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Honoring Adoptive and Divorced Parents

Does the biblical commandment to honor parents obligate an adopted child to honor his adoptive parents? Should the son of divorced parents maintain relations with both of is parents? Rabbi Eliezer Melamed addresses these and other interesting issues.
Dedicated to the memory of
Asher Ben Haim
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1. The Commandment to Honor Parents
2. The Question of Medical Treatment
3. Marriage and Inheritance
4. Reciting Kaddish for Adoptive Parents
5. Honoring Divorced Parents
6. Honoring Parents Calls for Maintaining Relations
7. Logic and Jewish Law

The Commandment to Honor Parents
Question: Does the biblical commandment to honor parents obligate an adopted child to honor his adoptive parents?
Answer: The biblical obligation to honor one's parents applies only to biological parents, not to adoptive parents (Sota 49a). All the same, there is a moral obligation for him to relate to such parents as biological parents because they treated him like their child. Indeed, the sages teach that "Whoever raises an orphaned boy or girl in his home is viewed by the Torah as if he himself had brought the child into the world (Megila 13a)." In a sense, the moral obligation of the adopted child is even greater than that of a biological child, for there is nothing unusual in the fact that parents care for and raise their own children, but when couples take in and care for orphaned or abandoned children they perform a greater sort of kindness; it therefore follows that the obligation to acknowledge such kindness is much greater. In addition, the Midrash teaches that God possesses treasuries from which he rewards the righteous, and amongst these treasuries there is a special treasury reserved for those who take in and raise orphaned children (Shemot Rabbah 456).

In light of the above it is clear that an adopted child is obligated from a moral perspective to honor his parents in the same manner that a biological child would have to honor his parents. Honoring them any less than this would be very disrespectful.

The Question of Medical Treatment
However, because the adopted child's obligation to honor his adoptive parents is a moral one, he is only bound with regard to moral-based matters. For example, a biological son is forbidden to perform any sort of medical care upon his parents which might call for drawing their blood. And though the son may have pure intentions and may boast a reputation as an expert doctor, such a procedure is nonetheless forbidden. This is because of the severity of the prohibition, for the Torah explicitly states, "If one injures his father or mother [in a way that causes bleeding] he must be put to death" (Exodus 21:15). Even if the parents request of the son to perform such an operation, he must demure. The only exception would be where a parent's life is at stake, or nearly at stake (cf. Shulchan Arukh and Rema, Yoreh Deah 241:3).

An adopted child, however, is not prohibited in this regard, and if his adoptive parents request of him to perform medical treatment up them, and he is capable of carrying out such treatment successfully, he is obligated to do so.

Marriage and Inheritance
According to Jewish law, adoption does not create family relations. Hence, it is permissible for an adopted son to marry his sister, the daughter of his adoptive parents. In contrast, it is forbidden for the adopted son to marry his true sister, the daughter of his biological parents, despite the fact that he may have never even met her previously.

According to Jewish law, when adoptive parents die their adopted child does not become an inheritor to them. The exception would be where such a desire was expressed in the parents' will.

Reciting Kaddish for Adoptive Parents
Question: Should an adopted child recite Kaddish over his adoptive parents?
Answer: By pronouncing Kiddish for them he is fulfilling a commandment. This is true especially where they have no biological children to recite Kaddish for them. For Ashkenazi Jews, however, there was a time when the custom was for only one person to recite Kaddish at a time, and each mourner would have to wait his turn for Kaddish. Under such circumstances, Jewish law authorities debated as to whether or not an adopted son was alloted a turn among the other orphaned mourners. According to Rema (Responsum 118), the adopted child is given a turn among the other mourners; according to Chatam Sofer (Orach Chaim 164), he is not.

Today, though, because the accepted custom is for mourners to recite Kaddish in unison, there is no conflict, and even according to Chatam Sofer the adoptive child says Kaddish with the rest of the bereaved.

Honoring Divorced Parents
Question: I am the son of divorced parents. I was three years old when this separation took place. I grew up with my mother, and only on very rare occasions did I spend time with my father. Regarding my mother I have no qualms. She raised me selflessly and lovingly. All the same, it appears to me that she instilled in me a bit of animosity toward my father and tried to distance me from him. She would often complain that he was late in sending her payments for me and that he did not really care about me. However, from what I could tell on those few occasions that I was together with him, my father was quite ordinary, not so bad, and he worked and supported his family.

Today I am in my thirties. I have not been in contact with my father for a long time. Even when he did call me, our conversations were very short, so I do not even know if he is interested in maintaining relations with me. For myself, I am uncertain. Is it advisable to initiate contact with him? Should I visit him or arrange to meet with him? I should note that if my mother were to discover that I took such a step she would be greatly hurt.

Honoring Parents Calls for Maintaining Relations
You are obligated to maintain relations with your father. The Torah commandment to honor parents calls for treating your father in an honorable manner. Cutting off relations amounts to a complete lack of honor.

True, in special cases, where interaction between father and son always leads to fulminations and intense arguments, maintaining a certain distance is advisable in order to avoid becoming guilty of showing blatant disrespect toward the parents. Yet, even in such a case, complete separation is not permitted.

At any rate, in your case there is absolutely no reason to assume that visits with your father will lead to any sort of serious confrontation. Perhaps your father is actually desires your friendship very much. It may be that his reason for not perusing more serious relations with you is that you and your mother distanced yourselves from; he therefore feels unwanted and fears a negative reaction from you. Perhaps he does not know how to build a relationship. At any rate, by estranging yourself to your father you violate one of the Ten Commandments: the commandment to honor you parents.

Even if your mother explicitly requests that you not make contact with him, it is forbidden for you to heed her request; for, we have been informed by the sages that one is obligated to heed to his parents' request on the condition that it does not involve violating one of the Torah's commandments. If, however, parents ask their son to violate one of the commandments, it is forbidden to fulfill their request.

At the same time, you should do your best to alleviate your mother's worries, informing her that you very much appreciate her great self-sacrifice on your behalf. Explain to her that you are well aware that she raised you and gave her entire life for your sake. Tell her that you lack words to express your feelings toward her, and that you will forever be thankful to her. Explain to her that your desire to establish relations with your father should not be construed as a desire to distance yourself from her. In short, you should go out of your way to appease her.

If you believe that you will not succeed in convincing her, it is permissible for you to conceal your relations with your father. At any rate, even if she is aware of these relations and refuses to come to terms with the fact, you are obliged to build relations with your father and honor him, in accordance with the verse, "Honor your father and mother."

Logic and Jewish Law
Logic too calls for this, for what could be more natural than a healthy relationship between son and father. The relationship of an offspring to his parents is essentially an expression of his relationship with himself, for a person's parents are his own roots and if he cuts himself off from them he has, to a great extent, cut himself off from himself.

How fortunate we are that God has given us the Torah. It paves a path of truth and kindness even in complex situations and allows us to attain fulfillment in both this world and the World to Come.

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