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Interview'Shtisel,' 'Unorthodox' don't capture haredi women's reality

How Israeli ultra-Orthodox women have taken back their reproductive rights

‘Conceiving Agency’ by Michal Raucher explores the ways in which women in the insular community use pregnancy, abortion, and birth control to carve out an independent space

An illustrative photo of an ultra-Orthodox wedding. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of an ultra-Orthodox wedding. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK — Outsiders who see the parade of strollers in Jerusalem’s haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, neighborhoods — or get their views of haredim from TV shows like “Shtisel” or “Unorthodox” — may be quick to judge the women there as constrained by their roles as wives and mothers.

Researcher Michal Raucher paints a much more complicated picture of strictly religious Jewish women in her new book, “Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority Among Haredi Women.”

Based on her interviews with more than 20 women and as many medical professionals, the book shows the many ways haredi women express their autonomy when it comes to contraception, prenatal care and abortion. Trusting their own bodies and experience, women often “find space to make reproductive decisions without the incursion of their husbands or their rabbis,” writes Raucher. “Furthermore, although their bodies are heavily regulated, Haredi women also see their pregnant bodies as sources of empowerment.”

Raucher is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and affiliate faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She spoke to The Jewish Week from her home in Teaneck.

You describe yourself as an observant Jew, but certainly not haredi. Your research began before you had kids of your own. How did your subjects take to you as an outsider?

This was in 2009-2011. I was in grad school and my husband Yoni and I lived in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, not a haredi neighborhood like Mea Shearim. I covered my hair, but I wore pants and this was okay in Baka but made no sense in Mea Shearim. For my research trips I bought a bunch of long skirts and turtlenecks and whatever I would see my informants wear, including a tichel, or headscarf. But they could always tell — I looked different, I walked different, it was weird to see a woman my age without a stroller. A couple of women said things like, “Thanks for dressing like this but you really don’t have to.”

Michal Raucher, author of ‘Conceiving Agency.’ (Courtesy/ via New York Jewish Week)

And they were eager to tell their stories?

Very eager. I started with a very open-ended question: “Tell me about your pregnancy.” Their answers could last over an hour. They loved talking to me because they didn’t talk about it among themselves, because, they’d say, “everybody is pregnant all the time.” And they didn’t talk to each other about [challenging the rabbis or husbands] because they were terrified their friends would find out, who might tell their husband, who goes to the rav (rabbi) and everybody is in trouble. And they told me that nobody that matters to them was going to read my book.

“Haredi” describes the insular, very circumscribed religious Jewish life of men and women who look to the halacha, or Jewish law, as a guide to nearly every aspect of their lives, from dress and occupations to conception and pregnancy.

Haredi refers to the whole gamut of ultra-Orthodox religious practice in Israel. Over the last two decades there has been a trend that was always popular, but has become more extreme, which is that rabbis have the authority to interpret everything for their constituents. For a long time rabbinical authority was limited to just issues having to do with religion — kashrut, prayer, maybe which yeshiva you send your son to. And then over the last 20 years or so, rabbis started getting more specialized training, for example, at fertility centers to understand the intricacies of reproductive technologies.

As a result you as a haredi person are expected to go to that rabbi with a question in that topic — not just getting counsel, but halachic answers about these things. As I explain to my students, rabbis sit as intermediaries between God and people as interpreters of those laws. So you can see how radical it is that the women I spoke to are bypassing the rabbis and just going to the source, as it were.

‘Conceiving Agency’ by Michal Raucher. (Courtesy/ via New York Jewish Week)

You describe this as “reproductive agency,” or the ability of women to make decisions about reproduction and pregnancy without turning to rabbis, husbands or doctors for help or approval. What are some examples?

The classic one is ultrasound. A lot of rabbis don’t want them to get ultrasounds during pregnancy, either because they are hasidic and think the hidden should stay hidden, or because they are more Litvish (following the Lithuanian, non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox school of thought) and don’t want women to get an abortion.

But pregnant women get ultrasounds all the time in Israel, and the women I interviewed told me repeatedly they love getting ultrasounds. They wouldn’t put them on their refrigerators, because they knew they weren’t supposed to be doing it, but they’d say, “I like an ultrasound. It calms me. I like seeing a picture of the baby and knowing that everything is okay.”

Other examples?

Contraception. Rabbis still want women to come to them for permission for contraception. Most women said they wouldn’t dream of asking about contraception at the beginning of their reproductive lives, but after two or three pregnancies they start asking the rabbi. The rabbi might give them limited permission to use, say, hormonal birth control but only for a short period of time, “six months and then you come back to me.” Many of the women said that by the time they had three or four children, they decided when they were ready to get pregnant again. And they would either go to a doctor who wouldn’t ask questions or would avoid getting pregnant through other means.

Many of the women said that by the time they had three or four children, they decided when they were ready to get pregnant again

You write that these women do not see their autonomy in reproductive matters as being in conflict with religious norms, and that even abortion can be justified within the current haredi cultural and economic context. How so?

Abortion fits into an ethic of what their family needs. The family needs them to be healthy. The family needs them to support the other kids. The family needs them to continue making money. Most women were full-time workers while their husbands were studying full time… Not being able to afford another child is a significant reason women gave me for having an abortion.

The other reason is a fetal diagnosis that the baby would not survive very long. Emotionally it is seen as not good to carry a whole pregnancy only to lose the child, but moreover, each pregnancy puts them in physical danger, and it is not worth it to go through all the risk when they have to take care of all these other kids.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

And they are also looking to a future when they are expected to and might be able to have more children, and they don’t want to jeopardize that.

Right. What happens if a high-risk pregnancy results in not having more children?

Colleagues who do research on Catholics say women also talk about their current families and their future families as reasons for having an abortion. They are not anti-family. They are maintaining their future prospects.

But the women you spoke with would not consult a rabbi about getting an abortion.

If it is for financial reasons, they absolutely avoid it. Although financial needs are driving women’s reproductive decisions, getting an abortion for financial reasons runs counter to haredi norms. In case of a fetal deformity or a threat to their health, both acceptable reasons to get an abortion, they all knew which rabbis to consult. As a lot of Jews know, abortions are halachically mandated in certain circumstances.

It was fascinating that while doing this research, so many would tell me about “Rav Schussheim.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in the West Bank Settlement of Beitar Illit on July 8, 2020 (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

That’s Dr. Eliyahu Schussheim, who runs EFRAT, an organization that tries to prevent abortions by providing financial support to women who are considering getting one.

Yes, they [EFRAT] are anti-abortion, so why go to him? Because he was medically trained, and he or his medical experts would also give permission for an abortion if carrying to term was incompatible for the life of the mother or the baby.

You spent time at the EFRAT office as a participant-observer. Although its goal is to prevent women from terminating their pregnancies, it is very different from pro-life organizations here. In what ways?

They would never call themselves anti-abortion. They say “pro-woman.” They believe that by providing financial support they are allowing women to make reproductive choices. They don’t dispense money or supplies until the baby is born, mainly because Israel allows abortion up until the 39th week of pregnancy and they want to make sure you are going to have the baby. They are more explicit in acknowledging that people have abortions for financial reasons. I’ve gotten involved in the reproductive justice movement, where you see that people can’t have agency if they can’t financially support the decisions they want to make. EFRAT is really explicit about that.

Portrait of a pregnant woman, May 26 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Although none of the women you interviewed would consider themselves feminists, they are taking control of an important part of their lives without consulting the male authorities. At the same time, it might strike the secular reader as a very mild form of rebellion. Their reproductive agency doesn’t challenge the fact that their fundamental responsibility is, to put it crudely, to make babies. As a feminist ethnographer, did you struggle with that?

The women recognized that limitation and were often sad at the birth of their children because their moment of authority was over. But whether or not you are in a conservative religious culture, agency for all of us is constrained — by finances, or cultural norms, or geography, or disability. One of my colleagues notes that agency doesn’t mean free will, but making choices within the constraints we all have. Haredi women have more constraints than others, and they are still finding ways of making choices that creatively conform to the norms around them.

Their agency is really there — you just have to look a little harder to find it. We have to fight against the impulse to see them as “baby-making machines” and nothing else. I hope my book really complicates that picture of haredi women for a wider Jewish audience, which struggles to see haredi women as anything more and not as three-dimensional people.

I also hope we can look at reproduction differently, and see haredi Judaism not just as a “book culture” — in which men study the books and write the laws — but one in which books and babies both exist on very high pedestals, and procreation is an important area where women have their own authority. It’s a rebalancing of the scales.

I hope my book really complicates that picture of haredi women for a wider Jewish audience

What other lessons can be drawn from your study of haredi women?

I’d like people to realize that bodies play a huge role in haredi identity. Women’s and men’s bodies are regulated from a very young age. Their culture is not all cerebral and ideological, but visceral and embodied. In my talks I am asked about “Unorthodox,” and I always need to clarify that when Esty goes to Berlin and picks out a pair of jeans, the directors missed how bizarre it must have felt after the clothing she had been wearing in her own life as a haredi woman.

Secondly, my original training is in religious ethics, and I hope people see that the way religious people make religious decisions is not just about what rabbis or the halacha say, but that ordinary folk grapple with ethical problems in ways that reflect their cultural, economic and familial context. It might appear that haredim are uniform in following religious law, but they are thinking about immediate and more distant contexts about how to make these decisions.

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