Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority among Haredi Women

Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority among Haredi Women

By Michal S. Raucher
Indiana University Press, 2020, $24.
Reviewed by Roselyn Bell
If you are tired of Ḥaredi women being portrayed as oppressed, uneducated, and subservient to their husbands, Michal Raucher’s Conceiving Agency provides a much-needed corrective, reframing our notions of reproductive agency and religious meaning in the ultra-Orthodox community. Using the tools of ethnography and anthropology as well as the academic literature around bioethics and religious ethics, Raucher proposes a shift in the way we see the source of Ḥaredi religious norms from texts and laws to the lived experience of the practitioners.
Raucher conducted her research over two years in Jerusalem, interviewing in depth Ḥaredi women—23 women who had at least three children—and their obstetricians, nurse-midwives, doulas, and staff of organizations that support their fertility. As a dati woman familiar with the language and practices around pregnancy and birth in the Orthodox world, she was able to gain the trust of her subjects, leverage her insider–outsider status, and observe nuances that others might miss. For example, she notices the difference between the colorful covers of the prenatal advice books for pregnant women and the bindings of their husbands’ seforim in brown or black, with gold lettering. The books sit side by side on bookshelves but represent different realms of literacy. Yet the women interviewed claim to have learned little or nothing from these books because they rely on their own embodied experience of pregnancy rather than on book knowledge.
Raucher traces how this embodied knowledge grows over successive pregnancies. A first-time or second-time pregnant woman is much more subject to the control of the male-dominated medical and rabbinic establishments (which are very intertwined and interdependent, as Raucher shows). But by her third pregnancy, she is more likely to rely on her previous experiences and to claim “I know my body” in making decisions such as whether to have additional ultrasound scans or to avoid a cesarean section. Raucher claims that “Haredi women speak about their third pregnancies as if it has become a ritual in which they have authority.” Thus they feel confident to make decisions without consulting their rabbis, doctors, or even husbands.
Thus, Raucher claims that pregnancy offers these women a unique opportunity to “challenge Haredi gender norms” and to “express agency and rely on their own embodied authority.” Paradoxically, it is precisely because the pregnant woman is fulfilling the Ḥaredi ideal of producing babies, and so ensuring physical continuity, that she gains this agency. Theologically, Ḥaredi women see pregnancy as giving them a direct connection to God, which bypasses the authority of the rabbis and doctors.
During pregnancy, Ḥaredi women see as their religious responsibility to express hishtadlut (efforts or endeavors) in balance with bitaḥon (confidence or trust). The former term involves actively taking steps to ensure the health of the fetus—eating healthfully, avoiding alcohol, performing necessary medical tests—even not looking at immodest billboards. The latter term means trusting in God to intercede, if necessary, to avoid disaster. As one woman put it, “This is my avodat Hashem [service for God]. I carry this child for nine months, and I do not want someone taking it away from me.” The two concepts are in tension, as Ḥaredi women may sometimes reject medical intervention when they feel they are working in partnership with God.
There is inherent tension, obviously, between seeing every pregnancy as a gift from God and deciding what to do when a fetus is fatally flawed or will require medical attention that will threaten the needs of the rest of the family. Raucher reports that Ḥaredi women do, at times, seek abortions or use birth control when doing so furthers the overall pronatalist goals of the community. Financial considerations are increasingly an issue, as Israeli government subsidies have declined. Raucher describes in detail the work of the EFRAT organization to “save” potential Jewish babies from abortion by offering financial incentives, with the goal being to “increase the population of Israel and contribute to the survival of our Jewish nation.”
The title of this book, Conceiving Agency, is a double entendre, referring both to the agency or authority that Ḥaredi women gain when pregnant and to a fresh concept of agency that the author is presenting. She suggests that there is a “wide chasm between normative ethics and lived ethics”—that is, between textbook morality and lived and embodied reality. Ḥaredi women show their devotion to communal norms and goals by having lots of children, just as Ḥaredi men show their devotion by spending years in the yeshiva. Men can embody authority too, but their embodied authority is in contrast to that of the rabbis, which is based on book learning.
This thought-provoking volume gave me a greater appreciation for the close relationship with God that Ḥaredi women feel in pregnancy. However, it raised two questions for me: Does this body-based paradigm of agency then preclude women from pursuing text-based mastery as a source of authority? And if pregnancy is the ultimate religious experience for women, where does that leave women who cannot bear children or are past the age of reproduction? Perhaps Raucher’s next book will examine the religious authority of the bubbes of Jerusalem.

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