Years-long Struggle to Ordain Women As Conservative Rabbis Ends in Victory
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Years-long Struggle to Ordain Women As Conservative Rabbis Ends in Victory

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The faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America approved yesterday, by a large majority, the admission of women to the JTS rabbinical school for ordination as Conservative rabbis and one Conservative rabbinical leader said today he was skeptical about reports that the decision would cause a major split in American Conservative Judaism.

The vote of 34-8, at a special meeting called by JTS chancellor Gerson Cohen, ended a long-running controversy in the movement, in which a steadily growing number of Conservative rabbis endorsed admission of women by the JTS for ordination, while a substantial number of JTS faculty members remained in adamant opposition.

There are 55 faculty members at the JTS. Three from the Talmudic program boycotted the meeting yesterday. The 42 present at the meeting represented nearly 75 percent of the total Faculty Senate and the affirmative vote for admission of women was by a similar majority.


Cohen, who headed the commission he named in 1977 to study the controversial issue, and who was chairman of the meeting yesterday, said after the vote that he regarded it as "evidence that the Seminary and the Conservative movement in American Judaism are able to respond to the challenges of modernity in traditional terms."

After the 34-8 vote, a second motion was passed which called on Cohen to name a committee, with Dr. Joel Roth, associate professor of Talmud and Rabbinics and Rabbinical School Dean, as its chairman, to review and recommend criteria for admission of all candidates to the Rabbinical School, subject to approval by the JTS chancellor. Roth had proposed the motion for admission of women.

The skepticism that the approval action would bring a schism in the movement was expressed by Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that it was expected that the first women would be admitted to the ordination program at the JTS in September, 1984.

The Conservative movement thus joins Reform and Reconstruction ism in ordaining women as rabbis. There are now some 60 women rabbis, most of them holding positions as assistant rabbis, others in administrative and teaching posts. The (Reform) Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, began the process more than 10 years ago by ordaining Sally Preisand as the first woman rabbi in American history.


Kelman offered a "guess" that 25 to 30 women will be admitted as the first women members of the JTS Rabbinical School. He said he agreed with Cohen that the vote would not cause any schism in the Conservative movement.

He said "the essence" of the movement is "reverence for pluralism" and for "unlimited freedom of expression and academic freedom," with the only limit being the rulings of the RA Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Kelman also told the JTA that in the past 40 years, more than 500 rabbis trained in Orthodox and Reform seminaries had applied for admission to the RA and that more than 400 had been accepted while, in that same period, fewer than five rabbis have resignened from the RA on ideological grounds.

Kelman, who attended the meeting yesterday, confirmed Cohen’s description of the debate as "full of debate" but not rancorous. Kelman commented that a lot of anger had been expressed prior to the debate by Conservative foes of ordination of women. He also said he doubted that the vote would affect Conservative relationships with the Orthodox movement, which has never accepted either Conservative or Reform Judaism as valid.


A group of Conservative Jews opposed to ordination of women, called the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, headed by Rabbi David Novak of Bayswater, Long Island, said the decision "defies all norms of Jewish jurisprudence." Kelman said the group was organized last spring and has about 500 members, rabbinical and lay.

The first reaction from Orthodox sources came from the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the major Orthodox rabbinical organizations. Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, president of the Rabbinical Council asserted that "the ordination of women is against Jewish law and tradition," He stressed that the Conservative movement had "taken another step away from normative Judaism and is further polarizing Jewish life."


Ezrat Nashim, which describes itself as the first Jewish feminist organization, issued a statement asserting that in March, 1972, it had called on the Conservative movement to ordain women as rabbis. The organization, made up of women seeking greater equality in Judaism within the framework of halacha (Jewish law) said the vote "recognizes the compelling moral claim of women’s equality as well as the changed status of women in the modern world," and was "consonant with the Conservative interpretation of the development of halacha."


Formal action for the proposal began in the movement when the RA, in May, 1977, called on the JTS to consider admission of women to the Rabbinical School. In a resolution adopted at the RA convention in that month, the rabbis called on Cohen to set up an "interdisciplinary" commission to study "all aspects" of the issue. In November, 1977, Cohen announced formation of the commission.

The commission held meetings in December, 1977 and March 1978 and held a number of hearings in various cities. In December, 1978, commission members evaluated their findings and authorized a final report, presented to the 1979 RA convention by Cohen. The report found no halachic barrier to ordination of women and proposed that the JTS admit women to its Rabbinical School.

The 1979 convention approved the commission report, but withheld action pending study of the views of the JTS faculty. At a faculty meeting, the Faculty Senate tabled the proposal, partly out of fears of a division within the movement and partly to allow friends and foes of the proposal more time to study it.

The next public action took place at the RA convention last spring when the RA admissions committee reported that a woman, Rabbi Beverly Magidson, ordained as a Reform rabbi, had applied for membership in the RA. Established procedure required that a majority of 75 percent of the delegates present approve Magidson’s admission. On the final count, she fell short, by four votes, to get that majority.

A number of delegates, who opposed Magidson’s admission to the RA, said that ordination was a matter for the JTS to decide and renewed their appeal to the JTS to decide on the issue. The meeting of the Faculty Senate yesterday was called by Cohen in response to that plea at the 1983 convention.

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