20 Years of Conservative Women Rabbis (That’s Capital-C Conservative)

Yes, truly cause for celebration: 20 years of ordination of women as Conservative rabbis by the Jewish Theological Seminary. In fact, following the standing-roomonly screening of a new video “And the Gates Opened: Women in the Rabbinate” in March at the JTS, the women rabbis and rabbinical students posed for a photograph, then spontaneously began singing and dancing.

In all fairness, we should not expect this video to document the ferocity of JTS faculty opposition to ordaining women back in the 1970s and ’80s. Despite long interviews with Sally Preisand (America’s first Reform woman rabbi), Sandy Sasso (first Reconstructionist woman rabbi), Amy Eilberg (first Conservative woman rabbi) and numerous other highly articulate women and men, the impression here is that the ordination of women as rabbis was simply an idea whose time had come; that Chancellor Gerson Cohen took the lead and the gates swung open.

Not so. The Conservative movement’s arguments against ordaining women rabbis back in the 1970s were not primarily halakhic; they were more a scholarly defense of the status quo. If we look back, we have a useful opportunity to observe how attitudes change. For example, in the video Rabbi Gordon Tucker, executive director of the commission to study the issue in the early 1980s, who became dean of the JTS Rabbinical School when the first women rabbis were ordained, hails the contributions women rabbis have made to the vitality of Conservative Judaism. Back in 1977, Tucker, then a 25-year-old instructor in Philosophies of Judaism and assistant to the Chancellor, told Lilith, “If present sociological conditions make a woman rabbi ‘peculiar’ to most people on a subconscious level…this gets in the way of fostering spiritual growth. I think it’s unfortunate, but I feel a certain responsibility to something more than my own proclivities.”

Interviewed in “Gates,” Rabbi Joel Roth, the Louis Finkelstein Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Seminary, provides the halakhic reasoning for ordaining women rabbis. It’s an ironic moment. Though halakha was not needed to exclude women from ordination in Conservative Judaism, it was needed to justify opening the door to them.

The women in the video are articulate but modest. Amy Eilberg, ordained at the JTS in 1985, says she was in the right place at the right time. We hear many of the women say we’ve come a long way, and there’s a long way still to go.

Who was in the trenches back then who might teach us something about the way such important changes are made? Francine Klagsbrun, author, columnist and feminist, was on the commission that traversed the U.S. hearing testimony from congregants and others before the issue was decided. Once the commission approved ordaining women, Klagsbrun carried the banner, lecturing throughout the country, but she is not heard in this documentary. Nor is Judith Hauptman, the first woman to teach Talmud at the Seminary, and the first to insist that a JTS female student be allowed to study Talmud. Just four years ago, Hauptman, a noted scholar, prolific writer, an E. Billie Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS, was denied permission by Chancellor Ismar Schorsch to become a rabbinical student at the Seminary. Schorsch argued that it would be demeaning for her to sit in the same classes as her students. (Instead, Hauptman was ordained two years ago by the nondenominational Academy of Jewish Religion.)

Can we today imagine what it was like to be refused admission to the Seminary’s Rabbinical School on sexual grounds’.’ If we just change “woman” to “gay or lesbian” we can hear the gates slam shut again. In the midst of the March celebration, a hoax press release from the anonymous members of Jewish Women Watching announcing that the JTS was going to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis in 2010 was, understandably, suppressed.

A week after the screening, three of the six “Gates” panelists—Rabbis Susan Grossman, Tucker and Roth—were among the rabbis at a special meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards reopening the question of the status of gays and lesbians within Conservative Judaism, including ordination. Papers presented at the meeting are now being studied, and a new ruling may emerge from the committee’s March 2006 meetings. Those believing it’s time for another change might take heart from Rabbi Grossman’s words on women in the rabbinate: “Torah is immutable. Jewish law evolves.”