Jewish Adoption in America

Ancient laws and modernity are brought together with the embrace of adoption in the Jewish community.

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When Birth Parents are Jewish

Despite the positive Jewish attitudes toward adoption, Judaism's emphasis on bloodlines and lineage brings a certain ambivalence to the discussion.
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When an adopted child is born Jewish, the adoptive parents need to determine the child's tribal affiliation: Kohen, Levite, or Yisrael. If, for example, a male child is born a Kohen, traditional Jewish law forbids him from marrying a divorcee, even if his adoptive parents are not Kohanim.
 
Patrilineal descent raises another point of contention. The denominations, of course, disagree about the Jewish legal status of a child whose birth father, but not mother, is Jewish.
 
When an adopted child has one or two Jewish birth parents, it is important to maintain proof, which can assist the child later in life, if he or she wishes to move to Israel or marry inside the Jewish community. Another serious potential problem in the case of Jewish birth parents is whether the child is--or is suspected to be--a mamzer.
 
A mamzer is an individual who is the product of an adulterous or incestuous union, and he or she is traditionally not allowed to marry a Jew of "legitimate" birth.

When Birth Parents are Not Jewish

A Gentile child adopted by Jews does not automatically become Jewish upon completion of the secular legal process. He or she requires formal conversion to Judaism--with the methods varying by denomination. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, for example, require tevilah (immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath) in addition to brit milah (circumcision) for boys.
 
Since this conversion is performed on a minor, without his or her consent (the halakhic terminology is ger katan), at bar or bat mitzvah age the child has the right to either confirm or deny the conversion. The attitude that it is permissible to convert a child without his or her initial knowledge and consent is based on the talmudic principle that "we can act to a person's benefit without his permission" (Ketubbot, 11a).
 
Because most cases of adoption involve conversion, the divisive "Who is a Jew?" question is at the heart of the issue. Rabbi Michael Gold, an expert on Jewish family and sexuality issues, points out that the Jewishness of many children adopted by Jewish families continues to be questioned.
 
It is important to note, however, that racial issues do not--and should not--figure in this conversation. Regardless of social attitudes, if a black, Asian, or Native American child is converted properly, he or she is fully Jewish.

Other Issues

Beyond religious considerations, social stigmas about adoption also exist. Some Jews expect other Jews to "look a certain way" or insist that a convert doesn't have a "Jewish soul." A further consideration in some Jewish communities is the issue of finding a shidduch (mate) for a person without identifiable yichus (lineage). Other Jews may be concerned that some adoptees will not fully identify with Judaism despite conversion.
 
Adoptive parents, birth parents who give up their children, and adoptive children face a host of challenges. In particular, the sense that they have been "abandoned" by their birth parents makes some adopted children feel confused about their identities, even if they were converted according to the requirements of their adoptive parents' denomination.
 
Jewish family service agencies may offer home studies, support groups for adoptees and adoptive families, lectures, conferences, and other services.
 
Queen Esther may be the most famous adoptee in Jewish tradition, but she certainly wasn't the last. And while the role of adoption may be different than it was in ancient times, adoption continues to shape Jewish families, and indeed, the very nature of the Jewish community.

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Barbara T. Blank

Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer and editor.