Haviva Ner-David, Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi’s Soul Journey (Bedazzled Ink Publishing: 2021)
Haviva Ner-David is a memoirist and rabbi. A memoirist makes her life available to her readers because she knows that there is something inherently valuable in the story of every life. When that story is told artfully and with deep insight, it becomes available to the rest of us as a life we can learn from. Ner-David has the storyteller’s gift to make her own life of significance to a broader audience. This is her third memoir to date, which incorporates and goes far beyond the first two.
Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (2000) told the story of Ner-David’s quest to undo the sexism of the Orthodox Judaism in which she grew up by becoming its first woman rabbi. It was published long before she achieved that goal. Chanah’s Voice: A rabbi wrestles with the women’s rituals of baking, bathing and brightening (2014) is written from the point of view of someone working to bring more and more egalitarianism into the Orthodox framework in which she was still living at that time. For example, she would only do the monthly ritual of purification after her menstrual period, if her husband also immersed himself in a mikveh! The metaphor of wrestling in the title is particularly appropriate for a person who has struggled, ever since her teen years, against parental and societal constraints to find and walk her unique path in the world. After writing the book, she had the vision to open and run the only non-Orthodox mikveh in Israel, at Kibbutz Hannaton where she lives with her husband and seven children (a place with a remarkable collection of serious, creative Jews).
The theme of wrestling against the world’s constraints gets a much broader context in Dreaming Against the Current. It is indeed a person’s entire soul journey that is on view. Ner-David begins each chapter by narrating a dream in which she finds revelatory significance for the unfolding of her life. Water, which is so central to her practice as a rabbi structuring ritual of immersion for others, is central in many of these dreams. We see her emerging over and again from womblike bodies of water to give birth to a new, broader conception of herself and what is possible for her in the world.
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In this third memoir, Ner-David narrates the course of her studies to become an interfaith, interspiritual minister. In the process of that education, she comes to terms with what Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi called “Deep Ecumenicism,” which he urged upon all his students as an essential element for the renewal of Judaism in a world that knows itself as Gaia, a single living system. Ner-David narrates how she, along with the other students in the program, had to take on a spiritual practice from each of the world’s major religions for a month at a time. As her encounters with each of these traditions unfold, Ner-David wonders if she is becoming post-Jewish, even as her time living in Israel, surrounded by segregated Arab villages subjected to constant discrimination, has led her to become post-Zionist, preferring a democratic state for all its citizens to a Jewish state that privileges its Jews. She calls herself at one point “a spiritual humanist”, a lovely phrase that is not yet in our general religious lexicon. She uses the terms God and the Divine, yet like many of our practicing theologians, she reads them through the mystical lens that God, the Is-Was-Will Be, is not separate from the world or from us, but that we, too, are incorporated in the emergence of the world as YHWH. This allows her to approach Jesus’s human suffering as a lens on her own experience suffering with a degenerative muscular disease (FSHD), which makes the most ordinary movements that the rest of us take for granted, painful for her. Only when immersed in water is she free from the pain she lives with, a key to her making water the center of her rabbinate and the soul-journey narrated in this book.
In the pages of Tikkun, Ner-David has previously described how her debut novel, Hope Valley, emerged from the context of her interfaith experiences in Israel––from chance encounters with Arabs to focused groups of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis sharing personal narratives. In the memoir, we learn that Ner-David’s daughter married a Palestinian Israeli man and lives with him in Haifa. Readers of the memoir and novel will be able to see how Ner-David took her personal experiences and fused them with her compassion for the other to boldly inhabit the point of view of a Palestinian Israeli woman living with long-term, chronic, degenerative illness. Both books carry the same hope: that soul-to-soul connections with the other can bring us beyond the inherent divisiveness of labels to our shared humanity.
The major conflict in the book is embodied in the fact that Ner-David cannot bring herself to tell her parents about her training as an interfaith, interspiritual minister. Here she is immersed in a profound course of study, which is constitutive of the expanding, expansive soul that she is becoming, yet she cannot share anything about this experience with her parents, who are living in a paradigm that she has transcended and which she must continually break-out of to be herself. In writing the book, she has definitively told them and us that a person’s soul-journey cannot be constrained by the dictates of convention. This conflict comes to a head several times in the book as she poignantly narrates struggles with her husband over Shabbat practice in their home and family life.
Reflecting on this memoir and my reactions to it, I am aware of how deeply American it is. Ner-David’s focus on the personal revelation of one’s soul is in line with the great secular revelations of Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, who constitute our great triad of antinomian forebears. In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom has defined personal revelation as the through-line of many American founders of new religions, including Josiah Smith’s Mormonism, Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, and even the most popular version of Southern Baptism, which focuses more on personal revelations of the Spirit that saves than on the Scripture and religious communities that are said to embody that Spirit. Jewishness has been radically transformed in America for largely sociological reasons and is in the process of being further transformed as it opens to this antinomian language of revelations from the soul. Ner-David is one of American Judaism’s transformative agents, who has been transplanted to Israel, to bring the message there, where it will further evolve in relation to its surroundings.
I found out about this book because Ner-David contacted me to ask permission to quote one of my poems, which was significant for her in one of the moments she narrates. I identify with the book’s struggle to find a place for personal revelation in Judaism, a phase of Jewish evolution that had to go underground once the rabbis declared the end of prophecy. Another transformational Israeli teacher, Ari Elon, has said that Judaism will always belong to the rabbis, while Jewishness, in all its forms of expression, will always belong to the people. While Ner-David may be an ordained rabbi, her deeply Jewish calling, like Abraham’s, is to break her parents’ idols of divisiveness. She is not our local rabbi, whom we entrust to sustain the edifice of Judaism for us and our children, but she is certainly among the experts we would call-in to add a new room to our house. She is the one who, through her Jewish journey, has found it possible to help people of all faiths find spiritual forms of expession for what their souls know to be true. In this calling may be said to lie the redemption of the world first envisioned by our prophets of old.