Author: Haviva Ner-David
Details: (c) 2000 Haviva Ner-David; Pub JFL Books 2000; ISBN 0-9664306-7-0
Verdict: Life on the fringes is of very specialist interest and didn't teach me much I don't already know.
Reasons for reading it: The thing is, some of my religious practices lead people to assume I'm a feminist. This can sometimes be a good thing (but undeserved, since I'm not terribly politically committed), and sometimes draws flak.
Anyway, a friend from shul thought I might enjoy this book. This friend, let's call her Lily, is one of those people who are basically Orthodox by inclination but find that Orthodox Judaism (as practiced currently, not necessarily in principle) is just too misogynist to be bearable. My wearing the traditional fringed garment causes people like Lily to assume that my religious position is similar, which isn't really true, but I'm not entirely uninterested in these issues.
How it came into my hands: Lily lent it to me, having warned me that while the subject matter was interesting, the quality of writing isn't great.
I kind of skimmed Life on the Fringes in odd moments, didn't really sit down and read it through. Ner-David has accomplished some pretty amazing things in terms of forcing the Orthodox world to confront feminist issues (the book is subtitled A feminist journey toward traditional rabbinic ordination), but Lily was quite right that she is by no means a writer. I feel like the world already has Blu Greenberg, an equally impressive Orthodox feminist activist who also happens to be a very good writer, and this book doesn't really add anything new.
The personal aspects are somewhat interesting. For example, most of the people who keep the menstrual purity laws are also not the sorts of people who talk openly about their sex lives. It's also interesting to see laid out some of the way the Orthodox establishment has moved "rightwards" in the last generation or so. And Ner-David is clearly very personable and it's interesting to read such an honest semi-biography. But her explanations of the more theoretical halachic are too dry to be readable without being rigorous enough to be informative.
And yeah, it's overly sentimental, and it's jumps about between topics with no real structure, and could do with a professional edit, frankly. But it's published by a specialist small press for a reason: basically, only people who are almost entirely in sympathy with Ner-David's position anyway are likely to read it. And yes, I am interested in reading about religious paths which are not my own, but to be honest, Ner-David exemplifies exactly the sort of Orthodox Jew that pluralist Reform Jews like me find easiest to cope with, and I suspect that as a pluralist Orthodox Jew she'd find my brand of Reform Judaism pretty easy to swallow. So it wasn't really challenging.
hatam_soferet, if you ever feel like writing an autobiography about women taking an active ritual role within Orthodox Judaism, the kinds of people who would come away disappointed by Life on the fringes would probably be extremely grateful!