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However, this rejection of external 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.
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 Jewish sacred 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 that of their secular peers and forging new careers in tech, music, and politics, for example.
New cultural representations
Some recent TV shows describe this type 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 of Mizrahi descent – who refers to Jews in the Middle East and North Africa – does scientific research. She comes into contact with one of the main Ashkenazi characters, or European Jews. 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 work more efficiently.
And finally, Ruchami, who first appears as a teenager in the first season, eagerly marries a Talmudic scholar, but struggles with a serious illness that puts her life in danger. Despite her commitment to ultra-Orthodox life, she flouts rabbinical and medical decisions. After her rabbi decides that she should not have another child due to her medical risks, Ruchami decides to get pregnant without anyone knowing.
These characters reflect my research that ultra-Orthodox women have a very different relationship with authorities and rabbinical statements than men. However, this is not just due to the change in attitude among women. Ultra-Orthodox society has been going through 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 from ultra-Orthodox communities, their informal assistants or assistants, called askanim, operate ubiquitously. Ultra-Orthodox women are also turning to repackaged theories in ultra-Orthodox parlance, like anti-vaccination campaigns. And finally, ultra-Orthodox Jews have created online groups that challenge the authority of leading rabbis.
The predominance of a narrative about 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 large following, as the “King of COVID” for rejecting the public health measures, there is has no 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 improve information and medical care to reach these populations.
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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.
Michal Raucher received funding from the Fulbright Foundation and the Wenner Gren Foundation to conduct research related to his first book.