Q. What is the status of an adopted child in Jewish law?
A. Adoption of some kind was known from Biblical times. Abraham appears to have adopted his servant before his sons were born; Moses was brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter Bitia (I Chron. 4:18), Ruth’s son was brought up by Naomi (Ruth 4:17), and the sons of Merav, daughter of Saul, were brought up by her sister Michal (II Sam. 21:8).
Adoption is regarded in halachic literature as a great act of piety and humanity; to rear a neighbour’s child and teach it Torah is metaphorically like giving the child birth (Megillah 13a, Sanhedrin 19b).
When called to the Torah an adopted son may describe his adoptive father as his father, though there is a problem if the adoptive father is a Kohen or Levi (Rav M Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 161). The London Beth Din has ruled that the adoptive father’s name may be used on the k’tubah of an adopted child together with the word ham’gadd’lo or ham’gadd’lah, “he who rears him/her”, but to avoid embarrassment in public this word should be omitted when the k’tubah is read aloud at the ceremony (Dayan Meyer Steinberg, “Responsum on Problems of Adoption in Jewish Law”, p.20).
Dayan Steinberg states after summarising the halachic literature, “Not only is there a duty on the child to honour his adoptive parents but he must also carry out the rites of mourning for them and recite kaddish for them” (p.36).
However, in Judaism adoption is not a legal institution. It does not eradicate the natural blood relationship as if the original relationship no longer existed. In some sense the blood relationship with the natural parents persists. Thus whether a child is Jewish or not depends on who the natural mother was, and therefore there is sometimes a need for the adopted child to be converted to Judaism. Knowledge of the identity of the natural parents is a safeguard against a later possibility of incest.
A further halachic problem arises if parents have adopted two children, a boy and a girl, who eventually wish to marry each other; strictly speaking, they are not related by blood, but there may be a strong argument against their marriage, and careful consideration would have to be given to the problem by rabbinic authorities.
Adoptive parents are never certain about how to handle the fact that their child was adopted. It sometimes happens that an adopted child later turns on the adoptive parents and blames them for ruining its life. Elementary logic and morality would surely require extra love from the child towards the adoptive parents. The parents do not need or expect a vote of thanks, but the child should never forget that he or she is what might be termed “a child by choice”. The parents should not feel uneasy if the child seeks to trace its natural mother or father, but they will almost certainly need to be there in many ways and at many times to provide constant, uncritical support and reassurance.