Meet the (female) rav
Date: Friday, June 1st, 2006
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle
Twelve years ago, Haviva Ner-David applied to the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University, New York’s flagship modern-Orthodox, all-male college. She never heard back — and, she told the JC this week, “later I heard they were laughing about my application in their offices.”
Ultimately, however, it was Rabbi Ner-David who had the last laugh. The native New Yorker, who now lives in Jerusalem, has just became the first woman in the world to receive semichah, or rabbinic ordination, from an Orthodox rabbi after studying the same curriculum as Orthodox men.
Predictably, the breakthrough has prompted a hostile reaction from certain Orthodox circles, particularly on the web. The rabbi who ordained her, the well-regarded Arie Strikovsky, who is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, in Jerusalem, partially backtracked under the pressure. He told the Jerusalem Post that she may only use the title “rabbi” in communities willing to accept her status.
But Rabbi Ner-David is undeterred, taking comfort in reassurances from Rabbi Strikovsky that “as far as what I’ve achieved, it’s the same as he’s given to other men.”
Accordingly, a group of her learning partners has performed a traditional ceremony conferring on her the title of rabbi. She has high hopes that even such unofficial recognition will give courage to other Orthodox women — and rabbis — to follow her.
“The change will happen in incremental steps,” she said, “and even if Rabbi Strikovsky isn’t into the rabbinical title, if he says he’d given a woman semichah, other rabbis might feel less scared to do it themselves.”
Since the more right-wing elements of the community are likely to resist such innovations, Rabbi Ner-David predicts radical implications for the Orthodox movement. “The right-wing and more liberal elements could end up looking so different, the Orthodox world could ultimately split,” she said. “It’s hard to tell whether the more right-wing community will just move more to the right in reaction to these things, but they can’t close themselves off entirely — even among the charedim, feminism still seems to seep in.”
In many ways, Rabbi Ner-David, 37, is the embodiment of the “slippery slope” argument which animates so many on the right. Growing up in a modern-Orthodox household, she was frustrated by a system which allowed girls to learn Talmud, but not to read from the Torah at their batmitzvahs.
“I was at the cusp of a movement giving women more involvement, but was being teased,” she says.
The desire to become a rabbi emerged when she took on leadership positions in the local shul and mikveh at university.
Although she interviewed at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, she felt it important to stay within Orthodoxy. After emigrating, friends introduced her to Rabbi Strikovsky.
“From the start it was clear what I wanted,” she noted, “although I’m not sure he thought I’d ever go through with it.”
Her agenda, she openly admits, is
political, although this is one of the charges most often laid against Orthodox feminist campaigners. “I’m an activist for the sake of heaven and shouldn’t have to apologise for that,” she insisted.
“You don’t devote your life to a cause because you’re trying to prove a point — I was pushed by the desire to connect to God. But when I studied the sources, I realised that a lot of the restrictions were social.”
She acknowledged that even many Orthodox feminists had objected to her semichah on personal, ideological or tactical grounds.
“I am not in favour of denominations,” she explained. “It confines people and gives them an excuse not to listen to each other. I’m a rabbi for the whole Jewish people.”
Still, the mother of five — who davens at shuls on the left fringes of Orthodoxy, such as Shirah Chadashah, which is popular with English-speaking immigrants — insisted that she was an “halachic Jew” and that she wanted to bring women’s voices into the Orthodox rabbinate, specifically, in order to influence rulings.
“I want to empower people with knowledge, to put the power in their hands to make religious decisions,” she said. “We need to break down hierarchy, and I hope that more women involved will help create this model.”
Although there has been no stampede of women to follow in her footsteps, she remains optimistic.
“The advances for Orthodox women in my lifetime have already been monumental — for example, the idea of women wearing a talit, as I do, has become more acceptable,” she said. “One can only live in hope.”