Review by Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff
In this, her third memoir, Rabbi Reverend Haviva Ner-David models a new way to be a rabbi.
Rabbis are generally advocates for a particular spiritual path. I have felt that I can be a spiritual guide for people who feel my path makes sense for them, while I’ve always acknowledged there are other paths, and if a different path is what works for you, go find it, and presumably find the right teacher who can help you on that different path.
In her beautifully written and courageously honest and from the heart memoir, Rabbi Haviva chronicles her journey from Orthodox rabbi (she was the first woman to be publicly acknowledged as an ordained Orthodox rabbi) to interfaith, interspiritual minister, dream worker, and spiritual companion.
Even though she recently added “reverend” to her long list of titles and accomplishments with her ordination as an interspiritual minister, she’s clearly still a rabbi. Rabbi means teacher, and with her boundary-dropping path of spiritual growth she shows that a true rabbi can help people who are not only following a particular spiritual path, but who are on any spiritual path. This is how she describes it:
Jacob (her husband) asks me how I feel about converting people to Judaism when I am an interspiritual rabbi, and about helping others draw closer to Judaism when I have come closer to finding my own inner peace by allowing myself, on some level, to move further away. For me there is no contradiction, and this work comes naturally. I will support, companion and carry all humans on their individual spiritual journeys, like the water in my empty-to-overflowing mikveh dream. Doing so is an honor.
Rabbi Haviva’s path is inspiring, but it’s also clear that it’s very much her unique path – which is, in itself, an important message because the truth is everyone is on their own unique spiritual path even if they give an outward appearance of being on some particular tradition’s path. Rabbi Haviva’s unusually unique path helps to illustrate that point.
Being married to a memoirist means you’re likely to find yourself a significant part of the stories, and Rabbi Haviva’s husband Jacob is a strong presence in the book. Rabbi Haviva and Jacob show us how a loving couple can navigate the challenges that go with figuring out how to manage a long-term relationship when the spiritual paths of the two partners, which had been in sync, start to diverge. They show us that the way to adapt is to accept that one’s partner’s spiritual path may not be the same as yours, and that’s OK – neither tries to enforce their rules or approach on the other, and that seems to me the ideal way to handle such situations. Even though there are times when it’s painful to give your partner that space.
Many of the chapters are framed around dreams. Dreamwork has been a major part of the author’s spiritual journey. In the style of dreamwork she uses, the guide asks the dreamer to inhabit different elements of the dream, and let them speak. Dreams that can seem to be the typical random vignettes with stuff that makes no sense can be found to contain hints of issues the dreamer is trying to work through. In one dream a suitcase and three suits turn out to have a lot to say; in another a Bohemian Woman and a headless woman have unexpected significance.
Some of the deepest wisdom in the book comes in the postscript – having lived with a degenerative disease since she was 16, Rabbi Haviva had come to terms with her own mortality, but was totally unprepared when Jacob was stricken with a serious condition:
Over the years, I had been doing the inner work to come to peace with my own morbidity and mortality, only to discover they paled in comparison to this. I could handle my own suffering and death, but I was not prepared to watch Jacob suffer and die. I was the sick one. This was not the way it was supposed to be. -Note: Jacob does recover, and Rabbi Haviva achieves a deeper understanding of mortality.
One of the things that makes this book special is that it’s not a story you’ve read before. There are plenty of memoirs about people who make a journey from totally secular, or even Christian to rabbi, and there are plenty of others about people who started out ultra-Orthodox and found their way out of religion, but this is definitely the only book out there about a female Orthodox rabbi who becomes an interspiritual minister.
Old-timers like me remember the Levy’s Real Jewish Rye Bread ads – “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate this rabbi’s story. In both this book, and in her novel, “Hope Valley,” Rabbi Haviva aims to break down walls. She wrote:
For as far back as I could remember, I had sensed that the walls humans erect between “us” and “them” are false and destructive. If only we could break down those walls, there would be hope of breaking down the separation between myself and the Divine Flow.
This book is an excellent contribution to the literature on breaking down walls.
For links to purchase, go to: https://rabbihaviva.com/dreaming-against-the-current/