Thursday, October 11, 2007

Haviva Ner-David's "Life on the Fringes" (book review)

Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, by Haviva Ner-David, is a memoir of a life still being lived both in consonance with, and in rebellion against, Orthodox Judaism. At the time of the book's publication in 2000, Ner-David was still actively studying with an Orthodox rabbi for private rabbinical ordination, which she received just prior to Pesach 2006 after 12 years of study. In the book, she discusses the challenge of being an Orthodox woman committed to an increased role for women in the more public aspects of observance and in halachic decision-making.

Here are three aspects of her book that I, personally, found rather surprising.

One was her wish to find a way within Orthodoxy to accept active homosexuality. I was not anticipating such an open attitude from an Orthodox Jew, much less one studying for rabbinic ordination.

Another was her discussion of the role of B'not Yisrael (the Daughters of Israel, meaning Jewish women) in making the laws regarding refraining from sex after menstruation more stringent than the rabbis had originally proposed. Ner-David makes the case that a combination of lack of scientific knowledge and lack of availability of a standard calendar led to errors in calculating the average length of a woman's monthly cycle. The rabbis were under the impression that the average woman's monthly cycle was only 18 days. B'not Yisrael, possibly because they realized how far off the rabbis' calculations were, and possibly acting to avoid accidentally violating the law, lengthened the amount of time before immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath) and a return to permissible sex with their husbands from seven days without bleeding to fourteen days. Ner-David reminds us that this seems to be one of the rare instances in which women actively decided the halachah (Jewish religious law) both by and for themselves. (Ner-David does not say this in her book, but it also seems to me that the original ruling by the rabbis would have been much more workable if the good gentlemen, had, ya know, consulted their wives about how their own bodies worked. If you can't admit that you're lost, then give me the blinkin' map, darn it!)

But the position that Ner-David took that surprised me the most, given that she was studying to become a rabbi, was her adamant opposition to p'sak, which she defines as "a personal ruling by a rabbi who specializes in answering questions of Jewish law that must be followed once received. " Ner-David supports her father's position that p'sak is "idolatry, that people who did this were worshipping their rabbi like an idol. . . .My parents asked rabbis and scholars for advice, but they never asked for a p'sak. My parents were never willing to hand over the responsibility for their life decisions to another person, and neither am I." I agree 100%. If we have no right to think for ourselves, then the blessing "chonen ha-daat"* is a brachah l'vatalah.**

I recommend this book to both feminists and traditionalists. It's a fine portrait of someone trying to walk a tightrope between two sometimes-conflicting hashkafot (religious perspectives).

*"[Blessed is (the One)] who graciously gives knowledge."

** A "wasted blessing," meaning that the person saying the blessing has just taken G-d's name in vain.


Blogger Tzipporah said...

IIRC, Ner David is one of the contributors to "Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism." It's a great piece, and a great book in general.

Fri Oct 12, 12:39:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for the recommendation. It comes at a good time.

I'm currently working my way through Deborah Siegel’s book “Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild," reviewed on the Jewess blog here by Rebecca Honig Friedman. I have a post on feminism in the draft stage, and wanted to check out this particular book because it discusses the differing perspectives of some older and some younger women on the subject, a difference that I’m trying to understand better so that I can do a better job of discussing it in that planned post.

Also on my shopping list (though, for the life of me, I can’t remember on which blog I read about it) is Shaarei Simchah: Traditional Prayers, Song and Modern Inclusive Rituals, by Adena Berkowitz and Rivka Haut, a birkon/bentcher (book containing blessings such as Birkat HaMazon/Grace After Meals) which “carefully explains and expands upon women’s role in religious ritual, such as Kiddush, Zimmun, baby welcoming ceremonies, bar/bat mitzvah, weddings, all within halakhic parameters." This'll be an important addition to my collection of siddurim/prayer books, etc.

I'll keep my eyes open for "Yentl's Revenge." Thanks again!

Sun Oct 14, 12:33:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzippora, I’m returning the favor—I recommend:

Tamar Ross's "Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism " reviewed by yours truly here;


Rabbi Judith Hauptmann’s “Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice” which I would describe as a "just the facts, ma'am" presentation of how the Talmud, though written by and for men who were not seeking gender equality, nevertheless includes interpretations of some important laws that made them more beneficial to women. Not everyone can keep a cool head while acknowledging, flat out, that Jewish law is patriarchal even though it was an improvement over the law systems of some other nations. Even so, Hauptmann does not hesitate to acknowledge areas (such as divorce) in which the rabbis didn't clear all the obstacles that women encounter in Jewish law. The tone, though, is that of a person calmly presenting the evidence. She's not picketing the rabbis--that's not her style. It was *after* she wrote this book that she was ordained as a rabbi.

Sun Oct 14, 01:49:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an amazing book that will answer a lot of the questions posed: Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism

Mon Oct 15, 02:08:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tova Hartman, one of the founding mothers of the partnership minyan approach to traditional public Jewish prayer, has written a book about feminism and frumkeit (Orthodox Judaism)? Neat! Thanks for the recommendation.

Mon Oct 15, 05:48:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

wow, lots of books! I'll make note of them. Thanks, Shira.

Tue Oct 16, 12:08:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzipporah, you're welcome any time. I'm always happy to trade book recommendations.

Hmm, looks like I may be hitting the Internet for some of these. Funny, how some Judaica stores don't seem to stock feminist books. And they're not necessarily on the shelves at Barnes, either.

Tue Oct 16, 01:39:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I stand corrected: This post on the Jewess blog lead me to this post at the Mixed Multitudes blog of, which, in turn, led me to this Jewish Week article about the Shaarei Simchah birkon/bentcher. Oh, so that’s why I couldn’t find any mention of Shaarei Simchah on any of my favorite blogs—the article wasn’t published on a blog!

Thu Oct 25, 06:03:00 PM 2007  

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