With a unique ‘inside, outsider’ perspective lens, Susan Martha Kahn explores the connection between rabbinic beliefs about kinship and reproductive technologies in the context of an overarching Rabbinic kinship cosmology. Through ethnographic study conducted in IVF clinics, hospitals, and support groups for unmarried women in Jerusalem, Kahn delves into the overlap between the secular and religious uses of reproductive technologies (ovum donation, artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization) and examines how rabbinic kinship beliefs paved the way for unmarried Jewish women to make use of these technologies. Furthermore, she examines the legal discourse that depicts Jewish women’s bodies as reproductive resources to warrant the use of these technologies (Kahn 2).
Through interviews and participant observation Kahn explores the dominant Jewish Israeli view on IVF practices. Reproductive technologies are allowed and even encouraged as a means of furthering the Jewish bloodline and realizing God’s command to multiply. Reproduction is an “imperative religious duty,” sanctioned by the very specific economic, political, social, and historical contexts that have given rise to the use of new reproductive technologies as a way to satisfy that duty (Kahn 3). Kahn captures this overarching sentiment through her interviews, “If you’re not a mother, you don’t exist in Israeli society” (9), as stated by a social worker at a fertility clinic in Jerusalem. I personally felt the language surrounding this supposed “duty of woman” to be a bit reductive. It seems the legislation and general attitude toward these Jewish Israeli women reduces them to their baseline femininity, minimizing them to their reproductive capacities. As a non-practicing Jewish-American unmarried woman, Kahn has a unique outsider and insider perspective that allows her to conduct her ethnography from a removed yet group-accepted stance. Nonetheless, she may be subject to some semblance of personal biases, as the societal expectations she faces (or rather, does not face) as an American non-practicing Jew, vary greatly in comparison to her devout Jewish Israeli counterparts.
With our class last week in mind, in which we explored the two Genesis creation stories presented in the Hebrew English Tanakh, it must be noted that the commandment to multiply isn’t actually presented as a commandment. Interestingly, justification for the usage of reproductive practices in Israel are founded on the basis of this (supposed) command. Given that most Israelis communicate in Hebrew, one would assume the Israeli Jews featured in this ethnographical study have read the direct Hebraic version. In the first book of Genesis, “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it” (Genesis 1.14 line 28 as cited in the Hebrew English Tanakh). Here, this excerpt states that man and woman receive the ability to procreate as a blessing, rather than an obligatory command.
Throughout Kahn’s ethnographical account, a hierarchical ordering of values is present: the need to follow the command to reproduce outweighs the social value of maintaining a normative, nuclear household. Kahn states, “…unmarried Israeli women who have conceived children via artificial insemination can be understood to preserve the honor and prestige of the traditional family at the same time that they comply with the dominant ideology of the family as the center of social life”(45). It seems here that the traditional family style- consisting of two biological parents- is ranked as not as important when considering ideals to strive for, so long as an unmarried Jewish woman is making use of her reproductive capacities in an effort to further the Jewish population and fulfill that specific duty as procreator.
When faced with the topic of reproductive technologies, Michael J. Broyde employs a case-by-case evaluative approach, modeled after the same approach emphasized by those who follow Jewish law, halakhah. While evaluating the case of cloning, Broyde references a duality often found in Jewish thought: on one hand, an obligation for individuals to help those in need, coupled with the command to reproduce, encourages the use of reproductive technologies to reach that end goal of reproduction. However, Jewish law also warns of the “slippery slope” people encounter when they attempt to medal in things out of their scope, as some things are better left in God’s hands. It is worth noting that both Broyde and Kahn reference a moral imperative to reproduce as a core justification often employed to warrant use of reproductive technologies. After a series of analyses regarding cloning, Broyde reaches the bottom-line conclusion that within the Jewish faith, cloning is ultimately a form of “assisted reproduction” (Broyde 296), situated in the same category as other reproductive interventions such as artificial insemination or surrogacy. Cloning is a permissible reproductive interventionist approach, save for the few cases in which a rabbi may override its usage. As seen in the Kahn reading, it appears that the Jewish moral imperative of reproduction trumps controversy regarding reproductive technologies, justified by the Jewish commandment to multiply. Broyde’s discussion of cloning, as viewed by halakhic law, adds to Kahn’s ethnography by detailing verdicts on specific nuanced circumstances in which parenthood may come into question. I found the discussion on gestational mothers (Broyde 316) particularly interesting, as Jewish law would consider the woman who births a child as the proper mother, despite a genetic difference (in the case of surrogacy).
Don Seeman highlights the need to add cultural contexts into the discussion on reproductive technologies. While examining whether a new medical technology is deemed ethical or not, one must closely consider the context in which interpretation occurs, referred to as a “hermeneutic strategy” (Seeman 342). In order to examine how different communities respond to the question of these technologies, we must consider the interpretative variance between communities (Seeman 340), cultural nuance, and lived experience (Seeman 357).
I found Seeman’s discussion of what is “natural” as a foundation to secular law as quite thought provoking. “Natural” as a foundation to law, in the case of France (amongst other nations), invokes the question of the natural as a secular idea. Perhaps, what is envisioned as natural is simply playing off of biblical notions of the “natural” family unit (heterosexual couple and their children) and may not actually be “natural” to us. In line with this thinking, I pose the question: what is truly natural about this nuclear family unit?
The theme of birth mothers as true mothers appears in this text well, similar to the discussion explored in Broyde’s text. Jewish law “…makes no provision for the formal transference of maternal identity from a birth mother to another woman-the birth mother remains the mother for many halachic purposes no matter who may raise the child…” (Seeman 342). However, it seems there is example of a biblical instance in which pseudo-surrogacy is employed in Genesis 16, yet the child produced does not end up belonging to the gestational mother. Here, Seeman highlights the variance in hermeneutic interpretation of a biblical passage, as many scholars of Jewish thought have chosen to selectively ignore this passage, as they feel halakhic law supersedes this biblical account.
Seeman’s inclusion of this passage from Genesis 16 serves as a means of elucidating the widespread, age old preoccupation with reproduction and reproductive technologies, present in a myriad of cultural contexts. Responses and preoccupations with reproductive technologies can only be understood within the distinct social context in which these issues arise. Often the question of kinship- which is regarded differently in each culture- plays a significant role in how reproductive technologies are employed or disregarded. Ultimately, answers to the question of reproductive technologies are inextricably tethered to social reproduction, not simply biological, contrary to beliefs Western minded individuals may assume because we typically rely on biology/bloodlines as a means of determining kinship.