Ancient Jewish Tradition

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Positive adoption stories are threaded throughout the Bible, though arrangements were generally informal rather than legal. Abraham adopted his servant Eliezer, and Mordecai raised his orphaned cousin, Esther.

Baby Moses was plucked from the Nile River and saved from death by Pharoah's daughter. Raised as an adopted Egyptian prince, Moses became the redeemer of his people, the Jews, from slavery.

The Talmud states, "Whoever brings up an orphan in his home is thought the child had been born to him." (Sanhedrin 119b).

But modern attitudes do not always measure up to those ideals. Says an adoptive parent, Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg of Philadelphia, "the attitudes at first is 'this is wonderful," that it's a mitzvah to adopt and to form a Jewish family. "Everybody is really thrilled for you."

"On the other hand, there is a very subtle questioning, holding back, wondering if this child is as good, can you really love a child who isn't yours biological?" continues Kapneck Rosenberg, author of the book Adoption and the Jewish Family: Contemporary Perspectives (Jewish Publication Society; 1998. "In the Jewish community, there's a subtle attitude of 'Does this child come from good stock?' There's a undercurrent of wondering," she adds.

That attitude may be a remnant of traditional Judaism's emphasis on bloodlines. According to traditional Jewish law, personal status is based on bloodlines and lineage; whether the biological mother is Jewish determines whether the child is Jewish. Even after the adopted child's conversion to Judaism, halachic issues about status remain.

Under traditional Jewish law, the child's biological father determines a child's statues as a Kohen or Levi. If the birth father is a Yisrael, a gentile or unknown, the adopted child is considered a Yisrael, and the status of the adoptive father as a Kohen or Levi does not affect the adopted child.

Still, most authorities permit an adopted child converted to Judaism to be called by the adoptive father's Hebrew name and not " _ben Avraham Avim" as other adult converts are called.

With differing opinions on conversion requirements, adoption issues touch upon the controversial 'Who is a Jew' question. Many Orthodox rabbis will only arrange a conversion if the adoptive parents make a commitment to strict Jewish observance. Moreover, these rabbis often control the community's mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) and will not permit their use for non-Orthodox conversions. And conversions performed by Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis are not recognized by the Orthodox.

Adopted children converted to Judaism in a manner unacceptable to the Orthodox could encounter problems if they choose to join an Orthodox synagogue, marry a more traditional Jew, or move to Israel.

Liberal Jews are increasingly seeking access to mikvaot, prompting a governing number of Conservative and Reform synagogues around the country to build them. In the greater Washington area, non-Orthodox Jewish families seeking conversions for their adopted children most often utilize the mikvah at Adas Israel Congregation (Conservative).

Credits: Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Merry Madway Eisenstadt

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