Behind the Headlines Women in the Conservative Rabbinate
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Behind the Headlines Women in the Conservative Rabbinate

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Members of the Rabbinical Assembly will decide at their 97th annual convention Jan. 28-Feb. I to be held in Los Angeles whether or not women are to become spiritual leaders within the Conservative movement. Their momentous decision will be based on recommendations made by the Commission for the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis, an interdisciplinary advisory body charged with studying all aspects of this complex question.

Soon after this Commission presents its report, the RA membership and the administration of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) will independently evaluate it, since there is a tacit agreement that no one arm of the Conservative movement may legislate for another.

Created in September 1977 by Dr. Gerson D. Cohen, JTS chancellor, the commission developed out of a compromise resolution passed at the 1977 annual convention of the RA after lengthy and heated debate. The original resolution, which encouraged the JTS "to consider and admit to the Rabbinical School all qualified candidates regardless of sex," was ultimately tabled. At that time, Cohen formed a study group to deal with the question and agreed to accept its findings "only if all activity is suspended for two year so our faculty will not be exploded."


According to Rabbi Gordon Tucker, assistant to Cohen and executive director of the Commission, the group will draw upon the legal expertise of its outstanding Talmudic scholars as well as the experience of other Commission members. Consideration will also be given to the written statements received from RA, members through out the country whose opinions, legal and otherwise, have been solicited. Tucker made it clear that a definitive halachic decision against the ordination of women could override show of public opinion to the contrary. Undoubtedly, halachic considerations play a central role in this controversy and cannot be dismissed lightly.

According to Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, chairman of the JTS’ Department of Talmud and Rabbinics, who has previously opposed the ordination of women, "The only real halachic problems would be marriage and divorce since women cannot be witnesses in ritual matters." That is, under Jewish law, a woman may not be a witness at a wedding (where the rabbi’s role is to be sure that everything is done properly and that the two witnesses are legitimate), nor can she serve as a judge on the rabbinical court granting a Jewish divorce.

Although Halivni is willing to consider the idea of female rabbis, he feels that the halachic prohibitions against women cantors are more absolute. He explained that anyone not obligated to fulfill positive, time-bound mitzvot cannot serve as the "shaliach tzibur," the representative of the community leading in prayer and reading from the Torah scrolls.

On the other hand, a number of scholars are convinced that these obstacles can be overcome. For example, Rabbi David Silverman of the ITS suggested that women be ordained and that subsequent provisions be made regarding the difficult issue of "edut" (witnessing), Furthermore, Judith Hauptman, instructor in Talmud at the JTS, noted that it "was possible to have two other witnesses at weddings in addition to the woman rabbi ‘Rabbi’ means teacher, that the person has attained a certain level of education." Surely, she concluded, a woman was capable of performing this key rabbinic function.

In addition to consulting scholarly opinion, the Commission has sampled the views of members of Conservative congregations who will be intensely affected by this decision. The results of a survey, of 14 selected congregations throughout North America conducted by Yankelovich, Skelly and White, a highly respected public opinion research firm, have been computerized for the Commission’s review. Also, public forums have been held in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York and Toronto. Notices announcing the meetings were circulated among presidents of United Synagogue of America congregations and members of the RA in each region, requesting that they encourage their congregants to participate.


Assessing the responses that he has heard, Tucker observed that opinion was divided along regional lines that is, congregants in Minneapolis and Los Angeles tended to be more liberal in their views, while those in Canadian cities were more conservative but that the arguments pro and can could not be classified according to age and sex.

Tucker also noted that the great majority of speakers, although they did make some reference to the halachic issues involved, tended to base their arguments upon sociological, historical and psychological grounds. This was clearly the case of the men and women offering testimony at the New York hearing held at the JTS last Nov. 1 and 2, as well.

A number of those arguing in favor of the ordination of women spoke from a sociological standpoint. Some asserted that the time required for housekeeping and child rearing has been dramatically reduced, leaving women freer to observe the positive, time bound mitzvot from which they had previously been excused, and to play a more prominent role in communal religious life.

Others urged the Commission members to acknowledge the impact which the women’s liberation movement has had upon all aspects of American society. Above all, they said, feminist demands have compelled people to recognize that, in both the religious and secular spheres, it is necessary to grant to all people the opportunity to realize their potentials to the full.

Dr. Sarah Lieberman, a religious school principal in Framingham, Mass and the wife of a Conservative rabbi, cited historical precedent in support of her argument. Her own research, she said, has revealed that, in the past, women often occupied, prominent positions within the Jewish community, as the spirit and the needs of the time dictated. For example, they served as professional mourners and dirge-reciters long before the establishment of the modern rabbinate. "The rabbis of today," she declared, "have taken away from women what was rightfully theirs by tradition."


Many pleas were of a more personal, emotional nature. Some speakers suggested that women could not only perform rabbinic functions as well as men, but would contribute a uniquely feminine perspective, particularly a heightened sensitivity, to the rabbinic role. Other women described the alienation they had.

Somewhat surprisingly, the presentations of those speakers who opposed the ordination of women were emotionally charged as well. Several plainly stated that they were as yet, psychologically unprepared to see a woman in the pulpit and to entrust her with their confidences and other rabbinic functions. Others contended that they were acting in the best interest of the women themselves for, as they were quick to point out, the female graduates of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinical seminaries have not been well accepted by the public and have had difficulty finding pulpits.

Above all, these speakers, stressed their heartfelt concern for the future of the Conservative movement. They reiterated that maintaining a balance between tradition and change has always been a hallmark of Conservatism, and warned against jumping on the contemporary bandwagon without giving the ordination question long and serious thought. Moreover, as Rabbi Wayne Allen of Staten Island New York argued, such a radical departure would undermine the authority of the JTS as well as that of its rabbinical school graduates.

In the opinion of Rabbi David Wolfe Silverman, Associate Professor in Philosophics at Judaism at the JTS. Those in the top ranks of the Conservative leadership must not perpetually peer over their shoulders to see what the Orthodox are thinking, nor can their decisions be made solely on the basis of how the movement’s right-wing element will react. These policymakers, he maintained, have an equal responsibility to the large numbers of young people, nurtured on Camp Ramah and Prozdor (the JTS high school), who will be the future leaders of the Conservative movement.


The Commission members are thus confronted with a most difficult task that of striking a delicate balance between the forces of tradition and change. When asked for his prognosis of the outcome of the deliberations, Tucker replied that the possibilities are virtually limitless. The report may advise the RA to admit female rabbis who have already been ordained, while permitting the Rabbinical School to keep its doors closed to female applicants. He added that the reverse procedure might also be recommended, although this is highly unlikely.

It is also possible, according to Tucker, that the report will propose various compromises, such as different levels of ordination for men and women, or that women be ordained but prohibited from serving in pulpits. However, he is reasonably certain that the Commission’s final decision will be more black-and-white in nature and will probably not create an entirely new system of rabbinic titles and functions.

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