This week’s readings discuss in large part how Jewish law, culture, and kinship relations impact the use of assisted reproductive technology in a Jewish society. Sue Kahn, a social anthropologist who specifically focuses on women, explores Israel as her case study, conducting ethnography on various Israeli women to enrich her understand of the relationship between Israelis and reproductive technology. In the introduction to her book, she provides context to the subject, introducing numerous themes, two of which I’d like to focus on at the onset of this blog post. Firstly, she writes about Israeli pronatalism, saying that “the overwhelming desire to create Jewish babies deeply informs the Israeli embrace of reproductive technology” (Kahn 2000, 3). This desire stems from numerous causes including political population concerns as well as the religious sense that reproduction fulfills a God given commandment. This notion of a religious obligation to reproduce is a central theme throughout Kahn as well as the other readings, as this approach is at odds with the Catholic view of a child as a gift that stems from viewing the text as narrative rather than a binding rule book. We will discuss this contrast in further detail shortly.
Kahn introduces another central theme in her introduction: the emphasis on the mother as bearing the main, central role in the reproductive process. Kahn notes that “Israeli Jewish women are left as the primary agents through which the nation can be reproduced as Jewish,” relating directly to the desire to create Jewish babies but also emphasizing that woman are the means to this continuity, as the mother is the medium through which babies are reared (Kahn 2000, 4). One example of the Israeli focus on motherhood is found in Kahn’s discussion of the Nahmani case, which we already began to discuss in class. A married couple elected to begin the preliminary stages of infertility treatment in hopes of successfully yielding embryos. Before they went through with implanting the embryos in the woman, the couple got divorced. The woman wanted to bear children with these embryos, and despite the man’s resistance, the court ruled in her favor, bolstering the woman’s right to a child. Kahn writes that the reason for and implied message of this decision is that “motherhood is the deepest desire of women and should be pursued at all costs” (Kahn 2000, 70). The court allowing the mother to implant these embryos again ties back to the theme of the centrality of women in the reproductive process. These embryos equally belong to the man, who, despite wanting not to father these children, is clearly less of a priority in the eyes of the court than the mother. “I chose life,” said Judge Ya’akov Turkel, not only recognizing the mother’s right to a child but also encouraging more reproduction of Jewish babies (Kahn 2000, 68). The Nahmani case is an important example of how both of Kahn’s main points are deeply related. The Jewish concern with creating Jewish babies and the proper treatment of the mother given that she bears the child are two of the major factors that lend to Israel favoring the use of reproductive technology.
Where does this emphasis on the mother stem from? Judaism is inherited matrilineally, so Jewish heritage is passed down through the mother. Kahn logically points out that “the creation of a Jewish child can only be accomplished via gestation in, and parturition from, a Jewish womb.” (Kahn 2000, 167) Back during biblical and rabbinic times, there was no genetic testing or any way to prove kinship other than viscerally, by witnessing the baby emerge from the mother. Seeing as the baby comes directly from the mother, that is the most foolproof way of confirming heredity. Thus, “the specific identity and origin of sperm is conceptualized as irrelevant to Jewish reproduction” (Kahn 2000, 166). Jewish conceptions of kinship and reproduction does not care necessarily about the identity of the sperm, as the mother passes on her Jewishness to the child. Obviously, some recognition of the father is granted, as boys are referred to by name as the son of their fathers. For example, in Hebrew, I am referred to as “Noah ben Hayim,” Noah, the son of Hayim, my father’s Hebrew name. Another example of a Jewish tradition passed patrilineally is the Cohanic legacy. Yet, the religious status of being Jewish itself is granted through the mother. This total concern for the mother and lack of concern about the identity of the father allows for a cultural the permits and even favors the use of reproductive technology, including sperm donation and IVF, as a means of reproduction, the ultimate Jewish goal. Yet again, we continue to see the theme of centrality of the mother in the extremely significant process of creating Jewish babies. This notion of the lack of a need to identify the origin of the sperm invites us to consider the Jewish view of kinship. We see not only the emphasis on the mother rather than the father in reproduction, but we can also infer a sense of flexibility when it comes to demarcating kin. A mother is a mother so long as she rears the child (according to the Rabbis, this is how Jewish heredity is granted), and while a father is a father if he provides the seed, a baby born to a Jewish mother with sperm donated by a non-Jewish man is considered fatherless according to Jewish law. This very flexible view of kinship allows for reproductive technology to gain traction in Israeli society and ultimately work toward creating as many Jewish babies while working within the confines of Jewish law.
Given this discuss of kinship, I would be remiss not to mention another underlying theme of Kahn’s book. Given the widespread accessibility of assisted reproductive technology in Israel, how does this affect kinship relations in Israel? She poses the question “what will marriage come to mean if it has ceased to be the exclusive locus of legitimate reproduction” (Kahn 2000, 86). While this question is written as a rhetorical one, the resulting views of kinship is certainly a significant ramification of allowing the use of reproductive technology. While it is obvious that the use of reproductive technology invites a change in kinship relations, Kahn writes “the choice of unmarried women to get pregnant via artificial insemination does not threaten to destabilize foundational assumptions about kinship among Jewish Israelis, for these foundational assumptions are grounded in rabbinic notions of kinship that do not delegitimate children born to unmarried women” (Kahn 2000, 62-63). Kahn clearly expresses that the Israeli use of ART does not contradict and is actually in line with the fundamental Jewish understanding of kinship.
I’d now like to return to the question of the Jewish perception and use of ART as opposed to the Catholic one that we discussed last week in our reading of Donum Vitae. The emphasis on motherhood and desire to create Jewish babies is one reason why we see a more willing approach to IVF from Jewish political and religious leaders as opposed to Catholics. Another stems from the notion that “reproduction… [is] not imagined simply as a biological process that creates human beings, it is imagined as a cultural process constitutive of humanity” (Kahn 2000, 168). The Rabbis, who, again, had no concept of science, did not view child rearing as empirically as the Catholics. According to Kahn, rather, it is a more holistic process of raising a human, only a part of which is biological. ART is more permissible to Jews than Catholics because, as opposed to the hardline commitment to the institution of marriage found in Donum Vitae, the Jewish desire to reproduce grants a more flexible conception of kinship than that of the Catholics.
One crucial, fundamental difference between the Jewish view of ART and the Catholic view is their approach to Bible and following the laws. Professor Seeman, in his article about reproductive technology in Israel, writes “unlike Jewish writers, Catholic and Protestant writers who use the Bible tend to focus on what can be derived from narrative rather than legal portions of the biblical text” (Seeman 2010, 348). Here, we see a conflict. The Jews read the text as binding; they must follow the letter of the law. Thus, when it comes to reproductive technology, if there is no law against it, then it is within their system of morals to embrace reproductive technology given that it supports the survivability of the Jewish people by increasing rates of reproduction. Catholics, on the other hand, have a different approach to text. They read the Bible as narrative, and thus prioritize values such as the sacredness of marriage over being flexible when it comes to ART because it does not contradict the letter of the law. As Dr. Seeman writes, “it is precisely the legalistic emphasis on discrete prohibitions that has given Jewish bioethical deliberation so much more flexibility than that derived from narrative based ‘foundational anthropology’ approaches,” highlighting both the tension between Catholic and Jewish readings of the Bible and also the focus on the text as law of the Jewish reading that allows for flexibility when it comes to reproductive technology (Seeman 2010, 349). Given a better understanding of the Jewish approach to scripture, we return to Kahn to add an additional layer of understanding to the Jewish approach to ART, as she says that “reproduction is not conceptualized as a choice in Jewish law, but as an obligation, the infertile couple’s decision to take advantage of the new reproductive technologies does not evolved out of a consumerist impulse but out of a compulsion to fulfill a divine commandment” (Kahn 2000, 170). Last week, we discussed the line from Genesis 1:28 “be fruitful and multiply,” noting that the Jews read this as a commandment while the Catholics read this as more of a general lesson rather than a requirement. The Catholic view of the child as a gift is starkly in contrast with the above quote from. Kahn, who describes reproduction as a religious obligation to the Jews. While a child certainly is a gift for them as well, having a child is also not an option. Jewish parents must do whatever it takes to reproduce, even if it compromises traditional conceptions of marriage or strict boundaries of kinship.
Before I conclude, I will quickly mention Dr. Broyd, who writes an article about the Jewish view of cloning. When discussing the question of who would be considered the mother of a clone, he writes that “the Jewish legal tradition would, in my opinion, be inclined to label the gestational mother (the one who served as an incubator for this cloned individual) as the legal mother of the child, as this woman has most of the apparent indicia of motherhood according to Jewish law” (Broyd 2005, 298). Even given a technology as exciting and controversial as cloning, Dr. Broyd notes that Jewish law gives motherhood status, and thus heredity of the faith, to the woman who bears and delivers the child. This matrilineality directly relates to our analysis of Kahn in our discussion of the focus on women in Israel in considering reproduction.
Kahn develops a strong, holistic argument for how and why reproductive technology is so accessible in Israel. She describes the political and religious conditions and the Jewish conceptions of kinship and reproduction such that Israel embraces these technologies as opposed to some other traditional and religious cultures. I can only appreciate the work that Kahn has produced. While there is certainly a spectrum of varying Jewish opinions on this matter, I believe that Kahn captures very well the essence of the mainstream Jewish views of today.