About two-and-a-half years ago, my wife and I sat in a lawyer’s office trying not to think too deeply about the decision we were then making: to seek to adopt a child. As we sat there, listening to the litany of options for how to bring home a stranger’s baby, a joke occurred to me. What is the difference between families today and families a century ago? A century ago, to start a family you’d hire a professional to find you a spouse, and by doing what comes naturally you’d make a baby. Today, to start a family you go about doing what comes naturally in hopes of finding a spouse, and then hire a professional to find you a baby.
About fifteen months later, such a baby came home with us. For fifteen more months, we lived with him as legal guardians, but not as legal parents. And now what has been true in our eyes from the beginning, and in his, is true in the eyes of Kings County and the State of New York: He is legally our son. By a judge’s handshake, I am made the boy’s father.
Our lawyer told us that usually in couples seeking to adopt, it’s the wife who is eager and pushing and the husband who is aloof and anxious. That’s certainly in accord with the nostrums of evolutionary psychology; we men are supposed to dread spending our precious resources raising another man’s child. But it wasn’t that way with us. I was the one who rushed to the phone every time we got a call that might be “the call.” I knew I wanted to be a father, and this looked like the way it was going to happen, if it was going to happen at all.
I say I wanted to be a father, but that doesn’t quite capture it. I have very nearly made an idol of fatherhood, and worshiped it. In this, I think I am only in tune with the times. My ancestors worshiped the empty space above the cherubic throne, and so it seems entirely fitting to me to worship an absence—above all in this age of fatherlessness.
I am not the first to build such an idol. There is a passage from Joyce’s Ulysses upon which I have increasingly meditated. “Fatherhood,” Stephen Daedalus declares, “in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man.”
It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the Madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the Church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro- and microcosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood. Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life. Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?
For me, of course, paternity is quite literally a legal fiction. Joyce appears to be talking about the uncertainty of fatherhood—who knows, absolutely, that he is the father?—but that’s not what I take from this passage. Incertitude, unlikelihood: The point is not that we don’t know for sure but that another man might be father; the point is that fatherhood is not a gnosis, but an act of faith, a willingness to believe that this separate being is of ourselves when we never carried it.
My will to believe, though, is not an act of law. Customs vary with respect to adoption. In ancient Egypt, if a property owner had no heir, he might go into the slave market and purchase a young boy, and raise him as his son. There is an echo of this practice in Abraham’s lament to God (Genesis 15:2) that, seeing as he had no children, his servant, Eliezer, would inherit his property. And in a far stronger echo, when the God of Israel says to Moses, “I will take you [Israel] to Myself as a nation, and I will be to you as a God” (Exodus 6:7), the text is using the formula for an Egyptian adoption. God is, effectively, purchasing Israel in the slave markets of Egypt and adopting it as a son.
Adoption was also a Roman custom, and it worked in like fashion: if a man had no heirs, he could buy one in a slave market. And if a noble or ruler wished to pass on his property and title to a nonlineal descendant, he would adopt the chosen heir as a son (as Julius Caesar did to Octavius, for example).
But adoption is not universally known. In British common law, for example, title can pass only to an heir of blood, not an adoptee. If you are the twenty-third baronet of Mortshire, you cannot pass your baronetcy to the street urchin you took in thirty years ago and raised as if he were your son. Rather, if you have no legitimate descendants, the title will pass to the nearest heir through the line of your younger brother.
So, too, in Israel, where, as a formal legal matter, there is no concept of adoption. It is, of course, an enormous act of chesed , of loving-kindness, to raise another man’s child as if it were one’s own. And, according to the Talmud, the child is obligated to regard you as a parent, to obey you and respect you as such and mourn you as such upon your passing, and is to be referred to in public as your child—all because you provided for his or her education and well-being. But you do not, by your deed of righteousness, make the child your own as a matter of law. If a cohen (priest) raises a boy as his son, the boy will not have the privileges nor the constraints of the priesthood. The inheritance of blood cannot be altered by an act of man.
The closest Judaism comes to a notion of adoption, or to its ceremonies, is the conversion ceremony, whereby an individual (including a child or even an infant) is effectively adopted by the entire Jewish people (and by God), and is, in the eyes of the law, literally transformed into a Jew. But this is not really an act of man. With the immersion in the mikvah, the child’s status is transformed by God. And, should the child repent of the conversion when he or she is of age, the reversion to another faith is not considered apostasy; it is as if the conversion never occurred.
I’m of two minds about all this. On the one hand, I believe, absolutely, that I now have a son. He knows no other father (and no other mother but my wife). I have no other children, but if I did, I cannot imagine treating them differently. The notion that I am doing a deed of kindness to a stranger is not what I feel; I feel him, unequivocally, to be my own son.
And yet I appreciate something about the fact that Judaism will not give me the power to make this a fact rather than a fiction. It is no accident, I think, that both in Egypt and in Rome adoption was linked to slavery. There is no more essential tie than that of blood, and no more terrible crime in slavery than the alienation of blood from blood, the sundering of parents from their children. The power of an Egyptian or Roman slave owner to purchase a child and raise him to the level of himself is, in a way, god-like. It is a power that no man should have over another man. And there is a little part of me that worries about any law, however founded on our sovereign freedom, that would arrogate to itself the authority to create fathers and mothers of paper.
So I return to Joyce and my idolatry of fatherhood. Am I so different from other fathers? Are any of us more than legal fictions? Aeschylus has Apollo outrageously argue (as part of his defense of Orestes) that motherhood is a fiction; that wombs are but the soil in which fathers plant the seed (and therefore matricide is really a garden-variety murder, not an incestuous killing). But he’s arguing before Athena, a motherless judge, so perhaps it’s understandable that such a lunatic assertion could be persuasive to her. To us, this is madness, and Joyce’s formulation fitter. Mothers know. Fathers believe. Does that make us less? Perhaps. But perhaps it also makes us more.
I know I am a fiction. And never has a happier fiction walked the earth. Let God retain the power of making men and women, and of making mothers and fathers. For myself, I rest content that, at the end of God’s afternoon of matchmaking, just before He breaks off work to play with His pet Leviathan, He takes a few moments to make matches of our own odd kind, joining lost children to their true fictive fathers, and mothers.
Noah Millman is an investment banker who lives in Brooklyn.