Dissertation Abstracts

The Varieties of Religious Reproduction: An Anthropological Study of Orthodox Fertility Management in Contemporary Israel

Author: Taragin-Zeller, Lea , lea.taragin@mail.huji.ac.il
Department: Sociology and Social Anthropology
University: Hebrew University, Israel
Supervisor: Nurit Stadler
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Religion , Fertility Management , Gender , Judaism
Areas of Research: Family Research , Religion , Body in the Social Sciences


This ethnographic research project will discuss the contemporary discourse and practices of reproduction and family planning among various groups of Orthodox Jews in Israel. Israel is an exceptional case-study in which Israeli-Zionist pro-natalist ideologies are intertwined with a Jewish tradition which posits fertility as a religious ideal; this link between pro-natalist ideology and Jewish tradition is mirrored in government and medical policy as well as in the discourses of religious authorities (Birenbaum-Carmeli, 2003; Irshai, 2012). As such, Israel is currently a country with the highest birth rates in the Western world. Even though most of the developed countries have under replacement levels of fertility, current demographic studies show that the average fertility rate among women in Israel is 2.96 (Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS) 2010), about 50% higher than that of European women. Within Israeli society, there is a consistent and clear positive relationship between level of total fertility rates (TFR) and religiosity. Orthodox women have between four to seven children, while increasing proportions of secular Jewish women are childless (Hleihel, 2011; B. Okun, 2013).

Preliminary research findings show that various Orthodox groups are currently questioning the accepted norms, ideologies, and practices of their communities. Even though there is a spectrum of Halachik opinions that permit the use of contraceptions, members of the Orthodox community are typically taught that family planning is taboo. As the official Orthodox leaders continue to promote large families, alternative religious educators and institutions have begun to emerge. These educators provide various settings through which couples and especially women can discuss the tensions they are encountering as well as offer alternative information to help couples deal with these challenges.

In order to better understand how orthodox couples approach and practice family planning, I propose a multi-site ethnography (Marcus, 1995). Through an ethnographic study, which includes field observations, interviews, and text analysis, I will study the contemporary ideas and practices around reproduction and fertility in multiple locations. Comparing across locations will shed light on a variety of perspectives as well as the power structures that influence this field. This study will describe how men and women from various Orthodox groups, negotiate fertility and family planning, while holding symbols and ideals rooted in canonical texts as well as current modern ideals rooted in the history, memory, and the idea of the Zionist state. This research will examine the ways in which Orthodox members adopt modern patterns of behavior on the one hand, and religious innovation, on the other. In addition, it will analyze the new interpretations of religious texts that are part of the contemporary discourse as well as the way in which these interpretations are forming new creative practices.