It could be said that our lives are the sum of our decisions. But how do we make our decisions? And what does the nature of our decision-making process say about who we are?
Dr. Michal Raucher looks at these questions in her new book, “Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority among Haredi Women,” published in September by Indiana University Press. On Monday evening, the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University will host a conversation between Dr. Raucher and Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt of the Forward (see box).
Dr. Raucher lives in Teaneck. She grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, just outside New Haven. She studied for her undergraduate degree at the joint program between Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, earned a masters in bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, and then went to Northwestern University for a doctorate in religious studies, which included studies in anthropology.
“I had advisors in both religious studies and anthropology,” Dr. Raucher said.
Her book is a “much changed version” of her dissertation, which asked both religious and anthropological questions.
“As an undergrad I was studying religion and science and sort of thinking about religion affects bioethics,” she said. “Where is religion in the bioethics discourse? How does religion affect the way any individual person makes medical decisions?”
In choosing a topic for a dissertation, she knew she wanted to focus on Jews, and on reproduction “as sort of feminist topic.”
“There had been some really exciting research coming out of Israel on pro-natalism in Israel and the way the state encourages Jewish women to reproduce,” she said. “There had been this kind of claim in a lot of this scholarship that this pro-natalism was based on Jewish values and that religious women reproduce because it’s the Jewish thing to do.
“I felt that needed a little more exploration. Let’s look at the ‘most religious’ women and see if she is making decisions the way her rabbi says.”
So in 2009, Dr. Raucher and her husband, Yoni Shear, went to Israel so she could research what pregnancy means for charedi women, and how they make decisions around pregnancy. (The couple belong to Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, and Mr. Shear is its youth engagement coordinator.)
Dr. Raucher spoke to 23 charedi women, interviewing them many times over two years. She also interviewed about 25 medical professionals. She attended pregnancy classed for charedi women. She observed in ultrasound prenatal clinics. And she spent a year observing and volunteering “at an organization called Efrat, in crude terms an anti-abortion organization, though they don’t use the phrase, that works a lot with the charedi community.”
She found that often there was a conflict between how rabbis wanted charedi women to act on reproductive issues, and how the women actually acted. The pressure to let rabbis make the decisions was immense.
“All charedim are expected to ask their rabbi about every decision they need to make,” she said. “In the last two or three decades that gotten to be ever more the norm. Not only about making decisions on religious things, like nidah or Shabbat, but also what school should I send my kids to or whether we should go overseas to start a new business.” Medical treatments are also a topic where charedim seek the the guidance of rabbis, she added. “There are whole organizations to help charedim find the right doctors to visit.”
So it’s no surprise that charedi women are expected to bring all their reproduction related decisions — ranging from using birth control to getting prenatal testing to which hospital should they choose to give birth — to a rabbi.
That’s the expectation.
But Dr. Raucher discovered that the reality is somewhat different.
“For the first couple of pregnancies the women do ask these questions,” she said. “After two pregnancies, they start developing this sense of authority over their reproductive decisions. They talk about pregnancy as the time when they can bypass the rabbis because they have a direct line to God. They end up making decisions based on their embodied experiences from earlier pregnancies. They’ll decide they want to see an ultrasound because ‘I know it has calmed me in the past and it will calm me again.’ Or they’ll say, ‘My rabbi really wants me to give birth at this hospital, but I didn’t like the way they treated me last time, so I’m going to give birth at a different hospital.’”
Dr. Raucher said this same self-confidence in their own decision making ability doesn’t spread to other areas.
“Their authority is restricted to questions related to reproduction,” she said. “Many of them understand the umbilical cord to connect them to both the fetus and to God. That’s how they have the direct line. They feel very sad at the moment the umbilical cord is cut. Many of them want to get pregnant again so they can have that authority again, which they attribute to being closer to God or to having a direct line to God.”
There’s a downside to this sense of independence. It distances charedi women from the health care system, which they see, not inaccurately, as more concerned with catering to the rabbis who play influential roles in recommending treatment than in listening to women.
“In their first and second pregnancies, charedi women develop a hostile relationship with the medical professionals and end up seeing the doctors and rabbis as working in concert against them,” Dr. Raucher said. “As a result, after they’re done with the reproductive part of their lives they suffer from a lot of health problems as a result of not going to the doctor any more. Charedi women have a much higher mortality rate from breast cancer than the rest of the population because they’re not going to routine checkups and it’s discovered so much later.”
The trust charedi women come to have in their bodies after experiencing a pregnancy or two is not unique to charedim.
Dr. Raucher recalled a meeting in Israel with a publisher of parenting magazines. “She said all of their customers are first time parents. People who have multiple kids don’t buy parenting magazines,” she said.
Dr. Raucher had no children when she was researching in Israel. “The women would give me a lot of segulas, little ritual things to get pregnant,” she said.
Now she has three, ranging in age from 3 to 8. When she was pregnant with the youngest, she was living in Cincinnati, but came to New York for the summer to research Orthodox female clergy, her next project.
“I was very nervous being away from my doctor,” Dr. Raucher said. “I go to a high risk medical clinic. My doctor looked at me and said, ‘What are you nervous for? You’ve done this before! You’ll know if something’s wrong, and you’ll call us.’
“All of a sudden I heard the words charedi women had told me 10 years prior. I realized I hadn’t internalized what they had told me. I ended up looking at all my data again as my current self. I could really write about them with a greater sense of empathy than I could before. As much as I was arguing that charedi women were pushing back against book knowledge, I realized I too was relying on book knowledge rather than my own embodied experience.”
Dr. Raucher said she is looking forward to the conversation with Ms. Chizhik-Goldschmidt.
“She wrote his important story for the Forward a few years ago about Orthodox women who had abortions. It demonstrated that these women are making decisions about a current pregnancy in relationship to how it fits in to the rest of their reproductive lives, what they do for their families, what their careers require from them.
“I love that she pushed that out into the open. It’s important to have that conversation and acknowledge the realities of abortion for religious women,” she said.
Who: Dr. Michal Raucher, in conversation with Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt about Dr. Raucher’s new book, “Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority Among Haredi Women.”
When: Monday, December 7, at 7 p.m.
Where: On Zoom. Advance registration is required at BildnerCenter.Rutgers.edu