The biblical story of creation is recounted in the first two chapters of its very first book Genesis. This perspective of cosmology introduces ideas of kinship and reproduction that followers of biblically-based religions have interpreted in various manners. When the specific beliefs and understandings of this holy text are applied to the manifestation of moral laws set forth by religious leaders, such as ethical perspectives on in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and abortion, the discord among spiritual communities becomes more apparent despite their utilization of comparable textual origins. Whether this may be accounted for by the inconsistency of translations, variances in interpretations, or another outlying factors is left to the discretion of the individual, although I will propose support for either explanation later on. Discrepancies and comparisons between the Jewish and Christian faith will be demonstrated throughout this post as well, as an example of two religions with contrasting opinions on ethical values that are positioned from the same text.
Though ethical perspectives on controversial actions differ, the textual application for understanding ideas of kinship and human reproduction from the first two chapters of Genesis can be described quite literally. For example, God, a religious father figure for both Christians and Jews, “created mankind in his own image…male and female he created them” (New International Version, Gen. 1:27). This verse not only emphasizes the binary system for gender classification but also demonstrates a linkage between mankind and God the Creator. Although the intent is unclear in terms of this image being physical or figurative, many have interpreted this connection with God and mankind’s likeness to be spiritual and internal. The specific differentiation of genders implies that the initial intent for mankind was for sexual relationships to be between man and woman. The book continues by stating God’s command to His people, blessing them and directing them to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen. 1:28). The deep, unified connection for kinship between men and women is further elucidated in the second chapter of Genesis where the man’s wife was formed from one of the his ribs, becoming “bone of [his] bones and flesh of [his] flesh” (Gen. 2:23). This exemplifies the biblical proposal of kin relationships as direct and physically connecting, in addition to a spiritual binding through God. Furthermore, the reproductive right is hinted to be a God-granted blessing and command to a relationship between a man and his wife.
This cosmological story shows the creation of man in God’s image. However, Jewish and Christian interpretation of at what stage this likeness exists is significantly different. In other words, these two religions disagree on the status of a fetus and when it is considered to fully be “the only creature on earth that God has ‘wished for himself’ and the spiritual soul of each man is ‘immediately created’ by God” (“Respect for Human Life” 147). The Catholic church views an embryo as a person with a soul “from the very first instant of his existence,” or from the very moment of conception (148). In contrast, Jewish Israelis show that “fetuses are not commonly represented as babies until much later in pregnancy or even at birth” (Seeman 355). These conflicting interpretations of the beginning of human life come into play when deciding an ethical stance on actions such as abortion and prenatal diagnosis.
The Jewish faith also differs from the Catholic church in regards to their perspective on surrogacy and in vitro fertilization. The Jewish Israelis’ acceptance to the goals of these modern technologies is apparent through Israel’s recognition as the “first country in the world to legalize surrogate mother agreements” and the fact that reproductive technologies “are subsidized by Israeli national health insurances” (Kahn 61). Opposing this openness to modern reproductive innovations is the Catholic church’s perspective that surrogacy disrupts the connection “between genetic and gestational parenthood,… between the child and its embodied connection to its heritage,… and between the body and personhood” (Seeman 347). In the Catholic church’s view, the “one flesh” idea introduced in the second book of Genesis requires a connection between all of these stages for a child’s life in the eyes of God. the Catholic church emphasizes the necessity of reproduction to transpire within a marriage between man and wife, thus placing heavy importance on the binary system stated within the first two books of Genesis (“Respect for Human Life” 157). In short, the allowances of the Jewish faith can be somewhat attributed to the faith’s heavy emphasis on the “be fruitful and multiply” command while the Catholic church’s focus on the binary and coupling relationship of Adam and Eve influences their view of current ethical debate.
In addition to specific textual foci and interpretations, the variance of the Jewish faith could be socially and politically driven. The strong internal desire for Jewish woman to become mothers is encouraged by the culture’s inherent belief “that motherhood is the most primal and natural goal for women” (Kahn 11). This is also exemplified by the public’s sympathy for the case of Ruti Nahmani, which continued to support the religion’s “unquestioned popular belief that childlessness is a pitiable state that must be ‘cured’ by any means necessary’ (69). This belief is sustained by the government’s promotion and support for single mothers and overall reproduction of Jewish children, such as reinforcement through the agreement that unmarried woman can still birth legitimate, full accepted Jewish children (13). Jewish mothers appear to have a dutiful and perhaps coercive attraction towards motherhood through social and political attitudes that have ultimately influenced the social acceptance and even promotion of the issue.
Furthermore, an ethnographic approach to studying the topics of kinship and procreation would reveal these underlying beliefs as well. While studying texts will provide fundamental understanding of the population’s ideas and beliefs, the researcher’s understandings of the text are subject to bias as well as varied interpretation. An ethnographic approach, however, will give insight to the perspectives of multiple individuals. It will also provide hints of the sociological and political processes that influence the acceptance or rejection of some of the religion’s beliefs. Through the personal testimonies of participants, one may gain insight to the direct interpretation of a religious follower and will additionally observe other factors that may come into play when determining one’s stance on an issue.
Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1987.
Kahn, Susan Martha. Reproducing Jews: a Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Duke Univ. Press, 2006.
New International Version. Biblica, 2011. BibleGateway.com, www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-International-Version-NIV-Bible/#booklist.
Seeman, Don. “Ethnography, Exegesis, and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel.” Kin, Gene, and Community Reproductive Technologies Among Jewish Israelis, edited by Daphna Birenbaum-Carmeli and Yoram S. Carmeli, 2010, pp.340-361.