"Be fruitful and multiply" is the first commandment in Judaism; children are at the center of the Jewish vision of family life. Today, more and more Jews are choosing to fulfill that mitzvah through adoption. Some couples adopt for altruistic reasons, often providing a home for older children or children with special needs. Some single Jews adopt because they want to raise a family and have been unsuccessful finding a marriage partner. Nevertheless, most Jewish adoptions involve couples who are infertile and see adoption as the only alternative to building a family.
Experts estimate that 15% of all married couples have some kind of infertility problem, defined as being unsuccessful achieving pregnancy after one year of trying. Among Jewish couples, the numbers may be even higher. The reason is that Jews tend to delay marriage and childbirth at a rate higher than the general population, with a subsequent lowering of fertility rates. The new reproductive medical techniques have helped many infertile couples. (Some of these techniques raise serious questions of Jewish law.) Yet for many couples, adoption is the only alternative.
Adoption is a wonderful way to build Jewish families; it provides homes for children whose birth parents cannot raise them and children for parents unable to achieve pregnancy. Nonetheless, adoption does raise numerous halakhic as well as practical questions for Jews.
There is a certain irony in the Jewish view of adoption. Jewish sources teach two contradictory messages. On one hand, the Bible and the Talmud are filled with wonderful examples of adoption and beautiful aggadic sayings about people who raise children born to others. On the other hand, because of the strong emphasis in Judaism on bloodlines and lineage, adoption as a formal legal procedure is totally unknown.
In the Bible, Abraham adopts his servant Eliezer and Mordecai raises his orphaned cousin Esther. The Talmudic sage Abaye often quotes wise sayings in the name of his foster mother. Perhaps the most beautiful statement about adoption concerns Michal, the wife of King David. According to the Bible, she never had children all her life (2 Samuel 6:23); yet the Bible also mentions her five sons (2 Samuel 21:8). Noticing this discrepancy, the Talmud remarks, "Her sister Merab gave birth to them and she raised them, therefore they are called by her name. This teaches that whoever brings up an orphan in his home is regarded, according to Scripture, as though the child had been born to him." (Sanhedrin 19b) A similar passage occurs in the midrash, where the question arises about what Hebrew name to use for a woman raised by a foster father.
The decision is to use the foster father's name, because "he who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth." (Exodus Rabbah 46:5)
However, adoption as practiced in our modern society means the removal of all rights and responsibilities of the biological parent, and their transfer to another couple or individual. For all intents and purposes, the child's biological lineage is broken. This procedure has its roots in ancient Roman law, where the concern was finding an heir for a childless couple. In contrast, British common law, coming from a society that placed great emphasis on lineage, bloodlines, and class, never developed an adoption procedure, To illustrate this point, suppose Prince Charles and Princess Diana adopted a baby boy; he certainly would not be in line for the throne.
Jewish law is far closer to British common law than to ancient Roman law. In Judaism, personal status is based on bloodlines and lineage, the moment of birth gives a Jew his or her identity. No legal procedure or court decree can erase that identity.
This emphasis on bloodlines has serious consequences for adoption in Jewish law. For example, the status of the birth mother as Jew or gentile at the moment of birth establishes the identity of the child as Jewish or gentile. If the mother is Jewish, then the father's tribal status as a Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael decides the child's tribe. If a Jewish woman became pregnant as a result of adultery or incest, the child would take on the status of a mamzer, and traditional Jewish law would forbid such a person from marrying a Jew of legitimate birth.
The status of the mother at the moment of birth decides the requirement of a pidyon haben (redemption of the first born). The child is forbidden to marry certain paternal and maternal relatives, all based on the status at birth. No formal legal act can change this status. Based on this, any Jewish couple or single contemplating adoption should ascertain the status of the birthparents, particularly the birth mother. If she was Jewish, there is some concern regarding the possibility the child may be a mamzer, particularly if the birth father is unknown. This could affect the child's ability to eventually marry into the traditional community. This is the reason many orthodox rabbis have counseled couples to adopt a child born of a gentile birth mother. A couple will also need to determine whether the child is a Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael, and whether the child requires a pidyon haben.
Even among less traditional Jews, it is important to have some documentation, preferably from a rabbi, as to the birth mother's Jewish status. Such documentation can become vital, particularly if the child wishes to move to Israel or marry someone orthodox.
If a child is born of a gentile birth mother, these issues do not arise. However, the child will need formal conversion to Judaism. This includes brit milah or a symbolic brit for a boy, and immersion in a kosher mikvah for both a boy and girl. Most rabbis prefer to arrange the conversion at a very young age, even infancy, long before the child has understanding as to what is happening. The Talmud questions why the rabbis have the right to convert a child before the age of consent.
The answer is based on the Talmudic principle, zachin leadam shelo befanav, "we can act to someone's advantage even without their permission." (Ketubbot 11a) However, at the age of Bar/ Bat Mitzvah, the child has the right either to reaffirm or to protest the conversion. Many rabbis see the Bar/ Bat Mitzvah ceremony itself as a reaffirmation, thus giving it special significance for an adopted child.
The problem today is that rabbis of various movements differ on the requirements for conversion of an adopted child born of a non- Jewish birth mother. Many orthodox rabbis will only arrange a conversion if the adoptive parents have made a commitment to Jewish observance, including observance of the Shabbat and the dietary laws and a yeshiva education for the child. Many of these same rabbis will not recognize conversions performed by non-orthodox rabbis. Often they control the community mikvah, and will not permit its use for any non- orthodox conversions.
All Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, and many Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis require formal conversion in a mikvah. However, other Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis say that a naming ceremony without immersion is sufficient. These children will run into difficulty if they someday choose to join a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, marry a more traditional Jew, or move to Israel.
Therefore, adoption touches the heart of the divisive "Who is a Jew" issue, with many rabbis not recognizing the Jewishness of many adopted children. Parents who want a traditional conversion, particularly if they are not strictly observant, may find it difficult to find a rabbi to supervise that conversion.
Even after conversion, there are a number of halakhic issues. For example, may an adopted boy use his adoptive father's name, or must he be called _________ ben Avraham Avinu like an adult convert. Most authorities permit the father's name to be used, but some forbid it.
May a baby girl adopted and converted marry a kohen? Orthodox authorities forbid it, but Conservative and Reform rabbis permit it.
Does an adopted child have all the same obligations towards his or her adoptive parents as their own birth child? Are there obligations towards birth parents? Most authorities would equate the obligations of biological and adoptive children toward their adoptive parents. The questions of obligations to birth parents remain unanswered.
A particularly emotional question is the adoption by Jewish families of non-white children, whether black, Asian, or Indian. Halakhicly there is no problem; Judaism is not a race and such a child, if properly converted, is fully Jewish. The problem lies with the sociological attitudes in the Jewish community. Many Jews are not prepared to fully embrace as Jewish youngsters from another race. This problem becomes particularly acute during the adolescent years when dating and youth activities become important and youngsters search for their identity. Often parents who bring home a cute new baby find it hard to imagine the difficulties of the teenage years. Hopefully this issue will diminish over the years as more converts from a variety of races enter the community.
Despite the halakhic problems raised by the emphasis of lineage in Jewish tradition, there is still a certain wisdom in the Jewish position. A generation ago, many adoption experts tried to erase an adopted child's biological identity, acting as if the child began life at the moment of adoption. Social workers actively discouraged adopted children from searching for their biological roots. Today, experts recognize that a human being never loses his or her biological identity, even if he or she grows up in a stable, loving, adoptive home. Many contemporary Jewish social workers will help a child in a search for birth parents, recognizing the importance of bloodlines in forming one's identity. This emphasis on lineage is precisely the Jewish position.
Despite the importance of lineage, ultimately the true parents are the ones who raise the child, imparting their values and wisdom, their nurture and their love. By Jewish law, the child is called by their name. For infertile Jewish couples, adoption is a wonderful way to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) to "be fruitful and multiply."
Rabbi Michael Gold is the adoptive father of three children, and the author of "And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption, and the Jewish Couple"