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What Makes a Jewish Mother?

When I was a teenager, I went to Jewish weekend camp where every month we had a topic to discuss. The first topic was “What Makes a Jew?” The entire discussion about mothers/fathers, patrilineal/matrilineal descent, observant/not observant, didn’t resonate with me. When I thought about who was Jewish, I decided that whoever says she is Jewish, is Jewish. I never saw any benefit to determining for others whether they were Jewish or not.

This week I read an article in The New York Times called “What Makes a Jewish Mother?” about how to determine, in the case of adoption and sperm/egg donation, the religion of the child. This is my favorite line: “Jewish authorities are finding evidence in the Scriptures to support both arguments: that the egg donor is the mother and that the birth mother is the mother.” I had no idea that “egg donation” came up in the Bible, something that was written thousands of years ago before anyone knew about turkey basters let alone invitro fertilization.

One rabbi said that it is the donor’s religion that determines who the mother is; another expert says it is the woman who birthed the baby who determines the baby’s religion. To me, it comes down to three questions:

Question One: Who is the mother?
Answer: The mother is the one who gets up in the middle of the night when the baby is sick, the one who gets called into school when the child is in trouble and the one who helps the teenager learn lessons from his mistakes.
Question Two: What makes the baby Jewish?
Answer: The baby is Jewish if s/he is raised as a Jew (however that is interpreted by their family).
Question Three: What makes a Jewish mother?
Answer: She does all the things a mother does and raises her children Jewishly.

If you read my answer to question three carefully, you may note that what makes a Jewish mother, in my eyes, is not her being raised Jewish herself. But if she keeps a Jewish home and raises her children Jewish, shouldn’t that be the same thing?



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