I discovered at my local public library Haviva Ner-David’s book “Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination” and could not resist reading it. Ner-David is a feminist activist who aspires toward creating gender-equal Judaism within the framework of halacha (or her interpretation of halacha). It would take hours to comment on all the issues raised in this book, but for now I just want to highlight two points. First, a positive of sorts. I cannot but respect Ms. Ner-David’s commitment to learning and wonder if perhaps it is not even greater than my own. You see, when I open a gemara I view the Rabbis whose thoughts I encounter as people who have ascended to heights of greatness that I cannot even begin to fathom. I believe they possessed transcendent insight into the eternal human condition and that their writing was Divinely inspired. Ms. Ner-David has quite a different take, as she writes (p.155): “In order to be able to face these texts each afternoon, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that despite the misogyny and the lack of accurate understanding of female anatomy on the part of the Rabbis of the Talmud (as well as medieval and later Jewish scholars), we still use these texts today to determine the laws of taharat hamishpachah.” To be committed to the study and observance of laws created by misguided misogynistic authorities and rooted in errors uncorrected over centuries of study is truly an act of faith which defies my rational ability to understand.
Secondly, though Ms. Ner-David avoids committing to any denominational label, the title of her book clearly indicates her desire for “traditional” ordination. Throughout the book she professes a desire to work within what she perceives as the framework of halacha, and repeatedly references "modern orthodoxy" as her inspiration. Yet, apparently this committment has its limits. Given a choice between bowing to the authority of halacha or following one’s personal value judgment, Ner-David seems to clearly favor the later. She writes (p.155), “There are, however, halachot to which I simply cannot reconcile myself, and I advocate changing them in practice and on the books. These laws clash with fundamental ideals of what is moral and good and sully our religious tradition.” How Ner-David can square this approach with “traditional” ordination and halacha is never really explained. Is G-d's will to be obeyed only when we judge it sensible or when it makes us comfortable? For example, I guess whoever ordains her will not bother to include in her farher in hilchos nidah questions on bedikos, harchakos, proper time for tevilah, number of days to wait before tevilah, or proper mikveh supervision, all halachos found in shulchan aruch that she either does not observe, advocates leniencies in which have no traditional basis, or feels should be abolished.
There is some value to reading the viewpoint of those with whom one disagrees, so it was worth picking up the book. Her name dropping of authorities like Rabbis Avi Weiss, Emanuel Rackman, and Saul Berman, among others, does not convince me that these people share her understanding of the halachic system or would welcome her under the umbrella of their flavor of modern orthodoxy, but does raise the question in my mind as to whether certain flavors of modern orthodoxy have given too much weight to social forces as catalysts for halachic change given that someone like Ner-David can make a superficial case for legitimacy within their shadow.
There are women today who embrace greater shmiras hamitzvos and torah study within careful halachic boundaries and without substituting their own moral judgment for that of centuries of tradition. I believe much of the opposition, especially in more right-wing circles, to these feminist advocates acting l’shem shamayim, stems from a false association of their motivations and actions with the more radical agenda Ner-David advances. Ner-David dismisses opposition to her views that have been voiced even with Orthodox feminist circles as being more political than ideological, but I think she naively fails to recognize just how far outside the boundaries of tradition her thinking has carried her. Read the book and decide for yourself.