By Michal Raucher
When people learn that I have conducted research on reproduction among ḥִaredi (ultra-Orthodox) women in Jerusalem, their first questions usually are: “Do they use birth control?” “Do they get abortions?” and “Will they use fertility treatments?” These questions are understandable. People generally know that haredi women have a high birthrate, even by Israeli standards, and although most Americans can easily articulate the normative religious positions on these reproductive practices, we don’t talk a whole lot about what women actually do.
This was, after all, the reason that I had started conducting interviews with ḥִaredi women in 2009. I moved to Jerusalem after I finished my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D., and set out to discover whether women’s reproductive actions aligned with the reproductive norms of their religious and cultural context.
In short, yes, ḥִaredi women use hormonal birth control to space out their pregnancies; they get abortions for fetal anomalies and even, early in their pregnancies, out of financial concerns; and they use fertility treatments when they are having trouble conceiving.
These findings, though, are not the most surprising aspects of ḥִaredi women’s reproductive lives. Despite the authorities (doctors, rabbis, and the state) who are attempting to control women’s reproductive lives, ḥִaredi women, as I demonstrate in my book, make reproductive decisions after considering their own embodied experiences and authority. Women reject rabbinic norms in favor of an embodied authority situated in their ideology of a woman’s importance in reproduction. When they are pregnant, they make decisions without their rabbis, husbands, or doctors because they believe that being pregnant multiple times (an experience their rabbis and husbands will never have) affords them greater authority over reproductive decisions. The specific decisions ḥִaredi women make regarding pregnancy and reproduction vary from woman to woman and even from one pregnancy to the next. Thus, there is no way to generalize what all ḥִaredi women do or won’t do with regards to reproductive actions. However, I repeatedly found that ḥִaredi women have developed a unique approach to making these decisions.
“This Is my Avodat Hashem”
Let me tell you about Talya, an Israeli ḥִaredi woman whom I interviewed multiple times during and after her fourth pregnancy. Talya faced a tough decision regarding the hospital where she would give birth. She preferred a hospital that is more inclined toward natural birthing and has a policy of allowing the baby to remain with the mother as tests are performed on the newborn. This hospital, however, is not “Shabbat-oriented,” meaning that it does not observe the laws of Shabbat. The other hospital is Shabbat-oriented but will take the baby away right after the birth and place him or her in the nursery. Talya knew this was a question she should ask her rabbi, but she hesitated before approaching him. She assumed that he would want her to give birth at the Shabbat-oriented hospital; however, Talya did not want to give birth there. Instead, she registered at both hospitals.
At her husband’s urging, Talya ultimately asked her rabbi. He responded to her dilemma by saying, “Which is more important to you—to have the birth go ‘exactly the way you want it’ or to have someone not work for you on Shabbat?” When Talya relayed the story, she quoted her rabbi as asking in a mocking tone, clearly insensitive to her desires. This answer hurt Talya, because her rabbi undermined her preferences for natural labor in favor of observing Shabbat. Talya continued, “It’s not an easy thing for a woman. This is my avodat Hashem [service of God]. I carry this child for nine months, and I don’t want someone taking it away from me after it’s born.” Her response can be seen as responding both to her rabbi’s words and to what would occur in the Shabbat-observant hospital. Talya’s rabbi had taken away from her the ability to make her decision based on her embodied preferences, which she felt entitled to exercise. Instead, he wanted her to decide on a hospital based on its observance of halakhah.
Another reason Talya wanted to avoid the Shabbat-observant hospital was that by removing the baby from her after birth, this hospital removes the source of a ḥִaredi woman’s authority immediately after the baby leaves her body. Many women shared with me their sadness at birth because someone else takes the baby away from them. They explained that after birth, the umbilical cord no longer connects a woman to her baby, and, moreover, once the umbilical cord is severed, a woman’s direct line to God is severed as well. I heard this embodied theology repeated in a few settings. Although many women might be disappointed to have their baby taken away right after birth, ḥִaredi women emphasized the severing of the umbilical cord as the moment when their unique connection to God ended and, therefore, their source of authority disappeared.
Talya acknowledged the importance of halakhah and observing Shabbat. She questioned her own preference for the natural-birthing hospital by saying, “Who am I to put my emotional needs before Shabbat?” In the end, however, she went into labor early in the week and did not have to decide between the two hospitals. Talya gave birth to her fourth child in a hospital that was not particularly Shabbat-oriented but allowed her to stay with the baby immediately after the birth. As she shared this story with me, Talya described prioritizing her “emotional needs,” despite the fact that the timing of her labor released her from any concerns about Shabbat. In this way, Talya privileges her own pregnant positionality over the prohibitions of Shabbat, indicating that the authority she derives from the embodiment of pregnancy exceeds her sense of obligation to halakhah. Allowing someone else to make a decision for her, or to tell her what she needs to do during pregnancy, birth, or the immediate postpartum period would violate what Talya sees as her divinely ordained role.
Cultural and Theological Norms
To prioritize their embodied experiences, ḥִaredi women draw on certain cultural and theological norms that bolster their own authority over reproductive decisions and make space for its expression. For example, despite the prevalence of pregnant ḥִaredi women in Jerusalem, many expressed to me that they did not discuss their reproductive decisions with their husbands, family, or friends. Avoiding discussing a pregnancy is considered a segulah (a taboo or folk practice) that can protect women from reproductive misfortune. Women explained the segulah as fear that acknowledging the pregnancy in a trivial way might result in harm to the fetus. The absence of societal and familial discussion leaves a fertile lacuna for a ḥִaredi woman to make her own reproductive decisions.
Furthermore, the tension between the trivialization of pregnancy and the fear of reproductive catastrophe leads women to understand that their decisions are important but should not be discussed with others. As a result, a ḥִaredi woman feels the authority to make decisions regarding prenatal testing, ultrasound, and birth control because pregnancy carries such great risk, for which she is responsible—and she can do so without fear that her community will judge her, as long as nobody talks about her pregnancy. If nobody asks her which prenatal tests she is getting, because her community considers such discussions to be a segulah, she does not have to tell anyone that her decision might be counter to what her rabbi would advise. For an individual ḥִaredi woman, this space to experience her pregnancy free from the involvement of the community results in her ability to make reproductive decisions independently.
Ḥaredi women do not take this responsibility lightly. They understand that their reproductive actions carry great weight individually, communally, and religiously, and they draw on their embodied experiences to justify their choices. I found that women were more likely to express reproductive authority after they had experienced one or two pregnancies. Then, they explained, they understood pregnancy and knew what decisions to make. Ḥaredi women speak about their third and subsequent pregnancies as if pregnancy is a ritual in which they have authority. This places pregnancy squarely within other ḥִaredi bodily practices, where devotion to ḥִaredi life, distinction from the outside world, and relationship with God are established through repeated action. This alignment with ḥִaredi norms is what ultimately provides women with the agency to make decisions without their rabbinic leaders.
Embodying Divine Authority
One more example will illustrate what it means for ḥִaredi women to embody Divine authority while pregnant. At the conclusion of our two-hour interview, Naomi walked me to the bus and told me a midrash about Michal, the wife of King David and my namesake in the Tanakh. We know from the text (2 Samuel 6:23) that Michal never had children, and Naomi added a midrash that Michal made up for the fact that she was barren by wearing tefillin. Naomi explained that Michal wore the tefillin voluntarily to remind herself of God’s presence in her life. “Unlike other women who know Hashem intuitively, Michal needed to teach herself, and she did this through tefillin.” Naomi clarified that, whereas women who are able to get pregnant “know Hashem intuitively,” Michal’s inability to have children prevented her from experiencing God through her own pregnant body.
As we approached the bus stop, Naomi concluded, “Pregnancy is that bodily reminder of Hashem. You can’t ignore Hashem when you are pregnant or say that anything is higher than Hashem.” According to Naomi, Michal used tefillin to create that physical connection to God, but for ḥִaredi women, pregnancy is the embodied experience that enables them to experience God directly and to draw on God’s authority, without the interference of their rabbis.
Ḥaredi women’s theology of embodying Divine authority changes prominent structural characteristics of the ḥִaredi world and its construction of moral knowledge. Whereas rabbis are involved in the daily activities of their ḥִaredi constituents, when ḥִaredi women cultivate a relationship with God through reproduction, they can avoid medical and rabbinic involvement if they want. In other areas, rabbis act as intermediaries interpreting God’s will for ḥִaredi individuals, but during pregnancy and birth, women draw a direct line to God, thus cutting out the middlemen.
What strikes me as so significant about this is that ḥִaredi women are doing something that is independent of rabbis yet completely within the theology and cultural norms of ḥִaredi life. By creatively complying with the dominant theological and cultural norms about reproduction, ḥִaredi women exert their authority over their bodies and their pregnancies. Furthermore, despite ḥִaredi women’s insistence that they make reproductive decisions without their rabbis, by drawing on these theological concepts, they are connecting themselves to the Jewish past and the Jewish future. In this way, their rejection of rabbinic authority does not imply their rejection of ḥִaredi Judaism in its entirety. Instead, it is a reclaiming of concepts to prioritize women’s embodied experiences.
Dr. Michal Raucher is an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. This essay is adapted from her book, Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority among Haredi Women (Indiana University Press, 2020).
The absence of societal and familial discussion of pregnancy leaves fertile ground for a ḥִaredi woman to make their own reproductive decisions.
Many ḥִaredi women emphasized the severing of the umbilical cord as the moment when their unique connection to God ended and therefore, their source of authority disappeared.
In other areas, rabbis act as intermediaries interpreting God’s will for ḥִaredi individuals, but during pregnancy and birth, women draw a direct line to God, thus cutting out the middlemen.