I've been approached by a couple who are unable to have another child (they have one already) and are interested to adopt. They are exploring the possibilities of adoption in several countries including Thailand and China. If they were to be successful in adopting a child from one of these countries, they are seeking to know whether progressive Judaism has a view on the rights of the child to be raised with knowledge of their birth (native) culture, including religious traditions. Apparently, there is considerable discussion of this topic nowadays among those officials responsible for adopted children and their welfare. More generally, how does Judaism view the welfare of adopted children in this regard: their right "by birth" to learn about their native culture, weighed against the adoptive parents' responsibility to raise their children with a sound Jewish education and sense of identity? (Rabbi Fred Morgan, Melbourne, Australia).
Our responsum is based upon two earlier teshuvot: no. 5753.12, "Kaddish for Adoptive and Biological Parents,"1] and no. 5760.8, "Withholding Paternity Information." The former deals with the nature of the parent-child relationship in adoptive families; the latter discusses the responsibility shared by all parents to act in accordance with the best interests of their children.
The term "best interests of the child" does not, of course, originate in Jewish literature. We borrow it from the language of other legal traditions. Yet it is a principle deeply rooted in Jewish law, which posits that along with the child's filial duty to honor and revere the parent (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16; Leviticus 19:3) come a set of obligations owed by parent to child. To insure that these obligations are met, Talmudic law prescribes a number of general rules concerning parental care and custody of children. These rules, however, can be altered or ignored by the rabbinical court (beit din) when it determines that the good of the child demands other arrangements. "The best interests of the child," in other words, serves as a guiding Jewish principle in matters relating to child-rearing and family relationships, and we think it applies quite directly to our case. Whether adopted children enjoy a A right > by birth'" to learn about their native culture, it is certainly arguable that such knowledge will be beneficial or even essential to their psychological welfare. Those who study the growth and development of adopted children report that race and culture play significant roles in identity formation among adoptees whose racial and cultural heritage differs from that of their adoptive parents. While we are in no position to evaluate the scientific literature in this field, much of the data seems to argue that it is important for parents to take active steps to assist their transracial and transcultural adopted children in building a positive appreciation for their ethnic origins. If Judaism teaches us to work toward the "best interests of the child," it stands to reason that our tradition would encourage adoptive parents to help their children learn about their native culture.
Our responsum 5753.12 declares that, according to the best reading of Jewish tradition, adoption creates a real family and a real parent-child relationship. When Jewish parents build their family through adoption, therefore, it is a Jewish family they are building, a family in which the parents teach Torah and bequeath their Jewish heritage and identity to their children. Jewish identity, as we have written on numerous occasions, is religiously exclusive. There is no such thing as a "half-Jew," a person who is simultaneously Jewish and a communicant of another religion; one is either a Jew or a non-Jew. This affirmation is basic to our understanding of Jewish identity and of the task assigned by tradition to all Jewish families, however those families are created. Its implication for our she'elah is clear: Jewish parents who seek to teach their adopted child about the child's native culture must do so in a way that does not compromise the child's perception of Judaism as his or her exclusive religious identity. To put this in the language of the preceding paragraph, the "best interests" of a Jewish child require that he or she be raised as a Jew.
How do parents negotiate these conflicting demands? The idea that Judaism is the child's exclusive religious identity implies, at the very least, that the child should not take part in any of the overtly religious ceremonies and rituals of his or her native culture. This standard, we acknowledge, is somewhat vague, perhaps unavoidably so. Religious elements are woven tightly into the fabric of everyday life in many cultures, so that it is may be impossible to distinguish with absolute clarity their "religious" from their "non-religious" aspects. Indeed, Jewish culture is a prime example of this phenomenon. Still, we can say that "overtly religious" ceremonies include worship services or rituals in which deities other than the God of Israel are invoked, as well as rituals that express theological commitments incompatible with Judaism. The child may learn about these aspects of the native culture but should not participate in them. In addition, the Jewish commitments of the Jewish household take precedence over conflicting claims. For example, the family's observance of Shabbat or holidays should not be altered to accommodate events relating to the child's native culture. Similarly, if the family observes kashrut, they are under no obligation to allow their child to eat non-kosher foods associated with his or her native culture. Following these guidelines, we think, will allow the child to develop a deep and keep appreciation of the native culture while establishing a firm and sure identity as a member of the Jewish people.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.