‘Chanah’s Voice’
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‘Chanah’s Voice’

Haviva Ner-David's Jewish feminist journey continues

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Haviva Ner-David’s spiritual journey is an open-ended, constantly changing quest.

By now, I have read a great many books on what Judaism means. Some are awesome. Some are awful. But I usually can guess what they are going to say from the start, just by checking to see which group within Jewish life their authors belong to.

But Haviva Ner-David’s new book, “Chanah’s Voice,” is different. It is the work of a woman who combines a deep commitment to the tradition with a free spirit and an open mind, and so it is hard to predict from page to page what she is going to say. That is what makes this book such a delight to read.

Haviva Ner-David has written a book in which she explores the three mitzvot that traditionally are the responsibility of women, the Chanah mitzvot as they are called: challah, nidah and hadlakat haner – separating a portion of the challah that you bake, observing the laws connected with the mikvah, and lighting the candles on erev Shabbat. In each case, she starts with the mitzvah, and tells us how her observance and understanding of the mitzvah has changed over the years, and then lets her mind wander far and wide to see what the implications of this practice are for someone who strives to be both observant and a feminist at the same time, who wants to observe as much of the tradition as she can but draws the line when it seems to be indifferent to her moral concerns, and who respects the past but insists that it reckon with the issues that confront us in the present.

The chapter on challah, for example, leads her into all kinds of reflections on what bread and bread baking can mean to us today. She confesses that at first she thought that baking challah was an inferior mitzvah, simply because only women were expected to do it, but now that she does it together with her husband and her children, she realizes what a rich and meaningful mitzvah it can be. And she says that she now believes that women should hold on to the mitzvot that are traditionally theirs while at the same time taking on the mitzvot that are usually reserved for men. If they share in both, they will come to realize that these mitzvot are meant to deepen our relationship with God, and not just to define our genders.

The chapter on nidah is even more surprising. On the one hand, she cites halachic authorities from as far back as the Mishna and the Talmud and as recent as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein; on the other hand, she does not hesitate to disagree with them, and to say that they see too many issues from a male perspective and do not seem to understand how their decisions affect women. For example, she points out that the strict observance of the laws of nidah ignores the time when women are the most fertile – and therefore that a life-loving people, a people for whom having children is the first commandment, has to challenge these laws. And from there she moves to telling us about the rituals that she created to mark her recovery from a miscarriage and to celebrate her daughter’s entry into maturity.

Both are new ways to worship that only women could have felt the need to invent. They should be taken seriously because they speak to the pains and the joys that only women experience.

The third mitzvah is the commandment to light Shabbat candles. This seems to be a simple and an uncontroversial ritual, but it leads her into a serious and sometimes painful discussion of what Shabbat and its laws mean in our time. She asks whether these laws really add to the joy of the day, or whether they are so many and so detailed that the day’s purpose gets lost in the maze. She struggles with the dilemma of how to understand the Sabbath as part of a whole new paradigm shift and yet stay connected to the traditional system, and she ends up giving priority to her spiritual needs over the legal restrictions, though doing that comes very hard for her.

How will Haviva Ner-David’s spiritual search end? It is too early to say. God is not finished with her yet. But she now finds herself in a liberal religious educational center in the Galilee instead of in Jerusalem, and she now runs the only mikvah in all of Israel that welcomes marrieds and singles, men and women, straights and gays, all who want to experience this tradition, whatever their motives may be. She has surely come a long way from her early rejection of the tradition on feminist grounds to her wholehearted commitment to the tradition on religious grounds, and then to this struggle with trying to balance the demands of tradition and the demands of her soul.

Who knows where she will go next?

Meantime, she has given us a fascinating book that chronicles her journey so far, and that invites us to travel along with her. There are parts of this book that those on the right and on the left will disagree with, but it is well worth reading just the same, for it is the diary of a woman in search of God. We do not have many like it.

Save the date
Haviva Ner-David will be speaking in Manhattan this coming week.

On Wednesday, September 3, at 7 p.m., she will be on a panel discussing “Reframing and Reclaiming Mikveh” at the Drisha Institute, 37 West 65th St.

On Thursday, September 4, at 6:30 p.m., she will discuss “Mikveh as a Non-Gendered Spiritual Practice” at B’nai Jeshurun, 270 West 89th St.

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