A new ritual for adoption?

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Chaim Weiner 17th May 2019

The main forum in which halachic decisions are made in the World Conservative (Masorti) Movement is the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly. When new issues arise in contemporary life, Rabbis turn to the CJLS for halachic guidance. Sometimes this is the result of technological change; sometimes, the questions arise as a result of social changes. Sometimes, nothing has really changed at all; we simply think about things differently. The Responsum of Rabbi Nate Crane, Adoption, [CJLS HM 290:1.2018] falls into this third category.

The phenomenon of adoption is not new. Throughout history, circumstances arose in which children have needed someone to care for them when their parents were unable to do so. However, the way that society looks at adoption has fundamentally changed over the time, and so the CJLS chose to revisit the halachic foundations of adoption and create new rituals to address modern concerns.

Surprisingly, there is no formal institution of adoption in Jewish tradition. Up until relatively recently Jewish society was built around extended families. When tragedy fell, the extended family would step in to provide support. One who stepped in to raise a child was considered to be particularly meritorious. The Talmud writes: Whoever brings up an orphan in his home, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had begotten him. [BT sand. 19b]

Where there was no family member to take care of a child, the court stepped in and appointed someone as legal guardian. This guardian had all the responsibilities of a parent, managing the orphan’s property and inheritance, and ensuring they were clothed, fed and educated.

The institution of adoption raises many questions. What is the relationship between an adopted child and the adopting family? Does the child use its birth parents name or its adoptive parents name? What is the relationship between adopted children and natural children in a family? Does an adopted child inherit an equal share of their adoptive parents’ estate? Do they recite kaddish?

In the past, the driving force behind adoption, and hence these discussions, was the need to care for vulnerable children. That is why the questions deal with technical issues, and why there are no formal rituals for adoption. In our days, the driving force behind many adoptions is the needs of parents; those who do not have children and wish to establish a family. How are the needs of adopting parents to be addressed?

This is the unique contribution of Rabbi Crane. He suggests that adoption is not only a legal issue, but a spiritual, psychological and social event of profound meaning. As a major transition in a person’s life it should be accompanied by ritual. He suggests the creation of a specific adoption ceremony and certificate, to be presented in the community, to mark this momentous event. This ritual would set Masorti practice apart from other halachic movements.

Jewish law is more than a set of prohibitions that accompany us through life. Jewish law is a way of thinking about the world. The role of Jewish ritual is to elevate our lives and bring a spiritual dimension to the significant things that we do.

Masorti halacha isn’t about finding lenient rulings or getting rid of prohibitions that are no longer relevant. It is about surrounding ourselves with rituals that emphasise that Jewish values are relevant at all stages of life. They apply the values of the Torah to new situations and ensure that our lives are always surrounded by the commandments. Rabbi Crane’s responsum is a good example of how our approach to halacha is used to broaden halachic categories and reflect our values.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner is Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din and Director of Masorti Europe. 

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