JTS Breaks Another Tradition: Cantorial Diplomas Will Be Granted to Women in Its 1987 Commencement

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America will begin granting the diploma of Hazzan (cantor) to women in its 1987 commencement, a certificate JTS reserved only for men until now.

The announcement by JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch at a press conference here Thursday is viewed as an historical break with the tradition, but one which Schorsch contended followed suit with JTS’ 1983 controversial decision to ordain women as rabbis.

Critics of the new decision said it is even a more serious breach of halacha than the earlier one because they will be obligated to serve a function halacha forbids women from doing.

Schorsch called the decision a logical extension of the ordination of women. “Implicit within the decision (to ordain women) was obviously a step towards awarding women the diploma of Hazzan,” Schorsch said.

Two women now studying in the Cantorial Institute/Seminary College of Jewish Music are expected to be the first recipients of the diploma of Hazzan in the 1987 JTS commencement. Erica Lippitz and Marla Rosenfeld-Barugel, both expecting to receive their diplomas in 1987, agreed the decision was a victory and a profound joy for themselves and other women who want to receive the diploma. They called the decision “a new chapter in Jewish history.”

JUSTIFICATION FOR THE DECISION

Schorsch defended his decision as in accordance with Jewish law, saying he had based it on the same justification on which he based the decision to ordain women.

He reasoned that women can change their status under Jewish law by accepting the time-bound obligations traditionally reserved for men. If a woman chooses to honor those obligations, which include praying three times daily, putting on tefillin and other time-oriented rituals, they may serve as rabbis or cantors.

But Schorsch acknowledged that although he feels his decision abides by halacha, others would interpret the law differently and oppose him.

‘A SLAP IN THE FACE’

The decision opened up old wounds within the Conservative movement, where the more traditional elements viewed it as a “slap in the face.”

Rabbi Ronald Price, executive director of the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, said the new policy is far more radical than the ordination of women rabbis.

Price said the decision is tantamount to obliging women to violate Jewish law. He contended that cantors traditionally lead the prayer services and fulfill the obligations of their congregants to recite some mandatory prayers. But, Price said, “women cannot fulfill the man’s prayer obligation, which is the major function of a cantor.”

Price said JTS has taken the egalitarian principle too far. “The bottom line of those at JTS who are making the decision is that they are taking a secular approach towards religion. They take secular attitudes towards life, like men and women should have equal roles, and they project this onto religious rituals,” he said.

Price claimed JTS is overly concerned with feminist issues because they are popular and attract attention when it should be more concerned with education, assimilation and religious observance within the lay membership of the movement.

“It is an extremely divisive action which sends a message to traditionalists within the movement–it doesn’t take their views into account,” Price said. It also adds credence to the Orthodox Jewish view which sees Conservative Judaism as a “movement of shortcuts,” he said.

Schorsch said egalitarianism is “the popular will of the movement.” He also said the women cantors will help remedy the shortage of cantors throughout the United States.

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