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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women challenge the patriarchal and authoritarian stereotype of their community

Ultra-Orthodox women have become the main breadwinners of 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 an authoritarian patriarchal community and resistant to public health measures, even during a global pandemic. While this narrative has dominated coverage in this community for decades, it comes from a focus on ultra-Orthodox men. Male community leaders are quoted in the media, and men are more visible among crowds resisting and protesting the lockdown measures. This reinforces both the external views of women in the community as subordinate and internal attempts to silence and exclude women. But given the gender segregation in ultra-Orthodox communities, a full picture of this society simply cannot be drawn from men alone. And when you look at ultra-Orthodox women, a picture of major societal change emerges. Women in the community are increasingly making reproductive decisions, working outside the home, and resisting the authority of the rabbis. Reproductive decision-makers As a religious studies specialist who focuses on gender and Jews, I spent two years from 2009-2011 interviewing ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem about their reproductive experiences. What I heard then I see reflected in the dynamics of ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel today. We talked about their pregnancies – ultra-Orthodox women have about seven children on average – as well as their choice of contraception and prenatal testing. What emerges most clearly from our conversations and the many hours of observations I have conducted in clinics and hospitals is that after multiple pregnancies, ultra-Orthodox women begin to take control of their decisions. in reproductive matters. It goes against what the rabbis expect of them. Rabbis expect ultra-Orthodox men and women to come to them for advice and clearance for medical care. Knowing this, doctors, men and women, might ask a woman who asks for hormonal birth control, “Did your rabbi approve of this?” This relationship cultivates mistrust among ultra-Orthodox women and leads them to distance themselves from both doctors and rabbis when it comes to reproductive care. However, this rejection of outside authority over pregnancy and childbirth is supported by the ultra-Orthodox belief that pregnancy is a time when women embody divine authority. Women’s reproductive authority is therefore not completely counter-cultural; it is rooted in ultra-Orthodox theology. Main breadwinners While gender segregation has long been a feature of ultra-Orthodox ritual life, men and women now lead very different lives. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox men spend most of their days in a Kollel, or religious institute, studying sacred Jewish texts. This task earned them a modest allowance from the government. While the community still values ​​poverty, ultra-Orthodox women have become the main breadwinners. Over the past decade, they have increasingly attended colleges and higher education in order to support their large families. In fact, they are now entering the workforce at a pace similar to their secular peers and forging new careers in tech, music, and politics, for example. New Cultural Portrayals Some recent television shows describe this kind of nuanced understanding of gender and authority among ultra-Orthodox Jews. Take the final season of the Netflix series “Shtisel”, for example. On the TV show, Shira Levi, an ultra-Orthodox young woman from a Mizrahi background – who refers to Jews in the Middle East and North Africa – does scientific research. She comes into contact with one of the main Ashkenazi or European Jewish figures. Their ethnic differences end up being a greater source of tension than Shira’s academic interests. Another character, Tovi Shtisel, is a mother who works outside the home as a teacher. Despite the objections of her husband, a student from Kollel, she buys a car so that she can get to work more efficiently. And finally, Ruchami, who first appears as a teenager in the first season, eagerly marries a Talmud scholar but struggles with a serious illness that makes pregnancy potentially fatal. Despite her commitment to ultra-Orthodox life, she ignores rabbinical and medical decisions. After her rabbi’s decision not to have any more children due to her medical risks, Ruchami decides to get pregnant without anyone knowing. Ruchami Weiss, played by Shira Haas, in the Netflix series “Shtisel”. Netflix These characters mirror my research into how ultra-Orthodox women have a much different relationship with rabbinical authorities and statements than men. However, this is not only due to the change in attitude of women. Ultra-Orthodox society has been experiencing what some call a “crisis of authority” for years. Today there is a proliferation of new formal and informal leaders, leading to a diffusion of authority. In addition to the many rabbis of ultra-Orthodox communities, their assistants or informal assistants, called askanim, operate ubiquitously. Ultra-Orthodox women are also turning to repackaged theories in ultra-Orthodox language, like anti-vaccination campaigns. And finally, ultra-Orthodox Jews have created online groups that challenge the authority of leading rabbis. Acknowledge the Diversity One narrative’s dominance of the reactions of ultra-Orthodox Jews to the COVID-19 pandemic ignores other reasons why the virus has spread so quickly and devastatingly in these communities. Interviews with women reportedly revealed that poverty and cramped living spaces made social distancing nearly impossible. These conversations also reportedly revealed that while some consider Rabbi Chaim Kaneivsky, a 93-year-old ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has cultivated a significant following, as the “King of COVID” for rejecting the public health measures, there is no has not a single rabbi. that all ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews follow. In fact, many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have followed COVID-19 guidelines. And furthermore, attention to women’s complicated experiences with the medical establishment would have highlighted the mistrust and doubt that permeate the ultra-Orthodox community’s relationship to public health measures. During a public health crisis, it’s easy to demonize those who might not follow medical guidelines. But ultra-Orthodox Jews are diverse, and I believe understanding their complexity would allow for better medical information and better care to reach these populations. [3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Michal Raucher, Rutgers University. Read more: FBI reaches out to Hasidic Jews to fight anti-Semitism – but the office has a loaded history with Judaism. But Jewish history may explain some reluctance to restrictions Michal Raucher received funding from the Fulbright Foundation and the Wenner Gren Foundation to complete research related to his first book.


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