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Israeli Conservative Movement Will Begin to Ordain Women As Rabbis

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The Masorti Movement, the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism, has decided to ordain women as rabbis.

In taking this far-reaching decision, the Israeli movement and its Seminary for Judaic Studies in Jerusalem is following in the footsteps of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which resolved to ordain women in 1983.

Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, reacted contemptuously by suggesting that the Masorti movement was “taking its lead from the Anglican Church.”

That church recently took a controversial and much-publicized decision to admit women into its clergy. Goren said the Masorti decision meant the movement was “distancing itself still more from the Torah, the Talmud and Jewish Orthodoxy.”

The Israeli movement’s decision will be formalized Dec. 14, at a meeting of the Jerusalem seminary’s board of trustees.

Meanwhile, however, the first would-be woman rabbinical graduate, French-born Valerie Stessin, has been admitted to the fourth-year rabbinical class, and is scheduled to be ordained with her male classmates at the end of the current academic year.

Stessin, 28, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she believed the decision to admit women would strengthen the Israeli movement, “since people will see that we are doing what we believe in.”

The U.S. decision led to a defection of several leading faculty members from JTS, among them Talmudic scholar David Weiss Halivni. This group and other rabbis have organized a Union for Traditional Judaism, which has been at odds with the mainstream Conservative Rabbinical Assembly ever since, and has launched its own rival theological seminary.

But well-placed sources at the top of the Masorti movement told JTA that no such split is likely here. They said that even rabbis uncomfortable with the ordination of women would not move to the UTJ, because on the whole, the Masorti movement in Israel is more traditional than American Conservative Judaism when it comes to halacha, or Jewish law.

This leaning was highlighted by the recent decision of the Masorti movement not to adopt the American position permitting worshippers to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath.

Stessin herself first came to religious observance through the Orthodox Bnei Akiva youth movement in France. As a student at the Hebrew University, she says, she began feeling dissatisfied with standard Orthodox attitudes.

She originally transferred to the Seminary to take a second degree in Jewish thought. “You can do a master’s in Jewish thought at (Hebrew) University without ever having to pick up the Bible,” she says wryly.

Having decided to go for the rabbinate, Stessin has begun doing practical work at a Conservative congregation in Beersheba, headed by American-ordained, Israeli-born Gila Dror.

In general, she believes in “an open sort of Judaism,” she says. “The decision to ordain women represents the essential message of our movement: to preserve and enhance the tradition, while at the same time developing it in accordance with the spirit of the times.”

Stessin says the decision came after years of hesitation, primarily occasioned by doubts about how the Israeli public, both religious and secular, would react. She is pleased, she says, that the community’s leaders made up their minds “to do this courageous thing.”

When the Jerusalem seminary board meets for its formal decision, it will have before it a number of halachic responsa, or legal rulings, prepared by members of the movement’s halacha committee.

While five of the seven rabbis asked to express their positions came out in favor of ordaining women, they were divided on the ancillary question of whether to also overturn traditional restrictions on women serving on religious courts and as legal witnesses.

Two of the five recommended that the women ordainees be required to observe these halachic bans, which prohibit women from, among other functions, issuing religious divorces. The two rabbis taking this position are David Golinkin, chairman of the Vaad Halacha, and Yosef Green.

Three other rabbis – Reuven Hammer, Gila Dror and Michael Graetz – supported ordaining women without attaching any limiting conditions. Two of them, Dror and Graetz, explicitly advocated sweeping new takanot, or halachic legislation, that would set aside the halachic disqualification of women as witnesses. Hammer hinted in his responsum that he too would favor such a solution.

The two other rabbis asked to write a ruling on the ordination of women in Israel, Avraham Feder and Pessach Schindler, recommended that the Israeli movement put off its decision for another generation and examine at that time its own numerical and spiritual strength, and the general sociological milieu then prevailing.

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