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Jewish Women See Gains in Role in Religion, but Frustrated by Continued Restrictions

June 10, 1982
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A sense of triumph, somewhat marred by frustration and disappointment, is the feeling that prevailed among a group of Jewish women leaders who participated in a symposium last week on the progress of women in Judaism over the past decade.

The symposium, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the ordination of the first woman rabbi, was attended by some 40 people, predominantly women who play active leadership roles in Jewish religious and academic life. Among them were rabbis, a cantor, congregational presidents and professors of Judaica.

Noting that "ten years is really just the blink of an eyelash," in Jewish history, Francine Klogsbrun, an author and active Jewish feminist who delivered the keynote address, said that the participation of women in Jewish life has become increasingly significant and visible since a decade ago. By the end of this month, the U.S. and Canada will have 61 women rabbis, ordained by the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries, according to figures presented by Klagsbrun. In addition, Klagsbrun said, there are currently nineteen women cantors and 193 women presidents of Reform and Conservative congregations.

Even in the Orthodox establishment, she observed, "the winds of change are definitely blowing," as seen by the introduction of new Jewish rites, such as a ritual to honor the birth of baby girls, and the growing participation of women in such activities as dancing with the Torah during Simchat Torah celebrations.


Nevertheless, the acceptance of women into the heart of Jewish life is still tenuous, as witnessed by the experiences of Klagsbrun and other women of Conservative and even Reform backgrounds, who were surprised to find themselves excluded from minyans while sitting shiva among family and friends who professed the same egalitarian values. Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith, called Kadish "the single greatest consciousness raiser," in Jewish ritual life. When a choice has to be made between paying deference to the sensitivities of traditionally-minded distant relatives or to those of the deceased person’s closest kin, the former it was observed, will frequently triumph.

This phenomenon was viewed as a reflection of what Rela Geffen Monson, a professor of sociology who has written extensively on women in Jewish communal life, termed the "normative dilemma" – the problem of applying newly recognized values while still very influenced by socialization in a pre-egalitarian Jewish community. A part of the same phenomenon, Klogsbrun noted, many non-Orthodox Jewish women who theoretic ally accept the right of women to participate fully in all areas of Jewish life, continue to feel uncomfortable with their own roles in Jewish ritual.

A major source of frustration for participants at the symposium was the failure of the Conservative movement to ordain women. Calling this "the greatest disappointment of the last ten years and the greatest challenge that still remains," Klagsbrun criticized the refusal of Conservative leaders to initiate changes in Jewish law that would permit female ordination. "Why can the rabbis of the tenth century make rulings, but not the rabbis today?" Klagsbrun asked.

Paula Hyman, Dean of Seminary College-Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which is best known for its Conservative rabbinical school, acknowledged that the increasing number of women in top academic positions at the institution makes her no less uncomfortable in the Seminary’s ritual life. Calling the JTS "the place where I’m least at home religiously," Hyman said "I also ask myself ‘how long? How much patience should we have?"


While the benefit of continuing the struggle for a female participation in the Conservative movement was questioned by some rabbis who argued that perhaps the time has come for Conservative women to seek equality outside the movement, where it can be found, others suggested that the position of the Conservative establishment can affect women in other spheres of life as well. "Not being admitted to the program at JTS also affects women who want to be Jewish scholars," according to Ellen Umansky, Assistant Professor of Religion at Princeton University.

Umansky observed that many of the tenured professors of Judaica in this country have a clerical background that is not accessible to women. According to Umansky, universities prefer to hire professors who have been ordained, because of their training in rabbinic texts.

For those women who have benefited from the achievements made thus far within some Jewish movements and in the academic world, the newness of their positions creates other difficulties. For Joy Levitt, a rabbi at B’nai Keshet-Montclair Jewish Center, who was ordained last year by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the most serious problem is "role modeling." Noting that most women rabbis are approximately the same age, with the oldest of them having little more experience than the newcomers, Levitt said she is frequently left along "to handle such trivial questions like "what to wear,’ but also to deal with the underlying sexual tensions that are peculiar to a congregation with a first woman rabbi."

Suggested by the participants as problems to be addressed in the future were the needs created by the predominance of dual-career families, such as day core centers for women seeking greater participation in the synagogue, increased female representation in determining synagogue ritual, and anachronisms in Jewish liturgy that need revision in order to take into account the changing role of women in Judaism.

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