Question: My husband and I have had trouble conceiving and are considering using an egg donor. It’s very important to us that our child be considered Jewish. Do we need to find a Jewish egg donor?
Leora, New York
Answer: Leora, I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been having trouble getting pregnant. Infertility is an increasingly prominent problem for Jewish couples, and I hope you’re getting the support you need from your family and friends during these difficult times.
Because more and more people are dealing with the challenges of infertility, there are a hefty amount of responsa and published rabbinic opinions on these matters. Of course, this was not an issue that Jewish authorities had to deal with until quite recently, but amazingly there is some precedent for this issue that goes as far back as the midrash.
The medieval Targum Yonatan, an Aramaic translation and commentary on the Bible, cites a fascinating–and fascinatingly relevant–account of the conception of Jacob’s children, Joseph and Dinah. According to a midrash quoted in the Targum, Dinah was originally conceived in Rachel’s womb, and Joseph in Leah’s womb. At some point while Leah and Rachel were pregnant the children inside them swapped places, in order to give Rachel the merit of having a boy. (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 29:22)
This story is often the first source cited in Jewish legal discussions of surrogacy and egg donation. Because Dinah is clearly considered to be a child of Leah, and Joseph a child of Rachel, it must be that the woman who gives birth to a child is considered its mother.
Two other passages from the Talmud seem to support this position (Yevamot 78a, and Yevamot 79b) and commentators Rashi and Maimonides, among many others, assert that birth is the definitive factor in determining who is considered the mother of a child. However, not everyone holds by this view. In particular, Nahmanides associated motherhood with conception, and not birth, and thus would likely have found a child produced from a non-Jewish egg donor to be a non-Jew (see articles about Jewish law for a more complete discussion).
Today, the Reform movement determines who is Jewish based much more on upbringing than on parenting. If a child is raised Jewish and has one Jewish parent, father or mother, the child is considered to be a Jew, and so the issue of a Jewish egg donor is moot.
In 1997, the Conservative Movement‘s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards addressed this issue. It concluded that the gestational mother is to be considered the mother of the child in respect to whether the child is Jewish, and in respect to the mitzvot associated with motherhood.
Among Orthodox authorities there is still quite a bit of disagreement about whether motherhood is determined at conception or at birth, but it is more common to find an Orthodox rabbi who will consider the mother who carries the child the halakhic mother. Rabbis who require both a Jewish egg donor and a Jewish gestational mother face concerns that a child who results from a Jewish egg donor could unknowingly end up in an adult relationship with its sibling, another serious and complex issue.
Probably the best course of action is to consult with your local rabbi and see what he or she recommends. If your rabbi feels that there are any concerns with using a non-Jewish egg donor then you may want to have your child officially converted as an infant, at which point your child will be the Jewiest kid in the world.
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Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.