When my son Jack was born 19 years ago in London, my mother insisted I call an orthodox rabbi to organize his Bris—the Jewish circumcision ritual.
“We aren’t even orthodox,” I explained to her. But she insisted that she wanted to make sure it was done “the right way.”
So, I called a British orthodox Rabbi who said he needed to see the death certificate of my mother’s mother to make sure she was buried in a Jewish cemetery to prove her Jewishness which would prove my mothers’ Jewishness which would prove my Jewishness and ultimately my son’s. The rabbi doesn’t circumcise Gentiles.
As my mother would say—maybe she did—this was meshuggina. In plain English: crazy.And yet, it seems that these days when it comes to birthing Jews, things have gotten meshugginer.
In today's New York Times, Caren Chesler writes about grappling with the Jewishness of her son, Edward, who she gave birth to after using a donor egg from a non-Jew. According to Jewish law, a child is Jewish as long as he or she comes from a Jewish mother. That was simple in the old days. But “coming from” has taken on a whole new meaning these days, when you can come out of one mother, but come from someone else’s DNA.
I started thinking about these issues a few weeks ago when one of my students was investigating women who use donor eggs for her thesis project at Columbia Journalism School. (Her piece has nothing to do with the Jewishness of it all, but it got me thinking about it all the same.)
So I called my rabbi (a reform rabbi), who referred me to the Puah website. It provides advice about fertility treatments for Jewish woman and it also lists a challah recipe. The website provided the phone number of Leah Davidson, one of their consultants.
“Like anything else in the Jewish world, the question is always the same” Leah told. Moments after the world’s first test tube baby was born on July 25th, 1978, everyone wanted to know, is this kosher?
While the process was okayed, the fear was laboratory mix-ups. A Jewish woman given a non-Jewish embryo accidentally, for instance. So her organization supplies supervisors to keep an eye on your egg and sperm throughout the process—from body to lab back to body, one presumes. It’s a wonder they are allowed to traipse through labs, but apparently, a few doctors are okay with it all. I didn’t ask how closely they stick by the husband as he donates sperm. But sperm doesn’t count anyhow, when it comes to Jewishness. (In fact, as I wrote about in my book, Get Me Out, some orthodox fertility specialists use only non-Jewish donor sperm because the offspring is guaranteed to be Jewish because of the jewish mother, and that would prevent the rare chance of your offspring ever dating a half sibling. That, of course assumes that your offspring will never hook up with a non-Jew.)
As for egg donation, she said originally, the rabbinic authorities in Israel decreed that as long as the womb that is gestating the fetus is Jewish, then the child is Jewish. But in the past few years, there’s been dissent. At this moment, she tells women to check with their own rabbis.
Ellen, the mom in the New York Times piece, who keeps a blog about being a donor recipient, contacted a slew of rabbinic scholars. They doled out all sorts of contradictory advice. As she concludes, “I should have just asked my son who is mother is. He’s known all along.”
And as for my son’s bris, one thing led to another and we ended up flying home to New York, where it was done according to the highest standards of tradition, which in our family ultimately had nothing to do with this rabbi or that one, but according to the wishes of my mother and mother-in-law.