Toldot and Alternative Families

Rebecca's question continues to bedevil Jewish adults who hope to parent.

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The definition of family in the Jewish world, it seems, clings to a model of parents who have genetic offspring. For example, in a study reported in 1991, researchers who surveyed a sample of male college students found that the Jews considered it more important than did the Christians that children be conceived by themselves and their spouse, rather than adopted.Bonnie Ellen Baron and Lawrence Baron refer to that survey in the ground-breaking book Lifecycles, edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein (1994). In their article "On Adoption" they explain that while there are some biblical precedents for adoption (Mordecai was the guardian of Esther; Sarah initially seeks to adopt Hagar's son), Judaism never has strongly encouraged it. They speculate that "Jewish law lacks a formal procedure for adoption because of the primacy it biological kinship in determining a child's inheritance rights and religious and tribal status" (p. 28). true in spite of the primacy of tikkun olam as an embedded value among Jews.

How can we identify ourselves as a community of tikkun (repair) without commitment to adopt children who languish the world without loving parents?  Adoption support is rarely modeled by leaders. A remarkable exception is Yosef Abromowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman, a couple who direct Jewish Family and Life! and began a family with biological offspring but also fulfilled a dream to adopt children born in Ethiopia.

"lm ken lamah zeh anochi?" (If this is so, why exist?)" was Rebekah's question that continues to bedevil Jewish adults who hope to parent but are unable to carry a pregnancy to term. Has feminism not brought us better questions and better answers? Have modern, forward-thinking Jewish communities failed to provide real alternatives to a dilemma of meaninglessness in the absence of genetic heirs?

Toldot poses the question of meaning. If we answer that we exist only to fulfill impulses througn children, we have failed Judaism and feminism. If we answer that we exist for tikkun, to nurture children--biological, adoptive, and those we teach, mentor support--then we will have succeeded far more in realizing the sacred goal of mi-dor l'dor, from generation to generation.

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Rabbi Valerie Lieber

Rabbi Valerie Lieber is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Jamaica, a Reform congregation in Jamaica, Queens. She is also a member of the board of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in Manhattan and is on the executive committee of the New York Association of Reform Rabbis.