Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women are bucking the patriarchal, authoritarian stereotype of their community
Ultra-Orthodox women have become the main breadwinners in their families. Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images
Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been in the news a lot lately, in part because of their reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With few exceptions, the stories present ultra-Orthodox Jews as a patriarchal community that is authoritarian and resistant to public health action even during a global pandemic.
While this narrative has dominated coverage of this community for decades, it focuses on ultra-Orthodox men. Male community leaders are quoted in the media, and men are more visible among the crowds who oppose and protest lockdowns. This reinforces both the external perceptions of women in the community as submissive as well as internal attempts to silence and exclude women.
However, given the segregation of the sexes in ultra-Orthodox communities, a complete picture of this society cannot be obtained from men alone.
And if you look at ultra-orthodox women, you get a picture of great social change. Women in the community are increasingly making reproductive decisions, working outside the home, and defying rabbis' authority.
Reproductive Decision Makers
As a religious scholar focusing on gender and Jews, I interviewed ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem about their reproductive experiences for two years from 2009 to 2011. What I heard then is reflected in the dynamism of the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel today.
We talked about their pregnancies - ultra-Orthodox women have an average of seven children - as well as their choices of birth control and antenatal tests.
What emerged most clearly from our conversations and the many hours of observation I made in clinics and hospitals was that after multiple pregnancies, ultra-Orthodox women begin to take control of their reproductive decisions. This is contrary to what the rabbis expect of them.
Rabbis expect ultra-Orthodox men and women to come to them for advice and permission to receive medical care. Knowing this, both male and female doctors could ask a woman using hormonal contraception, "Did your rabbi approve this?" This relationship fosters distrust among ultra-Orthodox women and leads them to distance themselves from both doctors and rabbis regarding reproductive care.
This rejection of external authority over pregnancy and childbirth, however, is backed up by the ultra-orthodox belief that pregnancy is a time when women embody divine authority. So women's reproductive authority is not entirely countercultural. It is embedded in ultra-orthodox theology.
While gender segregation has long been a feature of ultra-orthodox ritual life, today men and women lead very different lives.
In Israel, ultra-Orthodox men spend most of their days in a college or religious institute studying sacred Jewish texts. This task earns them a modest government grant.
While the community still values poverty, ultra-Orthodox women have become the main breadwinners. Over the past decade, they have increasingly attended college and graduate school to support their large families. In fact, they are now entering the world of work at a rate similar to that of their secular counterparts, forging new careers in technology, music, and politics, for example.
New cultural representations
Some recent television shows show such a nuanced understanding of gender and authority among ultra-Orthodox Jews. Take, for example, the final season of the Netflix series "Shtisel".
On the TV show, Shira Levi, a young ultra-Orthodox woman with a Mizrahi background who relates to Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, conducts research. She enters into a relationship with one of the most important Ashkenazi or European Jewish figures. Her ethnic differences are a bigger source of tension than Shira's academic interests.
Another character, Tovi Shtisel, is a mother who works as a teacher outside the home. Despite the objections of her husband, a Kollel student, she buys a car so that she can work more efficiently.
And finally, Ruchami, who first appeared in season one as a teenager, eagerly marries a Talmudic scholar but struggles with a serious illness that makes pregnancy life-threatening. Despite her commitment to ultra-orthodox life, she violates rabbinical and medical decisions. After her rabbi decides that she should not have another child due to her medical risks, Ruchami decides to become pregnant without anyone's knowledge.
Ultra Orthodox woman holds baby in press photo for Netflix show
These characters reflect my research that ultra-Orthodox women have a very different relationship with rabbinical authorities and utterances than men. However, this is not only due to changes in attitudes among women. The ultra-Orthodox society has been experiencing a so-called "crisis of authority" for years.
Today there is an increase in new formal and informal leaders, leading to a diffusion of authority. In addition to the many rabbis in ultra-Orthodox communities, their assistants or informal helpers, called askanim, are ubiquitous. Ultra-Orthodox women are also turning to theories repackaged in ultra-Orthodox language, such as vaccination campaigns. Finally, ultra-Orthodox Jews have formed online groups that challenge the authority of leading rabbis.
The dominance of a narrative about the reactions of ultra-Orthodox Jews to the COVID-19 pandemic ignores other reasons why the virus spread so rapidly and devastatingly in these communities.
Interviews with women have shown that poverty and cramped living spaces make social distancing almost impossible. Those talks also revealed that although some Rabbis have viewed Chaim Kaneivsky, a 93-year-old ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has built a significant following, as the "King of COVID" for opposing public health measures, it is not a single rabbi gives which all Israeli ultra-orthodox Jews follow. In fact, many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have followed COVID-19 guidelines.
In addition, attention to the intricate experiences of women with the medical establishment would have highlighted the suspicions and doubts that pervade the ultra-Orthodox community's relationship with public health action.
During a public health crisis, it is easy to demonize those who may not follow medical guidelines. But ultra-Orthodox Jews are diverse, and I believe that understanding their complexities would enable better medical information and care to reach these populations.
[3 media, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP, and RNS.]
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Michal Raucher, Rutgers University.
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Michal Raucher has received funding from the Fulbright Foundation and the Wenner Gren Foundation to complete research on her first book.
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