MICHAL RAUCHER is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. Her first book, Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority Among Haredi Women, will be published by Indiana University Press in November 2020.
Jewish continuity—it’s a term that, to my chagrin, refers to Jewish demographics. Some might say it’s fitting to think about “Jewish continuity” when we are in the midst of a pandemic killing thousands of people every day. Jewish continuity usually refers to Jewish birthrates, and increasing the birthrate often involves sex, intimacy, and physical closeness: all things that, unless you are already living with a partner, are verboten right now.
In the last few decades, discourse about Jewish demographics includes not just a call for more children but a call for Jewish children, which many institutions insist refers only to those who have been raised by two Jewish parents. Yet Jews are not limited to social connections with other Jews, and dating apps aimed at Jews seem quaint in light of the global connection we are seeing today.
I hope we can pivot this conversation after the pandemic recedes. Pregnancy and birth are already risky activities, both physically and financially. Can we apply our current risk-averse approach to pregnancy during the pandemic to pregnancy post-pandemic? In other words, when we talk about Jewish continuity in terms of demographics, can we appreciate the fact that women have been expected to absorb all the economic and embodied risk? Despite the communal pressure on women to reproduce, there is no parallel communal support for women’s physical or economic security.
Second, what would it mean to think about a Jewish future that does not revolve around Jewish women having Jewish babies? Perhaps, as we settle into this physically distant moment, we can take some advice from virtual programs that are expanding educational opportunities, reaching different audiences, and creating connections among people who might never have been able to come together in the same room. This is a Jewish future cultivated in the last few months without physical closeness.
Last, how can we think about reproductive justice instead of just reproducing Jews? When we as members of Jewish communities are focused on Jewish continuity, we are ignoring the larger structural problems like economic inequality, racism, and insufficient medical care, which are resulting in death for so many. I hope that our discourse of continuity will, in the future, include the acknowledgment that while we may all be connected, we are not all equally vulnerable.