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RA Clears Way for Acceptance of Its First Woman Rabbi

The Rabbinical Assembly (RA) — the international organization of Conservative rabbis — has cleared the way for the acceptance of its first female member. She is Amy Eilberg, 30, who is scheduled to be the first woman to graduate from the Rabbinical School of the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and be ordained in May.

The roadblock to the acceptance of Eilberg–and and other Conservative women rabbis following in her footsteps — was cleared by the passage of an amendment to the RA’s constitution, the RA announced at a news conference last Thursday.

According to the amendment, all graduates of the JTS will automatically become RA members upon ordination. The amendment passed by a vote of 636-267 conducted in a recent mail ballot of the RA membership.

Previously, graduates had to be voted into RA membership individually by 75 percent of the delegates to an RA convention — which remains the procedure for non-JTS rabbis who apply. The amendment was conceived to avert a possible floor fight on such a vote on Eilberg’s acceptance into the RA membership, according to sources familiar with Conservative movement politics.

REASONS FOR CONCERN

Behind the concern was the fact that at floor fights for two years in a row, RA conventions rejected the application of Rabbi Beverly Magidson, who was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1979, while accepting into membership several male Reform rabbis.

At the 1983 convention, held in Dallas, the vote on Magidson’s application was 210 in favor to 75 opposed — only four votes short of the 75 percent required. At the 1984 convention, held in April in Kiamesha Lake New York, Magidson received 230 votes to 99 against — or 17 votes short.

The repeated rejection of Magidson’s application and the seeming decline in support for her admission to the RA largely were attributed by knowledgeable sources to the feeling in the organization that the first woman it admits should be a JTS graduate. This would then pave the way for the acceptance of women rabbis who were not JTS graduates, such as Magidson, in the future.

What made possible the application of a woman ordained by JTS was the decision of its Faculty Senate to accept women as rabbinical students, reached by a 34-8 vote in October 1983 after over 10 years of heated and often bitter debate within the Conservative movement.

In keeping with the decision, 18 women were admitted as students in the JTS Rabbinical School’s incoming (1984-85) class — comprising approximately 50 percent of the students. Several of the women students, who had taken courses at JTS during the past few years, will now receive credit and be ordained before the end of the usual six-year period of study.

‘A MOMENTOUS, HISTORIC EVENT’

Philadelphia-born Eilberg holds a Masters degree in Talmud from the JTS. She also holds a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, and an MSW from Smith College. She is the daughter of former Rep. Joshua Eilberg and Gladys Eilberg, a social worker.

At Thursday’s news conference, Eilberg called the RA vote “a mementous, historic event” and “a great day for American Judaism and for American Jewish women.” The Conservative movement, she said, “has declared in a resounding voice that it is dedicated to an ideal of a fully egalitarian community.”

Referring, as well, to the JTS decision to admit women as rabbinical students, Eilberg said that for American Jewish women “the long vigil is over and the wait was fully justified.” She added:

“As of today, Jewish women need never again feel that their gender is a barrier to their full participation in Jewish life. They need never again doubt the commitment of the Conservative movement to complete equality for women.” But the process, she said, “is only beginning.” She continued:

“Only now can we begin the long-term process of acknowledging the special contributions that women can make to Judaism, of exploring women’s unique and hitherto ignored perspectives on Jewish tradition, and of incorporating those vital insights and contributions into the mainstream of Jewish life.”

ENTERING A NEW ERA

Rabbi Alexander Shapiro, president of the RA, told the news conference that, with the decision, “the Conservative movement as a whole is now about to enter into an entirely new era in its development,” with women as well as men able to “enrich Jewish life throughout the world.”

The decision, he added, “represents a recognition that all of us, both men and women, are created in God’s image and that the potential for spiritual greatness exists in all human beings.”

Dr. Gerson Cohen, chancellor of the JTS — who had successfully pressed for the acceptance of women as rabbinical students there — expressed the hope that “all concerned with the health of Conservative Judaism will join together in a renewed spirit of cooperation and look toward the future.”

OPPONENTS SPEAK OUT

This was an obvious reference to a group of rabbis within the Conservative movement who have long been opposed to women being ordained as rabbis. David Novak, a spokesrabbi for the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, called the RA decision “contrary to Jewish law” and warned that it would divide the movement.

Meanwhile, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), a modern Orthodox organization, condemned the RA decision as an “abandonment” by the Conservative movement “of all respect for the Divine authority and authenticity of our religious heritage” and called it a “heresy.”

NCYI president Harold Jacobs called upon all Orthodox organizations to sever their ties with both Conservative and Reform organizations and end their participation in umbrella bodies such as the Synagogue Council of America.

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