What makes a Jewish mother?
Jokes aside, a Jewish mother is a Jewish woman who mothers a Jew. This seems simple. Apparently, it isn’t.
What if, Caren Chesler posited not-so-hypothetically in today’s New York Times, a Jewish couple tries to have a baby through a donor egg–and the donor of the egg isn’t Jewish? This was Chesler’s situation. Since the 1990s, Chesler writes, Jewish authorities have agreed that the bearing mother, not the woman providing the gametes, is to be considered as the mother in this situation. But there are now rabbis in Israel voicing the idea that if the egg donor is not Jewish, then neither is the child until the child is converted, regardless of the mother’s religion.
Please bear in mind that many of these Israeli rabbinical authorities are the same people who don’t feel egalitarian prayer or women reading Torah constitutes “real” Judaism. Nonetheless, their opinion is potentially powerful in Jewish law and almost certainly hurtful to many. Additionally, I’d argue that it raises many more questions than it solves.
What if, after all, the egg donor considers herself Jewish and lives as a Jew–but only her father is Jewish and not her mother? According to more stringent religious Jews, that egg donor in and of herself is therefore not Jewish–but at least some Jewish egg donor agencies do not abide by this criteria, or do not mention whether or not they do. The line between an appreciation of Jewish heritage/lineage and eugenics becomes incredibly finely drawn in these situations, to the point of invisibility.
Moreover, how can we as a people possibly grant deference in determining who is a Jewish mother to those who will never be one, by birth or otherwise–because these people to whom we are granting our deference, to a one, are all male?
How should we, as Jews, treat would-be mothers who resort to egg donations to fulfill the mitzvah of becoming parents and creating a new Jewish generation? I’d say the appropriate analogy here would be how Jews are supposed to treat converts to Judaism generally. Hear me out, please. Halakha (Jewish law) explicitly forbids mistreatment of the convert, including reminding that person that they were once not a Jew. “Do not oppress the stranger,” the Torah teaches us, “and you know the feelings of a stranger, because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt.” It’s incumbent upon us to take the experience of having been brutally mistreated because we were different, the Torah teaches us, and use that to become empathetic–and indeed, better–human beings ourselves.
If we are forbidden to even remind converts that they once converted, then surely it could never be in keeping with Jewish teaching to remind someone who struggled so hard to become a parent of their struggle by questioning the identity of their child.
Rabbi Gideon Weitzman of the PUAH institute, which provides infertility counseling, agrees, telling Chesler in the New York Times piece that the most important thing we can do is not to cast aspersions on the children born of surrogates and donated eggs. “We don’t want people to say, ‘My child is more or less Jewish than your child,'” Weitzman says. Indeed.
Maybe Jewish philanthropists ought to turn their attention away from ensuring that Jewish teenagers hook up with Jewish teenagers in Israel on Birthright, and move toward a model of encouraging Judaic involvement from pre-conception through nursery school-age children.
Jewish couples looking to have children through unconventional means–whether IVF, donor eggs, surrogacy, or adoption–should be able to look to their rabbis as a source of welcome and inclusion, and of ways to make a Jewish family life not only possible, but also desirable.