Seeking peace
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Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries

Front-coverLast night I went to hear Rabbi Haviva Ner-David speak in Pittsfield at an event co-presented by Congregation Beth Israel (my shul), Knesset Israel, Hevreh, and and Rimon Center for Jewish Spirituality. Here's how we described the event on the flyers:

Rabba Haviva Ner-David is an author, pioneer in Jewish women’s post-denominational thinking, wife, and mother of seven living on Kibbutz Hanaton. She is also a dynamic speaker coming to share the experiences and thinking which led to her latest book: Chana’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening (new from Ben Yehuda Press).

All genders are invited to join us for a talk followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to chat with the author and get books autographed.

I'd actually heard Rabbi Ner-David speak a few years ago at the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh conference Gathering the Waters -- I blogged about her remarks in the post The emerging mikveh movement in Israel. I've been a fan of her work for a long time, ever since I first read Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination.

She began her remarks by explaining how the process of writing her first memoir led to the spiritual and intellectual inquiry of this second book. "Life on the Fringes was about my childhood growing up Modern Orthodox in New York," she explained, "and my struggles as a feminist with Orthodoxy and tradition, and my decision to study to become a rabbi -- but wanting to get Orthodox rabbinic ordination."

That first book is memoir mixed with halakhic interpretation (Jewish-legal analysis), and one of its main themes is is women's role in tradition. Hair covering, women studying Torah, taking on the obligations which only men are technically obligated to perform -- the "positive time-bound mitzvot." (I've written about those before: Time-bound, 2010.) It occurred to me, as I heard her speak, that the combination of memoir and halakhic interpretation makes me think of midrash aggadah and midrash halakha, the interweaving of narrative and legal interpretation which makes up so much of classical Jewish tradition.

She wrote in Life on the Fringes about tallit and tefillin -- things which (in her Modern Orthodox childhood) men did, and women didn't do. Chanah's Voice explores how she came to recognize that in focusing so strongly on claiming tallit and tefillin for herself, she had neglected the mitzvot which women are traditionally obligated to perform. "I didn't know when I started writing the book what I was going to find," she noted. "But I decided to spend that year struggling with these three mitzvot."

The three mitzvot which are traditionally considered womens' mitzvot are challah (taking challah -- when one bakes a certain amount of bread, one is supposed to take out a portion of the dough and set it aside for the priests, and since today we don't have priests, one sets it aside and burns it), niddah (after menstruation one counts a certain number of days and then immerses in a mikveh before engaging in sexual relations again) and hadlakat ha-ner (lighting shabbat candles.) Together they're known by the acronym ChaNaH, which is a nifty confluence because Chanah is the Biblical figure who is considered to have invented prayer.

"As a feminist, I had a lot of baggage around all three of these [mitzvot]," she admitted, and all the women in the room chuckled.

Where her first book interwove memoir with halakha, this book interweaves memoir with other kinds of Jewish texts -- midrash, Hasidut, and kabbalah. She notes that when she wrote Life on the Fringes, she was caught-up in halakha, a subject which as a woman she wasn't encouraged to study at all. Studying Jewish law was a way of doing what the men did, and she did that for many years. But this book arises out of a different impulse, and not surprisingly draws on different kinds of Jewish texts.

How did the project of Chanah's Voice begin? "My Rosh Chodesh group had disbanded," she recalled, "and around that time, there was a small group of us left who wanted to continue to meet, so we decided to meet twice a month. We were trying to think of a topic on which to focus, so I said, I just decided I want to spend time understanding these three mitzvot; maybe we can do that as a group?"

The book begins with a beautiful short preface about the kabbalistic notion of the breaking of the vessels, a text suggesting that the breakage was intentional because it allows us as humanity to have a role in creating repair. "Revelation of Torah is continual; it's not something given once in one time and one place," she noted. Feminism too is a continual revelation, and is one of the ways we can work together toward creating a redeemed world.

After that preface, Chanah's Voice is divided into three sections, one focusing on each mitzvah. Each section opens with a quote from classical Jewish text which shows what she was struggling with as that section was written -- for instance, "There are three sins for which women die in childbirth: a lack of care with regard to niddah, the separation of challah, and the lighting of the Shabbat lamp." (This is a famous mishna, and oy, is it problematic to the contemporary feminist mindset.)

The challah section of Chanah's Voice, she said, is very much about the idea of the tradition valuing men's work over women's work, and about her journey into shifting that perspective. Challah, baking bread, is definitely considered women's work. (Whereas in that traditional paradigm, laying tefillin is men's work.)

For me one of the most interesting parts of the evening was when she was talking about how taking challah came to feel emblematic of a way of elevating the experience of living in Israel. She read part of the challah section of the book, beginning with a passage about how when she and her husband first made aliyah (emigrated to Israel), she imagined that she was moving to an Israel which would soon be at peace with its Arab neighbors. That peace, in turn, would give Israel spaciousness to work on other important issues like religious pluralism and civil rights. Halevai -- would that it had been so. (Would that it were so even now!) But we all know that that dream has not yet come to pass. What does it mean, what can it mean, to elevate the choice of living in that place at this moment in time?

By way of response, she cited a teaching from Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (also known as the Sfat Emet -- I've posted his teachings here many times before) about why the commandment to take challah comes, in the Torah, right after the story of the spies. The spies returned with the slanderous description of the promised land as a place which devours its inhabitants, and right after that we read the commandment to take challah. How are these related? Challah represents physical sustenance drawn from the earth. When we give a gift of dough to God, we elevate our need for sustenance into a holy act. We respond to the physical world with elevation. But the spies didn't do that:

The sin of the spies represented a failure to cope with the actuality of the physical world. Because they refused to live in the reality of the lower world, they couldn't elevate it with their piety -- instead they disparaged it. They brought the people down with them. The response to the sin of the spies, therefore, is to practice taking challah -- to elevate the world through spiritual acts.

No matter how hopeless it may seem to seek to build the just and righteous society of her dreams in the land of Israel, she resolved to remember the Sfat's Emet point that we can always seek to uplift the reality we're given. She recommitted herself, she said, to "renewed elevation in the face of despair." She decided to prepare enough dough to fulfill the mitzvah of taking challah -- a symbolic reminder of the weekly mission of elevating the physical world and perfecting it. (The mitzvah of taking challah only applies when you bake a certain quantity of bread.) The choice to bake extra bread becomes a holy act, and baking more bread than you need creates an opportunity to give it away, to practice the mitzvah of giving.

Some people might think that as a feminist, and at the time a rabbinical student, I would end up with a more apologetic solution -- that I would look into these womens' mitzvot and say, oh, look at these beautiful mitzvot women were given, why am I running to do tallit and tefillin? But the solution that I came to is that, no, there's beauty in both the "mens' mitzvot," the things we've constructed as a society to call the male side of Judaism, and the more "feminine side." The feminine side has been devalued; we have to find the value in it and lift it up, and offer it to the men and say, look what you've been missing as well.

"I'm in favor of de-gendering mitzvot in general," she noted. In her opinion, there shouldn't be "men's" mitzvot and "women's" mitzvot -- there should be mitzvot, period. "In general I think it's a mistake to obligate certain people based on their gender. People have all kinds of talents and callings, and it seems to me arbitrary to divide it along gender lines."

She told the story of baking challah together with her women's group, and chanting intensely while baking and kneading, and then experiencing an earthquake in Jerusalem while they were doing that. (This is very rare!) And she related that to the story of Korach, in which the earth opens up and swallows the rebels -- who dared to say "we're all equal." (A story with which she acknowledged she has always struggled -- I suspect that every Jewish feminist has.)

Ultimately she made the case that Korach's message was true but it came before its time -- though she also suggested that Korach's problem may have been a hidden belief that he himself should be in power (e.g. he wanted to uplift himself by way of devaluing Moshe), and noted that she doesn't want to uplift women's mitzvot by devaluing men's ones -- she wants to elevate them all.

She spoke beautifully about baking bread with the right kavanot (holy intentions) of connections with the earth and with God. "Bread baking is not just about the end result; the dough and the baker are both changed in the process. Baking challah... has become like a prayer for me," a prayer which she believes has the ability to effect cosmic change. (That made me think of my recent post Seeking peace, and about the idea that in pursuing internal peace we can effect change in God.) "The mitzvah of challah is about recognizing brokenness, and building, without ever destroying."

I appreciate her point that taking on mitzvot which are traditionally understood to be the purview of men is only a partial step toward progress. Taking on tefillin instead of challah, e.g., does nothing to break down the inequality built into the system as we've inherited it.  And I resonate strongly with her vision of a world in which men and women together create change in how we relate to gender roles. "The new model," she said, "will be more just, more healthy, more balanced, and therefore more sustainable." It's a very Judy Chicago vision -- "and then both men and women will be gentle, and then both women and men will be strong," etc. (And it's a very Jewish Renewal vision.)

Part of the process of writing this book, she explained, has been a process of coming to question tradition in certain ways -- coming to a place of total egalitarianism and counting women in minyan, for instance. That's a huge shift from the kind of Orthodox feminism which had been home for her previously. "I decided I wasn't willing to wait anymore," she said.

When reading from the section about niddah, she cited the midrash about how at the parting of the Red Sea, even fetuses in their mothers' wombs were able to see the presence of God because their mothers' wombs became as transparent as glass. It's a beautiful piece of poetry, and I liked her interpretation of what it means. Of course the fetuses could see God; "having not yet been influenced by the human world, their connection to God would have been intuitive," she noted.

The real miracle, she said, was not that fetuses could see the presence of God; it was that people who were already living in the human world could "see" God's presence! The era of seeing God's presence is long over. Maybe today we need to think in terms of a different sense. Maybe we need to listen to our own inner voice and trust that it reflects the divine spark within us.

She talked about the problem of male-dominated systems -- the halakhic system; the medical system -- presuming control over women's bodies in order to preserve the patriarchal status quo. What would it take for us to be courageous enough to implement a halakhic solution to the challenges of working with infertility within the niddah paradigm which wouldn't sacrifice women on the altar of "the way things have always been done"?

And she returned to the midrash about the fetuses in their mothers' glass wombs. "The halakha that the rabbis had been interpreting for centuries felt like opaque and impenetrable walls --" providing a safe enclosure, and/but, also suffocating. "I felt able to see through these traditions and walls, perhaps for the first time, to the presence of God."

If Judaism is representing something that's not progressing toward a better world, then it's worth taking a risk to see what will happen if we change things. To listen to Chanah's voice. To not be so afraid. Fear will hold us back from a system that's more just and more holy.

 Ultimately, she said, "Torah must be just and good. If not, we are misinterpreting Torah."

Chanah's voice is the silent voice. This is of course how women's voices have so often historically been experienced -- silent; or at least, not heard by men; not meant to be heard by men; not honored by men. (Look at the story of Chanah in I Samuel -- she goes to pray silently for the deepest yearnings of her heart, and the priest rebukes her because he assumes she is drunk. I'll be sharing a new poem about that on Rosh Hashanah, by the way.)

What does it mean to seek to hear the silent voice, to read the white fire within which the black fire is contained? I think this is the whole project of Jewish feminism. I'm really excited to read this book and to delve more deeply into the piece of an answer which R' Ner-David brings to this major question of our time.