Conversion for Adopted Children
A family adopted two biological sisters from Korea when the sisters were ages 9 and 11.
The girls had been in a Protestant orphanage for a year prior to the adoption. Before that, they lived first with both parents until their father died, then with their mother, and after her death, with their grandmother. All that is known about their religious upbringing during that time is that they participated in some form of honoring their ancestors, visiting their graves, and bringing them food. But we do not believe they had any significant religious upbringing. There is no Jewish community in Korea and so there is no possibility the girls were born Jewish.
From their arrival in the United States, the sisters lived in a clearly Jewish home, in which the daily rhythm of life is exclusively and actively Jewish. Both girls had naming services at their own request after having been here for approximately one and one-half years. Both attended religious school from about one year after their arrival. The time lapse was calculated to allow them to learn English. The parents encouraged their learning so that they would understand the religion of their new parents. The girls were not told this was to be their religion. Both girls studied through Confirmation in religious school, and were privately tutored in Hebrew. The younger sister celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at age 13 and the older at age 16.
The sisters are now 25 and 27, and have very strong Jewish identities. One is now in graduate school, and the other living on her own. Their parents are concerned that since their was no formal conversion process when the girls were adopted, their Jewishness might be in question.
Since the sisters were adopted as older children, and because they were not formally converted to Judaism, although they certainly were immersed in it and have chosen to continue to live it, are these women to be considered Jewish or ought they be advised to formally convert? (Rabbi Lynn Koshner, Albany, NY)
Jewish identity, a concept that lies at the heart of our she’elah, can be defined and understood in terms of both substance and form. As a matter of substance, there is no question that these sisters regard themselves as Jews and that Judaism is their sole and exclusive religion. As a matter of form, however, they do not meet the traditional definition of Jewish status, according to which a person is “Jewish” if he or she is the offspring of a Jewish mother or has become a Jew by means of a recognized and valid procedure of conversion (giyur). The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has altered this standard to some degree through its Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, which holds that the child of one Jewish parent (either the father or the mother) “is under the presumption of Jewish descent” and may establish his or her Jewishness “through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.” This resolution, of course, does not apply to our case, which deals with children born to two Gentile parents. In such an instance, the child cannot be said to enjoy such a presumption of Jewish descent. The halakhah would require that the child be formally converted to Judaism.
The present she’elah asks whether our Reform tradition follows the halakhah on this point. Does a child born of non-Jewish parents require a conversion when adopted into a Jewish family? This is not the first time the question has been posed. Reform responsa and halakhic literature have dealt with it in the past, but they are deeply divided as to its answer. Some of our sources take the position that the adoption itself establishes the child’s Jewishness. One teshuvah states that “among us as Reform Jews, if no formal conversion took place during infancy then the act of raising the child is tantamount to such conversion and nothing else needs to be done.” The 1961 edition of our Rabbi’s Manual (p. 111) holds that “a child adopted by a Jewish family is recognized as a Jewish child,” implying that no formal conversion is required. Other sources, however, express a different view. One responsum asserts that the naming ceremony performed in the synagogue once the adoption process is completed “would be considered sufficient ritual conversion” in most Reform synagogues, implying thereby that some sort of ceremony apart from the adoption itself is required. A 1984 teshuvah suggests that the adopted child be named in the synagogue, “with a berit for a male, and if the family desires, tevilah,” “ritual acts” that are defined as “the conversion conducted at the time of infancy.” This suggests that a formal conversion, distinct from and subsequent to the adoption itself, is necessary to “designate this youngster as Jewish.” The Gates of Mitzvah, the CCAR’s guide to the Jewish life cycle, tells us that “an adopted child should be named in the synagogue and entered into the berit as soon as the initial legal procedures for adoption have been completed.” Here, too, a distinction is made between the legal process of adoption and the ritual establishment of the child’s Jewishness. If the adopted child is not an infant, “the rabbis should be consulted as to the procedure for formal entry into the Jewish community;” again, the “formal entry” into the Jewish community is a ritual or ceremony other than the adoption itself. Finally, the 1988 edition of the Rabbi’s Manual (p. 224) notes that all legal adoption procedures be completed “before finalizing any change of [the child’s] religious status,” indicating once more that the legal adoption and the establishment of the child’s Jewishness are two separate processes.
Our task here is to decide which of these two positions represents the better interpretation of Reform Jewish doctrine and practice. The first position holds that no formal conversion is required in the case of adoption, and it is not difficult to understand the theoretical basis upon which it rests. Adoption, after all, is simply another way of creating a family, and the ties which bind this family are equivalent to those that exist between parents and their biological children. The Rabbis teach that “one who raises an orphan in his home is considered as though he had begotten that child.” And this Committee has declared that the adopted child “is absolutely and completely a member of the family, a full child of the parents,” who are that child’s parents “in every respect.” If so, then we might well conclude that the legal process of adoption transfers the Jewishness of the parents to the child, in the same way that the biological child of two Jewish parents automatically enjoys Jewish status.
We think, however, that the second position is the more persuasive one: adoption by a Jewish family does not confer Jewish status upon the child of Gentile parents, and a formal conversion is necessary. The legal process of adoption indeed creates a family. Still, that process is an act of the state, of the civil government in whose jurisdiction we happen to reside. To say that “adoption is conversion” is to say that the secular magistrate is empowered to confer Jewish status upon a child, and it is difficult in the extreme to imagine that any of our responsa and religious writings would suggest that we depart so radically from the historical standard of Jewishness. Simply put, we do not believe that the government of state, province or nation is entitled to decide “who is a Jew.” That determination is rather a Jewish concern, one which rests exclusively with the Jewish community. The way that the Jewish community–including our own–confers Jewish status upon a person born of non-Jewish parents is through the process of giyur. Therefore, the child of Gentile parents who is adopted into a Jewish family requires a formal conversion to Judaism, a conversion process that is distinct from the adoption itself.
We should note that the definition of a “formal conversion” in our Reform communities has been an exceedingly fluid one. In a resolution adopted in 1893, the CCAR declared that “it is lawful and proper for any officiating rabbi, assisted by no less than two associates, to accept into the sacred covenant of Israel…any honorable or intelligent person…without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatever…”. In practice, this means that we do not officially require the traditional conversion rituals of circumcision (milah or hatafat dam berit) and immersion (tevilah) but that we do demand some formal notice (such as the beit din of three rabbis, which the resolution does require) that a conversion, the conferral of Jewish status, has taken place. It is for this reason that a naming ceremony “would be considered sufficient ritual conversion” for a child adopted into a Jewish family. Indeed, we believe that the responsum which holds that “the act of raising the child is tantamount to such conversion” should be interpreted in this light: the “act” of raising a Jewish child would surely include some sort of naming ceremony, and it is this Jewish ritual, rather than the secular legal process of adoption, that “is tantamount to such conversion” under the terms of our 1893 resolution.
The fact that these sisters were adopted by Jewish parents does not in and of itself establish their Jewish status. They do, however, qualify as Jews in that we recognize their naming ceremonies as sufficient for formal conversion in accordance with the CCAR’s resolution of 1893. In this sense, we accept them as Jews in form as well as in substance, and they need not “be advised to formally convert.”
This counsel must be accompanied by two important qualifications. First, our words are meant to apply bedi`avad, after the fact: as we have written elsewhere, the 1893 resolution is best understood today as speaking to situations in which it is either infeasible or impossible to perform the traditional conversion rituals. Ours is such a case, inasmuch as these women have been accepted as Jews in our Reform communities for many years. In general, however, we urge rabbis to administer those rituals as part of the conversion procedure.
And second, our words apply only within the Reform Jewish communities of North America. Elsewhere, these sisters will not be recognized as Jews in the absence of giyur, which would include ritual immersion; even our Reform and liberal communities outside of North America would likely require a formal conversion in their case. We cherish the principle of Jewish unity (kelal yisrael), however difficult that principle may be to realize in practice. For this reason, we would recommend that these women give serious consideration to formal conversion, not because there is any doubt as to the quality of their Jewish commitment, but because we believe (and we would hope they join us in this belief) that their status as Jews ought to be accepted by Jewish communities around the world.
- The “classic” halakhic source for this standard is M. Kiddushin 3:12 and BT Kiddushin 68a-b.
- See BT Keritot 9a and Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 13:1 ff.: just as our ancestors entered the covenant at Sinai through a discrete ritual process, so the non-Jew who wishes to accept the covenant today takes on a Jewish identity by means of these rituals.
- CCAR Yearbook
93 (1983), 157-160; American Reform Responsa (ARR), 547-550.
- On the theory and practice of giyur for minors, see BT Ketubot 11a and SA YD 268:7-8.
- Questions and Reform Jewish Answers
(New American Reform Responsa), no. 118.
, no. 63. The teshuvah also speaks of the possibility that some adoptive parents will want to undertake for their children hatafat dam berit, the ritual taking of a drop of blood from a previously-circumcised boy, and tevilah, or ritual immersion. Such ceremonies make sense only if we understand them as part of a procedure of giyur.
- Contemporary American Reform Responsa
(CARR), no. 37.
- Gates of Mitzvah
(New York: CCAR, 1979), D-2 and D-3, p. 18.
Megillah 13a and Sanhedrin 19b.
- American Reform Responsa
(ARR), no. 62.
- Teshuvot for the Nineties
(TFN), no. 5753.12.
- By “secular magistrate” we mean the legal representative of the civil government. It makes no difference, therefore, if the magistrate who supervises the adoption is a Jew. He or she acts as the agent not of the Jewish community but of the civil government, and as such enjoys no power to confer Jewish status.
- This teshuvah deals with the North American legal context and does not address the situation in Israel. There, the determination of Jewish status is a matter of official concern to the civil authorities, inasmuch as the Law of Return, which guarantees the right of Israeli citizenship to every Jew, is an act of the Knesset and administered by the government. Yet we should remember that even in Israel, the government does not claim to confer Jewish status upon the individual; it rather acknowledges that the person in question meets the traditional criteria of Jewishness (i.e., one who is born of a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism), which are set by Jewish religious law and not created by an act of the secular legislature.
- CCAR Yearbook
3 (1893), 94-95; ARR, no. 68, at 236-237.
- See note 6.
- See note 5.
- This is a tendency of long standing in our responsa; see the discussion and the sources (including earlier responsa) cited in TFN, no. 5752.2, at pp. 244-246; R. Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 15; ARR, nos. 57 and 69; CARR, nos. 44, 45, 47, and 49; and our responsa 5756.6 and 5756.13. The latter responsum contains a detailed critique of the scholarship that was cited in a lengthy essay published in support of the 1893 resolution (ARR, no. 68). Although that resolution remains on the books, the inadequacy of the arguments that were brought to justify it suggests that we seriously reconsider its scope and applicability to our contemporary religious practice.
- See Rabbi’s Manual, 232.
- We are aware, of course, that Orthodox communities will not regard these women as Jews unless their conversions were to be supervised by Orthodox rabbis. And we do not recommend they seek Orthodox conversion, for to do so would imply falsely that we Reform Jews doubt the Jewish validity of the conversions we perform. Our recommendation here would, however, greatly expand the circle of Jewish communities that recognize the Jewish status of these two women, and we think that this is a goal worth pursuing.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.