King Solomon’s Knife

A Midrash about Adoption

If I followed only the news reports, I’d be terribly confused about adoption. One morning I wake to applause: children’s advocates and social agencies are cheering President Clinton’s embrace of legislation that will ease legal obstacles to adoption.

A few days later, though, the climate seems to darken with a front page headline that blares, “Hands Off Our Babies, a Georgian Tells America.” In a categorical condemnation of international adoption, Nanuli Shevardnaze, the wife of Georgian Republic President Eduard Shevardnaze, declares “Our nation’s gene pool is being depleted.” And if the children don’t find homes in then country of origin? “All the Georgian people are suffering hardships,” The New York Times quotes her as saying. “Let our children suffer, too.”

That same day, in the letters column of another publication, I come across a chillingly similar argument, that it would be better for a child not to be born than to be adopted and raised by non-biological parents.

Do you hear the same echo I do, of generals declaring that in order to save the village we must destroy it? To clear my head of this refrain, I open a popular women’s magazine only to discover a feature story that revisits a heartrending custody battle pitting adoptive parents and biological parents against each other. Eventually, “Baby Richard,” as court papers call him, is wrenched from the adoptive family that has reared him from the age of four days until the age of four years, and transferred to the legal custody of his biological mother and father. Although the biological parents evidently at first promise to allow visits from the adoptive parents, they in fact deny them.

And now the biological father who fought so many legal baffles to claim his son separates from his wife, leaving the child with her. Not only does “Baby Richard” lose contact with his adoptive family; to judge by the large number of men who drift away from and often lose touch altogether with the offspring of ex-wives, he loses a third parent, too.

Flip through my file marked “Adoption,” and you’ll find an old-fashioned Chinese restaurant menu of opinion that invites you to choose from Column A (adoption is good), Column B (adoption is bad), or Column C (adoption is controversial and provocative). According to your taste, you can mix and match the following: a fractious court battle over whether or not gay couples have the legal right to adopt a child; a positive profile of the loving single mother who has adopted kids from around the world; the horrifying crime that happens to have been committed by a child who was adopted; a celebratory profile highlighting the fact that a particular computer genius was adopted, or that a popular actress is a devoted adoptive parent; a shocking news report that a well-known personage has been accused of molesting an adopted child; the curious coincidence of an adopted son and his biological father finding each other while working at the very same construction site.

With so many mixed messages assaulting us, how can we be anything but confused about adoption?

Still, as the mother of a delightful eight-year-old son whom my husband and I adopted from Korea when he was seven months old, I shake my head and wonder: Why does the choice to form a family by adoption incite so much passion, provocation, and titillation?

Perhaps it’s only my own history, as someone who suffered two pregnancy losses and explored various infertility treatments before deciding to adopt, that has forced me not only to ask the question, but to confront the answer. It’s that adoption dramatizes, as perhaps nothing else can, our deepest questions and concerns about how parents, children, and siblings become, and remain, connected to each other, as a family.

Are we tied together by blood, or do we bond to each other through mutual affection? Is the “real” parent the one linked by a genetic code, or the one who provides nurturance and care? (The last time I checked, both kinds had to be real, not virtual.)

It’s as if we remain caught in time—specifically, in the time of King Solomon who, in his wisdom, threatened to cut a baby in half as a means of determining the “real” mother among two women, each of whom claimed the child was hers. Both women had given birth, but only one child had lived, and one woman must mourn her loss while the other celebrates. Only the authentic mother, Solomon perceived, would nobly offer to save her child’s life by yielding to the other woman the privilege of being a parent.

With a sharp blade held in the balance, the Solomonic test leaves no room for doubt or compromise; biology is parenthood. And so the adoption wars, from Solomon’s day to our day, have been tinged not only by the argument of blood but by the threat of blood.

To me, though, this has always been a blatantly misogynistic tale which, in the Biblical telling of it, manages to celebrate the “good” biological mother only at the expense of demonizing the “bad” would-be adoptive mother. Even if you argue (as I did recently with a religious school teacher) that you could reverse roles, with the “real” mother quite plausibly being the adoptive mother, you would still be pitting woman against woman, one “type” of mother against another “class” of mother, moral exoneration against an implicit moral condemnation.

That, as I say, is the Solomonic version of the story. It’s the interpretation that leads to Nanuli Shevardnaze’s declaration that, “All the Georgian people are suffering hardships. Let our children suffer, too.”

It’s a punishing, divisive vision, an unworthy legacy of the supposedly wise King Solomon. And the only way to counter it, I’m convinced, is for the wise women of our day to transform this tale into a healing one.

Naturally, this version (told by women for women) would start long before the women got to the royal courtroom—then, as now, a place arrived at only when all attempts at reconciliation have passed.

Instead, why not begin with the real drama, at the birthing rooms themselves and the pallets upon which these women, sweaty and worn and yet also elated from the pain of their labor, lie and listen for the first cries of their first born children.

But only one woman hears the cry. From the other bed, silence.

Imagine the mother of that stillborn child. A child born still. A child who died even as he was being born. And a mother who has known the labor but not the pleasure of motherhood. Where is the solace for her empty arms? She turns and sees her neighbor suckling her newborn; her own milk-heavy breasts ache with the knowledge that for her there will be no release. She inwardly curses her neighbor and accuses God; rage and envy now replace the tender love she would have bestowed on her child. Madness seizes her, or rather a mad thought: she will seize the other woman’s baby and claim it as her own. Every time the live baby gurgles, moans, burps—with her mother all the while dozing lightly beside her—the stillborn’s mother is filled with new longing, new madness.

Now, she thinks, now I’ll switch the babies. But as the one mother leans over the other, something interesting happens. The newborn’s mother opens her eyes; she has not been sleeping at all. The two women lock glances, and each one sees in the other not an enemy but a reflection of her own dreams and her own fears. Haltingly, they begin to talk.

It turns out that the newborn girl’s mother isn’t married; their parents have thrown her out; she has no means to care for herself or her child; she does not know what to do.

Nor, at first, does the stillborn’s mother. Why should she care about this other woman’s dilemma when her own heart is so bitter and empty? She even begins to tell her this, when a sudden thought stops her cold. Didn’t they share the pain of childbirth? Didn’t they also share a sense of loss—one the death of her child, the other the death of a dream in terms of how she will raise her child. Would it be possible that they could in some way share the responsibility of bringing up that child? Through adoption? An “open” adoption, in which secrets about the child’s biological heritage would not be maintained but contact with both sets of parents would. Couldn’t they both share in the love of this little child, so that both mothers could proudly agree that each one was as “real” a mother as the other?

To whom does a child ultimately “belong” anyway, except to herself or himself? Emotion should bind us to our children, not blind us with narcissistic, self-reflecting images of ourselves. The more caring adults there are to love a baby, the more secure she’ll feel; the fewer adults there are fighting over her, threatening literally—as well as figuratively—to cut her in two with the sword of Solomon, the more rooted and secure she’ll also feel.

Surely, if we can decide on this in principle, the mothers say to each other, surely the details will work themselves out. Solomon’s sword will be stayed. We cannot resurrect the dead child (or all the unborn children of women unable through infertility or other reasons to give birth), but let us focus on the living. That baby will continue to live, even thrive. And so will both mothers thrive, for they will be bound together by this baby’s future instead of being torn by mutual anger into a dysfunctional family of enemies.

And thus is born a wonderful new parable. About adoption, yes. But beyond that, about how all families come into being: possibly but not necessarily by blood; yet always of the heart’s necessity, through a sense of mutual connectedness and care. For all the families to which we come to belong in life—biological, adoptive, through marriage, love, friendship, work, collegiality, community, and more—enrich our lives with our sense of who we are, can be, or wish to be.

Clearly, it’s long past time to retire the Sword of Solomon. From the start, it was too blunt an instrument, cutting into two our future and thus the past and present we all must share. How we replace this sword is up to us. If swords can indeed become ploughshares, then surely out of our confusion can come the healing and connection that all families need—however they come into being.

Diane Cole’s most recent book is a memoir, After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.

Non-Jewish Adopted Kids and Their Jewish Rights

by Michele Kriegman

  • If the birth mother is Jewish, the child is considered Jewish. If the birth mother is Gentile, the child can be converted to Judaism.
  • About conversion: Conservative and Orthodox rabbis tend to perform a two-step conversion with circumcision for boys and immersion in a mikvah for both boys and girls. Because the infant is too young to give informed consent, girls at age 12 and boys at age 13 can annul a conversion. By the same token, they can reconfirm it then, too, but through most of childhood theirs may be viewed as an “incomplete” conversion and they may see themselves as “incomplete” Jews. The Reform interpretation is that membership in the Jewish community nowadays is voluntary anyway so there is no point in a formal confirmation at the time of bar or bat mitzvah. The Reform Rabbi’s Manual emphasizes the obligation of adoptive parents to provide substantive Jewish education after conversion so their child will have an attachment to the Jewish people.
  • One discrimination between adopted and biological children involves the transmission of priestly status. Being a Kohen or Levi (which often means no more than who is accorded which synagogue honors at a worship service) is transmitted exclusively through the birth father. Even if an adopted child is raised by Kohen or Levi parents, he does not inherit the right to recite the priestly blessing or other public privileges.
  • All branches of Judaism, when a person’s Hebrew name is recited, refer to the converted-adopted child as “ben/bat adoptive parent’s name” in keeping with the ideal that an adoptee be treated as the child of his parents, rather than using the terms “ben Avraham” (son of Abraham) or “bat Sarah” (daughter of Sarah) that are usually used by converts.
  • Judaism is not supposed to discriminate between children who join the community by birth and those who join by adoption and conversion. This view is based on Moses’ relationship with his adoptive mother (Pharaoh’s daughter), and between Naomi and her grandchild by Ruth. The Talmud concludes that “whoever rears an orphan in his house is considered as if he had begotten that child.”

Some Resources on Adoption

by Michele Kriegman

Jewish Children’s Adoption Network
Stephen and Vicki Krausz
Post Office Box 16544
Denver, CO 80216
(303) 573-8113

Jewish Family Services
There are local chapters offering adoption services around the country. Please check your local phone book or call the Networking Adoption Program for regional information.

Stars of David, Jewish Adoption Network
Ilene Schwartz, national president
2 Wenonah Avenue
Rockaway, NJ 07866
(973) 627-7752
Susan Katz, national chapter coordinator
(800) STAR-349

Karen Rispoli
Licensed Clinical Social Worker; Founder, former coordinator, Adoption Resource Center for the Jewish Family Services of Southern Middlesex County
3186 Highway 27
Kendall Park, NJ 08824
(732) 297-0011 or (732) 940-6117

Networking Adoption Program
Jewish Child Care Association
Kathy Ann Brodsky, director
120 Wall St.
New York, NY 10005
(212) 303-4722