Unit 4: Kinship and Religious Law

The texts for week four all discuss the issue of reproductive technology for Jews, and more specifically Israeli Jews. “Ethnography Exegesis and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel ” by Don Seeman describes and analyzes the differing ways of interpretation that cause different perspectives on reproductive technology between Jews and Catholics, with France used as a secular comparison. “Modern Reproductive Technologies and Jewish Law” by Michael Broyde gives an outline of legal issues that may exist regarding cloning in Judaism, while Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel by Susan Kahn is an ethnographic study done in Israel on women who use reproductive technology. These three sources offer different analyses on the general topic of reproductive technology in Israel, and, when read together, offer a holistic view of the issue.

“Ethnography Exegesis and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel” aims to reveal the importance of how different cultures interpret things within the reproductive technology debate. France, which is used as a secular comparison in this text, makes decisions that align with what is considered “natural;” as a result, they limit IVF to heterosexual, steril married couples, as historically, and traditonally, this would be representative of a natural family. In contrast, Israel relies heavily on religious texts, which is similar to Catholics. There is a difference between where Jews and Catholics find their answers in religious texts; Catholics tend to find answers in the beginning of Genesis and use narrative to find answers, while Jews often look for legal prohibitions. Furthermore, in the debate around reproductive technology, Jews rely more on Leviticus than Genesis. This difference, in part, can explain how these two religions have very different answers for the question of when and how to use reproductive technology, despite using the same source. Donum Vitae, the accepted doctrine on reproductive technology for Catholics, states that IVF should really only be used if doing IVF with the husband’s sperm. In Israel reproductive technology is used for many different reasons and in multiple different forms; Israel, in fact, is the leading country for IVF. There is a cultural history in Israel that also helps account for this difference in perspective in addition to the legal readings of religious texts. Israel is a pronatalist country and has a large focus on the idea of reproducing its culture due to the history of Jewish persecution. As a result, in order to understand these contrasting viewpoints, it is important to also consider the experiences of different people within different cultures; simply examining how they interpret different texts will not provide the perspective necessary to understand.

“Modern Reproductive Technologies and Jewish Law” by Michael Broyde focuses specifically on the legal issues of cloning within Israel, and within Jewish law. He notes a point of contrast in Jewish belief that dictates this argument: the conflict between wanting to help people, and the belief that everything may not be proper, particularly when related to intercourse. In Israel, decisions about the use of reproductive technology are handled case by case. Therefore, it is logical to assume that if human cloning were to take place, it too would be handled in this way. The specifics of cloning lead to many questions, particularly in relation to kinship. Because a clone would be the exact genetic copy of another person, there is much debate over who the parents of such a child would be. Because Judaism is matrilineal, this becomes increasingly complex because there are debates on who would be considered the mother: the gestational mother, or genetic mother. If the genetic material came from a man, this is simplified, because he would be the father, though there are debates if this would be the case since the child was produced without intercourse. This, of course, points to inequalities between men and women, as in the case of cloning it would be much easier to claim parental rights as a man than as a woman. Furthermore, due to the matrilineal aspect of Judaism, if one mother (gestational or genetic) was not Jewish, this would create many issues in determining the child’s identity. There is also the question of whether a clone would be considered human, and if they may be used in immoral ways; Broyde, by analyzing Jewish law, determines that this individual would be considered fully human. Finally, the issue of cloning opens up a new ethical debate over who has access to someone’s DNA, and the issues of “stealing” someone’s DNA. Because an individual’s DNA could be easily accessed and used for cloning, there would have to be strong legislation in place to protect people and their genetic material, though the extent of this would likely be heavily debated.

Finally, Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel by Susan Kahn offers an ethnographic account of the experience of using reproductive technology in Israel. Kahn’s research spanned two years, and she conducted interviews, attended support groups, conducted participant observation at fertility centers, and interviewed rabbis. She analyzed the decision making process that women go through before using reproductive technology, and found that there were many unmarried women who used reproductive technology in order to have a child. Because reproductive tech is subsidized by the government, Kahn found that all potential mothers have to go through a screening process, which did create some opportunity for discriminiation for lesbian couples. She also examined the relationship between rabbanic law and the secular democracy of Israel in relation to reproductive technology. The Aloni commission, which was a report created by rabbis, legislatures, and fertility experts, stated that unmarried women do have the right to have children, and that these children would exist without that stigma of being “mamzer,” or a bastard child. Furthermore, she expands on the idea that in Israel decisions made about reproductive tech are done on a case by case basis by examining how paternity works in these cases, as it is often up to a rabbi to decide these matters. She also examines how important “purity” is in fertility clinics in order to maintain Jewish identity. Surrogacy is also dealt with, which reveals the complexities involved in Jewish kinship; because it is matrilineal, deciding who the mother is in surrogacy affects the identity of the child. Overall, I thought Kahn was effective in outlying the process of seeking reproductive technology in Israel, and the complex social factors that cause each individual’s decision. Because Israel is a pronatalist, and one of the crux ideas is to “be fruitful and multiply,” many single women seek out this technology to reproduce without stigma.

I found that these three sources really complimented each other, and helped to fill in the gaps apparent in each source. For instance, I thought that while Kahn’s book gave a great description of current reproductive technologies in Israel, Broyde’s analysis on the potential of cloning added a perspective on what could develop in the future. Furthermore, I thought that the framing provided in Seeman’s piece provided context for the interpretations seen both in Broyde and Kahn’s work, while Kahn’s work in particular provided examples of the “lived experiences” that Seeman states is needed to understand this issue. What I found most interesting in these issues was the complicated area of kinship that was discussed. Particularly, the fact that Judaism is matrilineal is especially interesting because this does add complications in terms of reproductive technology because women give birth; in paternal societies, while these issues are still incredibly complex, you do not need to consider the passing down of identity when you assign the label of mother either to the genetic or gestational mother. One critique I have of Broyde and Kahn’s work is there is no cross cultural comparison; while Seeman’s article contributes this, on their own these pieces do not offer these nuanced views. I believe that a comparison would help to create greater understanding of why the decisions around reproductive technology in Israel are unique, and also deepen the explanations of their origins, as you could see the differences that exist in other societies. Finally, I found all three texts to be well organized and easy to read. In particular, I enjoyed how Kahn outlined her book as I thought it gave a logical, sequential description of the process of using reproductive technology in Israel. Furthermore, I enjoyed how each source outlined key questions that related to the issues discussed. This, I thought, was particularly important because it is essential to recognize that not all questions can be answered when dealing with such a complex issue.

Discussion Questions:

  • There are clear issues regarding gender in the debate around reproductive technology. How might changing ideas of gender (i.e. increased gender fluidity) play out in this debate?
  • Why are ideas of kinship so essential in the debate of reproductive technology in Israel? 
  • How does Israel’s pronatalism influence the use of reproductive technology? How is its specific history related, and how (and why) does this contrast with views on reproductive tech seen in Catholicism? Do you think this will change over time?
  • Do you think that human cloning will ever become a viable option? Broyde mentions that the Republican debate around cloning revolves around questions of morality. Could cloning ever become a morally accepted practice?

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