It's a very important issue and I had actually asked Jewish hierarchy decades ago and got quite a different, less enlightened, answer.
The questioning letter is most ironic and timely coming immediately on the heals of the post suggesting a revision off the Legacy poem, and Mary Anne's humorous addition to that...
Dear Rebbetzin Twerski,
I was adopted. Which mother do I honor?
I have relationships with both mothers, but neither one really treats me like a daughter. My adopted mother has distanced herself from me since I “found” my birth mother, and this was 31 years ago. She had nothing to do with her grandchildren, neither then nor now.
My birth mother tells everyone I am her illegitimate daughter. I love both these women but have often wondered to whom is the honoring to go? For example, if they were both to become ill at the same time and I could only move one into my home, whom do I choose?
The question you raise is a very good one but doesn’t provide enough information for a definitive response. We can, however, discuss Torah criteria as they apply to our responsibilities to a birth mother and an adoptive mother. Clearly, each in their own right warrants respect, care and attention.
It is not clear from your question why your birth mother put you up for adoption. Reasons can range from an “illegitimate” pregnancy to various other factors, i.e., no partner to share the burden, no means of support, too young and inexperienced to health issues, physical, mental and psychological. It might also have been a move in the direction to provide a healthier and more secure environment for her child. The possibilities are endless.
Regardless, the incontrovertible fact is that your birth mother gave you life. To her credit, she did not resort to abortion. The ordeal of pregnancy entails risk, or at the very least, pain and discomfort. Most women would concede that it is well worth the price. But nonetheless, it does exact a price.
It is noteworthy that while we are all familiar with a woman’s natural maternal instincts, the Torah mitzvah to have children is not directed at women; it is a man’s obligation. One of the reasons cited is that since pregnancy and birth involve an element of risk to the woman, the Torah sought not to obligate her; it left it as an optional choice. For men it is a mitzvah; for women it is considered an act of sacrificial loving-kindness.
Additionally, many of the positive qualities and strengths, both physical, mental and psychological, are the result of having been nurtured for nine months in the birth mother’s womb. Another factor to take into account is that according to Torah perspective, there are three partners in the creation of human being: the mother, father and the Almighty. And if nothing else, at the very minimum, we owe parents honor because for a moment at the time of conception, they were partners with God. In honoring them, we honor God.
Therefore, for all of these reasons and many others, your birth mother remains a force in your life that cannot be dismissed. Honor and respect is therefore mandated.
Your adoptive mother did not give you physical life, nonetheless, and perhaps more significantly, she gave you “the art of living.” She raised you on a daily basis and taught you right from wrong. She gave you a roof over your head, a place of belonging. She nursed you through fevers, colds, and sleepless nights. She soothed you when you had nightmares and hugged you when you were frightened by the thunder and lighting. She kissed your skinned knees. She was there. She was with you through all the passages; the high, exhilarating moments and the disappointing lows that inevitably appear during our growing years. And hopefully, along with all that, she gave you love and caring.
The Talmud states that when a person mentors and teaches another person's child values to live by, it is considered as though they had given birth to that child. In support of this perspective, the Jewish Law provides that if a scenario should arise where both the biological parent and the mentor of this given individual were both taken hostage and the child had only enough money to rescue one of them, it would have to be the mentor, rather than the biological parent, (providing the parent had not served in the capacity of a role model). Clearly, there is huge value placed on those who impact our lives morally and spiritually by teaching us and giving us direction and guidance in finding our path.
Adoptive parents who take a child under their wing and provide the tools for living a productive, constructive, decent and ethical life would unquestionably qualify for this category and should be accorded the greatest of deference and respect.
My dear reader, you have an obligation to honor both of these women for their contribution to your life, each in their own way. Honor according to Jewish law mandates seeing to it, to the best of your ability, that their needs are met, i.e. that they have food, clothing, shelter and the wherewithal to get where they need to go.
You mention that your adoptive mother had distanced herself from you since you found your birth mother. There isn’t enough information in your letter to comment intelligently on that situation. However, I would encourage you to attempt to make amends, to repair the relationship. At the very least, send a card every so often to tell her that you are thinking of her and the kindnesses that she extended to you.
Your birth mother has disappointed you by referring to you as “illegitimate: which obviously you cannot take personally as it is no fault of yours. Instead, take pride in the fact that you grew up and made a life for yourself. You have your own family and moreover, you have the moral sensitivity to make inquiries about what the right thing is to do and what your obligations are. Always remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s admonition that “nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” There is absolutely no reason for you to give your consent.
Alternatively, remember that despite all, your birth mother gave you life and you therefore owe her respect. Again, to reiterate, this means that you should make every attempt to see to it that her needs are met. An occasional, caring inquiry by card email or phone, whichever is least painful for you, would be “going the extra mile.”
In the event that both mothers would become ill at the same time, a factor in the equation would be if either had another child who could step up to the plate and thus free you to care for the other one who perhaps has no one else. The question then would be: are you an only child to either one of them? The alternative of taking one of the two into your home is to make arrangements for the other to be cared for in an assisted living situation depending on what their condition requires. Their condition would be another determining factor in which one you could realistically care for in your home.
The bottom line is that anything that you do should be an expression of gratitude for the “gift of life” from your birth mother and the “art of living” from your adoptive mother. I wish you much success!
I wonder what Christian religious leaders in interpreting the fifth commandment to honor thy father and they mother? Would that apply to both a birth and adoptive mother? Would it apply to parent and step parent? I would think so.