The first thing I did when I finished reading Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David’s new book, “Chana’s Voice” is to set out to learn how to bake challah. Haviva’s writing is like that; she inspires you to open your heart and approach yourself to new possibilities. For Haviva, baking challah is one of three stations on her journey through Judaism and gender, the other two being sex and Shabbat. In order to begin my quest I called my friends Dr. Ariella Zeller and Chaim Kram who, like Haviva, bake challah every Shabbat in an entirely egalitarian way (Ariella’s job is the white bread, Chaim’s job is whole wheat; In Haviva’s house her husband Jacob has taken over the challah-baking entirely). As my friends taught me their tricks of the yeast, we discussed feminism, food, and Haviva’s book.
The experience of sitting in my friends’ kitchen preparing for Shabbat while exploring gender issues felt like the perfect reaction to Haviva’s book, and in fact to her entire life work. It was communal, conversational, relationship-centered and real. Haviva’s vision for Judaism and the world, as chronicled in this book, is a personal voyage through significant Jewish symbols and stations, one that for Haviva is swathed in courage, integrity, and an authentic search for meaningful connection to God within the fundamental parameters of human dignity and equality. “She took us on her journey,” my friend Ariella said after she read and loved the book, “and I felt like I was completely with her.”
The book uses the theme of “CHaNaH”, an acronym for the three commandments supposedly “given” to women – Challah, Niddah (menstruation) and Hadlakat Nerot (Shabbat candle-lighting). From the title alone, which implies a rather retro, essentialist, difference-oriented feminist approach with echoes of anti-feminist apologetics, I would not have picked up the book. Yet, the book itself is exactly the opposite of what the name implies. Haviva’s message is about embracing the values in the so-called “women’s” mitzvoth and creating a world in which men are taught to embrace those values too – whether that means men baking and immersing, or reinventing wedding ceremonies. For Haviva, the journey is about looking for the value in what has traditionally been “women’s culture” and bringing it out into the wider world.