Who’s your mama?


Advances in technology alway pose new challenges for Jewish law. Case in point: The ability to implant eggs from one woman into the uterus of another. The ability presents a knotty question: Which woman is the Jewish mother? This is hardly a purely academic question: Jewishness is determined, in the eyes of Orthodox and Conservative Jews anyway, by the identify of the mother.

This question is the subject of a post this week in the New York Times by Caren Chelser, a 42 year-old woman who could not have children. She chose the route of in-vitro fertilization, only to find out that according to some Orthodox rabbis, the child might not be Jewish because the egg came from a non-Jewish mother.

Of course, like most controversial issues in Jewish law, the opinions are wide-ranging. According to Chesler, Jewish authorities once generally agreed that the birth mother — not the genetic mother — is the mother in the eyes of Jewish law. But this view is apparently shifting.

“If the egg is from a non-Jew, then the DNA is from the other person,” said Rabbi Shaul Rosen, who founded A TIME, a support network for infertile Jewish couples. “In order for that child to be Jewish, it would have to go through a conversion ceremony like any other non-Jew.”

After hearing that, I was in tears. It’s not a question of whether authorities like Rabbi Rosen find egg donation acceptable. It’s that they don’t think I’m the mother of my own child.

“In the last year or two, there are some in the Orthodox world in Israel who have begun to take the issue in another direction,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a former chairman of the law and standards committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, which governs Conservative Judaism. Jewish authorities are finding evidence in the Scriptures to support both arguments: that the egg donor is the mother and that the birth mother is the mother.

So Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the dean of the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University in New York, has suggested a pragmatic solution for children of in vitro fertilization: If any of the participants in the equation are not Jewish, the child should go through a conversion ceremony anyway. For infants, that requires immersion in a mikvah, a religious bath, and boys must be circumcised.

“I don’t think there’s final closure on the opinions yet, and I think it’s important for one to be cautious,” Rabbi Brander said. “I would hate to give someone advice that left them outside the pale of everyone’s definition of who’s a Jew.”

Writing in Tablet, Sara Ivry finds this whole discussion debasing.

My child had a bris to bind him to a tradition—a faith community—of which I am a solid part. To have him undergo that sacred rite was my decision and desire for him because it tied him to a community that has nourished me and provided me with a spiritual background and richness that made me, in part, who I am. I am counting on it to do the same for him as he grows up. To suggest that my child is not sufficiently Jewish because the source of half of his genetic material is not, is to privilege who’s in and who’s out over who embraces family alongside a sense of faith.

As with many controversial issues, the parties are mostly talking around each other. Ivry’s argument appears less about the religious legal qualifications for Jewishness than the spiritual and communal ones. The arguments boil down to one essential question — What role should genetics play in establishing Jewishness? Is the point that her child’s bris and upbringing are what make him Jewish, or the fact that he was carried to term by a Jewish mother? If it’s the former, then it would seem that even an adopted child of non-Jewish biological parentage wouldn’t require conversion. But if it’s the latter, than Ivry is conceding, at least implicitly, that biology is of at least some importance.

Unless, of course, it’s both.

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