Celebrating Ten Years of Women as Conservative Rabbis

TOO BAD if you missed “Women in the Rabbinate: Dynamics of Change,” the Jewish Theological Seminary’s celebration of the tenth anniversary of its Rabbinical School faculty’s decision to ordain women as rabbis. Thirty five women rabbis (out of a total of fifty) traveled from everywhere to be there, and their presence, their individuality, their learnedness, their seriousness, their warmth and their commitment were magnificent to behold.

The two-day conference, chaired by Rabbis Nina Beth Cardin and Allan Kensky, included lectures by historians Paula Hyman (of Yale) and Jenna Weissman Joselit (of Princeton) on historic models for change; the retelling of the ten-year-old decision to ordain women by participants in that event; text studies; and panel discussions that included faculty members Anne Lapidus Lerner, recently appointed (and the first female) Vice- Chancellor of the Seminary for Public Affairs, and Judith Hauptman, Professor of Talmud. We also heard, and were inspired by, the life stories of the spiritually persevering women who have become Conservative rabbis.

“What we need to be doing is cultivating both sides of our natures,” Francine Klagsbrun, who served on the Commission on the Ordination of Women, told participants at the gathering. “Male rabbis need to allow themselves to be open and accessible; female rabbis need to allow themselves to be seen as rigorous and meticulous in their scholarship, savvy about financial matters in their synagogues, strong administrators. Respect comes and will continue to come from being able to look up to the rabbi not as a social worker or therapist, but as an authority who can bring authentic, learned Jewish perspective to an issue.”

In a session on women’s spirituality. Rabbi Pamela Hoffman of Halifax spoke of the role of rabbi as “spiritual homemaker,” inviting individuals to make themselves at home in an often unfamiliar Judaism, and how she learned to be a better shlichal tzibur (the prayer leader) from the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Feminism, she said, had taught us the redemptive power of bringing one’s own personal story to a group.

Rabbi Debra Cantor of Brooklyn told us that female rabbis may need to defend themselves against the expectation that they be superwomen. “Our calling, however lofty,” she warned, “does not demand that we sacrifice our lives in the process of serving God and Israel. Self-destruction, the neglect of family and friends, workaholism, these are pernicious late-twentieth-century American values. They are not Jewish values.” The feeling of elation most participants felt at this historic gathering peaked at a candle-lighting ceremony led by Rabbi Lori Forman celebrating women in the many roles they serve the Jewish community — as rabbis, teachers, principals, scholars, counselors, and chaplains. It was followed, roller coaster fashion, by the dismay that swept over the assembly an hour later during a panel on “The Contours of Pluralism within the Conservative Movement,” where Rabbis Joel Roth and David Feldman shared their regrets that in the process of enfranchising women at the seminary those who opposed the decision on halachic (Jewish legal) grounds were made to feel unwelcome. Both men suggested that the Seminary and the Conservative movement were “deeply impoverished” by the eventual departure of these opponents. Rabbi Feldman said he could not accept “the way that the Halachic process had been broken.” Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin clearly spoke for many when she stood and expressed her outrage at being invited to a conference only to be categorically delegitimized by these speakers. “We women (who wanted to be) rabbis stayed with the movement when they disagreed with us. Why can’t those who disagreed with this decision stick it out too?” asked Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein of Los Angeles. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, responded to a question about allowing women to be witnesses for ritual purposes (such as weddings) by suggesting that since Roth felt the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards would not be able to muster the authority to do so for some time, a body of women should designate itself as authorized to make the necessary takanah (correction) to the biblical injunction.

In the final session, on “Ministry for the Next Generation,” Myrna Matza, a rabbinical student, spoke of bringing together Jews “in recovery.” Every synagogue, she said, should have a bottle of grape juice on the kiddush table to let adults recovering from alcoholism know they are welcome.

Significant and uplifting, at this conference, were many moments of singing together. Over and over, speakers said that feminism has changed the Seminary and it will never be the same. A few lamented this; others only pray that the momentum will continue.

(The proceedings of the conference will be published in installments in Conservative Judaism, a publication of the Rabbinical Assembly, 3080 Broadway, New York, NY 10027.)