Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"Life on the Fringes": Haviva Ner David and Jewish feminism

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.


  1. What is this preoccupation with Tzitzis? Is it symbolic for some reason? And I have yet to find someone who says they want to do it because the mitzvah is beautiful and wonderful and that doing it will assist them in their quest for godliness. They seem to want to do it because men do, and they are as spiritual as men.

    Someone recently asked me if it was muttar to lie. His son, who is currently enrolled in a modern yeshiva, wants to go to a black/old fashioned yeshiva, where the learning seems to be more intensive. They problem is that they require the parents to state that they have no television at home. He wanted to know if it was muttar to lie lesheim shamayim, so that his his son could get in to the yeshiva. I told him that one of the elements that makes the yeshiva so attractive is that it was founded on the principle of not taking kids like him, who have televisions at home.

    He did not like my answer.

    The connection to your post is that it seems that the attraction of these mitzvos is not as a sina qua non of kedusha. They could find plenty challenging mitzvos that would help them attain spiritual gadlus. The attraction is that they serve as a symbolic rebellion against the concept of the petur.

  2. >>>And I have yet to find someone who says they want to do it because the mitzvah is beautiful and wonderful and that doing it will assist them in their quest for godliness.

    Ner-David writes exactly this - tzitzis (and tefilin) make her feel G-dly. It is not gender-envy, but simply the desire to have the same opportunity to be G-dly which is open to men.
    We differ on this - I do not question her motives at all. I simply question whether religion is about "feeling G-dly" or doing what G-d demands even if we feel lousy about it.

  3. kishnevi3:59 PM

    Ner-David's stance sounds like modern Conservative to me--and by modern Conservative, I mean that, and not the classic form in which I was raised forty years ago. Her position is well past that of classic Conservativism, much less Modern Orthodox.
    A Conservative, classic or modern, would change what you wrote in this post to this:
    "when I open a gemara I view the Rabbis whose thoughts I encounter as people who have ascended to heights of greatness that I should aspire to. I believe they possessed incredible insight into the eternal human condition and that their writing is a continual repository of wisdom. " Or something similar. Nothing about "I can not fathom" or Divine inspiration. To the Conservative, the Sages were men of their place and time, who were able to achieve spiritual greatness we can not better (but which we can hope to equal)--but were subject to the limitations of knowledge and culture of their day, and whose decisions on halacha were affected by, and reflect, the state of knowledge and culture in their day.
    Therefore, if the modern state of knowledge and modern culture have changed enough to render adherence to halacha the source of problems or injustice, then it is appropriate for us to reform halacha to reflect the differences in knowledge and culture. That renders the question into a two part inquiry, both of which are objective in nature, unlike Ner David's subjective one-part inquiry: how much does the established halacha reflect the outdated culture, and what sort of problem/injustice is it causing?
    The position of woman has changed drastically since Talmudic times, and (in the eyes of the Conservative movement) the disparate treatment of men and women in halacha reflects Talmudic era society, but in modern times results in massive injustice to women. Hence halacha should be reformed where the injustice occurs--but only there; if it's not broken, don't fix it. (Meaning the abandonment of kol ishah, the extension of tzitzit and tefillin to women, accepting their testimony as witnesses, and other matters where halacha renders them unequal to men--but not, as far as I can see, requiring any change in the laws of taharat mishpachah.) And the changes would be limited by anything the Torah explicitly commands or forbids (explicitly, as opposed to what the interpretations of Chazal read into it.)
    Of course, even classic Conservative rabbis did not adhere to this strictly--the decision to allow the driving of cars on Shabbat is a good example of something they should have not allowed, but did--and modern Conservatives have moved past this. (Which is why I don't label myself a Conservative or Orthodox these days.) To the best of my knowledge, Modern Orthodoxy has never gotten to that point (or, if it has, only by sidesteps and without actually admitting to what it is doing), yet Ner David is gone well beyond that. If established halacha does not meet her personal sense of just and good, then she believes she has the right to change it. That may be contemporary Conservative, but I don't see how it could be thought of as staying within Modern Orthodoxy at all. Ner-David's take is a hashkafa that I don't think any Orthodox rabbi, even the most modern of the modern, would find acceptable, since imposes her individual judgment and values on everything, even what the Torah explicitly mandates. Not even the contemporary Conservative positions on homosexuality go that far.

  4. Anonymous8:21 PM

    I am curious to know whether her book has the haskama of the Rabbi who granted her semicha. In other words, was he fully aware of how she relates to halakha?

    This Rav happens to be quite an extraordinary person.

  5. Anonymous,
    There was no haskama. There was a forward by Blu Greenberg

  6. It's all very strange to me.

  7. Bob Miller10:51 AM

    The idea of Halacha-as-Chinese-Menu is like Rasputin; nobody has found the way yet to kill it for good. That's because of its underlying appeal to ideologues and me-first thinkers.