Chanah’s Voice: A Rab­bi Wres­tles with Gen­der, Com­mand­ment, and the Women’s Rit­u­als of Bak­ing, Bathing, and Brightening

Havi­va Ner-David

  • Review
By – December 5, 2014

Although the cov­er of Chanah’s Voice de­scribes Havi­va Ner-David as the author of Life on the Fringes,” those expect­ing a sim­ple next install­ment or con­tin­u­a­tion of Ner- David’s ear­li­er mem­oir are in for a sur­prise. While Ner-David is cer­tain­ly the author of both books, in Chanah’s Voice she presents as a woman who has under­gone a tremen­dous­ly empow­er­ing, and com­plete­ly trans­for­ma­tive, spir­i­tu­al and polit­i­cal journey.

Chanah’s Voice is divid­ed into three parts, each revolv­ing around Ner-David’s study of a sin­gle Jew­ish com­mand­ment that was tra­di­tion­al­ly con­sid­ered to be a woman’s rit­u­al. As Ner-David explains, the ChaNaH of the title refers both the acronym for these obser­vances (Chal­lah, Nidah, and Had­lakat Ha-ner) and the bib­li­cal per­son­age of Chanah, who Ner-David presents as a reli­gious mod­el. Each sec­tion is filled, almost to burst­ing, with Jew­ish texts, his­to­ry, and legal sources, as Ner-David takes her read­ers on a thor­ough, if some­times breath­less, tour of these prac­tices. Inter­min­gled with these sources, which Ner-David stud­ied as part of her cur­ricu­lum for the rab­binate, Ner-David describes how her expe­ri­ence of study­ing and prac­tic­ing each of these rit­u­als has evolved.

It is in these per­son­al sto­ries and reflec­tions that Ner-David’s author­i­ty is most pro­nounced. Her the­o­log­i­cal con­clu­sions, rad­i­cal for the Mod­ern Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty in which Ner-David began her jour­ney, are embed­ded in the impact of the prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion of Jew­ish law on her life, and in the most inti­mate ways. With raw emo­tion and great at­tention to detail, Ner-David does not shy away from either the deep pain or tran­scen­dent joy that life and learn­ing have brought her way. In Chanah’s Voice she grabs hold of her pow­er as a learned Jew­ish woman, an activist and leader more deter­mined than ever to bring change to the sys­temic foun­da­tions that under­mine the equal­i­ty of all Jews, work­ing to cre­ate a non-hier­ar­chi­cal and non-gen­dered Jew­ish society.

While some read­ers may recoil at the strength of Ner-David’s con­vic­tions, oth­ers may find them­selves nod­ding along and jump­ing up to join her call to arms. Some may appre­ci­ate the author’s breadth of sources and the ease with which she presents them, or find solace or inspi­ra­tion in Ner-David’s indi­vid­ual anec­dotes and cre­ative rit­u­als. Just as Ner-David’s life has shaped her evo­ca­tion of Chanah’s Voice so too must the read­er nec­es­sar­i­ly appre­ci­ate it through his or her own spir­i­tu­al journey.

Deb­o­rah Miller received rab­bini­cal ordi­na­tion at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. She lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band and daugh­ter, where she serves as a hos­pice chap­lain and teacher.

Discussion Questions