For much of her life, it was the men’s mitzvot that occupied Haviva Ner David. After applying to Yeshiva University’s rabbinical program and receiving no response, she struggled for more than a decade before eventually becoming one of the first women granted the equivalent of an Orthodox semicha, or rabbinic ordination. Having reclaimed a space traditionally reserved only for men, Ner David began looking elsewhere.
“As I grew into a more mature feminism,” she writes in the introduction of her new book, Chanah’s Voice, “I knew that in order to embrace my Judaism fully and discover my Jewish soul, I had to take a much-overdue journey into the three ‘women’s’ mitzvoth enumarted by the Mishnah: challah (religious laws around bread baking), nidah (menstruation rituals), and hadlakat ha-ner (Sabbath candle lighting).”
That journey is at the heart of Ner David’s book, and she approaches it with an admirable mixture of the intimate and the erudite, moving from heartfelt personal anecdotes to thoughtful disquisitions about theology and its place in the everyday life. Writing about the mitvah of baking bread, for example, Ner David evokes the teachings of the 19th Century hassidic thinker Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, known as the Sefat Emet: interpreting the story of the spies Moses dispatched to examine Canaan before the Israelites entry, the Sefat Emet explains that the spies’ moral failure lay in their inability to see the Promised Land’s promise, its inner beauty that could be revealed only if its soon-to-be-inhabitants transformed it into a land flowing with milk and honey. All the spies saw, the Sefat Emet argued, was “the lower world.”
Ner David sees the tradition of baking challahs as living up to the Sefat Emet’s urging: “no matter how challenging or hopeless my work of making a home for my family in Israel often seemed,” she writes, “I resolved to remember the Sefat Emet’s teaching that every holy act, no matter how seemingly insignificant in the larger scheme of things, is a step in the direction towards uplifting our often-depressing reality.”
Amen to that, and hallelujah for a book like Chanah’s Voice, as thoughtful a meditation on gender, ritual, and Judaism as any in recent memory.