Cantors Assembly Votes 97-95 to Reject Women As Members

In a historic decision, the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly voted Tuesday to reject a move to admit qualified women members.

The vote was 97-95 against admitting women awarded the degree of hazzan (cantor) by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantors Institute into the ranks of the world’s largest professional body of cantors.

A two-thirds vote was needed for the measure to have passed.

The vote took place at the assembly’s 41st annual convention at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y.

Cantor A. Eliezer Kirshblum of Toronto led the forces opposed to women’s membership. He called the vote “a victory for common sense, for halacha and for due process.”

In a statement, he urged that JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch reconsider his February 1987 decision that qualified women graduates of the institute could be given the title of hazzan.

He also proposed that the halachic legitimacy of women cantors be referred to the law committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of Conservative rabbis, for study and an eventual recommendation that would require “a majority consensus rather than the opinion of one man.”

In a statement of their own, the four women cantors who have been granted the title of hazzan, joined by 12 women currently enrolled in the Cantors Institute, said they were disappointed by the vote.

‘DEDICATED TO OUR CALLING’

“The outcome does not surprise us,” they said. “We understand that change is often difficult. But we are dedicated to our calling… We are devoted to the cantorate, proud to serve the Jewish community and optimistic about the future.”

Two of the four women cantors, Marla Barugel, of Congregation B’nai Israel of Greater Red Bank, in Rumson, N.J., and Erica Lippitz, of Congregation Ohave Shalom, in Orange, N.J., are attending the convention. They serve in Conservative congregations, although they are not members of the assembly.

Cantor Abraham Lubin of Chicago, who presented the main argument in favor of the admission of women graduates, predicted that the matter would be presented to the body again at one or more future conventions and that “women will be accepted as members with all of the honor and respect due them.”

The vote was taken after five hours of floor debate on the issue, the essence of which has divided the Conservative movement in one form or another for the past decade. Likewise, the movement has been divided over a decision by both the JTS and the Rabbinical Assembly to allow women to become Conservative rabbis.

The current debate pit members of the movement’s traditional wing — who accept change only according to a strict interpretation of halacha, or Jewish law — and a larger mainstream faction the traditionalists consider overly liberal.

Led by Schorsch, the Conservative mainstream has argued for change from the standpoint of morality and ethics.

Jewish law is a process, said Lubin just prior to the vote, “and when it loses that dynamism by denying norms and conventions of today, it is not in the spirit of Judaism.”

Decisions by the movement to sanction women rabbis, the bat mitzvah ceremony for girls and the inclusion of women in the 10-person prayer quorum, or minyan, represent “a natural evolution and an inevitable consequence,” he said.

‘COMPLETE DISREGARD’ OF HALACHA

Arguing the traditionalists side, however, Kirshblum said that the original decision to graduate women cantors from the JTS was “disrespectful in our opinion and in complete disregard of the halachic process.”

“Whether we want or don’t want women cantors is secondary,” said Kirshblum. “But it can only be so if the halacha provides for it.”

Kirshblum maintained that the question of whether women could be prayer leaders appeared on the agenda of the Rabbinical Assembly’s law committee only once, in 1974, and was opposed by a 3-1 margin.

“The inference by the chancellor that it is accepted is deceptive and totally inaccurate, and simply plays on the ignorance of the Conservative laity,” he told the New York Jewish Week.

Proponents of women in the cantorate, however, cited the shortage of Conservative candidates and said that admitting women into the assembly would encourage more women to study and serve in the capacity of hazzan.

Cantor Samuel Rosenbaum of Rochester, N.Y., executive vice president of the assembly, said that currently more than 40 Conservative synagogues around the country were without cantors. In addition, more cantors retired this year than will graduate from the Cantors Institute.

Women are not allowed to serve as cantors in Orthodox synagogues. The Reform movement has accepted women cantors since 1975. The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has graduated about 45 women as cantors. Currently 25 to 30 women are enrolled in Reform’s cantorial program.

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