Baking Challah As a Feminist Act

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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.

If anything, Haviva is more egalitarian and liberal in her approach to these issues than many Jewish leaders from across the denominational horizon. Her husband is in charge of the challah-making, she and her husband immerse together in natural springs without necessarily following all the traditional oral laws involved in mikveh, she counts women and men in a prayer quorum, and the spirit of experience “oneg Shabbat” [the joy of the Sabbath] often takes precedence over, say, lighting candles on time or at all. Haviva’s search for genuine divine connection through Torah takes her far beyond most traditional Jews’ comfort zone.

For that, I have the utmost respect for Haviva. “We wanted to see if we could rediscover the spiritual meaning that must be inherent in these ways of reaching the Divine,” she writes in the introduction explaining the thought behind the group of women who together explored these commandments, “not as an apologetic towards reassigning these modes to women alone, but as a way of reintroducing them and all they represent into our lives as Jewish feminists – to reclaim these modes or ritual expression – and into Jewish society in general for men and women alike.” As she explains later on, “We had no intention of replacing a patriarchy with a matriarchy but rather replacing a hierarchy with a true democracy, in which all voices are heard.”

This book, by weaving together meta-halakhic analysis, Hassidic thought, Jewish renewal and feminist philosophy, Haviva had laid forth a comprehensive approach to Jewish life that is post-denominational, accessible, and breathtaking in its beauty.

One of the primary themes of Haviva’s journey is her longing for “tikkun” – correction – based on the mystical concept that when God created the world, the “Divine vessels” holding the Divine light shattered and scattered, and can now be found in all of God’s creations, and that the purpose of humanity is to reconstruct that Divine vessel through our actions. Haviva masterfully weaves this notion of tikkun with the feminist ideas about “the personal is political”. For Haviva, tikkun starts at home, with how one lives one’s life. By challenging gender roles at home and breaking free from gender constructs, Haviva writes, “we performed a tikkun, a corrective, on the gender imbalance that exists in so many ways in our society. The more men and women invade and join together in each other’s spaces, the better our society will become.”

One of Haviva’s greatest contributions here is her conception of fulfilling mitzvot. As a result of her attempts to reconcile the difficulty of raising a large family while both parents try to fulfill the commandment to pray with tefillin and both parents try to be full partners in the kitchen, she comes to the conclusion that we are all going about this all wrong. The concept of unwavering Torah obligation only works if there is someone whose job it is to pick up the slack. She says that as women’s lives change – and men’s lives along with them – this notion of an unfettered to freely do Torah at any moment needs to change. She boldly suggests that rather than thinking about commandments as “obligations,” we conceptualize them in terms of “commitment”. “We can lose sight of the bigger picture when we get caught up in following the rules,” Haviva writes. “This approach closes us off to the development of new meanings and the adaptation of rules. This approach can get us stuck… The rabbinic rules, which are actually only meant to be a frame, a shell, a temporary means towards reaching the essence, could become an empty frame or shell.”

Although Haviva’s ideas will undoubtedly be met in the traditional community with cries of rebelliousness and heresy, I believe that she expresses an incredibly profound vision of Torah and Jewish life that Jews, including Orthodox Jews, would do well to heed. Haviva’s approach to Torah has the potential to eliminate so much unnecessary anxiety and thoughtlessness in the religious world, and remind people that rather than the dutiful mindlessness that characterizes so much of religious life, it is possible to live a life of Torah while living from the heart.

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