Traditional Sources on Artificial Insemination

Four texts dealing with non-traditional forms of insemination may--or may not--serve as meaningful precedents for the contemporary debate.

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The midrash is undoubtedly based on the fact that the Hebrew spellings of "Jeremiah" and "Sira" have the same numerical equivalent, 271.

This legend subsequently appears in many medieval texts as well as most, if not all, of the rabbinic responsa dealing with artificial insemination. This story supports three contentions: that conception without sexual intercourse is possible; that, unlike sexual intercourse, it does not make a child conceived by a father and daughter a mamzer [illegitimate]; and, since the legend asserts that Ben Sira was the child of Jeremiah, the sperm donor is apparently to be considered the legal, as well as the biological, father of the offspring.

Lying on Another Man's Sheets

The third source commonly quoted is the comment of Rabbi Perez ben Elijah of Corbeil in his work Haggahot Semak who states:

"A woman may lie on her husband's sheets but should be careful not to lie on sheets upon which another man slept lest she become impregnated from his sperm. Why are we not afraid that she become pregnant from her husband's sperm and the child will be conceived of a menstruating woman [niddah]? The answer is that [we are not concerned about the child being the progeny of a menstruating woman] since there is no forbidden intercourse, [and so] the child is completely legitimate [kasher] even from the sperm of another, just as Ben Sira was legitimate. However, we are concerned about the sperm of another man because the child may eventually marry his [own half] sister…"

Whether or not a woman can, in fact, be impregnated by sperm on a sheet (presumably shortly after the man has left the bed), Rabbi Peretz clearly assumes that she can, and thus we have another source within the tradition that contemplates insemination without sexual intercourse. As in the legend cited above, Rabbi Perez assumes that the child so conceived is legitimate, even if the sexual union of the biological parents would have been prohibited‑-here, because the woman was (or might have been) menstruating.

He also mentions a concern that will arise in cases of artificial insemination by a donor (and also in cases of adoption), namely, the worry that the child will later have intercourse with a half sibling, an act classified by Leviticus 18:9 as incest. The people involved would presumably be acting unknowingly, of course, and one must then ask whether the prohibition would apply, but this source assumes that it does.

Identifying the Father

Finally, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), in explaining the verse, "One may not have intercourse with one's neighbor's wife for seed [or sperm]" (Leviticus 18:20), points out that the last two Hebrew words of that verse seem unnecessary. He then raises the possibility that they were included in the text to emphasize one reason for the prohibition of adultery, namely, that society will not know from whom the child is descended.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.