Baptism and Jewish Status
The following situation has just arisen in our religious school. A child confided to her teacher in confidence that unbeknown to her Jewish father, her non-Jewish mother had her baptized several years ago. The parents are divorced and have joint custody. Technically she is being raised Jewish. Is she still Jewish? Can she celebrate Bat Mitzvah (she is 11 years old now)? Should we break her confidence and tell the father? Is a conversion necessary? (Rabbi Lynn Koshner, Albany, NY)
There is no doubt that this child, as the offspring of one Jewish parent, enjoys a presumption of Jewish status, in accordance with the CCAR’s 1983 Resolution on Patrilineal Descent. Our policy is that this status “is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. . . . Depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study. . . .” Since she has taken part in such study through enrollment in your religious school, there would seem to be no reason why this child should not be permitted to observe her becoming a bat mitzvah in your congregation.
The baptism arranged by her mother is irrelevant to this child’s Jewish status, since Jewish law does not recognize the efficacy of a Christian sacrament. The halachah does not acknowledge that the act of Christian baptism, whether forced or voluntary, nullifies or even calls into question the Jew’s status as a member of the people of Israel.  The act of baptism would be significant from a Jewish perspective only if it were evidence that the child was being raised as a Christian or simultaneously in two religious traditions. In such a case, we have declared, the rule of patrilineal descent does not apply.  There is no such thing as a “half Jew”; a child can be raised either as a Jew or as a Christian but not as both. In the present case, however, the child is being raised as a Jew, so that the baptism ritual is of no halachic or theological concern to us.
With all this, however, we note that there are grounds for concern. The sh’eilah states that this child is “technically” being raised as a Jew. What, we ask, does this mean? Recall that the mitzvot that serve to establish Jewish status under our doctrine of patrilineal descent must testify to the child’s “positive and exclusive Jewish identity.” For this reason, we have ruled that a child of one Jewish parent raised in an environment that is incapable of transmitting a “positive and exclusive Jewish identity” does not qualify for Jewish status, even if that child had participated in such activities as religious education.  A “dual-religion” household is just such an environment. If the mother, who has joint custody, practices Christianity actively and openly in her home, it is quite possible that her daughter has not been successfully raised as a Jew under the meaning of our Resolution on Patrilineal Descent. In such a case, she must undergo a conversion in order to establish her Jewish identity prior to observing her becoming a bat mitzvah. Even if the mother does not openly and actively practice Christianity, the baptism (along with any Christian religious practice and instruction that accompanied it) may have left a lasting effect on this girl. It is therefore vital to know just how she understands her Jewishness. Does she regard herself as a Jew, fully and exclusively? Or does she think of herself as a Jew and a Christian? Such distinctions are surely difficult for an eleven-year-old to grasp, particularly as she is the child of parents of different religions. Her parents’ divorce can only have complicated her sense of religious identity. And when we consider that the mother baptized her “unbeknown to her Jewish father,” we realize that this is a family situation in which the lines of communication are especially strained. For this reason, this girl must be given the opportunity to express herself, to confront these issues in the presence of her rabbi.
This should take place, of course, prior to her becoming a bat mitzvah. Should the rabbi be satisfied as to the child’s “positive and exclusive” sense of her Jewishness, then (and only then) may she celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah in the synagogue.
As to whether we should “break her confidence” by telling the father, we must balance the Judaic values of honoring a confidence and avoiding needless gossip against the evil that would be caused should the fact of her baptism not be revealed. In general, we would say that the creation and maintenance of secrets within the family is a destructive force that can only burden this child. She should therefore be encouraged to raise the issue with her father. Counseling, of a personal and a family nature, is a must in this situation. Yet since there is no emergency that would compel us to reveal this information, and given that state law may hold the rabbi liable for damages incurred in the breaking of a professional confidence, we would advise the rabbi against taking that step at this time. In any event, it is vital that the rabbi obtain competent legal counsel before breaking a professional confidence.
1. See the Report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent on the Status of Children of Mixed Marriages, CCAR Yearbook 93 (1983): 157– 60; and the commentary in Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR Press, 1988), 225–27.
2. On the significance of this point in Rashi’s understanding of Jewish status, see Jacob Katz, “Af `al pi shechata yisrael hu,” in Halachah V’Kabbalah (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1984), 264 – 65.
3. Thus, a mohel should not perform a b’rit milah for a child who will also be baptized (Questions and Reform Jewish Answers [QRJA], no. 109). See also QRJA, no. 111.
4. Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN), no. 5755.17, pp. 251–58. The case there involved a mixed-married household in which two religions, Judaism and Catholicism, were practiced actively and on an equal basis. The home, in other words, was not a Jewish one, and the child raised in such a home cannot acquire a “positive and exclusive Jewish identity,” even if he or she receives a Hebrew name, participates in religious education, etc.
5. For sources on and discussion of these issues, see TFN, no. 5750.3, pp. 283–88.