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Conservative Commission to Decide on Admission of Women to Seminary

Whether women will be ordained as Conservative rabbis in the near future may well be determined by a commission of seven men and three women, which met for the first time in December.

Back in May, Gerson Cohen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, agreed to head a commission to study the role of women as spiritual leaders in Conservative Judaism “only if all activity” on the issue of Conservative women rabbis “is suspended for two years.”

The Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical association of the Conservative movement, agreed to the freeze as part of a compromise on the explosive issue of women rabbis. Last May, the RA’s annual convention had been torn over a resolution that encouraged the Jewish Theological Seminary to admit women to its Rabbinical School and directed the RA’s Membership Committee to consider qualified candidates regardless of sex. The resolution was dropped in favor of the commission.

Despite the six-month delay in naming the commission, Chancellor Cohen (whose previous position on the Seminary’s ordaining women was “For the present and foreseeable future, no”) seems to have selected a group, in his own words, “sufficiently dispassionate so that the outcome of its deliberations would not be predictable in advance.”

Some early criticism from those hoping for change centers on the small number of women on the commission and the lack of a Jewish feminist commission member with scholarly credentials.

Two commission members who have supported ordaining Conservative women rabbis are Rabbi Seymour Siegel of New York, Professor of Theology at the Seminary, and Rabbi Fishel Pearlmutter of Toledo, Ohio, who introduced the motion at the Rabbinical Assembly for acceptance of women into the RA.

Commission member Francine Klags-brun of New York is also likely to be supportive of change. Klagsbrun, who is a graduate of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies-Teachers Institute and is on the board of the Seminary’s Melton Research Center, edited The First Ms. Reader and Free to Be You and Me.

Among those on the commission considered traditionalists are Haim Z. Dimitrov-sky of New York, Professor of Talmud at the Seminary; Rivka Harris of Evanston, III., Professor of Assyriology at North western University; and Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat of Westmount, Quebec, who opposed the resolution on women rabbis at the RA Convention.

Also named to the commission were Milton Himmelfarb of New York, co-editor of the American Jewish Year Book, who has been characterized as a traditionalist who seems to have an open mind on many traditional positions; Norman Redlich of New York, Dean of New York University Law School, member of the Seminary board of overseers, a civil libertarian and a supporter of the Rabbinical Assembly’s previous decisions to count women in the minyan and permit women to read from the Torah during services; Victor Goodhill of Los Angeles, chairman of the board of overseers of the University of Judaism, the Seminary’s West Coast school, a member of the Seminary board of overseers and Professor of Ear Surgery at UCLA.

Other commission members are Marion Siner Gordon of Royal Palm Beach, Fla., a lawyer who served as Assistant Attorney General of New York State in the civil rights field from 1959 to 1970; National President of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism from 1950 to 1954; National Chairman of the Torah Fund Campaign, the Women’s League scholarship fund for the Seminary; and one-time overseer of the Seminary; Elijah Schochet of Canoga Park, Calif., Professor of Jewish Codes at the University of Judaism and rabbi of a congregation which counts women in the minyan and allows women to read from the Torah during services; and Harry Plotkin of Washington, D.C., a lawyer who is a financial contributor to the Seminary.

Chancellor Cohen named Rabbi Gordon Tucker as executive director to the commission. Tucker, who is Instructor in Philosophies of Judaism and Assistant to the Chancellor, has said, “The best of all possible worlds right now would be to have women admitted to the Rabbinical School but not ordained.”

[Ed. note: In establishing the Commission, Chancellor Cohen said that “testimony from persons not on the Commission will be welcome.”

The question of ordination of women is an issue that affects Klal Israel (the entire Jewish people) and the quality of Jewish life.

Members of the Commission should be made aware that there is a large body of opinion among North American Jewry that supports the admission of women to the JTS Rabbinical school. People should communicate their “testimony” to Chancellor Cohen and Commission members by letter or in person. Letters can be sent c/o the Seminary, 3080 Broadway, New York, NY 10027.

Members and leaders of synagogues and organizations—particularly Jewish women’s organizations, local and national should put this question on their agendas for discussion and for adoption of resolutions, and should see that the Commission is aware of these grass-roots actions.

Please inform the Kol Ishah column of responses you receive on your communications to Commission members on the question of women rabbis at the Seminary. ]

The commission is scheduled to give a progress report to the Rabbinical Assembly Executive Council in spring 1978 and present its final report and recommendations at the Rabbinical Assembly’s 1979 convention.