07/07/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

Does Judaism Need Gender?

No, says Haviva Ner-David, most known as the first woman to apply to Yeshiva University's rabbinic ordination program and ten years later to receive private Orthodox rabbinic ordination.

Yeshiva University does not accept women into its rabbinical program; once Ner-David's gender was revealed, her application was rejected. And the Orthodox movement does not recognize women rabbis; Ner-David's ordination has yet to be formally acknowledged by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment. So clearly Ner-David rejects the traditional Jewish convention that only men can be rabbis. But Ner-David, who calls herself a "post-denominational" rabbi, goes farther and rejects the need for gendered distinctions in Jewish law altogether.

This theology is quite radical -- even for a post-denominational rabbi. Traditional Judaism is grounded in the notion that men are obligated in all of the mitzvot (religious obligations) except those relating to women's biology, while women are exempt from fulfilling many obligations for a host of reasons -- mostly connected with the expectation that they are busy with domestic chores and childrearing so the men can focus on more lofty obligations. On the face of it, this arrangement seems like a good deal for women; but in the world of traditional Judaism, being obligated to fulfill mitzvot brings status. As a result, from a legal perspective women occupy a lesser status than men.

In her fascinating new book, Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Bathing, Baking, and Brightening, Ner-David explores the three mitzvot traditionally associated with women -- challah (separating out a piece of baking dough as sacred), nidah (immersing in a mikveh, ritual pool, after uterine bleeding) and lighting Shabbat candles. Ner-David, who holds a doctorate in the philosophy of Jewish law, tunes into what she calls "Chanah's Voice." She reminds us that Chanah -- the biblical mother of the prophet Samuel -- is credited with inventing prayer, albeit silent prayer. She asks us to listen to the silenced voice -- an inner call for justice, egalitarianism and individuality that must be integrated into the way Judaism is practiced today.

I caught up with Ner-David, a friend of mine since childhood, by phone. She lives in Israel on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children, where she is the rabbinic director of the only mikveh in Israel run by a woman rabbi and that is open to anyone (man, woman, LGBT, straight, religious, secular) to immerse in whichever way she or he sees fit.

Is there any place for a gendered division of labor in observant Judaism?
No. The categorization of women and men in halakhah is based on the idea that because of a person's gender, she or he is obligated or exempted from certain mitzvot, religious observances. Those gendered categories were created during the time of the Talmud, when men's and women's roles in both the public and domestic spheres were clearly defined. Women were exempted from certain mitzvot because being religiously and communally obligated was a status symbol -- the religious and public spheres were valued more than the private and domestic spheres -- and men were of a higher social rank than women. Also, a man's ability to completely devote himself to his religious obligations relied on the fact that women were exempt and could take care of the more "mundane" tasks. Those categories are no longer useful in our reality that, thankfully, has been and is continuing to be transformed by the feminist revolution (which I see as part of continuous divine revelation).

You are rejecting a foundation of halakhic Judaism. How do you reconcile that with observant Judaism?
Halakhah is a legal system, and legal systems by nature are designed to preserve a connection with the past. But Judaism is also a religion with a redemptive purpose in the world. We must find the right balance between preservation of tradition and progression in the name of tikkun olam (repairing the world). It seems to me that the male-created halakhic system prefers the former to the latter. It is my hope that a revamped approach to Jewish practice that includes all voices will be more balanced. There is no purpose to preserving tradition at the expense of justice.

Your book is about your embrace of the so-called women's rituals. Did you come to embrace them because they spoke to you as a woman?
No. I don't think of myself as a woman as much as I think of myself as a human being. For me, mikveh is important because of my relationship with water and intimate religious ritual. It's not about being a woman. The same thing is true for me with baking challah, which for me is about uplifting life by imbuing our basic human needs with meaning, bringing out their sacred essence. This may be associated with the classic women's experience, but it is not about anything essential about being a woman. At the time I was writing this book, I was the one baking challah for our household, but my husband Jacob has adopted that task for the last few years, and he is very committed to it. And I'm happy for him to be the one doing it for now.

As for candle-lighting, that is the ritual I struggle with the most of the three. It is a beautiful transition ritual from weekday to Shabbat, but Shabbat is a hard mitzvah for me sometimes. I find the dichotomy between sacred and mundane challenging, even problematic. I know I approach these mitzvot in a way that is not traditional, even though the mitzvot themselves are traditional. But that is part of what I am trying to say about Chanah's voice. It is not traditional. It is a voice that was until now silenced and is now struggling with an ancient tradition. Of course it will be radical in some respects. But it too must be heard. And the fact that it is wrestling with instead of rejecting completely is a crucial distinction.

In Chanah's Voice, you write about creating new rituals, such as the ritual following your oldest daughter's first menstrual period and the one you created following your third miscarriage. What are the meanings of these rituals?
I was led to create these new rituals because there are no traditional rituals marking significant transitional moments for women such as the onset of menstruation, miscarriage, weaning one's child and even giving birth. This is obviously because it was men who were creating Jewish ritual. It may be that rituals did exist in the women's sphere, but if so, they were considered fringe -- sometimes even pagan -- and not part of authentic, institutionalized Judaism.

I encourage both men and women to use mikveh to create ceremonies for life transitional events. For example, traditionally a woman goes to the mikveh before her wedding, but a man does not. Even if there is no halakhic reason for him to go, there is also no halakhic reason for him not to go; and spiritually, immersing before one's wedding is a highly appropriate way for both men and women to prepare for the event. Likewise, I encourage both men and women to immerse monthly after the period of sexual separation during menstruation, as a way for the couple to mark together in a ritual way their transition back into sexual activity.

I don't see any reason why all of these ritual opportunities cannot be open to everyone -- regardless of gender. That is what we should be striving for. Feminism is not about women becoming men. It is about liberating men as well as women and for society as a whole to be changed for the better as a result.

Chanah's Voice is available in bookstores and online.