Susan Martha Kahn’s ethnography, Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel is a must read for medical anthropologists interested in how reproductive technology shapes the cultural construction of Jewish personhood through gender and sex roles. I will argue that the socio-political and religious construction of Jewish kinship converges at the nexus of reproductive technology and is negotiated by Israeli state policy and rabbinic discourse to determine what constitutes a Jew in modernity.
In today’s arena of globalized medicine, innovative reproductive technology should, according to secularization theory, offer greater conceptual power to the notion of biogenetic relatedness, (Kahn 2000:7) but Kahn cogently shows how various social actors (Israeli men and women, medical personnel, social workers, state legislators and rabbinic authorities), in their desire to create more Jewish babies, express a myriad of reproductive perspectives, both secular and religious, that provoke conflicting and contradictory kinship cosmologies (Kahn 2000:175). Using ethnography, participant observation, legislative history and a symbolic analysis of gender, Israeli nationalism, rabbinic cosmology and biomedical innovation, Kahn concisely maps out the complex social dilemmas that arise when Jewish women—unmarried and married, secular and religious, exercise their agency and seek out reproductive assistance in the Judaic quest to “be fruitful and multiply.” For Kahn, when reproduction within the nuclear family is bifurcated and offspring become technological innovations, kinship as a social construct becomes not only glaringly exposed, its subsequent transparency makes it vulnerable to intense and dissident connotations (Kahn 2000:86).
The religious archetype of a barren or unmarried Jewish woman runs contrary to the biblical commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” and increases the pressure for Jewish women to produce Jewish babies (Kahn 2000:3). Israel’s pronatal embrace of reproductive technology informs women of the state’s desire to create Jewish babies. The sentiment to reproduce is further exacerbated by political and historical events, such as the Holocaust, and need to replenish Jewish stock, as well as to increase Jewish numbers counterbalance the increasing birth rates of the surrounding Palestinian and Arab nations.
Kahn reveals how Jewish women exercise their reproduction agency by using artificial insemination as a means of taking control of their reproductive destiny. Drawing on the interviews with 35 unmarried Jewish women who desired to become mothers, Kahn’s research shows how single, childlessness Israeli women take control of their reproductive futures with the assistance of state-sanctioned reproductive technology. Kahn succinctly illustrates how secular and religious interests in Israel are reconceptualizing gender and body to produce more Jewish citizens. Thus, for Kahn, her research shows why infertile or single (lacking a male counterpart) Jewish women are embodying reproductive technology and reconceptualizing notions of Jewish kinship—because the most valuable cultural mark of a Jewish woman is the achievement of motherhood (Kahn 2000:55). Kahn’s study shows how motherhood and kinship are cultural constructs where women are not submissive actors, but active agents who reconceptualize their bodies to demonstrate volitional power to fulfill a deep historical and religious calling to reproduce. Mahmood’s (2001) study of the practice of veiling is another example of how women reconceptualize their bodies to demonstrate agency. Muslim women in Egypt, as a means of demonstrating their political and religious agency, veil their bodies, not as a sign of identity or an act of resistance to relations of domination, but as a performance of “being and becoming a certain kind of person”, in this case, a shy and modest self as a command from God (Mahmood 2001:215). Similarly, Kahn shows how Jewish women engaging in the process of assisted reproductive technology, cultivate a new category of Jewish kinship; separate from the religious and social institution of marriage. This new category satisfies an urgent social and political obligation, as well as a religious calling to fulfill God’s command for the people of Israel to “be fruitful and multiply.” Kahn shows how unmarried Jewish women achieve conception by suffering a rigorous eight stage pre and post natal routine of state and medical interviews, psychological counselling and repeated clinical attempts, thus transforming motherhood into an ambition that can be accomplished independent of marriage (Kahn 2000:62). Similarly, a study of how embodied practice shapes gender and sex roles is outlined in Rebecca Lester’s book <em>”Jesus in our Womb: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent,”</em> which illustrates how women reconceptualize their gender and body roles. Lester demonstrates how Mexican postulants, who are called by God’s plan, can play a larger role in salvation. Lester shows how gender, bodies and identities of young women entering into the convent can, through suffering a seven stage process of a daily repetitive regime, such as prayer and chores, cultivate new feelings, memories and intellect, transforming their hardship into a sense of control and agency while developing an inner responsibility to God (Lester 2005:4). Furthermore, in what Lester calls the “embodiment paradigm,” Mexican postulants reconceptualized their gender and sex roles spiritually rather than physically, gestating Jesus in their own wombs as daughters, brides and mothers of Christ creating a new fictive kinship cosmology (Lester 2005:4).
Kahn highlights how rabbinic notions of kinship can function within the concept of unmarried Jewish women being artificially inseminated—that subsequent pregnancies do not destabilize Jewish kinship, nor do they delegitimize children born to unmarried Jewish mothers. Importantly, children born of unmarried, artificially inseminated Jewish woman inherit the same cultural, religious and social identity afforded to those born to married Jewish women since Jewish personhood is determined by parturition from a Jewish womb, married or unmarried (Kahn 2000:62). Thus, Kahn demonstrates how unmarried Jewish women have reframed the meaning of motherhood, bifurcating the nuclear family from offspring and conceptualizing motherhood as a goal independent of marriage with the aid of artificial insemination (Kahn 2000:62).
Kahn underscores how the utilization of reproductive technologies have reconceptualized Jewish kinship and successfully challenged marriage as the only legitimate location for social and biological reproduction and through secular legislation backed by rabbinic beliefs, it has generated alternatives for the legitimate reproduction of Jewish babies (Kahn 2000:172). Legislative access to reproduction technologies for unmarried Jewish women in pronatalist Israel falls under the domain of rabbinic authority and thus, opens the door to numerous interpretations of various ethical and legal dilemmas. Kahn clearly shows how traditional Jewish law is both plastic and adaptable when dealing with reproductive technology and its subsequent use for both unmarried and married Jewish women. Where thousands of Jewish women might have otherwise been left infertile, rabbinic innovation and interpretation of traditional Jewish laws has, for both secular and religious as well as married and unmarried Israeli women, provided the opportunity to use reproductive technology to produce legitimate Jewish babies.
Kahn’s research bolsters the argument that global secularization has failed to usurp religious thought. Despite the globalization of medicine and science’s offering of innovative reproductive technologies—which under secularization theory maintains religious notions of kinship should yield to the greater conceptual power of genetic relatedness (Kahn 2000:7)—Kahn conversely explains how various social actors (Israeli women and men, medical personnel, social workers, state legislators and rabbinic authorities, with their diverse reproductive perspectives, both secular and religious), provoke divergent and opposing kinship viewpoints in their drive to produce more Jewish babies (Kahn 2000:175). This suggests that globalization is a multidimensional process and Kahn shows how it intertwines with Judaic reproductive culture (Hefner 1998:260). Kahn’s work highlights the plasticity and transposability (Hefner 1998:261) of Jewish traditional law—that a rabbinic message is compatible with and can be readily adapted to meet both the latest reproductive technologies and secular Israel’s mandate to increase its Jewish numbers. Kahn thoroughly maps out the various complex social dilemmas that can occur for married and unmarried women depending on whether they are secular or religious, using Jewish and non-Jewish sperm, surrogacy, eggs and wombs, and how Halakhic conceptions of kinship and Israel state policy work out solutions to maximize the possibility of reproducing Jews.
Throughout her book, Kahn has a tendency to phrase Jewish reproduction in a suggestive economic context with an emphasis on maximizing productivity, in this case of Jewish citizenry. Kahn’s research demonstrates a convergence of religious piety and economic transformation, or more specifically, the production of Jewish citizenry as a kind of “spiritual economy” (Rudnyckyj 2009:107). Kahn’s use of marketplace terminology and context such as, Jewish surrogates being motivated by financial needs—renting out their wombs demonstrates how Jewish women’s bodies are reconceptualized as reproductive resources to produce more Jewish babies. Kahn cites a high demand for ova in Israel and abroad, which has spawned “womb-merchants” who advertise in newspapers for the purpose exporting Israel surrogates to infertile Jewish couples abroad (Kahn 2000:157). Furthermore, Kahn underscores reproductive technology as “creating conditions for the pronatalist state to recruit the maximum number of wombs into the project of reproducing Jewish citizens” (Kahn 2000:174). Kahn also states, “gestation and parturition are understood as the processes through which Jews come into being, the wombs of Jewish women, both married and unmarried, have come into focus as central to the enterprise of reproduction Jews” (Kahn 2000:172). Lastly, the commodification of maternity has played a vital part in shaping the political and religious culture of modern Israel. Kahn refers to “Jewishness as a scarce commodity,” but with the advent of reproductive technologies, maternity is commodified and gains a commercial value in determining the citizenship of the state of Israel (Kahn 2000:158). Navaro-Yashin, in her ethnography of consumerism, shows how the buying and selling of headscarves in Turkey plays a key role shaping the politics of Islamic identity (Navaro-Yashin 2002:79). Furthermore, Navaro-Yashin shows how commodification reifies specific symbols, like the headscarf as an emblem of identity—of Muslim unity under one God (Navaro-Yashin 2002:83). Similarly, the commodification of Jewish maternity—fertility clinics, sperm and ova donations, IVF and paid surrogacy supported financially by the Israeli state—reifies the symbol of motherhood as a sign of Jewish fertility—of being fruitful and multiplying as God commanded.
In summary, Kahn provides an indepth analysis of Jewish kinship and what constitutes a Jew under the rubric of reproductive technologies. Her examination of how Jewish personhood and kinship are constructed through gender and sex roles, in combination with various secular and religious binary scenarios (married and unmarried, heterosexual and homosexual, Jew and non-Jew) to explain on how it all maps onto reproductive technology to construct a legitimate Jewish citizen.
Hefner, Robert. 1998 Multiple Modernities: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in a Globalizing Age. Annual Review of Anthropology. 27:83-104.
Kahn, Susan Martha. 2000. Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lester, Rebecca. 2005. Introduction. Jesus in our Womb: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1-29.
Mahmood, Saba. 2001. Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival. Cultural Anthropology, 6(2):202-236.
Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2002. The Market for Identities: Buying and Selling Secularity and Islam. In Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey. 78-113.
Rudnykyj, Daromir. 2009. “Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia.” Cultural Anthropology. 24. 1: 104-141.