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My Jewish Child

My son, conceived with donated sperm, is Jewish—no matter what rabbis say

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I woke up this morning at 5:40 a.m.; in another room I heard a baby—my baby—babbling to himself. He’s nearly seven months old now, smiling, has a couple of teeth and haunches you’d have to stop yourself from biting. I got him out of his crib, fed and changed him, and found him entertainment (thank you, Fisher Price) while I ate breakfast and glanced at the paper.

“What Makes a Jewish Mother?” The headline designed to grab attention succeeded. If you give birth to a baby conceived with a donated egg, will that child be a Jew? That’s the essential query in Caren Chesler’s story. My child was not conceived with a donated egg, but he was conceived with donated sperm. Which is why one quote in the story rankled me. “If any of the participants in the equation are not Jewish,” Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the dean of the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University in New York, told Chesler, “the child should go through a conversion ceremony anyway.”

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.

If I were Orthodox, I’d be in much greater anguish over the opinions of the Orthodox rabbinate on reproductive matters. And of course I’m sympathetic to women, like Chesler, who feel that such decrees make them doubt, if fleetingly, the authenticity of their motherhood. As reproductive technology continues to develop, it will continue to challenge our notions of parentage and family. I’m not Orthodox, though, and I did not have a child to fulfill the Biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply, though I’m happy to kick in where I can. For me, family and community are what give richness to the human experience—to my personal experience. I want my son to have a sense of history—Jewish and otherwise. That history will be inclusive of people whose genetic material comes from many places; hopefully his community will embrace him back.

What Makes a Jewish Mother [New York Times]
Related: The Great Baby Divide
Pregnant Pause

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ShloymeBaruch says:

Lots of misinformation here. Let’s get started:
1) You misunderstood the Brander quote. He is saying (and this should be obvious since it is well-known that Orthodox and Conservative Judaism follow matrilineage) that if either the birth mother or egg donor is not Jewish, the child should undergo a fro-forma conversion. It doesn’t matter whether the sperm donor is Jewish or not. Since I’ve just undermined the entire basis for your feeling rankled, there’s really no reason to go on, but let’s do so anyway.
2) It’s odd that one can go through dozens of medical procedures to have a baby from someone else’s egg or from a donor’s sperm, yet it’s putting the kid in a mikveh before her bat mitzva that makes someone question their motherhood?
3) Halakhically, women have no obligation to be fruitful and multiply. So the implication that you are not Orthodox and *therefore* did not have kids in order to fulfill the mitzva makes no sense.
4) Think about this: to bind your kid to tradition, you had part of his genitals lopped off, but are offended that someone suggested that to bind him to tradition you should put him in a swimming pool for 10 seconds.

But don’t let facts get in the way of your opinion of Orthodoxy and its rabbis.

ShloymeBaruch says:

Lots of misinformation here. Let’s get started:
1) You misunderstood the Brander quote. He is saying (and this should be obvious since it is well-known that Orthodox and Conservative Judaism follow matrilineage) that if either the birth mother or egg donor is not Jewish, the child should undergo a fro-forma conversion. It doesn’t matter whether the sperm donor is Jewish or not. Since I’ve just undermined the entire basis for your feeling rankled, there’s really no reason to go on, but let’s do so anyway.
2) It’s odd that one can go through dozens of medical procedures to have a baby from someone else’s egg or from a donor’s sperm, yet it’s putting the kid in a mikveh before her bat mitzva that makes someone question their motherhood?
3) Halakhically, women have no obligation to be fruitful and multiply. So the implication that you are not Orthodox and *therefore* did not have kids in order to fulfill the mitzva makes no sense.
4) Think about this: to bind your kid to tradition, you had part of his genitals lopped off, but are offended that someone suggested that to bind him to tradition you should put him in a swimming pool for 10 seconds.

But don’t let facts get in the way of your opinion of Orthodoxy and its rabbis.

UrbanNotSuburban says:

first off, that opinion by Brander is halachically wrong, since the halacha (except for Reform) is patrilineal descent.
second, I dont see that doing a conversion of an infant just to be sure, is that big a deal. I know some people get all emotional about it. personally, I think maybe we should do that for all jewish children, so the folks who really need to do it, can feel better about it.
Third, you seem to think only the orthodox care about halacha. Conservative do as well and a few Reform do,
Fourth youre basically saying that you dont care about halacha, so you dont care about this rabbi’s halachic opinion. Thats logical, but also banal. For many of us halacha is key to judaism, and also to jewish survival, so simply saying “I dont care about halacha” is not an adequate response.

ShloymeBaruch says:

It’s obvious that NYT or Ms. Ivry misunderstood R. Brander. He clearly said that the issue arises when either the birth mother or egg donor is not Jewish, regardless of whether the sperm donor is Jewish.

Lisa Rochman Mechanick says:

I am not orthodox either, but, as the mother of a child conceived via donor egg I find this incredibly disturbing. While there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my daughter is Jewish and I have no intention of going through a conversion process with her (you can’t convert someone to Judaism who is already Jewish!!!), it is very upsetting to me that the possibility exists that, someday, my daughter may move to Israel and fall in love and someone may question her Jewishness.

Lisa Rochman Mechanick says:

I’ll respond to this because I am in the target audience of the original article, as the mother of a child conceived via donor egg! Re: #2 – it’s not about me questioning my motherhood. It’s about someone else having the nerve to question my motherhood!! My daughter is my daughter in all sense of the imagination. She was put into my body when she was 8 cells. My body nourished her, protected her, developed her, and birthed her. According to what we’ve always been told, a child born of a Jewish mother is a Jewish child. For someone to now question who should be considered her “mother” and, therefore, question whether or not she is Jewish is both absurd and offensive!

I
don’t understand why this would even be a question if the mother was
Jewish. Our gedolim established the rule of matrilineal descent for very
good reasons that anyone with a passing knowledge of the darker periods
of Jewish history can grasp. Any rabbi who questions this would have to
examine his own family tree very carefully, going back several
generations, or “go through a conversion ceremony anyway” himself.
Even if the rabbi is only questioning a situation in which the egg donor was not Jewish, it seems to me that the birth mother’s status would be the only one that would be halachically decisive. If a non-Jewish woman converts while pregnant, her child is the product of a “non-Jewish egg”, but is born Jewish.

N. Mara Czarnecki says:

Actually, the halacha is Matrilineal, but Tanakh (regardless of the traditions) allows for both Patrilineal and Matrilineal Descent.

Scott Menter says:

Judaism is passed through the egg? Hilarious. Who knew that haploid cells carry religion along with their 23 chromosomes.

I would like the commentators who feel this way to undergo a “pro forma” conversion. Well, maybe just those of you with red hair or blue eyes. You know, just to make sure. Why would you be opposed? It’s just a dip in mikva or a little slice on the petzeleh. Surely you can’t find it insulting that somebody is questioning your Jewish identity on such a ridiculous basis–can you?

Scott Menter says:

It’s not her grasp of the facts, but rather your grasp of her argument that is at work here. The entire premise is insulting and unsupported by tradition. A mother is a mother no matter where the egg comes from. This linking of religion to cellular biology, by a group of people who reject science whenever it suits them to do so, would be hilarious were it not for the unfortunate influence those people have over Israeli immigration and marriage policy.

Lisa Rochman Mechanick says:

Amen!

e. pruzhaner says:

Not sure why the donated sperm (in the subtitle) would affect the Jewishness of the child according to anybody.

ShloymeBaruch says:

Let’s look at the case of surrogacy. In that case, a fetus of 8 cells implanted in the body of a woman who nourishes, protects, develops, and births the baby. Yet in that case the donor is the mother.
The point is that determining motherhood from a commonsense and sentimental perspective is very different from determining the legal status of motherhood. It gets complicated and thorny in every legal system, and halakha is no exception.

ShloymeBaruch says:

So science and Israeli immigration are part of the author’s argument? Very interesting. We must not be reading the same article.
Ivry’s argument is based on a (mis)quote of Kenny Brander, who as far as I know has no influence over Israeli marriage and immigration policy and does not reject science.

Lisa Rochman Mechanick says:

While my response may be frought with sentiment and emotion, it is based on halakha. We’ve always been taught that a child born of a jewish mother is a jewish child. To reinterpret that now is irresponsible. Had I been fortunate enough to use my eggs but had them carried by a gestational carrier (the term surrogate refers to someone who uses her eggs and carries the baby, if an embryo created with my eggs was carried by another woman, the term is gestational carrier) I would have had my daughter converted as she would not have birthed by a jewish mother. So, for me, it’s not about emotion but about what I’ve been taught and believe.

ShloymeBaruch says:

I understand and appreciate your position, and I was taught the same thing. Ultimately, though, it is clear that no ancient legal system could have imagined that genetic and biological motherhood would be de-linked, and so the question of whether genetic or biological motherhood is determinant is a very new, very modern question. So the old adages are not sufficient to address a complicated new reality. And halakha is not the only legal system that must address it.

Kate says:

What really disturbs me about this post is the lack of fact-checking involved. As other commenters have pointed out, she misunderstood the quote. Ok, easy enough. But before going off on a rant, why not do a little research? Why not call up an Orthodox Rabbi or two? Such conversation would not only have revealed her mistake, but also the careful thought process behind making the halachic ruling. Jews who are not Orthodox love to hate on the Orthodox, but there are a few things to note here:

One, Jews who don’t care about halacha but are proud to be Jewish should be cognizant of the fact that being able to walk that line is only possible in the present-day United States. If one’s ancestors beyond two hundred years ago hadn’t cared about halacha, one wouldn’t be Jewish. In other words, caring enough about halacha to meticulously derive meaning and interpretation from the words of the Torah made Jewish continuation possible. Orthodox Jews are often accused of living in the past, but in fact are constantly striving to marry Jewish life to technological advances. Bottom line: If you care about halacha, you’ll approach rulings and interpretations with respect. If you admittedly do not, you’ve left the conversation and can’t complain about the people who are still in it.

Two, don’t take halacha for granted. A few commenters have already gone on tangents, so I’m going to take the liberty to do so as well. We all saw the recent tragedy in Bangladesh: a result of carelessness in construction and disregard for human life. Why were we outraged? Where does that come from? Why do we assume that people have the right to safety? Well, it comes from the Torah–You shall make a parapet for your roof–and the Rabbis who expounded upon that to include other ways that carelessness could cause harm. It is something that Western civilization takes for granted, but responsibility for other human beings was quite radical 3,000 years ago, I assure you. So please don’t be so dismissive of modern-day halachic rulings; you never know just how you are benefiting from prior ones.

Finally, this seems like a bit of a “Me thinks thou doth protest too much” situation. The author says she doesn’t care what Orthodox Rabbis think, but she took the time to write this article. Obviously she cares enough about her Jewishness to want her son to be considered Jewish. This is not only understandable, it is beautiful. But might I suggest that next time, she go to the source of her anger, rather than her laptop. She may just discover depths to Judaism that she never knew existed.

And Sarah Laughed says:

Why are these decisions being made by men, anyway? Shouldn’t mothers be the ones determining these things, since they have a better intuitive knowledge of what motherhood actually is?

mouskatel says:

What are you talking about? Descent in Judaism passes through the mother (matrilineal) except for Reform, where it can pass through the father as well (patrilineal)

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My Jewish Child

My son, conceived with donated sperm, is Jewish—no matter what rabbis say

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