Unit Three: Kinship and Religious Law

Hi everyone! I’ve never written a Scholarblog before, so hopefully this actually posts! This Tuesday’s readings concern the implementation of reproductive technologies, like IVF and sperm donation, and the religious reception of said technologies. Our first reading is several chapters from Sue Kahn’s book Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel, and the second, written by our own Dr. Seeman, is “Ethnography, Exegesis and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel” in Kin, Gene, Community: Reproductive Technologies Among Jewish Israelis.

Sue Kahn is an ethnographer who, as a Jewish, Lesbian, and unmarried woman, is able to relate to some aspects of her study. She, along with many of the women she interviewed over the course of her two years researching in Israel, decided to go through with IVF treatments. Many of these interviews are featured in the first chapter, “A New Continuum of Israeli Conception.” According to Kahn, the purpose of this chapter is to “delineate eight stages that help conceptualize unmarried women’s experiences of artificial insemination and autonomous motherhood in Israel,” the stages serving as “a heuristic device to make literal a new process through which Jews are reproduced in Israel” (Kahn 11). Through these steps, we learn about the difficult social experiences that unmarried Israeli women go through before, during, and after they give birth via reproductive technologies. There is a stigma surrounding single motherhood and artificial insemination, especially within religious communities. Although halachah, or Jewish law described in the Talmud, does not ban artificial insemination, Rabbis still believe that the nuclear family is core to Jewish life. 

Nevertheless, Israel has become a center for implementation of new reproductive technologies because the government actively promotes these practices by including them in their socialized medical plans. Israel’s pro-natalist stance is due in large part to its ties with Judaism, which is the country’s official religion. Besides the biblical command to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ the decimation of a significant portion of the Jewish population during the Holocaust is another factor influencing Jews’ desires to have children. An aunt of mine lives in one of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities, and she already has five sons at the age of 32. She and many of her peers see reproduction as a duty. Israel also financially supports reproduction because more citizens means more strength and stability against other bigger foreign powers with whom they have conflict. These pro-natalist ideologies are the reason Ruti Nahmani won her legal battle that Kahn outlines in her second chapter, “The Legislation of Reproduction and the “Issue” of Unmarried Women.” In the early-mid 1990s, Ruti wanted to use her ex-husband’s frozen sperm to go through with IVF treatments after they divorced, and her ex-husband opposed the idea. The highest court ultimately ruled in her favor because the state of Israel, which is so entwined with the pulse of the Jewish people, prioritized her right to be a mother. 

Jewish motherhood is not only prioritized as a cultural experience and religious imperative, but as a biological, halachic requirement. In Judaism, a child is only a Jew if the mother is Jewish. If the mother was not born Jewish, she must convert if she wants her children to be Jewish (I know this because if my mother had not gone through Orthodox conversion prior to my sister’s and my births, my extended family would almost certainly have shunned my dad). When we consider reproductive strategies like surrogacy in Israel, halachic problems arise regarding the ova. Kahn notes in her fourth chapter that “ova were not thought to exist in the traditional rabbinic imagination,” therefore an “interpretive dilemma” arises amongst rabbis (Kahn 129). Is the woman who provided the egg the mother? Is the woman who actually gave birth to the child the mother? There is no clear answer. But it is clear that Israel’s reproductive technologies, although an avenue for maternal autonomy, are deeply connected to the government’s inherently Jewish agenda. 

Since Jewish law influences Israeli law, Dr. Seeman recognizes its significance in how Israel regulates reproductive technologies. Dr. Seeman’s article helps us understand the nature, so to speak, of how religious texts relate to the ethical conceptions of these technologies. Of course, religions have different approaches when determining what is natural, normal, and allowed, even if they derive these differences from the same text. Jews and Christians share the Old Testament, which is the five books of the Jewish torah. An important interpretive distinction is that Jewish writers focus on “legal portions of the biblical text,” while “Catholic and Protestant writers who use the bible tend to focus on what can be derived from narrative” (Seeman 348). This contrast explains why Israel’s stance, informed by Jewish law, is more flexible than any informed by the Church elsewhere. To paraphrase Dr. Seeman, it is difficult to rule out any strategies that halachah does not explicitly prohibit, while the Church’s subjective approach creates more restrictions. 

Dr. Seeman writes about how to improve anthropology’s intervention in religious bioethics. While he emphasizes the importance of acknowledging differing interpretations of biblical texts in the conceptualization of ethics, he equally promotes ethnographically analyzing how said interpretations are employed in “local moral worlds” (Seeman 350). In Israel, “[o]rthodox rabbis, state planners, public health experts, and advocates for single or lesbian women” all have a stake in the reproductive technology debate (Seeman 356). Whether they are techno-optimists, pessimists, or skeptics, they have separate experiences informing their opinions, impacting their decisions, and influencing their emotions. Communities, kinship, and individuals interact in complex ways that are not reducible to factors statistical analysis considers. 


  1. This was a very thoughtful post! I really appreciate the personal sentiments you provided mentioning some of the ideas related to motherhood among women in your community. Something that really stood out to me is the impact that faith has on the development and practice of pro-natalist policies. Jewish law and Israeli law both work similarly to support childbearing and override other cultural, religious, and social hierarchies like the patriarch for example to favor Jewish reproduction especially when people are faced with unconventional fertility situations. Since kinship relationships are reimagined through the introduction of reproductive technologies like IVF, I wonder who actually enforces the maintenance of these vital relationships between parents and their offspring whether naturally produced or alternatively conceived? Beyond the nuclear family, what are some of the complexities that exist among extended family members and chosen family members like close friends? Additionally, many people of the Jewish faith understand the process of reproduction to be ordained by God as a blessing being that it is one of the first commandments. To what extent may a parents’ interpretation of the biblical text influence the sense of urgency to practically fulfill this divine order? As culture is expected to change overtime, what other factors other than the extensive research, wide availability, and complimentary cost of reproductive tech motivates people to increase the Israeli birth rate and how do such influence affect the perception of those engaged in family planning methods?

  2. Thank you for writing the first blog! It flows well and is neatly structured. While reading your post, I noticed that although the reading largely highlights the difficulties unmarried Israeli women going through IVF experienced, it also mentions the often unexpected support from the unmarried Israeli women’s family, especially after the birth of the child. This further emphasizes Israel’s pronatalist culture and the value of motherhood and reproduction–it’s a quintessential part of female joy and identity. In your blog post, you wrote about how Jewish law influences Israeli law, which led to regulations like the strict monitoring of fertility procedures by maschgichot to make sure that sperm samples do not mix, but it is also interesting to see the “unusual alliance” between the two legal systems in supporting reproduction, supporting the idea that any birth is considered inherently good (Kahn 85). While the reading focused on the experiences of secular or less religious/traditional Israeli women, the experiences of ultraorthodox women raise interesting moral questions. For example,
    fertilization procedures can cause uterine bleeding, which renders the woman a “niddah” who is religiously considered unclean to conceive children, and this forbids the woman to receive embryo transfer two days later (Kahn 120). The question is, then, to what extent should a doctor be honest to a patient who greatly desires a child, and how flexible should a rabbi be with the laws of niddah? Does the importance of motherhood outweigh the strict observation of traditional Halakhic ideas?
    Finally, you brought up the point that because Jews focus more on the legal portions of the Bible than Christians, they are more flexible on reproductive technologies. In Dr. Seeman’s article, I noticed that he describes a case where Jewish members of the President’s Council on Bioethics in the U.S. did not support the ban of human cloning technologies because they do not violate the Jewish law’s values and understanding of what it means to be human. This makes me wonder: to what extent can something be morally disturbing but legal, or morally sound but illegal, and what are some examples?

  3. Pro- Natilism is a concept that I feel can be broadened to include not only laws and regulations, but also social obligations and cues. In many African societies, although many follow the Christianity and Islamic faith, there are not many laws about reproductive rights or pro-natalist laws. I predict this is because the cultural narrative in these societies suggests that pro-natalist ideals are an expectation and not really a “right”. This would make sense as Israel is more developed than its middle-eastern neighbors. However, I do wonder besides financial assistance and nurturing sympathies, what does Israel provide to assist in motherhood. For developing African and Middle-Eastern societies it is customary for the wife to have assistance from the mother and law and other family and friends to rear the child. In my summation, Israeli society is more progressive to the point of accepting same-sex couples thus I presume single-parent homes are justified as well. How accommodating is Israeli society to single mothers or fathers? Is it something that is still taboo, and relegated towards discrimination and poorer life outcomes? I wonder how this intersects with IVF and alternative means of birth? Is there a cultural hierarchy of what is more acceptable? Are single mothers with natural-born children seen differently than single mothers who chose IVF? Khan’s ideas surround reproductive technologies give a glance into a world where increased control and optionality are cultural ideals, however, I wonder that those ideal changes affect how we view taboos in our hierarchical societies.

  4. Hi Willie,
    Thank you for being the first to write a scholarblog! I thought you approached this topic well and I appreciate your additional insight into the prioritization of Jewish motherhood. I have not had significant exposure to Jewish studies, so I was interested to learn about Jewish motherhood as a halachic requirement. While, on one hand I understand placing the importance of reproduction with the mother, due to the intimate connection between mother and child—after all, the child biologically cannot survive without the mother. However, it makes me wonder that in a religious context, does Judaism also derive this responsibility of the mother from religious texts? Or, is this female responsibility simply a result of applying biblical commands to a cultural context? While both options are entirely valid and understandable, it would be interesting to see further reference towards this “commandment” towards women.
    Additionally, in your summary of the Nahmani case, I particularly enjoyed how you referenced the intertwining of the state and each mother’s reproductive matters. Kahn discusses this alteration of the typical kinship dynamic by mentioning, “As soon as the sate gets involved in controlling access to conception, it assumes a paternalistic role, both literally and figuratively” (Kahn 29). I wonder, as the state obtains the role of father to retain the nuclear family, how does this continue to impact family dynamics? Is this paternalistic role severed once the child is born? Or are there still state regulations that maintain oversight for the mother and child?

  5. Willie, thanks for the well-written piece. From class discussion, and the readings for this unit, we learned that the Israeli government will sometimes give money to women who have children as a means of support. This makes sense given the pro-natal ideologies you mentioned in your post. But, receiving money for the birth of a child is hardly enough to cover all the expenses necessary to support one for its entire life. Like others who have commented before me, I also wonder how far Jewish pro-natal ideologies will go to support women and their children. It is one thing to side with a woman who desires to use her ex-husband’s sperm to bear a child. But what about two women who want to raise a child together? Or what happens in the case of a woman who is a surrogate, but is not Jewish? Is that allowed? The boundaries of pro-natal ideologies are blurry and I am curious about how far they would go to support the mother of a child, and women who want to be mothers but are denied that in the contexts of other cultures.

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