Book Review: Dreaming Against The Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, By Haviva Ner-David
(Bedazzled Ink Publishing; Release date: Dec 15, 2021)
Rabbi Reverend Dr. Haviva Ner-David has made some very unorthodox choices in her life. One day, for example, was walking alone in the mountains of the upper Galilee near her home in Hannaton, and she heard the Muezzin call of the Muslim prayers in the distance, she responded in a way that many of her Jewish friends might find surprising. She kneeled forward and chanted, "Allahu Akhbar," the Muslim prayer that God is Great.
For Ner-David, who has gone from pioneering Orthodox-ordained rabbi to post-denominational rabbi and inter-spiritual minister, this felt like the most natural thing to do. The specific religion that a person born into is not particularly significant, she believes. What matters is the connection to the universal spirit of humanity.
This moment, like many moments in her life from the past decade or more, reflect the most recent station on her spiritual journey, as recounted in her newest memoir, Dreaming against the Current: A rabbi's soul journey. In this third memoir that she has published over the past 25 years, her transitions are vast, deeply thoughtful, and unencumbered. She writes with honesty, compassion, wisdom, and vulnerability about her doubts and feelings, and ultimately makes courageous decisions about how to dedicate her life to serving humanity in a profoundly authentic way while finding her own freedom. "Freedom from rules does not necessarily equal inner peace. Letting go is not just a physical act. It is an existential one that requires difficult inner work and can take a lifetime to master—if you are lucky to even do that." That is what this book is about – the difficult inner work that brings her to wholeness in herself.
Ner-David's story, which offers a glimpse of where the next stage of religious-minded Jewish feminism may be headed, is about her journey from Jew to Human. revolves around several major life events. One main aspect of her journey is her decision to be ordained as a minister with One Spirit, a New York-based international institution that promotes the vision of humanity as one, in which each religious tradition reflects its own cultural practices for reaching the same God or Source or Divine, however one defines it. In the two-year program, the students –who come from many different religions and countries – participate in intense study days about each religion, and regularly try out other religious practices. In addition to the private Muslim prayer that Ner-David spontaneously practiced, for example, she also sought out refuge in a monastery with nuns, and tried a month of Buddhist walking meditation with prayer beads. This all made sense for her, as she found these practices enabled her to "be true to myself…and have compassion for others as they do the same."
"Organized religion is not a substitute for doing our inner healing work," she writes. "It can be a companion to it, but not a replacement. It can be a means towards bringing people together in community and healing on a collective level through shared story and ritual, but community should be about supporting each member in their individual healing work and encouraging them to contribute their gifts to the community, not suppress those gifts in the name of conformity. Until we have healthy individuals we cannot have healthy community, and until we have communities not working against or trying to destroy one another, we cannot have a healthy world."
This journey takes place while Haviva is navigating some very difficult relationships, another major theme of the book. In particular, she struggles with her relationship with her mother, whom loyal readers might remember from Haviva's previous memoirs. Despite constant background noise of criticism and disapproval, Haviva is deeply in tune with what her soul needs. "An open-ended spiritual journey is antithetical to Orthodoxy, which is about following the rules and fitting in," she writes. "I did not want to watch my step. I wanted to spread my wings and fly free. I listened to my inner voice, a notion that is also against what Orthodox Judaism is about." Aware that this would be difficult for her Orthodox parents, she does not initially share with them that she joined One Spirit.
These tensions take on more sinister tones in this book, in particular when Haviva's daughter marries a Palestinian man. One Yom Kippur, she tells Haviva that she must atone for the way she raised her children, since she believes Haviva has failed to keep them interested in Judaism. Remarkably, Haviva seems to take this in stride, somehow using the tension as an opportunity for her own growth. That stance is in many ways admirable but in other ways treacherous. I had deep concerns for Haviva's well-being while reading some of this dialogue. A somewhat redemptive exchange towards the end of the book reassured me that Haviva is quite resilient and able to indeed take powerful messages from the experience, and Haviva's mother has her own arc in the book, albeit far from actually embracing and celebrating the remarkable achievements of her daughter.
Similarly, Haviva describes her relationship with her husband – which undergoes some severe strain in part due to Haviva's religious journey that her husband was not entirely in sync with – and here, too, frames it as an opportunity for her own growth while she is under some serious strain. Again, I struggled with the question about how much people should be willing to endure for the sake of so-called spiritual growth, but found Haviva's grit impressive.
In the end, her ability to get her immediate surroundings to support her life choices – in her own soft-spoken, compassionate, and loving way – left me thunderstruck.
Another major theme in the book is Haviva's health, and issues of death and mortality. She has been suffering with a genetic neuromuscular disease called FSHD since she was 16 and which has been degenerating. Today, she has trouble walking, closing her eyes, and at times breathing, and is hyper-conscious about her own death. Haviva's courage and spiritual prowess are such treasures that it is painful to read these accounts.
The book is written through the prism of dream analysis, which she engages in as part of her One Spirit studies in spiritual counseling. The beauty of some of these dream analyses are at times breathtaking, and have made me want to pay more attention to my own dreams as well.
The stories are also threaded with images of water, as Haviva's daily swimming form a lovely backdrop to her understandings of herself, as does her work in the post-denominational mikveh she runs near her home in Hannaton, Israel, The Shmaya mikveh.
In the end, it seems she finds what she is looking for, and considers her life a blessing. "My life began as a narrow stream, feeding into a river widening slowly, until it will, one day, feed into an ocean. I don't know when that will be, nor what that ocean will look like. But I am certain there will be rapids as well as meandering currents, rocks as well as clear paths, cold as well as warm waters. All moving in one direction and opening, slowly but steadily, along the way—until one day, all flows into the one vast ocean that is the One."