Some see Nechama Shaina Langer as quite the outlaw in the Hasidic world. But that’s not how she sees herself.
The eldest daughter of Rabbi Yosef and Hinda Langer, co-directors of Chabad of San Francisco, has forged her own path from the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch world she grew up in to one of her own making that is feminist, progressive, outspoken and thoughtful.
Now she has added to her unusual resume a plan to become a Hebrew priestess with the 2019 West Coast cohort of Kohenet, also known as the Hebrew Priestess Institute.
“Kohenet, for me, is about the feminine being instrumental in bringing her voice, her commentary, her story and creating meaningful ritual to the ‘wide table’ or Shulchan Aruch,” the Code of Jewish Law, said Langer, 41, who lives in Berkeley. “It’s about exploring the questions the male rabbis have not asked, or even noticed.”
“Nechama is our first Kohenet student who grew up in a Hasidic context,” said co-founder Taya Shere. “She brings great creativity to her work, a passion for the sacred feminine and for embodiment, and a depth of knowledge of Jewish tradition.”
According to Langer, speaking publicly about her choices is not intended to cause further tension between her and those she grew up with. Rather, she hopes to encourage other women in her ultra-Orthodox community who might be struggling to find their voices.
“For many years, I didn’t want to fight the system that I was raised in,” she said. “I went along with it since it seemed easier.”
Speaking to her Hasidic sisters, she said, “It’s up to us women. Transforming the old patterns of patriarchy is not just for the women that are obviously suffering in trapped relationships or who are struggling for years to receive a get,” she said, referring to the Jewish divorce certificate. “This is also for the women who think everything is just fine.”
Langer’s feminist leanings go back at least as far as her teenage years. “When I was 16, some yeshiva [students] came through on their way from Nepal, where they put on a seder for Jewish backpackers. It sounded like the most exciting thing in the universe,” she said.
“I felt that I was not going to let my being a woman stop me from having that kind of adventure. But at the same time, I knew that two single Chabad women would never be sent to Nepal.”
Formerly Hasidic Jews who have “left the path” and become secular are almost an industry — several have written memoirs, others have been widely interviewed, and there are small communities of them in cities like New York and Montreal with large ultra-Orthodox populations.
Langer doesn’t identify with this group; she remains close to her family, keeps kosher and is shomer Shabbat. But she has pushed back against many of her community’s traditions — she did not start dating at 18, the age most of her observant peers went on the marriage circuit, and instead she married at 30, to a man of her own choosing whom she met in Israel.
Before that she traveled, working with Chabad in China, Australia and Hawaii. She attended a Chabad women’s seminary in Israel, but also learned scribal arts (mostly the purview of men) at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, an egalitarian yeshiva-style school in Jerusalem, and attended art school.
“I wanted to be able to open a sacred book and study text, to understand it for myself, and not be dependent on someone to translate it for me,” she said.
She supported herself for some time as a ketubah artist, creating the design and writing the text for marriage certificates Jewish couples typically display on their walls.
She has degrees in expressive arts therapy and drama therapy and received a certificate in holistic sex therapy. She works as a therapist and teaches a holistic psycho-spiritual approach to sex education at Oakland Hebrew Day School, an addendum to what already existed there; she hopes to bring the class to other Jewish day schools.
Langer’s formal sex education consisted of one hourlong class from her sixth-grade biology teacher in a Chabad-sanctioned school.
Given that a male rabbi can never experience what it’s like to give birth or have a menstrual cycle, how can he then make a decision over a woman’s body?
“I designed this class in response to what was lacking in my education as well as what I see as a void in the Orthodox and greater world, where young people do not have a safe container to explore this stage of development, their changing bodies and the strong emotions that come with that,” she said.
Langer worked with a nurse practitioner at Planned Parenthood who developed the biology part of the curriculum, while Langer focused on the emotional. “One of my objectives is simply getting [students] comfortable with talking about sexuality and things that are uncomfortable to talk about,” she said. “Too often the first time sexuality is spoken about in school, the approach is based on fear, of sexually transmitted disease and premature pregnancy. It’s usually scientifically based and doesn’t have a platform for students to explore their spiritual and cultural values or get the emotional support they need.”
Langer is now separated from her husband of 10 years. Last year she received her get, which allows her to marry again; the couple is still going through a civil divorce. They have two children together, a boy and a girl.
While she and her ex-husband did their best to have an egalitarian marriage, she said, there were certain things proscribed by Jewish law and written in the ketubah that she couldn’t accept but didn’t know why until she encountered feminist theory.
“Of course I knew all of this from a very deep place, but not from feminist writing,” she said.
Problematic to her was the transactional structure of a Jewish wedding, in which the groom acquires, or symbolically purchases, the bride by giving her a ring.
Then there is the Jewish divorce procedure, in which a woman has to receive her get from the beit din (Jewish court) with her arms outstretched, hands cupped, and that is only after her husband has decided to grant her a divorce. If he does not agree, the woman cannot remarry within Jewish law.
Less formal aspects of Hasidic tradition were just as troubling to her. Langer points to the custom whereby some women don’t trust themselves to determine when they can resume sexual intercourse after their menstrual periods, so they send their underwear to their rabbi for his inspection.
These are all examples of “women not being part of the halachic conversation about their own lives and bodies, and having as many children as God gives them,” she said. “Given that a male rabbi can never experience what it’s like to give birth or have a menstrual cycle, how can he then make a decision over a woman’s body?”
She has channeled her feelings about her divorce in an unusual way, through a creative reuse of her own ketubah.
“The ketubah was created by the rabbinical authorities 1,000 years ago to protect women. But how is the ketubah today truly protecting women, men and the sanctity of committed relationship?” she asks.
In reading “The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Spiritual Leadership” by Jill Hammer and Taya Shere, she came across the archetype of the weaver, which resonated for her.
“The women weavers wove these curtains for the holy temple,” she said. “A quote from Enoch 45 [an ancient noncanonical Jewish text] hints that these women were documenting the past, present and future of our people, documenting our story by weaving part of it, by bringing color into the black and white.”
Rather than destroy her ketubah, she turned the no-longer-valid document into a piece of wearable art, reimagining it as a priestly breastplate, which both protects and holds her heart. The parchment with its Hebrew script now has multicolored ribbons woven through it. She wore the garment this year to Urban Adamah’s Purim celebration.
“It’s about transforming through the old patterns of patriarchy and weaving in the feminine voice,” she said. “Not discarding the old, yet weaving in a new story that hasn’t yet been told.”
Given that claf, or parchment made specifically for a Torah scroll or a document like a ketubah, is created with holy intention, she knew some would find her actions sacrilegious. She chooses to see it as transformative, turning the ketubah into a symbol of her own strength and empowerment.
“There are so many problematic verses in Torah for me,” she said. “But there’s something beyond the black letters, there’s the white space in between.”
When asked to define her Jewish practice now, Langer hesitates. She is still shomer Shabbat but understands the appeal of mixed-gender prayer spaces, and sometimes attends services at places that have them, in addition to worshipping at Berkeley’s Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel. She believes that “doing mitzvot,” as the Lubavitcher rebbe taught, is the most important Jewish value.
What she worries about most is how her choices will reflect on her parents, with whom she is close.
“Of course there’s this feeling that I have to represent and protect them,” she said. “I definitely don’t want to hurt them by having this dialogue. In some way they understand, and I feel they’ve been as supportive as they can be.”
Rabbi Langer responded that even though he doesn’t always agree with his daughter, “I respect her a lot, as a woman and as a Jew.”
“Every soul has its own journey,” added Hinda Langer, who said she always nurtured her daughter’s artistic talent when she was young. “She is very authentic and inspirational to many people. Wherever she goes, she is carrying the spirit of Torah. It’s not a contradiction to the way she was raised, it’s a compliment to us.”
It’s Langer’s wish to inspire others, as her mother said. By speaking out, she is signifying that she’s there for her sisters — Hasidic and otherwise — who might be struggling.
“I don’t want to sound like an angry feminist,” she said. “I used to get angry that commentators glossed over the problematic issues with women in the Torah. And then I realized that I don’t need to be angry anymore. It’s not their responsibility to do that. It’s our responsibility, as women, to bring that voice.”