“Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening,” by Haviva Ner-David, Ben Yehuda Press, 192 pages, $16.95 (paperback), $9.95 (Kindle)
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Like a fish darting through the water, Haviva Ner-David is always in motion. The American-born rabbi and writer swims every day, and is currently installing a lap pool at her home on Kibbutz Hannaton, in the Lower Galilee, but more important, Ner-David personifies an intellectual and spiritual restlessness that makes pegging her a slippery task.
This constant motion is not random, however, nor is it lacking in purpose. Ner-David is on a journey toward a spiritually meaningful life, and even if her progress is sometimes halting and the final destination is unknown, she is relentless. She is aided in that journey by the road map of Jewish law and tradition, but when her keen internal navigator dictates the need for a detour, she will take it, even at the risk of setting herself apart from others in the community.
Nearly two decades ago, Ner-David, now 46, began studying privately with an Orthodox rabbi for ordination, and in 2006, she became the first woman to be granted Orthodox semikhah publicly. By then, however, she had begun questioning certain fundamentals of Orthodoxy, and of denominational Judaism in general, and today, she refers to herself as “trans-denominational.”
“Chanah’s Voice,” Ner-David’s new book, her second, after the 2000 “Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination,” is a memoir from the depths, as it were. On the simplest level, the book, which is subtitled “A rabbi wrestles with gender, commandment, and the women’s rituals of baking, bathing and brightening,” describes the way that the author deconstructed – and then reconstructed – the so-called “women’s mitzvoth” of challah-making, immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) and lighting of Sabbath candles. The “Chanah” of the title refers to the mother of the Prophet Samuel, whom Ner-David refers to as the “mother of prayer.”
If she began by resenting Judaism’s relegation of women to a handful of domestic commandments, Ner-David proceeded, both as an individual and in partnership with a group of similarly questioning women, to explore the meaning and the history of those mitzvoth. Far from abandoning them, she found new significance in them, while concluding that these are practices that should be shared by Jewish men as well. As we learn in the book, her husband was more than willing to accompany her on the journey.
By far the most startling section of the book is the discussion devoted to nidah (the “separation” of women during menstruation) and mikveh. It’s startling because of the openness with which she talks about her own experiences, but also because of the learned manner in which she parses the history of the rules of “family purity.” (A decade ago, Ner-David completed a doctorate in the philosophy of Jewish law, with her focus being on laws of nidah and mikveh.) Clearly, and convincingly, she shows us how fairly simple biblical strictures were expanded by the sages and later rabbinic experts in a way that reflected their prejudices and fears about women, generally, and menstrual blood, in particular.
Immersion in the mikveh is intended to reverse tumah, ritual impurity, which is a metaphysical state that prevents an individual from being permitted to enter the Temple in Jerusalem. Although there are other factors that can make an individual, male or female, impure, the only one that still obligates one to immerse in the ritual bath today is menstruation – even though the Temple has not stood for nearly 2,000 years.
“All tumah ideology and associations after the Temple’s destruction have been focused upon the bleeding woman; therefore, today, women (and only women) are perceived to have the biological capacity to become ritually impure.” Ner-David is convinced that that is no coincidence, as she writes: “Much of the development of the laws of nidah stemmed from the ancient rabbis’ negative ideas about women, their bodies, their blood, and what the rabbis saw as their essentially simple-minded nature.”
Haviva Krasner grew up in a modern-Orthodox household in New Rochelle, New York, and attended Ramaz Hebrew day school and Columbia University. She and her husband, Jacob Ner-David (formerly “Davidson”), a trained lawyer and “serial entrepreneur,” arrived in Israel in 1996.
It’s been more than seven years since she finished writing “Chanah’s Voice,” but Ner-David says the delay in publication – due to the fact that her publisher, Ben Yehuda Press, is a one-man operation – probably was to her benefit. She suggests, mystically, that there may have been “forces at work saying that this was a better time.”
Mikva'ot for men
In those seven years, she gave birth to another child and also adopted one, so that she and Jacob now have seven children, ranging in age from 4 to 22. It was in 2009 that they left Jerusalem, as part of a group that decided to take upon itself the revival of Kibbutz Hannaton. Hannaton had been founded by the Masorti (Conservative) movement in the 1980s, but it did not hold together economically or socially.
At Hannaton, Ner-David, who says she believes that immersing in water is “like immersing in the divine,” has taken responsibility for running the community mikveh, opening it up to anyone who wants to undergo immersion – men as well as women, single as well as married people, Jews of different denominations, and non-Jews who may be interested, too. She sees the uses and spiritual benefits of mikva'ot as extending far beyond the once-a-month dip taken by women whose bleeding is finished, and wants the physical facility itself to be welcoming and clean, unlike so many of the public mikva'ot overseen by the Chief Rabbinate across the country.
I spoke with Haviva Ner-David, via phone and email, about her book and her life, including the fact, which she also discusses very openly in “Chanah’s Voice,” that she suffers from an often-debilitating, progressive muscular disorder called Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. The disease, which is hereditary, limits her mobility and is one of the reasons she swims daily.
What is your current rabbinical status?
I call myself a post-denominational rabbi. About 10 years ago, where the book ends, I received private ordination from Rabbi [Aryeh] Strikovsky, an Orthodox rabbi with whom I studied for at least 10 years – along with other rabbis.
I did not go on to study for ordination in an institutional setting, although I considered it for a while. One reason I decided against it is that, for the work I am doing at the mikveh at Hannaton, what I have is enough. The other reason is that I really do consider myself a post-denominational – or non-denominational, or trans-denominational – rabbi. I work with different populations, even people who are not Jewish, and even on a personal level, there is no one denomination that I feel is my “home.”
But the crux of the matter is that I am not in favor of denominations at all. I do not think the benefits of denominationalism are worth the divisions it causes. In this day and age, rabbis, spiritual leaders, should be stressing connecting to and recognizing the divine spark in every human being, rather than focusing on the differences that only cause conflict and suffering. We should be spreading compassion, not judgment.
Is it an ambition for you to lead a spiritual community? Are you doing that at Hannaton?
No, there’s no one rabbi here who’s the rabbi of the community. But I do my rabbinic work at Hannaton mostly at the mikveh. I’ve been passionate about mikveh for many years – since I ran the mikveh in a large Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., over 20 years ago. I really do see mikveh as my pulpit – in addition to my writing, to my books and articles – and as my mission, right now, here in Israel.
In America, a huge movement has been underway, opening up mikveh to everyone. But here, it’s only just starting, and this is the only one in the country that’s open to everyone, and that encourages people — men and women alike – to use the mikveh for a variety of spiritual purposes and life-transitions rituals.
You refer in the book to getting signs from God, sometimes in the form of a rainbow, when you’re trying to make a decision. Do you see yourself as having a direct line to God?
The truth is that I do sometimes feel there are signs, but more often it’s that I’m being led in a certain direction. You could call it a divine force, you could call it fate, or destiny. Or simply life itself, leading me along my path. Sometimes I feel almost like I am being pushed. And sometimes I feel I do see signs that tell me I am on the right path.
I talk a lot in the book about the divine spark in every person, and I do believe in that concept. Which is one reason why I have trouble with authority, with hierarchy. And that was a big jump for me, as I describe in the book, about how I finally came to the point at which I could say, it’s just not right not to count women in a minyan [prayer quorum]. Judaism shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not the way we are going to be a redemptive force in the world.
Do you accept the idea that organized religion – Judaism, in this case – is a human invention, albeit one that is divinely inspired?
In the interfaith, inter-spiritual, work that I’ve become involved in, I see that each culture tells its spiritual story in its own way, that there are many paths to the summit, that we are all simply trying to connect to this divine spirit. When I talk about mikveh, I talk about wanting to get back to a feeling of wholeness, or completion, or unity – that is, what existed before Creation, which, according to the biblical Jewish creation story, was water.
The divine spirit was water. Is water. So when we immerse in water, we are immersing ourselves in the divine, connecting to our own inner divinity, since, after all, we are all made up of over 70 percent water. This is really the quest of all faiths. To be reborn into our true selves – on all levels –individual, communal, national and universal.
I consider halakha [traditional Jewish law], definitely, man-made. And when I say “man-made,” I mean, made by men, not women. If you are asking whether the actual Torah, the Bible, was written by man, but divinely inspired, I’d say yes, since as I said, we all have a spark of the divine inside of us, and really, everything in the universe — good and bad — is divine It is sacred, whether one believes it is divinely inspired or written by the hand of God or not.
Nevertheless, even it should be open to interpretation and even “correction,” if you will, since there are clearly things in the Five Books of Moses that do not sit well with many of us today. Take the prohibition against homosexuality, or the commandment to kill someone who curses his or her parents. Even the rabbis seemed to understand that, to understand the need for reinterpretation, to the point of writing some things out of the Torah.
'Divine inner spark'
So, on the one hand, you think that halakha is man-made, and on the other hand, you take the commitment to the mitzvoth so very seriously, doing everything with kavana [religious intention]. You are always testing and questioning what you do. It must be exhausting.
You probably weren’t raised Orthodox. Because much of what you call self-examination might just be guilt. I do a lot of wrestling in the book, and in my life. I wrestle with my tradition and with myself. But by the end of the book, I was able to get rid of some of that feeling that I have to prove something to someone. I freed myself of some of that guilt and the need to be accepted in the Orthodox world of my childhood. By the end of the book, I felt much more free to be myself and follow my own path, [to] listen to “Chanah’s Voice,” to my inner divine spark. Although of course I still have a lot of work to do.
Can I ask you how your health is?
I have trouble walking. But I’m still walking, I’m not in a wheelchair. Last summer, for the first time in my life, I went to a meeting of a society for people with this disorder [Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy]. In America, they have a conference every other year. It was pretty intense. Amazing, really. But I don’t think I was ready for the experience of meeting a conference full of people with FSHD. Until now. I wasn’t open to it yet.
It’s a lonely thing for me here. To realize that there’s an international community is amazing. On the other hand, I had shied away from attending, I think I was afraid to see people who can’t walk, or who have speaking problems, and you often meet people who have it much worse. Two of my kids have the disease, but it’s a progressive disorder, or degenerative, so their symptoms now are slight.
Anyway, scientists are working to find a cure. So I hope my kids will be spared much of what I have been going through. And if not, well, that will be their story to tell, their own spiritual journey to live out. To quote a poem I heard recently: “Impermanence is life’s only promise to us.” I am struggling constantly to embrace this reality rather than fight it. That is really the human struggle, the human endeavor — to come to peace with this reality — no matter what faith we are born into.