Jewish Law and Adoption

The innumerable circumstances that prevent some people from being able to bring their own children into the world knows no boundaries and it goes without saying that a lot of Jewish people find themselves in this position. Apart from the joy of having and raising children of their own, adoption affords Jewish people the opportunity to obey the commandment “to be fruitful and to multiply”.

From the viewpoint of a Jewish person, a civil law adoption is merely the transfer of title from one parent to another, and as they do not view their children as possessions, the regulations and parameters relating to adoption in civil law is irrelevant to them. While Jewish law does not require formal adoption procedures, there are certain laws in Judaism that are of importance in matters of status and naming of the adopted child, particularly in the case of non-Jewish adopted children.

Because the status of the birth parents determines the status of the adopted child, the act of adoption alone does not make the child Jewish. Being considered Jewish will be of great importance to the child when he or she reaches Bar or Bat Mitzvah age, want to marry or join a synagogue. If the child is not considered Jewish he or she will not be able to take part in these and other ceremonies. It is therefor of cardinal importance that the adopted child be converted as early as possible.

Conversion consists of circumcision (milah) and immersion (tevilah). If possible, a boy must be circumcised, but if this has already been done, a symbolic circumcision where a drop of blood is taken from the side of the penis, must be performed. Immersion is a requirement for both boys and girls and is done in a Jewish ritual bath as soon as the infant is old enough not to be in any danger when this is done. The adoptive parents must then commit themselves to raise the adopted child as a Jew.

The relationship between the Jewish adoptive parents and the child is the same as that between biological parents and their child. Based on the Talmudic maxim that he who raises the child has the right to be called the parent of the child, adopted children may be formally named according to Jewish law. A boy is officially named during his ritual circumcision and a girl is named in the synagogue when her father receives the honour of reading from the Torah.

On the flip side, Jewish law differs profoundly from that of civil law in cases where Jewish children are adopted. Jewish law does not recognize the civil institution of adoption as it relates to the question of who the parents of the child are. It operates on an agency theory in these matters. When a Jewish child is adopted, the natural parents of the child will always be the parents, while the adoptive parents are seen as agents of the natural parent. Should the adoptive parents not be able to fulfil their duties to the child, the parental obligations toward the child will revert to the birth parents.

Thus, according to Jewish law, even if the Jewish birth parents have given their child up for adoption, the biblical obligations, duties and prohibitions of parenthood still apply between the natural parents and the child.