
We might define the “essential elements” of a baby-naming ceremony as those benedictions or texts which reflect the specifically Jewish nature of this event or which emphasize our existence as a Jewish community. Let us take, for example, the “Covenant Service for a Daughter” (hakhnasat bat laberit) which is included in the 1988 edition of the CCAR Rabbi’s Manual, pp. 16-24. In that liturgy, the parents recite the benediction asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehakhnisah beverit am yisrael ( “who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to bring our daughter into the Covenant of our people Israel”; p. 20), derived from the blessing traditionally recited at the circumcision of a boy. It is inappropriate for a non-Jewish parent to recite this benediction, since he or she is not a member of the people of Israel, the community that is constituted by God’s mitzvot, and therefore does not share in the obligation to raise his or her child as a Jew. At the same time, the Gentile parent may certainly read another text or make remarks suitable to the occasion. Our point is simply that she ought not to participate as a Jew in this ritual. Those aspects of our liturgy which declare and affirm our Jewish identity should be recited and performed by Jews.
From this, it follows that we would not assign a Hebrew name to the non-Jewish parent for purposes of this ceremony or for inclusion on the certificate of naming. As our Committee has written, “it would, therefore, be appropriate that the name of the Jewish partner be used, and that name alone.” To do otherwise “would further blur the lines of identity. If, of course, the non-Jewish partner converts, then a Hebrew name can be inserted into any existing document.”
The presence of the rabbi at this ceremony should remove any and all doubt that it is a Jewish service. The boundaries upon which we insist, although they are absolutely necessary if we are to insure our distinct identity as a people and a religious community, are not meant to raise the barriers of exclusion against “outsiders.” The rabbi will of course convey this message to the non-Jewish parent, along with our hope that she will one day make the choice for Judaism, traversing the boundaries to join us as a bat yisrael.
- Responsa Committee 5756.8, published in CCAR Journal, Winter, 1998, 5-35. The citation is at p. 28.
- The majority of our Committee sided against rabbinic officiation. The responsum presents the argumentation for both the majority and the minority viewpoints.
- Teshuvot for the Nineties
(TFN), no. 5753.12, 201-207. See at 206: “Parents of adoptive children, who love them as their own, care for them, and guide them, who stand by them during the crises and the joys of their lives, who raise them to adulthood, who teach them Torah and worldly wisdom thereby become the real parents of these children.”
, no. 5754.5, 55-75.
- As well as in others that served us as precedents. See, for example, American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 6, 21-24, and R. Solomon B. Freehof, New Reform Responsa (NRR), no. 7, 33-36.
- One way in which the tradition expresses the concept of chiyuv is through the rule that one who is not subject to a particular obligation cannot help another person fulfill that obligation for him- or herself (M. Rosh Hashanah 3:8; SA OC 589:1). The sheliach tzibur, the one who leads the worship service, falls into this category, since the members of the community can fulfill their liturgical obligations by responding “amen” to the benedictions recited by the worship leader. A Gentile, who bears no “obligation” to affirm his or her Jewish identity, therefore cannot serve as sheliach tzibur.
- Rabbi’s Manual
, 11. Other benedictions in the service include borey peri hagafen and shehechiyanu (p. 23), which according to the printed directions are recited either by the rabbi or by all those present.
- Contemporary American Reform Responsa
, no. 34. See also TFN, no. 5755.2, 249.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.