Reproductive Ethics & Orthodox Jewish Women


A review of (Re)Producing Ethics and the Ethics of Reproduction: Reproductive Ethics among Haredi Women in Jerusalem, by Michal S. Raucher.

This dissertation explores the ways in which Haredi, ultra-orthodox Jewish, women in Jerusalem claim authority in decisions regarding their bodies and reproductive lives. Focusing on actual pregnancy and birth experiences of Haredi women, Michal Raucher underlines the importance of ethnography in bioethical discussions. She offers a new definition of ethics, “lived ethics” as she calls it, based on ethical practices of individuals. The book reveals that any ethical discussion, which is solely based on a reading of texts (such as Jewish bioethical discussions traditionally based on rabbinic sources) remains far from being adequate unless it incorporates the embodied experiences of women.

The first chapter outlines the dissertation by presenting each chapter, in addition to describing specific research goals and questions. This chapter provides an examination of ethics by the author. Raucher argues that Haredi women’s reproductive experience does not reflect the Jewish reproductive ethics. Her theoretical formulation of ethics “1) uses ethnography to inform ethical discourse; 2) views the body as the site of subjectivity; and 3) treats women’s agency as a result of her interaction with (not rejection of) her surroundings” (p.15). Following Rosalyn Diprose (Rosalyn Diprose, The Bodies of Women: Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Difference. London: Routledge, 1994.), she argues that embodiment and context are essential to an understanding of ethics. She notes that “lived ethics –in context embodied by moral agents – should be our new understanding of ethics” (p.16).

The first chapter also provides an overview of research methods. Raucher interviewed 21 Haredi women in two years as well as 13 physicians and nurses. She also interviewed doulas (labor coaches) with regards to pregnancy and birth. She observed about 100 hours of ultrasound examinations with Haredi women at two prenatal clinics in Jerusalem (p. 31). She attended weekly prenatal classes for Haredi women which were taught by rabbis’ wives on a range of topics. She also volunteered at two anti-abortion organizations for over a year and inquired about abortion/pro-life politics.

The second chapter explores two main fields of influence on this research: anthropology of reproduction and Jewish bioethics.  The author criticizes studies on Jewish reproduction for being too textual and for ignoring the actual reproductive experiences of women. She argues instead for ethnographically-based bioethics which “recognizes the role of moral agents”(p. 62).

The third chapter provides information about Haredi women. Raucher describes the genesis of ultra-orthodox Judaism, the education that Haredi women and men receive, the financial hardships Haredi families face, their marriage practices as well as the significance of bearing children in a Haredi family. Finally we learn about the arrangement of Haredi houses. This chapter provides us with enough contextual background to understand Haredi women’s reproductive decisions, creating the foundation for the following chapters.

The fourth chapter explores the politics of triangular relationships which emerge among rabbis, medical doctors, and their patients. The rabbis have considerable influence on medical doctors who take care of Haredi women. Haredi women consult their rabbis for medical matters, who may refer names of physicians for that particular condition, or even dispense medicine. The physicians seek to maintain good relationships with rabbis because of the business potential therein. They not only maintain a client base but also receive a sum of money from the National Insurance Institute for every hospital birth. This relationship between rabbis and physicians is often presented as holistic care, where all manner of patient needs are attended to, all the while honoring the modesty standards and religious concerns of Haredi women. However, the author elucidates some aspects of this which may not be in the best interests of Haredi women. Raucher gives a poignant example of the extent to which rabbinic involvement in medical care can be detrimental to a Haredi woman’s health: “For example, in an effort to limit all prenatal tests, some rabbis do not allow women to take a glucose tolerance test. As a result, doctors do not know if a patient is at risk of developing gestational diabetes” (p. 114). Raucher makes explicit that the ignorance of physicians of the precarious rabbinic involvement in medical matters is far from ethical: “On the ground religion and medicine are represented by rabbis and doctors, concerned for their own interests and acting out of a desire to maintain authority over medical decisions. The result is not a consistent compromise between doctors and rabbis but rather a constant competition between systems of authority” (p. 116).

Chapter five investigates the core arguments of the research. In this chapter we learn the methods whereby Haredi women exert agency over their reproductive life, rejecting rabbinic or medical influences. Haredi women typically have on average six or seven children. After the first two or three pregnancies, they prefer to rely on an embodied knowledge of pregnancy, feeling the need for gynecological visits less and less.  Haredi women think of their pregnant body as a “vessel or conduit for God to bring about new life” (p. 133). They see pregnancy as an embodied experience connected with God. Since “reproduction—the act of creation—occurs through women’s bodies, women maintain authority over reproductive decisions” (p. 119). It is this divine authority, which empowers them during their pregnancy. Rabbis, as men, never experience such a privileged position, and their knowledge is limited to texts, as opposed to women’s embodied knowledge and divinely ordained pregnancy experience. Raucher provides us with examples of how Haredi women avoid rabbinic influence, and rely on their embodied experience as they exert agency in reproductive decision making. Raucher reveals that the theological understandings and patriarchal influences which subscribe women the gendered role of being endless reproducers, can also be a source of empowerment. Raucher, follows Saba Mahmood (Saba Mahmood “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival”. Cultural Anthropology, 2001, 6(2), pp. 202-36.) and suggests that ‘“we define agency in terms of the “capacity for action,’ enabled and created by the ‘historically specific relations of subordination’ in which Haredi women’s identity is formed”’ (p. 121). She proposes that a woman’s “claims to independence and individuality” which “drive her choices during pregnancy” makes her “reproductive ethic” (p. 121).

Chapter six provides more insight into theological resources a Haredi woman utilizes in exerting authority over her reproductive life. Raucher here analyzes two concepts hishtadlut (literally, “endeavors” or “efforts”) and bitachon (literally, “security” or “confidence”) to further the understanding of women’s reliance on their own relationship with God. Haredi women take good care of their pregnant bodies and as such prove their histadlut. In their partnership with God, this is fulfilling their part. They also acknowledge that as pregnant women they have a privileged relationship with God and God will protect them during pregnancy and birth- this is bitachon. Their confidence in this relationship with God, helps them to exert more control over their pregnancy experience and birth.

The seventh chapter scrutinizes the relationship between the politics of abortion and financial circumstances.  The first part of the chapter provides a historical overview of legislations regarding abortion in Israel. Deteriorating financial conditions of larger families comprised an essential part of the discussions surrounding the legislative actions. The second part of the chapter reveals that economic concerns can inform a Haredi woman’s reproductive decisions such as maintaining pregnancy or not. The decision to terminate or maintain a pregnancy can also be informed by the actions of a pro-life institution, Efrat, which provides economic support to the family during the first year of a child’s life.

In the concluding chapter, the author elaborates further on the agency and reproductive ethics of Haredi women. She underlines that the Haredi woman’s body, although closely regulated by rabbis, also becomes the source of her autonomy during pregnancy. Studies on Jewish reproduction generally offer pronatalism as the main contributing factor to large families. Raucher reveals the inadequacy in this explanation. She proffers that pregnancy itself, as a desired and privileged experience, remains an additional pretext for reproduction in Haredi women. Raucher concludes that ethnography is essential to any bioethical analysis. Thanks to ethnography, one can understand the individual reproductive ethics of women, the conditions that inform their reproductive decisions and also their agency in reproductive matters.

This research constitutes a significant contribution to studies on Jewish reproduction and Jewish bioethics by revealing their shortcomings.  Raucher calls into question their tendency to overlook the actual reproductive experiences of women in favor of textual analysis. Her suggestion that ethnography should partner with bioethical studies embodies is an important argument that will further the field of bioethics.  This work will capture the interest of those in the fields of bioethics, anthropology of reproduction, and Jewish reproductive studies. It also represents a significant resource for those interested in Haredi culture.

Merve Göknar
Independent researcher
Los Angeles

Primary Sources

Participant observation in two prenatal clinics, in two anti-abortion institutions and in a Haredi community in Jerusalem
Interviews with patients, physicians, nurses in prenatal clinics, doulas, Haredi women

Dissertation Information

Northwestern University. 2013. 246 pp. Primary Advisor: Laurie Zoloth.

Image: Haredi woman. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like