A few months ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale conferred rabbinical ordination on Sara Hurwitz. It created something of a furor at the time, which has since seemed to die down (at least in the Orthodox circles I inhabit). I gave the matter some thought at the time, and wrote a post about it.
I knew Hurwitz was not the first woman to apply herself to the same rigorous study as men do everyday with the goal of smicha in mind. I’ve had a copy (signed, it turns out—it seems the Cap’n and I met her years ago) of Haviva Ner-David’s Life On the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination on my shelf for at least a decade now, and never seemed in the mood to read it.
Then Yom Kippur came around. The Cap’n buys me a seat in shul every year, but for years I have lacked the sitzfleish for anything more than shofar blowing or neilah. The rest of the time I’m home, dispensing snacks and drinks, making sure the kids don’t put each other’s eyes out, and alternately davening alone or reading a book of Jewish interest. Scanning the shelves for a book I hadn’t read yet, and still in a feminist reading mode after Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), I took down Ner-David’s book at last.
Boy, have I missed out all these years. It is an honest, learned, deeply thoughtful exploration of one woman’s attempt to navigate her feminism and commitment to traditional Judaism simultaneously. From her decision to wear a tallit katan and pray with a tallit gadol, to laying tefillin, to deciding to pursue her studies toward smicha, Ner-David feels much of the same incongruity between her sense of her worth as a woman in the secular world and her second-class status in the Orthodox world that I do.
Now before anyone’s blood pressure goes through the roof at my calling women “second-class,” understand me first. That does not mean that women are not valued, or that their contributions to the preservation of Jewish tradition are not important, or that they all should feel oppressed every single day. But to be honest, many of the customs that limit women’s participation in prayer, in donning ritual objects, and in pursuing ordination, are socially and culturally constructed rather than rooted in Jewish law. And there is incontrovertible evidence that women are not counted as fully human, as fully endowed with the rights that men enjoy. Where a man says a blessing every morning for not making him a woman, a woman’s comparable blessing is to thank God for making her according to God’s will. Women cannot serve as witnesses in the majority of legal cases in Jewish law. Women are legally “acquired” in a kinyan, or exchange, in marriage. And a woman cannot divorce a man without his consent. (It works in the reverse as well, but many more women are refused a divorce than men, leaving them unable to remarry and often subjected to blackmail, extortion, and long term emotional abuse.) There are apologetics for each of these situations, and I’ve heard most of them. Some women don’t buy them and leave, heading for the more liberal Jewish movements that have rewritten them or done away with them altogether. And some like me stay, but don’t like them much and hope for a way to be found to soften, reframe, or solve them altogether within the boundaries of Jewish law.
Ner-David describes her life as a child growing up in an household typical of those headed by Orthodox Jews who came of age in the 1950s, where kashrut in the home was a given, but where most women did not cover their hair, families often ate out at non-kosher restaurants (ordering fish or other permitted species of food), and mixed dancing at simchas was not the cue for the rabbis to walk out of a wedding reception (something I witnessed in the 1990s). Her parents expected to pass on their tradition to their children, but Ner-David could not escape the irony that while she relished the time spent studying Talmud with her father, she could never be a rabbi, while her elder brother—to whom the doors of the rabbinate were wide open—had no interest in learning. She shares her doubts about God and religion as a teen, gives an account of her bout with anorexia (which she connected to her struggles with her parents over religion), her own gradual return to traditional Judaism, and the choices she makes for herself and her children as an adult and parent. (Her strong desire for her gan-aged daughter to wear a tallit katan, while it is halachically acceptable, seems to me to border on pressure rather than an invitation. This is one of my few reservations about this book.)
A feeling of homelessness seems to permeate her journey, where she moves from a feeling of alienation as a teen to outright rejection of Judaism as a young adult, to a new discovery of the beauty and awe of tradition (in concert with her husband, whom she met in college), to a struggle to find a place that is right for her where the form that her faith and devotion takes is often received with confusion and even hostility by other traditional Jews. Yeshiva University’s ignoring her application to their rabbinical seminary, the refusal of the women studying at Drisha Institute in New York to study in hevruta with her, and her rejection a few years later when she applied to a program that trains women to answer questions about taharat hamishpacha (laws of family purity)—all because she had the audacity to dedicate herself to Torah study on a level usually reserved for men—are some of the examples of reactions she gets to her views of Judaism.
What is in question throughout the book is Ner-David’s intentions. What is she trying to achieve? Or, more accurately in the minds of her critics, what is she trying to prove? Is she on a power trip? Does she seek glory and titles for their own sake? Is she the one who is actually hostile to Jewish law, culture, and society? Ner-David, well-versed in the sources, gives the reader thorough discussions of the texts and poskim relevant to each of her topics (e.g. mitzvot, halachah, chuppah, tumah and taharah, and Torah learning). She explains why she has made the choices she has, and accepts that other women make other choices according to their and their communities’ interpretations of the laws and customs. (I read with interest her discussion of why she covers her hair, and while her decision is informed by many of the issues that lead other women to cover their hair, it still doesn’t persuade me to cover mine.) It is clear to me that her pursuit of Jewish learning is both for its own sake and with a goal in mind: to put that learning to its full potential use. This is not scorned when a man (even a mediocre man, or a power-hungry man, or a man with limited interpersonal skills) does it, but Jewish learning for women, while it has improved immeasurably in quality and access in recent years, still seems to be viewed as accessory to wifehood, motherhood, and livelihood.
After reviewing the sources regarding women’s Torah study, she relates an incident in which she was serving on a panel in Israel discussing feminism and Orthodoxy. On the panel with her is Rabbi Seth Farber, a young Orthodox rabbi who describes himself as a feminist. (It’s 1997; Farber later goes on to found the organization ITIM which helps would-be converts to Judaism and others in Israel navigate the swamp of the Israeli rabbinate.) After describing her vision of where Orthodoxy might go to allow greater participation by women, she asks Rabbi Farber directly, “Why, if there is no halakhic barrier to women becoming rabbis, are Orthodox rabbis today denying women the right to become rabbis? Why are you against giving s’micha to women who study the same texts as male rabbinical candidates?” Rabbi Farber answers that authority, not a piece of paper, makes someone a leader, and that women must first gain that authority and respect. He tells Ner-David that she is doing a disservice to the Orthodox feminist movement by seeking smicha now, and that in doing so she deflects attention away from the really important issues and giving the opposition easy ammunition to discount the cause.
I’m sure many people would agree with Rabbi Farber, and it gives Ner-David pause as well. But on considering this point, I must say I am still not convinced. Does he suggest that women are not currently deserving of respect and authority? My Orthodox shul in Newton had many well-respected female teachers of Torah, women were invited to give divrei Torah to the whole congregation on Shabbat (at the conclusion of the morning service), and two very competent women served as shul president during my time there. What is left for women to do? And to say that Ner-David has not chosen her timing well is hard to support. Would he have told Alice Paul or Susan B. Anthony that they were doing women a disservice by lobbying for women’s suffrage before men were ready for it? I would venture to guess that as difficult as it is for men to let go of power, women would still be sitting around waiting for an invitation to vote if they hadn’t advocated for themselves back then. As for deflecting attention away from “the really important issues,” I fail to see how that is so. Some of the really important issues of the day include finding a solution to women trapped by their husbands in failed marriages, spousal and family abuse in the Orthodox world, rabbinical intransigence in conversion, and the increasing estrangement of many rabbis in the Israeli rabbinate from the needs of the society they’re supposed to serve—none of which would be hampered by consideration of women’s merit to become rabbinical leaders. (In fact, I think that by making women rabbis, some of these problems could well be solved more efficiently than by leaving them up to the men currently in charge who seem unable to come up with any solutions.)
Despite the many walls and glass ceilings Ner-David encounters, her doggedness in pursing what she believes is a natural, gradual, rational evolution in Orthodoxy toward greater opportunities for women is inspiring. In a world where one so often reads about rabbis who shun any public life for women at all, who persecute those who disagree with them (or worse, write them off as non-Jews), and who view as seditious any challenge to their own practices which they are convinced are pure Torah miSinai, Ner-David’s portrait of her teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, is of a man firmly rooted in Torah, whose goal is to make the Torah available to everyone, including those in liberal institutions (Reform and Conservative), religious and secular, men and women. Regarding the latter, Rabbi Strikovsky quotes Rabbeinu Tam who points to Devorah, a judge who ruled during the period of the Judges in Israel. He asks, “What was Devorah’s position? First, she was a leader of the people. Second, she adjudicated matters of law: Torah law, Jewish law, halakhah. If a woman can reach this level of learning and leadership ability, of course she can receive s’micha.” Rabbi Strikovsky is not a political man. “His agenda,” Ner-David writes, “is driven purely by the pursuit and dissemination of Torah knowledge and values as he understands them, and he will not be limited by other people’s sociological baggage.” This, of course, points to the question one could just as easily ask those who oppose women’s ordination: “If Jewish history and Jewish sources point to women’s proven ability to be leaders in the Jewish world, isn’t refusing them that opportunity politically motivated?”
My parents-in-law belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue. It’s always jarring to my mother-in-law to visit us and attend our shul, where she and I sit on the women’s side of the mechitza and the action—the davening, Torah reading, all the speaking parts—happens on the other side. I can still remember how it felt when I attended my first Orthodox services. When she whispers to me, “This is a big boys’ club,” I know how she feels. But I still can’t feel comfortable with the choices liberal Judaism has made in response, dispensing with serious engagement with Jewish texts, paring down the Hebrew service to a few memorized utterances whose meaning no one understands, and devaluing core Jewish practices like dietary laws and Shabbat observance. There has to be a way for a feminist Orthodox Jew to live her life without denying either her feminism or her Orthodoxy. I owe women like Ner-David, Blu Greenberg, and the many learned women who support and organize the JOFA and Kolech conferences in America and Israel, women much more learned and dedicated than I am right now, my admiration and gratitude.
This book was published in 2000. It’s now ten years later. Where is Ner-David now? She and her family relocated from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Hannaton the Galilee, where she is instrumental in reviving the kibbutz and inviting progressively-minded Jews to move there and create an open, observant Jewish community. She teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva and is the founder of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage. She writes articles for publication, which can be accessed at the ZEEK website.