Cameron Freeman Internet Marketing, Soci-Cultural Antropology

Cameron Freeman

Israeli Personhood and the Politics of Reproductive Technologies

In this paper, I will explore how the latest reproductive technology is informing Jewish gender and sex roles and reshaping the cultural construction of Jewish personhood. By examining the socio-political and religious construction of Jewish kinship as it converges at the nexus of reproductive technology, Israeli state policy and rabbinic discourse, I will show how technical, philosophical and legal terms are used to rectify conflicts and attempt define, negotiate and protect Jewish personhood. Using a comparative approach, I will correlate my findings of Jewish personhood with the research of Conklin and Morgan (1996) and Lamb (1997), explaining similarities and differences, and how they complement, challenge and add to the theorization of personhood.

Notions of personhood and how it is defined, maintained and negotiated in any given political context establishes a base upon which moral and ethical categories are produced, and the structure through which social control is justified and enforced (Kelkin 1983:107). Thus, denying or refuting someone's status of personhood strips them of the capacity to participate in society and make meaningful choices. Furthermore, non-persons are subjected to the interests and objectives of the dominant, recognized citizenry (Kelkin 1983:107). Therefore, the use of labels to personalize or depersonalize certain people or groups is necessary to maintain power and social order, and "those who have the power to define personhood commands the most powerful instrument of social control" (Kelkin 1983:108).

As a secular democracy, Israel is governed by civil laws enacted by elected legislative assemblies who form the Israel Parliament (Knesset). Additionally, in 1980, Israeli law was codified into what is known as the "Foundation of Law," which integrates Jewish "heritage" and Israeli law in such a manner that certain areas of Israeli law, such as matters of marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel, are informed by the rabbinical courts. Thus, Israel, not only sanctions religious authority and jurisdiction over marriage and divorce, it also establishes a fundamental dependence on Jewish religious law (Kahn 2000:71).

Furthermore, because Jewish law only permits marriages only between Jews, problems arise when Israelis wish to marry Jewish converts to Judaism. The issue of "Jewishness" comes into play as to whether or not a convert meets the requirements mandated by the orthodox rabbinate. This also raises similar concerns with Jewish women seeking conception through assisted reproduction technology because it is imperative that Jews conceived in this manner are marriageable-that they meet the requirements of Jewishness as determined by the orthodox rabbinate. Thus, social inclusion, according to Jewish law, is determined by one's marriageability, which signifies one's status as a true Jew (Kahn 2000:73). Any person born to a woman who passes the Halakhic requirements for Jewishness is considered marriageable. This would also apply to any convert who has been evaluated and passed by a rabbinical judge in an Israeli religious conversion court.
In Israel, the religious archetype of a barren or unmarried Jewish woman is an antithesis of the biblical commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28).  This embedded cultural notion increases the pressure for Jewish women to reproduce (Kahn 2000:3). Furthermore, the sentiment to reproduce is exacerbated by political and historical events, such as the Holocaust and the need to replenish Jewish stock. There is also the desire to increase Jewish numbers to counterbalance the increasing birth rates of the surrounding Palestinian and Arab nations. Therefore, Israel's pronatal embrace of reproductive technology informs Jewish women of Israel's desire to produce more Jews. However, there is significant concern about the moral and social implications of assisted reproductive technologies and how it affects what it means to be defined as a Jew.

In the Halakhic imagination there are categories in which it is conceivable to produce what is known as a mamzer-a child conceived of either in an incestuous relationship between specific family members or in an adulterous relationship between a Jewish woman and a Jewish male who is not her husband (Kahn 2000:74). A mamzer is defined and stigmatized in the domain of marital rights and cannot, according to Jewish law, for ten generations engage in a normative relationship-meaning a mamzer is deemed unmarriageable in Israel except to another mamzer.

If Jewish identity is the primary substance of Israeli citizenship, there is rabbinic anxiety about Jewish women using assisted reproductive technology and the possibility of creating mamzers (Kahn 2000:74). Israeli men and women, medical personnel, social workers, state legislators and rabbinic authorities, in their desire to create legitimate Jewish babies, express a myriad of reproductive perspectives, both secular and religious, that provoke conflicting and contradictory kinship cosmologies (Kahn 2000:175). Various complex social dilemmas occur for married and unmarried women depending on whether they are secular or religious, using Jewish and non-Jewish sperm, surrogacy, eggs and wombs. Thus, the process of rabbinic interpretation of various assisted reproductive scenarios exposes how symbolic meanings are ascribed to bodily substances and their affect on gender and sex relations, and subsequent impact on Jewish personhood (Kahn 2000: 110). For example, Jewish personhood is established and legitimized matrilineally at parturition, thus an unmarried Jewish woman can give birth to a legitimate Jewish baby, providing the sperm did not come from a family member, such as a brother, for that would constitute an incestuous relationship and make the child a mamzer and thus unmarriageable. Furthermore, an unmarried Jewish woman can Halakhically use either Jewish donor sperm or non-Jewish sperm to produce a legitimate Jewish baby, although Kahn points out that unmarried Jewish women seeking conception prefer artificial insemination with Jewish donor sperm (Kahn 2000:39). However, Halakhic interpretations are more complex with religious married Jewish women seeking reproductive assistance. For example, a married Jewish woman using artificial insemination and whose husband's sperm is not viable cannot use Jewish donor sperm because it would constitute an illicit relationship and the child would be stigmatized as a mamzer. However, rabbinic interpretation varies where some Rabbis view only sexual intercourse with someone other than a woman's husband constitutes an illicit relationship, taking the view that if the seed (Jewish semen other than the husband's) is implanted via artificial insemination or through in vitro fertilization (IVF), then paternity is not questioned. However, other Rabbis believe that any Jewish sperm other than the husband's semen cannot be used in any reproductive circumstance. Some Rabbis argue that the use of Gentile sperm circumvents the Halakhic problem of adultery (Kahn 2000:105). And still, others posit that the biblical command against putting "seed" in thy neighbours wife does not include implanting a embryo (fertilized by another Jewish man's sperm) in her, thus bypassing the Halakhic problem of an illicit relationship. (Kahn 2000:104). Kahn's examination of the symbolic meanings that are ascribed to bodily substances and their affect on gender and sex relations illustrates the adaptability of Israel's unique religious-legal system to provide numerous reproductive options to produce legitimate Jewish progeny (Kahn 2000:111).

Taking a comparative approach and correlating the construction Jewish personhood with the research of Conklin and Morgan (1996) and Lamb (1997), I will explain similarities and differences, and how they complement, challenge and add to the theorization of personhood. For example, in contrast to the plasticity of Israeli/rabbinic notions of a structural-relational system of personhood, the North American imagination of personhood ascribes nonsocial factors that are fixed and not easily dismantled. The hegemony of Western biomedicine science dictates notions of personhood as being located in biology and the ability of the body to function appropriately and autonomously (Conklin & Morgan 1996:665). Genes are the most fundamental bodily substance for determining biological identity and individual personality. Thus, North Americans seek biological markers to define personhood. For example, locating personhood in fetal biology, personhood is established in the gestation period and is judged on technical criteria of 20 weeks and a minimal weight of 500 grams (Kelkin 1983:103). When Western notions of personhood are disputed on a moral or religious basis concerning the use and practice of reproductive technologies, biological markers, such as moment of conception, gestation or birth are more fixed and rigid, producing an "all or nothing" decision (Coklin & Morgan 1996:660).

The Wari of Western Brazil use a processual-relational/biosocial model of personhood, whereby the sharing of bodily fluids, such as blood and its various subsets: breast milk, semen, vaginal secretions and sweat (valued and publicly recognized social exchanges), delineate consanguineal kinship and marital unions (Conklin & Morgan 1996:670). Wari personhood develops incrementally and is a highly interactive social process. Wari bodies are shaped by social exchanges of bodily substances, which constitute and nurture Wari personhood.  A combination of maternal blood and paternal semen form the fetal blood and body of the fetus and baby is the result of constant nurturing of semen during the course of pregnancy. Thus paternity is established by the father's repeated contributions of semen. Gestation is a social process and failure on the father's part to repeatedly engage sexually with the pregnant mother and contribute semen endangers the fetus (Conklin & Morgan1996:671). Even at the moment of birth, a newborn has yet to achieve the status of a social person until the mother commences nurturing it (outside the womb) with breast milk-upon which the child status changes. Thus, the giving and receiving of bodily substances not only signifies important relationships, it also established the basis upon with personhood is constructed and deconstructed (Conklin & Morgan 1996:681). Unlike Jewish and Western personhood, where personhood once it is attained cannot be rescinded, Wari personhood can gradually be acquired or lost, weakened, withdrawn and denied depending upon the circumstances (Conklin & Morgan 1996:667).

In Northern India, personhood is constructed and deconstructed at critical junctures in the life of Hindu woman. Similar to the Wari, Hindu personhood is relational through the sharing of substances through social interactions of sex, living together, eating and sharing food from the same village soil and owning things, which all contribute to the substantial-emotional bonds that form Hindu personhood in West Bengal, South Asia (Lamb 1997:283). The term, "maya" is used to describe this net of relations-connected or attached by strands consisting of shared bodily substances (Lamb 1997:283).  These strands of personhood are not only formed, constructed and strengthen through the various life stages of the Hindu person, they also increase in numbers and intensity forming a very integral web of relational attachments. However, the allure of having lots of attachments throughout life has a rather nasty "sting" towards the end of life. Maya can make dying a long, slow, painful process due to the strength of maya to one's attachments. Furthermore, when death does occur, if there are too many attachments remaining, the personhood will remain as a suffering ghost or bhat longing for reunion to their former life due to their inability to cut relational ties when they were alive (Lamb 1997:286). Lamb poignantly points out how aging and gender are significant factors in constructing and deconstructing personhood; and like the Wari of Brazil, personhood is constructed at various stages of life through the sharing of substances.

The politics of personhood involve fundamental moral and social questions that affect society and their citizenry. Who gets to say who and what constitutes a person? Who is responsible for resolving conflicts of personhood when they arise? The stakes are high and ultimately it determines who gets to be a person with all the ascribed rights and privileges and who gets excluded.

Conflicts of Israeli Jewishness, where aspects of personhood are determined by symbolic-religious meanings, rather than the biological meaning of bodily substances (ova and sperm) and its relationship to others, are more flexible and adaptable to the biomedical innovations of reproductive technologies. Jewish personhood is determined matrilineally at parturition regardless of the mother's status as married or unmarried. In fact, 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). Furthermore, conflicts are resolved through rabbinic authority and supported by the secular legislative state apparatus, whereas in North America, personhood is defined strictly along psycho-biomedical criteria, which has been authorized by the state health and mental-health institutions. Conversely, conflicts of Wari personhood are resolved by social-relational connections where the sharing of bodily substances delineates personhood.  This can mean the difference between legitimately killing a Wari baby and infanticide. In a case where there was no father to nurture a healthy newborn through the fetal stage to birth, the Wari considered this a legitimate reason for termination. However, in a case where a Wari baby was conceived in an unacceptable, incestuous relationship and had not been properly nurtured by a father's seminal fluids throughout the fetal stage, the killing of the newborn by an angry family member was considered murder because the baby had already commenced breastfeeding and was sharing the mother's bodily fluids. This changed the status of personhood for the newborn. The baby was now, due to the sharing of its mother's bodily fluids a fully constituted social person with all the Wari rights of protection of the family (Conklin & Morgan 1996: 681). In contrast, North American bodies are constructed through nature not nurture and once conception has taken place, the fetus will grow naturally with personhood being ascribed at a fixed length of gestation time, signifying an autonomous fetal child. Furthermore, unlike Jewish personhood, where paternity can be decided by a variety of coordinates: genetically, sexual intercourse, as well as the intentions and actions of the man to procreate. Moreover, genetic paternity can even be eliminated, as in the case of using non-Jewish sperm for fertilization of Jewish eggs (Kahn 2000:110).

In summary, from the four examples of personhood construction: Israelis, North Americans, Wari and West Bengali Hindus, we can see that personhood is culturally constructed through the subjective interpretations of relational sharing. North American persons are construed scientifically through genes and ascribed rights and privileges by correct mental and physical functionality. Wari personhood and kinship is constructed by public observable exchanges of bodily substances that build and nurture a new person, and where rights and privileges are ascribed or denied in a processual-relational manner. Hindu personhood is constructed in a broader range of shared relational ties, such as sex, food, space and environment, only to be deconstructed towards the end of life as a necessary and positive dismantling of attached ties as preparation for the end of life. Whereas, Jewish personhood is constructed on the basis of religious symbolism and a biblical command to be fruitful and multiply. From these four examples we learn that there is no universal criteria of personhood, nor is it constructed in a universal way. Rather, personhood is constructed, negotiated and defined through socially recognized shared substances, that carry culturally symbolic beliefs and practices of being for that specific society.


Conklin Beth A., and Morgan, Lynn M. 1996. “Babies, Bodies, and the Production of Personhood in North America and a Native Amazonian Society.” Ethos Vol. 24, No. 4. pp. 657-694.

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

Sarah Lamb. 1997. “The Making and Unmaking of Persons: Notes on Aging and Gender in North India.” Ethos Vol. 25, No. 3. pp. 279-302.

Kelkin, Dorothy. 1983. The Politics of Personhood. Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly/Health and Society. Vol. 61, No. 1. pp. 101-112.