QUESTION: A young adult woman, who has been very active in the synagogue and on our board for many years, has recently discovered that her biological parents were not Jewish. At infancy she was adopted by a Jewish couple. Her adoptive parents openly told her about her adoption, though not about her non-Jewish parentage; they may not have known. Her adoptive parents raised her as a Jew. She has always seen herself as a Jew and has worked within the Jewish community. Now an element of self-doubt has affected her. Would Reform Judaism recommend a formal conversion in this case? (Rabbi Alan Henkin, Arleta CA)
ANSWER: Our tradition has always considered it a mitzvah to raise an orphan or a child without a home, although formal adoption in the modern sense was not been discussed in the Biblical or Talmudic period (Meg 13a; San l9b; Midrash Rabbah Exodus 45 interpreting Isaiah 64.8). The subsequent discussion dealt not with the issue of Jewishness, but with the status of abandoned children and possible suspicions of mamzerut (M Kid 4.2; 73a; Yad Hil Issurei Biah 15.30f; Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 4.30 f). However, generally all children were considered kasher unless there was definite proof to the contrary and that was virtually never possible.
Nowadays when a child comes from non-Jewish parents and is adopted into a Jewish family the child is converted as any other individual. For an adult, of course, such an assumption of a new religion is a conscience act. For a child this is done by the parents, and a bet din to benefit the child. The rituals for a boy consists of circumcision and immersion in a miqveh, and for a girl simply immersion in a miqveh along with a naming ceremony. When such children reach the age of maturity (Bar/Bat Mitzvah) they may without prejudice reject Judaism (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268.7) and that remains theoretically possible today. This means that up to that time an infant convert, while considered totally Jewish retains the option of leaving. Among us as Reform Jews, if no formal conversion took place during infancy then the act of raising the child as a Jew is tantamount to such conversion and nothing else needs to be done. This is in keeping with our emphasis on education and a pattern of life rather than ritual. This has been our practice for most of the twentieth century as formalized in a resolution passed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1947. We have followed this position for many generations so this young woman is to be considered as Jewish. She should consider herself as Jewish and nothing needs to be done. In fact a formal conversion now would be redundant and would needlessly call into question all that she had done earlier.