The overlap of Judaism and Christianity begin from their sharing of the same holy text: the Old Testament. Interestingly, while the two religions use the same scribe as the basis of their respective faiths, they differ vastly in their understandings and analyses of the book. While the Jews claim significance in the disparate, explicitly written commandments of the Bible, the Christians extrapolate from their interpretations of the narratives in the text. This contrast leads to two distinct belief systems that monitor modern biomedicine and assisted reproductive technology (ART) in starkly dissimilar ways. I will explore Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, to display the different interpretations from both religions and their definitions of kinship and human reproduction.
Genesis 1 tells the story of the beginning of life – as God created the world, He made man and woman, blessing them to “be fruitful and multiply.” The Jewish take this commandment literally – they believe that this is an obligation given to males, and, with the new opportunities provided by reproductive technology, even infertile couples have a chance at fulfilling this mandate. Thus, Israelis have eagerly accepted IVF as a method of procreation, and in fact, every Israeli is allowed unlimited trials at IVF before the birth of two children. The clinics, in which IVF takes place, are rampant in Israel, the most concentrated per capita than any other country, and they are described to be very personal settings, with transparency between the donors and acceptors. Homosexual couples are also accepted to perform IVF because marital status is unquestioned, which leads to their status of being parents to trump that of their sexualities.
This has led to a new definition for a Jewish family – not one consisting merely of heterosexual birth parents and children, but a term called fictive kinship, or the lack of association with genetic relationship and kin. According to Kahn, however, a Jewish child can only be born from a Jewish womb, which permits sperm donations but not eggs. In fact, it is considered Hebrew thought that the birth parents should be those who raise the child; but Jewish law and Hebrew thought are discrete entities. This distinction between Hebrew thought and Jewish law grant Jews the liberty to rely on assisted reproductive technology when necessary. Kahn describes a Jewish baby’s IVF birth from a virgin woman as “remarkable” – a clear indication of the support for ART within the Jewish community.
These standards of Judaism are vastly different from those of Christianity, which promotes continuity through blood. This belief of kinship stems from the relationship of Adam and Eve in Genesis, a monogamous, heterosexual, procreative marriage. As Christians tend to interpret the Bible with what is stated from the narratives, the bond between Adam and Eve is a reflection of what a marriage is defined as – leading to the creation of a family unit with procreation in the same way that was performed by the two. However, the same line in Genesis 1:28, “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” is not taken literally within the Christian community as it is for the Jewish. In fact, the Pope and the figures of the Catholic Church all practice abstinence, which is directly against the commandment of procreation. Even in Genesis 2, God states, “It is not good for the man to be alone” – yet the heads of the Catholic Church are unmarried. There is a clear difference in how the Catholics interpret Genesis from the Jews.
Likewise to the first couple, human procreation is believed to be the highest gift from God; children, like Adam, should be created in the “image” of their parents, as God created Adam in his “image” (Genesis 1:27 New International Version). Due to the honor associated with a child, human life should be respected from conception, and anything that disrupts this process, such as frozen embryos, is condemned. In addition, children are granted the respect to be raised with their birth parents, which prevents the church’s approval of surrogacy and heterologous IVF, which involves a third party’s donation of sperm or egg. In fact, out of all of the reproductive technologies, the only one that is allowed is homologous IVF, in which the gametes come from the parents who are to raise the child.
These Christian ideologies stem from the significance of the conjugal act that initiates conception; because assisted reproduction is withdrawing of this performance, children born this way are viewed as deprived of the value of body language. This body language stems from the story of how Eve as created: “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This act of becoming “one flesh” is the equivalent as a prerequisite of marriage, kinship, and reproduction. ART also grants power to biology, doctors, and researchers in the creation of life – this strays from the principles that destiny is left to God, who, according to Genesis, created everything. Thus, based on the interpretations of the cosmology of this religion, kinship must be through consanguine relations or through marriage, and children should be raised by their birth parents that must be in the same type of relationship as of Adam and Eve.
Another example of a disparity in interpretation of the same Biblical text lies in the story of Sarah and Abraham: Sarah, the wife of Abraham, asked her servant to be the surrogate of her child. This relationship resulted with Sarah growing jealous of her servant and the attention her husband gave her. While Christians interpret this narrative as an implication that surrogacy is against God’s will, Jews see the surrogacy as an opportunity, a blessing that Sarah gave to her servant to fulfill the prophecy of fruitfulness.
However, there are some sources for the contrasting ideals of Christianity and Judaism besides the first two chapters of Genesis. In a sociological context, the Jewish seek to increase their birth rates, stemming from “pro-natalism” by the post-Holocaust Jews or the increase in that of Arabs (Seeman, 2010, p. 350). In addition, as the Jews believe in their right to the “holy land” promised to Abraham, they further promote their beliefs in reproduction. In the Bible, Abraham gifted as many children as the stars in the sky, and this grant supplements their ideas. Thus, through a combination of both social and religious factors, the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament may naturally favor the reproductive technologies that aid them to fulfill their obligation to procreate.
In addition, it is possible that the reason for IVF acceptance in Judaism is due to the purity that can be associated with it. For a female to carry a child yet remain a virgin is exactly how Jesus, the figurehead of Christianity, came to be – this is also where Christianity and Judaism diverge. Because Christianity believes that Jesus was conceived as a gift from God through Virgin Mary, it is possible that their strict discipline against a potential for this form of reproduction stems from the similarity it holds to the story of Virgin Mary. It would be contradictory to promote this form of conception for any Christian female when it holds such parallel to the story that is the basis of their religion.
From an objective viewpoint, Genesis may simply be a story of how the world came to be. It tells the tale of how God created light and darkness, the heavens and the earth, the animals and first humans, and it displays a heterosexual marriage that was achieved by images of God. Yet from an ethnographic perspective, it can be further analyzed – as the Bible comes in various translations, each word holds a different connotation, an emphasis on different aspects of the cosmology, and an ethnographer can link how syntax plays a role in the foundation of an entire belief system. Thus, moral questions can be answered through the lenses of various religions because of how these faiths interpret the text, which can lead to differing outcomes, approvals, and prohibitions when technological advancements are made. Ultimately, the power is up to the individual to decide how they seek their values.
Kahn, S. M. (2000). Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Durham: Duke University Press.
Seeman, D. (2010). Kin, Gene, Community: Reproductive Technologies among Jewish Israelis (Vol. 19). New York: Berghahn Books. Retrieved from https://reserves.library.emory.edu/Shib/ares.dll?Action=10&Type=10&Value=447785.
Shannon, T. A., & Cahill, L. S. (1988). Religion and artificial reproduction: An inquiry into the Vatican “Instruction on respect for human life in its origin and on the dignity of human reproduction”. New York: Crossroad.