Do Jews believe in adoption? If so, if the child is raised a Jew, including having a bar mitzvah, will the child need to undergo Jewish conversion as an adult since he does not know if the birth mother was a Jew?
Your question is very broad. I will try to answer what I think you really want to know.
In this answer I am writing from the perspective of a Reconstructionist.
In a word, yes, Judaism ‘believes in’ adoption.
We see adoption in various forms touched on in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures or Jewish Bible) several times early on. Off the top of my head here are some examples. First, we learn that Abraham’s brother has died, and his nephew Lot comes to live with him, and he treats Lot as his own, but the two clans they form cannot live in close proximity without argument, as we learn, so they agree to separate. Next, Abraham adopts Eliezer, his servant, to be his heir, because he has no children, as reported in Genesis 15, but God tells Abraham that will not be the way of his succession. Next, we see Sarah ‘adopting’ the child of Hagar, Ishmael, by giving her handmaid to her husband in her place in Genesis 16 – the child of that union is understood as Sarah’s, but that does not work out, as we soon learn. Moses is adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh. So adoption appears early and often, and the same processes are followed throughout the Tanakh and later Jewish texts.
By the point at which we come to the time of the Talmud (describing the period starting somewhere around 400 BCE), the principles are firmly established that one may adopt a child, and if one does, that child is seen exactly as if it were the biological offspring of the person adopting, with all the same rights and obligations. There are no distinctions made.
So, yes, Jews and Judaism both ‘believe in’ and have engaged in the adoptive process through history. The adopted child is treated exactly the same way as a child born to that person.
As for ritual and religious status, a child may be converted at the time of adoption or after. For a child, this entails immersion in a Mikvah (sometimes spelled Mikveh; it is usually translated as a ‘ritual bath’, but better indicates a pool of living water), with the intention that this child is to be a member of the Jewish people from this moment forward. Of course, for a male child, traditionally it also includes the ceremony of Brit Milah (circumcision – if not already done) or Hatafat Dam Brit (the drawing of a drop of blood from the site of a circumcision if already performed). [For more on this ceremony and concerns surrounding it, see related questions and answers, and some of the JVO Online Video Series entries posted elsewhere on the Jewish Values Online site.]
If a child were to be adopted by a Jewish couple with no conversion ritual, but raised and educated as a Jew, that child when an adult would need to undergo an affirmation ritual – very much like a conversion process, but with less need for Jewish education. If the child were adopted, not converted, not educated, and not raised as a Jew, that child would not be a Jew, and if they wished to be Jewish would be required to undertake a full conversion process.
Frankly, a child that was adopted by a Jewish couple, and who had undergone no conversion ceremony, would be unlikely to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, even if otherwise raised and educated as a Jew. If I were to encounter such a situation, as the rabbi, I would ask that the child visit the Mikvah with me as an affirmation prior to the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony (as I have done).
In the event that I learned that a child who had not been converted had been allowed to celebrate a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony, I would most likely consider that the training for the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony, the years of religious school education, and the public assertion of embracing Judaism, along with other factors, would all be considered as preparation through learning for that person. and I would ask that they consider undertaking an affirmation ritual by visiting the Mikvah (and Brit Milah or Hatafat Dam Brit for a male) to silence any questions or doubts. In that way, the ‘conversion’ could be seen as retroactive, so to speak.
The concern of whether the birth mother might have been a Jew generally comes up only in limited circumstances, most often related to marriage, and mostly within the Orthodox community. This can be an issue for a Kohen (descendant of Aaron, a member of the high priestly class) who has various restrictions on to whom they are permitted marriage, or if there is any concern that the child is possibly related to the potential spouse or may be the offspring of one who is identified as a mamzer (themselves the offspring of a forbidden union, such as marriage between siblings).
When an adoption occurs, it is far easier to assume (if it is not known or determinable) that the child is not the offspring of Jews, and to proceed with a conversion process. Doing so settles any doubts, and does not change or harm the status of an adopted child that was in fact unknowingly born to a Jewish mother.
The issue with reaching adulthood would be that the adopted child (now seen as an adult) has an opportunity to reject the conversion performed for them as a child, and therefore their Jewish status. At the time of their B’nai Mitzvah, it is possible for a child that was converted to deny their status as a Jew, and to ‘undo’ retroactively the ceremony of conversion. If they do not actively choose to do so, and in particular, if they go through and participate in the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony, they have acquiesced and no longer have the right to ‘undo’ the conversion that took place. Of course, as any Jew does, they could at some point in their life reject Judaism, and convert to some other religion, but that would require a positive act of disaffiliation and a joining of some other faith group. It would not remove their cultural, social, or other ties to Jews and Judaism, but it could sever their connection to the religious aspect.
I could go on for much more, refining the details and expanding the answer, but I hope that this brief answer, along with that of my colleagues, responds to your basic questions.
Adoption is a complicated issue in Jewish law. Ethically we consider raising someone else’s child as a great Mitzvah of Tzedakah (righteous charity) and hold by the rabbinic dictum that the teacher of a child is also viewed as the child’s parent with all the respect that implies. The problem arises as to whom one should adopt. If one adopts a child not born from a Jewish mother, one converts the child as early as possible with Mikveh (ritual immersion) and, if a male, circumcision. In orthodox tradition one sends the child to a Jewish school, and at the age of bar or bat mitzvah one asks the child if he/she wishes to remain Jewish. With the child saying “Yes”, the conversion process is complete (ie. the child has accepted the commandment obligations which he could not fully legally do before hand) and nothing else is necessary. Needless to say, such a process of questioning can be traumatic for the young teen, and so I recommend that the family rabbi confer with a mental health specialist and with the guidance of the specialist (and perhaps his/her presence) present the “Jewish question” to the child.
In dealing with a child from a Jewish mother, conversion is not an issue but lineage is. It is crucial to know who the birth parents are so that as an adult the child does not unwittingly marry a prohibited relative. This is perhaps a greater problem in adopting a Jewish child than in adopting a non-Jewish child because the Jewish community is relatively very small compared to the non-Jewish community. Furthermore, there is also the concern that the Jewish child might be the product of a prohibited marriage (where the mother did not receive a Get, a religious divorce, from her first husband, and the child is a product of her second marriage) which creates additional serious Jewish legal problems for the child’s future.
Therefore, though I believe Judaism encourages adoption as a great Mitzvah, adoption needs to be done with the greatest care for the child’s development and adult life.
The short answer to your first question is “Yes.” Adoption has a long and honorable place in the Jewish tradition, and beautiful statements in the Talmud and elsewhere demonstrate our tradition’s respect for adoptive parents. The Talmud teaches us that those who raise children born to others are regarded, according to Scripture, as though they themselves had sired or given birth to them. (See B.Megillah 13a and B.Sanhedrin 19b). Put another way, “the one who brings up a child is to be called its father (or mother).” (See Exodus Rabbah 46:5.)
We have wonderful examples of adoption in our tradition. Consider Moses. The Bible tells us that Pharoah’s daughter adopted Moses and raised him as her own child – and even gave him the name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. (See Exodus 2:10.) You may find this an awkward example, because Moses later identified with his family of origin and ultimately led a revolt against his adoptive family’s dynasty -- but our tradition has nothing but praise for the manner in which Moses was raised in Pharoah’s daughter’s household. There is also the great Jewish heroine, Esther. Esther was adopted by her cousin Mordecai after the death of her biological mother and father. (See Esther 2:7.) We even have a case recounted in the Bible of a child (Oded) being adopted by his grandmother (Naomi). (See Ruth 4:16-17.)
Of course, adoption today isn’t identical to what it was in the Biblical or Talmudic eras, but the point still holds: Judaism has long recognized, valued, and, in your words, “believed in” adoption – and it still does.
Your second question is a bit more complicated. Generally, when a child is adopted, unless it is certain that his or her birth mother is Jewish, the child is converted to Judaism at that time under the authority of a Beit Din (Jewish court). For details concerning this procedure, you should consult a rabbi. Keep in mind that each Jewish religious movement has its own understanding of what is required in order to convert a child.
It is worth noting (and celebrating) in this day and age in which children are adopted from all over the globe that, partly because of adoption, Jews now “come in all colors.” Take a look at the following poster produced by the Jewish Multiracial Network (and available from the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center Bookstore) that vividly illustrates this: http://store.isabellafreedman.org/store/JMN-poster.html .
For further information concerning adoption in the Jewish tradition, I urge you to consult And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption, and the Jewish Couple, by Rabbi Michael Gold (Jewish Publication Society: 1988). (Excerpts from this book are available on the web.)
In response to your first question, from Mark Washofskhy, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice:
Adoption, the institution through which an individual or individuals become the legally-recognized parents of a child that is not their biological offspring, is not mentioned in classical Jewish sources. . . . Still, Jewish practice has developed over time in response to the reality that families are created and expanded through adoption.
And: “The adoptive parents are in every respect the parents of that child.”
In response to your second question: A child whose birth parents are not Jewish requires formal conversion. The question then becomes what constitutes formal conversion to Judaism for a child. These issues are thoroughly addressed in “Conversion for Adopted Children,” (5759.I in Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century Vol. I, ed. Mark Washofsky, available from CCAR Press as a bound volume or an ebook). This responsa informs my answer, and all quotations below are taken from it.
Among Reform rabbis, requirements for conversion of adults vary widely. Some rabbis do not require tevilah (ritual immersion), and many Reform rabbis will not require adult circumcision/brit milah (of uncircumcised men) or tipat dam brit (a ceremonial drawing of a drop of blood, accompanied by blessings, to symbolize the ritual of brit milah for men who have been circumcised). Therefore, an adopted child who received a Jewish name, a Jewish education, celebrated Bar or Bat Mitzvah and (preferably) continued on to Confirmation during the high school years will be considered Jewish within the Reform community, though generally only bedi’avad (after the fact; when the question was not brought at the time of adoption, but only after the child has grown to adulthood).
For the sake of klal yisrael—literally, the whole of Israel, or “Jewish unity” (elusive though that may be)—most Reform rabbis counsel adoptive parents to take the additional steps of tevilah (immersion) and, for infant adoptions, milah (ritual circumcision), at the time of adoption. Adults who were adopted but who did not receive these conversion rituals at the time of adoption are encouraged to “give serious consideration to formal conversion.” This advice does not stem from “doubt as to the quality of their Jewish commitment.” Rather, it is for the sake of their Jewish status being accepted by the Jewish community more broadly, Not all Reform rabbis will require milah even for infants, however; and many (perhaps most) Reform rabbis will not counsel parents to subject an older child to milah. Many of us will not require milah of an adult convert, much less of one who was raised and has lived as a Jew.
Of course, this is one place where the ideal of klal yisrael, as well as the likelihood that the individual’s Jewish status will be accepted beyond the Reform Jewish community, begins to break down.
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