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Conservative Rabbis Again Reject Application of a Reform-ordained Woman Rabbi to Become the First Wo

May 18, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Conservative rabbis voted late yesterday at the 84th annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) to reject for a second year in a row the application of Reform-ordained Rabbi Beverly Magidson to become America’s first woman Conservative rabbi by convention vote, but changed circumstances in the Conservative movement has made that issue academic and no future RA convention is ever likely to vote on that issue again.

Despite the backing of the RA membership committee and that of many Conservative leaders, Magidson, of Clifton Park, N.J., received 230 votes in favor to 99 votes against her application, 22 votes short of the required 75 percent of the convention majority needed to affirm her application. At last year’s RA convention she failed in her bid by fewer votes.

The application of another Reform-ordained woman rabbi, Jan Kaufman of Washington, D.C. had been approved by the appropriate RA committees for consideration for convention action. But her application was table. Both she and Magidson were ordained in 1979 by the Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary branch in New York City.


Ordination into the Conservative rabbinate is by two means: attendance at the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) rabbinical school which leads to ordination for successful applicants; or admission by a 75 percent vote of rabbis present and voting at an RA convention.

A chronic shortage of rabbis for Conservative pulpits has led the RA in past years to accept more than 500 applicants for RA membership–and Conservative rabbinical status — notably from Reform and Reconstructical status — notably from Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries. But until Magidson made her unsuccessful bid for RA membership at the 1983 RA convention in Dallas, all of the candidates voted on for RA membership and status as Conservative rabbis had been men.


Yesterday’s vote reflected, in part, the objections of Conservative rabbis who believe that the only route to the Conservative rabbinate should be via the JTS rabbinical school. But until last October, women had been barred from admission to the school since its founding. In October, after years of heated debate, in which three recent successive RA conventions endorsed admission of women to the JTS rabbinical school, the JTS Faculty Senate yielded and agreed to do so, starting with the 1984-85 class in the fall.

Another basic source of opposition to women rabbis in the Conservative movement, on halachic principle, comes from a strong group of rightwing RA members and supporters in the active rabbinate, who came in a body to the RA convention which ended today to oppose the admission vote on the two women Reform rabbis. Those conservative rabbis and scholars were a major force over the years in keeping the JTS rabbinical school closed to women but are now considered a weakened force in the movement.


The changed circumstances which make an RA vote such as yesterday’s ever unlikely again is not merely the fact that more than 20 women have been enrolled in the JTS rabbinical school for the coming fall term, but, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency was reliably told, one of the members of the school’s entering class has earned sufficient JTS credits so that, barring unexpected developments, she will complete the school’s academic requirements and be graduated next June and thus achieve ordination as the first Conservative woman rabbi in American history. Her identity was withheld by the JTA’s source.

Accordingly, the JTA was told, when the RA meets in convention next spring, the woman will be a member of the 1984-85 rabbinical school graduating class whose members will be routinely voted into RA membership.


Magidson, who serves as “solo rabbi” of a small Conservative congregation, Beth Shalom, in Clifton Park, said after yesterday’s vote that she was “not surprised” but did have “deep regrets” at being rejected for the Conservative rabbinate a second time.

She added she understood “the sentiment” in the Conservative movement that the movement should wait for its first Conservative rabbi to go through the JTS rabbinical school qualifying process. Magidson said that, “had I been permitted to attend classes” at the school, “I would have gone to the Jewish Theological Seminary.”

Rabbi Amold Goodman of Atlanta, the outgoing president of the 1,200-member RA, said the vote showed there was still “a segment of our colleagues who are committed to wait for the first woman rabbi to be ordained by the Seminary. ” He added that the vote “further reflects the existence of colleagues whose interpretation of Jewish law leads them to conclude that there are still Jewish legal considerations that there are still Jewish legal considerations that stand in the way of women being ordained as rabbis.”

Rabbi Alexander Shapiro of Congregation Oheb Shalom of South Orange, N.J., the new RA president, told the convention that “the time will come when Rabbi Magidson and her fellow women rabbis will take their place in our ranks and share with us their insights, resourcefulness and scholarship.”


On another matter, the 600 rabbinical delegates, responding to a call from Goodman, reaffirmed the stand of the RA’s Committee on Law and Standards rejecting any efforts to weaken the historic rule that Jewish identity can be passed on to children only by a Jewish mother.

At issue was a statement adopted at the 1983 Los Angeles convention by the Central Conference of Am erican Rabbis, the association of Reform rabbis, which recommended that children of mixed marriages, whether or not the mother was Jewish, were to have “the presumption” of being considered Jewish if–with the consent of the intermarried parents — the children were raised publicly as Jews.

In April, 1983, the RA Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted 18-1 to reaffirm the traditional view in Judaism that the religion of a child is based solely on the relgion of the mother, a position also held throughout Orthodox Judaism.

The JTA was told that such decisions are made only by the RA law committee and that the response of the delegates here yesterday to Goodman’s call was simply a reaffirmation of the committee’s ruling.

In calling for the standing vote of reaffirmation, Goodman declared “we will continue to accept only the traditional view that Jewish status is conferred matrilineally, not patrilineally.”

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