Question: I am 54 years old, baptized Catholic at 20 years old. My Mom was Protestant and my father was Roman Catholic. I was never baptized as an infant and took classes with a priest at 19 and decided I wanted to become a Catholic. We just found out that my mother’s family was really Jewish. What am I? I am a practicing Catholic with a baptized Catholic son. Help sort this out? P.S. Our family loves latkes and lox, too! — G
Answer: Dear G, Whatever you are, there is no doubt that you are a pious person beloved by God who has done a wonderful job bringing your son into the light and love of God, but there is also no doubt that you are JEWISH! Jewish identity comes from the mother and your mother apparently was Jewish and from a Jewish family. This means that your mother passed her Jewish identity to you.
Your son is also Jewish because you are Jewish. If he should grow up and marry a Catholic woman, their children would not be Jewish and the Jewish line in your family would end there. However, Catholicism counts identity by baptism and not by blood, so according to Catholic law you are Catholic by virtue of your adult baptism (I am assuming you were baptized after you decided to become Catholic at age 19). Your son is also Catholic by virtue of his baptism. If by any chance you decided to return to Judaism, you would not need to convert back. If you are Jewish by birth to a Jewish mother, you are Jewish for the rest of your life and all your children are also Jewish.
This question of religious identity is quite strange. There are only two ways you can become a member of a religion, by blood or by belief.
The blood identity religions require that you be born into them. They do not accept converts. Most Native American tribes are blood faiths. The largest blood faith in the world is Hinduism. Hinduism has a caste system called the varnas and one is born into one of the five castes.
The belief religions, the largest of which are Christianity and Islam, require that you accept a core belief to be a member of the faith. To be a Muslim you must believe and recite the shahadah, which is the sentence, “I believe that Allah is God and Mohammad is His prophet.” If you say that and believe that, you are a Muslim.
For Christianity and for Catholicism in particular, the baptismal ritual for adults and the acceptance into the Catholic Church usually occurs around Easter. The best summation of belief for Christians is the Rosary in which one makes the Sign of the Cross and then says,
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then one recites the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died, and was buried. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty. He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.” Then one recites the Our Father,
“Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”
Then the Hail Mary,
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Then the Glory Be,
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
Judaism is an odd religion in that Judaism is the only blood and belief religion in the world. As I have explained, Jewish identity comes from blood (the mother’s identity) but Judaism does allow and does welcome converts. This makes Jewish identity as you have discovered quite complicated sometimes. But you are a Catholic with an inside track to Judaism. It’s wonderful but complicated.
Send all questions and comments to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Father Tom Hartman.