Does Christian Baptism Nullify Jewish Identity?

Rabbi Jeffrey Wolfson Goldwasser

You wrote about how your Catholic wife, after agreeing with you to raise your children as Jews, had your daughter baptized in the Catholic Church without your knowledge or consent. You are concerned that the baptism will, somehow, nullify the Jewish naming you had for your daughter and that you will not be able now to raise her as a Jew. 

I understand your distraught feelings and I can assure you that, in this case, baptism does not change your daughter's status as a Jew. Unfortunately, there may be other problems in this situation that you may not have anticipated. 

Christian baptism has no status in Jewish law or observance. When a Jew freely chooses to be baptized as a Christian, the Jewish community considers that person to be an apostate -- one who has rejected Judaism.

However, in the eyes of traditional Jewish law, that person still is regarded to be Jewish and subject to Jewish obligations, even if he or she does not accept those obligations. The Reform Movement tends to be more respectful of the wishes of an individual in choosing his or her own religion. 

However, your daughter did not freely choose to be baptized. For her, baptism is meaningless in regard to her Jewish identity. She would still be considered Jewish in the eyes of most Reform Jewish communities because she has had "timely and public" acts of identification with the Jewish people -- she was given a name and recognized as a Jew in the Jewish community. There is no problem, from the perspective of Reform Judaism, in raising her as a Jew and there is no need for her to undergo "re-conversion." 

She would need conversion to be recognized as a Jew in the Conservative Movement and in orthodoxy because she does not have a Jewish mother. There, too, the baptism is not an issue. 

Unfortunately, none of this addresses the issue of your relationship with your wife. She brought your daughter to a church to have her baptized without your consent. That suggests, at the least, serious conflict in your marriage over the issue of your children's religion. If this conflict is not resolved, I will bet that there will be more incidents in the future like this one. 

I urge you to address the issue thoroughly with your wife. I know that you thought that you had already done this, but, it appears, there is more work left to do. You need to help her understand why this experience has caused so much anguish for you and what you need from her. At the same time, you need to be able to listen to your wife and understand what caused her to do what she did. 

Your wife may believe that it is possible to raise the child in both religions. While there are many examples of families that have done this, I would urge you to avoid it. Children raised in two religions usually end up not feeling like they belong to either. I believe that it is better to make a choice of one religion for a child's identity. 

The stakes in this are high. Your daughter is going to be affected by the choices and decisions that the two of you make together. She has a right to have a religious identity and the two of you have an obligation to give her one. The two of you need to agree what that identity will be and what you need to do to make it work -- for your daughter's sake. 

Like so many things in raising a child, this is hard work. I wish you the best. 

Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser