Blog 1- Monica Vemulapalli

Examining Religious and Ethnographic Interpretation of Assisted Reproductive Technologies in Jewish and Christian Societies.

Human reproduction centers Jewish and Christian ideologies in the religion sphere and helps construct the concept of kinship and societal relations, as seen by examining the Book of Genesis. In chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis, God creates male and female (1:27), to who he “blesses” with the goal of reproduction, or so it is interpreted. When God blessed them in 1:22 to be “fruitful and multiply…”, the process of reproduction comes to light as a way to not only sustain the human population, but to carry on the words of God. God blessed them to give them a productive free will, one that will be used to make the right decision toward furthering the human race. 1:27 looks at this concept, of “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The term image can be interpreted diversely, as it could mean that humans take a quite physical image or at least similarity to the entity of God. Or the image could encompass how humans and God share an immortal soul that is far different from any other of God’s creations. The interpretation that seems to fit is the ability to morally discriminate between two choices. God created humans to “take dominion…” (1:26) over all creatures because he gave humans the very capability that he possesses in order to sustain his own unique creations.

How does reproduction play a role in these comparisons? Reproduction takes one of the central roles in this chapter knowing what God’s intent of creating humankind was. The whole purpose of the chapter was to create humankind and give them the ultimate power: to reproduce in his sacred image. This can be interpreted as reproduction causes the lineage of God to be carried, or moral discrimination to be upheld in human society. The view of human reproduction being highlighted is 1:28 shows that God said “”Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,” which can be applied to the importance of reproduction as it is taken as God’s commandment which must be fulfilled through marriage. The end of chapter 2 signals how God made woman from, “[2:22] had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. [2:23] Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’” How God created woman from man portrays the raw, intimate connection that the pair have been given.

Kinship, in the form of marriage, in religious context agrees with this context as marital union is sacred and one of the most important concepts in religion. A man was not complete by himself, he needed “a helper as his partner (2:18),” and after a woman from his flesh was created, he was complete. An interpretation of why God didn’t want man to be alone could be the birth of the concept of kinship. God creates a companion for man, a woman, for the rest of his life and to reproduce. A family is born. Kinship is created not only for the sole purpose of reproduction, but also for the diffusion of sorrow, happiness, and thoughts. A single human being has an infinite amount of feelings and thoughts, that kinship in any form, in my opinion, is crucial to the fostering of their growth. Similarly, reproduction is also not for the sole purpose of creating offspring but to create kin. The first two chapters of Genesis lead to how man and woman “become one flesh” (2:24) or join in a sacred act of matrimonial union to serve the needs of each other and to produce kin.

Interpretation of the religious text is critical to differences in understanding and forming opinions about human reproduction. Jewish and Christian interpretations revolve strictly around the commandment of being “fruitful and multiply”, mainly or usually through natural reproduction because marriage is a sacred precedent in both religions. The Christian uses of Genesis are clearly highlighted in Respect for Human Life, as the Congregation  for Doctrine of the Faith provides their opinions, to be taken from authority of the Church, to assistive reproductive technology outside of normal reproduction. Their main position emphasizes that assistive reproductive strategies can only be considered legitimate in the context of a legal marriage and no interference by a third party. For example, if they are unable to conceive naturally, the Church can allow implantation of sperm of husband in the wife, but any procedure that requires sperm or egg from third party or womb is illegitimate. The Congregation uses natural law, as opposed to Jewish Rabbis, to reason how there is agreement with religious scripture and justify religious teaching using rationale and authoritative answers, via the Magisterium. In Judaism, rabbis follow similar reasoning, but use more positivistic laws, as a result of not only religious scriptures, but also cultural ideologies and evolution.

From my understanding and research, most rabbis permit other options to reproduce when natural reproduction does not work. However, some believe similarly as the Church because the usage donor sperm and eggs are usually rejected as they create “halachic problems.” Some rabbis permit the usage of donor eggs as long as the husband gives consent. The problem arises when the identity of mother is decided, because Jewish lineage is passed through the mother. The status, if the genetic mother differs in her identity from the gestational mother, is hard to decipher. In a specific example from “Jewish Medical Ethics: Assisted Reproduction and Judaism,” Dr. Wahrman says that “Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, Rabbinic administrator of Star-K Kosher Certification states unequivocally that if the egg is from a Non-Jewish woman, then the baby is not Jewish. In this very stringent ruling, when a donor egg is used, the birth mother is not considered the halachic mother.” Rabbi Heinemann also stated that “the use of donor sperm was a private matter for the couple to decide, and in certain situations it would be recommended in order to fulfill the first commandment as well as to keep the marriage together.” (Silber 2010) To add, the majority of Jews nowadays accept the use of third party donor gametes due to the pro-natal nature of the state of Israel, as Rabbi Heinemann cites as the reason. The key to truly understanding how unnatural reproduction plays a role in society involves not only religion, but the ethnographic framework of a country or population.

By examining the cultural context of gamete donation and other assisted technologies, we can understand diverse analyses outside of solely relying on religious texts. Susan Kahn, in Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel, takes readers into her life researching and learning about new reproductive technology shaping Jews in Israel and her personal accounts of conducted work. She provides detailed insight of her anthropological work on IVF in Israel. The central importance of reproduction from Judaism is prominent in Jewish culture from how Kahn discusses specific examples and analyzes the Israeli acceptance of newer technologies to help in reproduction. She states how IVF is centralized through the government due to the high importance placed on fertility, in contrast to other countries where reproduction is decentralized, such as the U.S. Conducting research on “unmarried, secular, Jewish American woman without children,” observing fertility clinic activities, and interviewing rabbis on their opinion, Kahn explored the diverse atmosphere of opinions and beliefs about reproduction. Kahn states in her conclusion in chapter 2 that “Within a society where marriage is so deeply entrenched as a religious and divinely inspired institution and where it has been integrated as such into the secular legal foundation of the state, exposing it as a social construct may have particularly profound and subversive implications.” (Kahn 86)

Kahn’s statement constitutes how ethnography and religion are intertwined because extrapolation from religious texts makes up cultural expectations and policy. Moreover, Kahn emphasizes the positivistic outlook that remains in Jewish society, as she states, “From the rabbinic social practice of mining traditional texts for coherent kinship metaphors, to the ongoing efforts of contemporary Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, to make sense of this technology while using it to realize their reproductive futures, there is a range of coexisting kinship ideologies from which to choose in the ongoing cultural effort to reproduce Jews,” (Kahn 174). In conclusion, religious text interpretation establishes concrete context to reproductive importance set in place, but ethnographic context presents societal and adaptive insight to how evolving practices such as reproductive technologies can establish a malleable view on kinship and reproduction in a particular society.


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.

Wahrman, Miryam Z. “Jewish Medical Ethics: Assisted Reproduction and Judaism.” Claus Von Stauffenberg,

Silber, Sherman J. “Judaism and Reproductive Technology.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2010,

Blog 1: Ira Golub

For those who believe in a Biblical Cosmological origin story, we can trace the birth of our very existence to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, as it hits chapter one, verse 26. It reads, “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” and is followed by verse 27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God create he him; male and female created he them” ( So, what was God’s first commandment to his people? According to this text, it was quite simple – be fruitful, and multiply. God had given us everything from cattle, to birds, etc., even the whole earth, under this one request. By chapter two of Genesis, God has created Adam and a woman (Eve), and offers the following insight to close the chapter: “… shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” ( Objectively speaking, this is just about the entirety of light that is shed on the topic of marriage in these first two chapters of Genesis. The subjective meaning that religious peoples, whether Jewish, Christian, or more, have thereafter interpreted from whatever the original version of this text was intended to convey, has set the stage for each of their modern religious stances on matrimony.


As contradictory to the rather indefinite nature of the Old Testament, modern religious tradition regarding marriage and reproduction that has stemmed from Biblical Cosmology is quite contradictory. The most fundamental arguments regarding reproduction and use of modern technology differ nearly completely among two predominant Biblical people, both the Jewish peoples and the Christians (Catholics specific to this blog post). InDonum Vitae, an instruction manual for respect regarding human life through the lens of Catholicism, issued in 1987, there is a clear message against ulterior methods of reproduction beyond the more traditional route. Via interpretation of the Bible, the writers of Donum Vitae interject, “the procreation of a new person, whereby the man and the woman collaborate with the power of the Creator, must be the fruit and the sing of the mutual self-giving of the spouses, of their love and of their fidelity” (Donum Vitae). In italics, the writers further describe the fidelity spoken about as a between the spouses in the unity of marriage, and involving only reciprocal respect of their right to become a father and a mother only through each other.


Interestingly enough, Susan Martha Kahn’s book Reproducing Jews, which she wrote in the year 2000,actually offers a contradictory opinion on reproduction, through the lens of Judaism. The interesting twist is apparent – both beliefs are supposedly deduced from the Old Testament. Through ethnographic studies, Kahn concludes that by the Jewish teaching, “… genes are not the determinant of relatedness; nowhere in this belief more in evidence than in the fact that Jews are now deliberately reproduced with non-Jewish genetic material” (Reproducing Jews). By way of this, the focus turns the womb of the mother, and how genetically Jewish the woman might be. From the most basic commandment of “be fruitful and multiply, come two arguments that are rather conflicting.


The origin of these differences can be due to the very progression of time itself. According to various accounts, the Old Testament can range back to anywhere close to about 3,000 years ago. Say that is the case – Donum Vitaewas written about 2970 years after the Bible’s conception, with Reproducing Jews13 years behind that. The sheer amount of years that have passed, historical events that have occurred, and change that has progressed the entirety of the human race in that time is unprecedented. Taking this all into consideration, the events that have occurred to the groups we knew to then be the Jewish and Christian peoples are so drastically different, they almost surely prompt entirely different subsets of ideals and interpretations as they are reflected today. This is not even considering the fact that Christianity has yet to be conceived if we are basing our timing on the assumption that the Old Testament was devised Before Christ. Even in the past 2000 years, the number of separate events that have fundamentally defined each group of people are jaw-dropping.


If we are talking about Catholicism and Judaism, the dichotomy is simple – each group has split their own way, and created a culture that has nurtured a set of beliefs, separate from each other, which each represent what they believe to be the best fit interpretation of Genesis and the word of God. Any number of events that happened across these group’s timelines could account for interpretations, whether it be as far back as Moses freeing the Israelites from Egypt, or many thousands of years later during the Protestant Reformation, etc. Each group has a unique story that has been uniquely shaped over time due unique circumstances, and each hold a unique view point and set of beliefs based on their own unique justifications.


Regarding an ethnographic approach to understanding this discrepancy between religions, one is almost certainly able to better understand a culture by personally delving into its inner workings rather than simply viewing its most basic religious texts. Culture is a summation of many factors, religion included. Understanding religious texts can generate some sort of important understanding of a religious culture, but for it to truly be understood one must involve themselves it in to a further extent. Ethnography can answer the questions that most readings can’t.

Blog 1 Kyra Perkins

Genesis is an important chapter within the Bible. Scholars throughout history have used this chapter as a moral argument for marriage, gender, and even reproduction. With everyone reading one single document, a person could naturally assume that every rational person would come to the same conclusion. However, this notion is false. Many different religions have different outlooks on reproduction and marriage that are based from the very same text. These differences seem to grow much deeper when asking individual members of different religious communities instead of just analyzing what religious leaders suggest that their religious communities should believe. Two of the religions who seem to completely agree on the understanding but somehow manage to disagree on the usage of the Book of Genesis are the Jewish and Christian religions. According to the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, man was created alone and then God decided he needed a partner. In order to fill this void God created woman from the rib of man. It then states that a man will leave his parents and find a wife. When he finds this wife, they will become one flesh. This is usually interpreted to mean that man and woman, when married, become one flesh. From that flesh, new life can be made. In other words, only from marriage can a baby be made. The conflict comes when discussing in what ways a married couple can make a baby. Specifically, when looking at technology in procreation religions have to consider how far is too far when involving technology in procreation. Jewish communities tend to be more supporting of ideas such as surrogacy because it was so prevalent in the bible. According to Don Seeman’s text, Ethnography, Exegesis, and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel, “One of the inescapably dominant themes in Genesis is in fact the desperate attempt by both men and women to bring forth children from childlessness by almost any means (Seeman 1998). In Genesis 16, for example, the matriarch Sarah gives her Egyptian servant Hagar to her husband Abraham in what we today would probably call a “traditional surrogacy” arrangement to produce the child that had eluded her.” In fact, Seeman notes that the entire Book of Genesis is saturated with women who were dealing with barrenness and struggles with pregnancy in some way or another. It was very common for wealthier more well-off women to then pay or force their servants to become impregnated by their husbands. The housemaids would then give birth to the child and the women would consider it their own child. This was effectively the earliest version of surrogacy. This was the norm in biblical times and therefore, many Jewish identifying men and women consider surrogacy and assisted birthing methods to be normal. Christianity, and more specifically, Catholicism, have a completely contradictory viewpoint. They believe, as stated by the Donum Vitae in section I Line 22, “The Congregation recalls the teachings found in the Declaration on Procured Abortion: “From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. “. The question for them becomes whether or not technology assisted birth is not normal, but rather whether or not it is morally acceptable or in some way harming or disrespecting this new life. In the eyes of the Catholic church, the only acceptable method is homologous invitro fertilization where the egg is donated from the wife and the sperm is donated from her husband. All other forms of technology assisted birth are immoral. Either the child will be created outside of wedlock which, as stated at the beginning of this post, goes against God’s intentions for the creation of life, or unused embryo which are not used will be frozen or thrown away which is equivalent to abortion. The Catholic church believes in respect for every and all human life at the moment of conception, therefore, any thing that they believe will somehow degrade or negatively affect a human life, even as an embryo they consider to be immoral and wrong. The important thing to consider here is much deeper than whether Jewish or Catholic religions actually support these methods of technology assisted births. The important thing to consider is that these vastly different approaches to the same issue are based around the same text. How then, is it possible to even begin to study or come to some consensus on this problem? Questions like this bring out the importance of ethnographic studies. What religious leaders may say does not always translate to what religious people actually practice. This point was made clear in the ethnographic study of Muslims in Lebanon. While religious leaders in the Islamic community believe that adoption, IVF, and sperm donation are against the teachings of Islam, some of the Muslim men who were interviewed still proceeded with these processes despite that knowledge. This brings up a very important difference between analyzation and practice. While religious leaders are trusted to analyze important religious documents and the points they make, the people who follow that religion are the ones who have to ultimately decide what and how they will practice the decisions of religious leaders. By using ethnography, religious and cultural scholars are able to get a more realistic view of the diversity within a religion as well as how certain religious ideals are actually practiced.

Blog 1 Response – Jack Hester

Both the Jewish and Christian (Catholic) faiths and cultures look to the Bible for guidance in nearly all walks of life. In addition, they incorporate ideas of natural law that make the case for beliefs that are both from God’s Word and rational thinking. Beliefs specifically regarding reproduction will be discussed here. Even with religious texts and cultural leaders, there are still different groups with their own interpretations and adaptations of religious and cultural ideals. Tools like ethnographies highlight some of the differences in interpretations.

The bible, or parts of it, provides the foundation for many beliefs in Catholicism and Judaism. Texts important to understanding reproduction can be found as early as the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. The first two chapters of the book of Genesis are texts often looked to for examples of kinship and God’s guidance on reproduction. Chapter 1 verse 27 describes mankind’s creation, specifically of two genders: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Even in this one verse, there is a lot to unpack and opportunity for many interpretations. In the catholic faith, the description of the two genders—male and female—not only speaks to a clear set of gender identities, but also contains information about reproduction. More specifically, they use the idea of a single man and single woman being brought together to suggest that only one man and one woman should be involved in creating a child. This claim directly links with their belief that a child should only be produced out of the sperm and egg of the two future parents. They would argue that use of a sperm or egg donor, surrogate mother, or any other involvement of a third person’s body goes against God’s clear will for marriage and childbirth: “Every human being is always to be accepted as a gift and blessing of God. However, from the moral point of view a truly responsible procreation vis-a-vis the unborn child must be the fruit of marriage” (Instruction on Respect for Human Life 157). Furthermore, they make this claim in terms of the inherent rights of a child: “the child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage” (159). In fact, much of the religious language on this subject incorporates western ideas of individual rights, including the American constitutional principle of “inalienable rights.” (143).  The Catholic church further supports the connection of God’s design and natural law with human rights, and ones that are widely accepted even outside of Catholic faith.

Much of the Jewish community is more lenient on the use of reproductive technologies. This largely stems from the emphasis on children and their importance to culture over the necessity of marriage before and during conception. Even among Rabbis, discussions of reproduction are “intimately linked” with discussions of culture and production of culture (Kahn 2000: 88). There is a well-established connection between children and continuation of culture, even more than between marriage and culture. For many in the culture, especially women, it is “much worse to be a childless woman than to be an unmarried mother” (16). These two principles are only part of the complex and evolving Jewish cultural ideas of kinship with children and between parents. As Kahn notes, there is an increasing injection of Euro-American principles (159-160), some of which are related to Old-Testament teachings, and the culture and ideas of kinship are adapting accordingly. As Jewish heritage is preserved through the maternal bloodline, it of less importance how the baby is conceived or born so long as the mother is involved. But regardless of how the child is conceived or born, “it is accepted… the child is still considered legitimate” (17). Given these cultural principles and adaptation of some liberal, western thought, as well as different interpretations of acts of adultery (96-97), there is room for several reproductive technologies in many Jewish groups. With this in mind, it is clear that there is a massive difference in views of the legitimacy of conception methods between the Jewish and Catholic cultures and religions.

Despite the drastic differences, there are many common threads between Jewish and Catholic-Christian views of birth and children as well. Both groups emphasize the importance of the children and their rights. One specific area is the protection of fetuses. The Catholic faith states that there is no room for abortion of fetuses: “The human being must be respected-as a person-from the very first instant of his existence.” (Instruction on Respect 147). In addition, fetuses must not be used for any reason other than for the birth of a child to one man and one woman. Any scientific research that requires creation or destruction of a zygote or fetus, regardless of its maturity, is strictly prohibited (148). Treating a child or fetus otherwise is not only unbiblical but against moral law: “It is therefore not in conformity with the moral law deliberately to expose to death human embryos obtained “in vitro”” (154). There is also strong emphasis on the child being a “supreme” gift from God, and therefore it must be respected as God intended it to be (168). Jewish law is strongly against abortion as well, except in specific cases such as rape, incest, or maternal risk (Kahn 197). Children are similarly a gift to be respected, and as already was discussed are to be a part of the society no matter how they were conceived.

Even with several official religious and cultural writings and laws available, individual experiences are largely left out of the picture. Ethnography plays a key role in understanding different interpretations of natural law, religion, and cultural norms. While official religious texts are often available and easily accessible, the actual way that teachings and obligations are followed is often different for different individuals or subcultures. Ethnographies can help to illuminate some of these discrepancies. It is also possible to understand why a culture, or more specifically a small subgroup of individuals, hold the values they do given their experiences. Kahn understood the changing concepts of kinship and values in childbirth of many Israeli-Jewish individuals, and other cultures and their views can similarly be understood more deeply through ethnographic work.


Instructions on Respect for Human Life. Congregation for Doctrine of Faith, (1987):141-175.

Kahn, Susan Martha. Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.