Conservative Judaism’s Unfinished Business

For 30 years Mindell Kaplan was the rabbi’s wife. Rabbi Louis Kaplan was the head of a mid-size Conservative synagogue in Pennsylvania. He and Mindell were always outspoken about the need to eliminate women’s inferior status in Judaism. But about a decade ago, Mindell came to believe that women would not achieve equality within the Conservative movement without a real rethinking of the movement’s approach to Jewish law.

“I was sort of lucky,” she told LILITH, “because no one really asked me what I thought of about halakha [Jewish law]. If you’re the wife of a rabbi of a congregation, you can’t run around saying those things.”

Now, however, her husband has retired, and she’s taken the opportunity to look at Conservative Judaism in a more public way. The following essay grew out of a dvar Torah she presented in her community. It represents years of frustration—and a fresh look at two brand new publications of the Conservative movement: the movement’s newly revised Sim Shalom prayer book (its standard text), and its updated rabbi’s manual, Moreh Derekh, intended to guide rabbis through the liturgical needs of every life-cycle event.

The Rabbi’s Manual has been hailed in the press for embracing feminist innovations. “Feminism and spirituality are gaining ground in the Conservative movement’s first revision of its rabbi’s manual in 33 years,” announced the Forward newspaper. The paper noted the addition of ceremonies for such life-cycle events as miscarriage, abortion, birth of a handicapped child, retirement, and sending children away to camp. Earlier in the year, in a similar vein, The Jewish Week of New York announced a “Radical Shift Toward Gender Sensitive Siddur” in the new Sim Shalom prayer book. (What the papers didn’t note was that the English translations were much more gender-sensitive than the Hebrew texts.)

While these innovations surely will enrich some aspects of the lives of Jewish women, Mindell Kaplan tries to imagine what a truly woman-welcoming Conservative movement might look like.

Now that there’s a new prayer book and guide for Conservative rabbis, it is time for a din v’cheshbon, an accounting, of the changes since the landmark decisions permitting women to be called to the Torah (1955), permitting women’s inclusion in the minyan (1973) and ordaining them as rabbis (1983). These public victories mask other halakhic unfinished business. Much more remains to be done.

Halakhic decisions for the Conservative movement are made by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. The Law Committee has issued many decisions that affected the role of women, the majority of them in the 1970s and 1980s. Most decisions dealt with rituals. Are women permitted to perform one or another of the rituals traditionally performed by men? Even when the answer was yes, the fact that the question had to be asked was itself demeaning to women.

Even today, however, as women hold pulpits, the Conservative movement is still asking, “What is permissible to women?” For the most part, the answers given are not that women should participate, but that they may do so. This attitude simply perpetuates the feeling of many women that the public rituals and sancta of Judaism don’t really belong to them. This is the most troubling element of Conservative Judaism’s unfinished business. A few areas still cause me to cringe.


As long ago as 1974, Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal, speaking to the Law Committee, objected to the traditional Zimun, the invitation to recite the Grace after Meals. It reads: “Rabbotai nevarekh” (Gentlemen, let us praise). He urged that the wording be changed to “Gevirotai verabbotai nevarekh” (Ladies and gentlemen, let us praise). Though he didn’t say so explicitly, I’m sure he also would have supported changing a later sentence to “Bereshut gevirotai verabbotai” (With your permission, ladies and gentlemen). He saw this as a matter of simple courtesy to the women present.

Even a quarter century later, in the brand new Rabbi’s Manual, the movement is unable to muster this level of courtesy. As printed, the invitation to pray now reads with the option; “Rabbotai/Haverei” (Gentlemen/Friends.) Which really raises the question: If we can change the text to say “Friends,” why not create a version that explicitly includes women? After all, even at a recent conference of Orthodox feminists, the grace after meals offered the “Gevirotai” (Ladies, or Women) option to be said “when three or more women have eaten alone or together with one or two men.”

There are also questions about the new Sim Shalom prayer book issued by the Rabbinical Assembly in 1998. The editors of the new prayer book have kindly added the matriarchs to the list of patriarchs—but only in the first paragraph of the Amidah, the central prayer of the Hebrew liturgy. They should have included our foremothers in the rest of the siddur as well. We invoke the God of the patriarchs because the Torah describes God as making His Covenant with these men—women being included only as their adjuncts. By including the matriarchs, we are saying that, however the covenant was arrived at, it now must be redefined to include us all. This would make the Sim Shalom gender-sensitive in a meaningful way.

There are those who say…

On Birkat Hamazon: “Rabbi Blumenthal’s 1974 recommendation of ‘Gevirotai verabotai nevarekh…’ [Ladies and gentlemen, let us praise] is a fine way to acknowledge the participation of both men and women in thanking God for a meal. But it was only a recommendation. The editors preferred the alternative haverei, or my friends, both for Its gender neutrality and for its warmth.”
by Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank, co-editor, Rabbi’s Manual 

A Matter of Perspective: “No sensible person denies the importance of the matriarchs” but to shoehorn them into the Amidah betrays the literary and biblical structure of the classic text.
by Rabbi Jules Harlow, editor of the previous edition of the Sim Shalom, as expressed by The Jewish Week

On the Inclusion of Matriarchs: Rabbi Leonard Cahan explains that there are two Conservative positions on the inclusion of the matriarchs in the Amidah: “One, that including the matriarchs is halakhically acceptable; and two, that including the matriarchs is not acceptable.” In the new prayer book, for the first time in the Conservative movement, the Sim Shalom Amidah has an “A” page, with the traditional form, and a “B” page immediately following that includes a parenthetical headline “(With Matriarch).”

“I can’t for the life of me imagine why the matriarch [version] being the ‘B’ page is seen as alternative and dismissive,” comments Rabbi Cahan. “There is no justification that anyone could see that [attitude] in the book, because it doesn’t exist.” Why, Rabbi Cahan asks rhetorically, couldn’t one argue that the “A” page is the alternative? 
by Rabbi Leonard S. Cahan, chair of the editorial committee, Sim Shalom


THE NEW BABY. When a boy is born, he is inducted into Brit Avraham, the covenant of Abraham. Since women were only peripheral members of the covenant, there was no equivalent ceremony for girls.

In the last few years, new ceremonies have been developed to welcome the birth of a girl. Sometimes this ceremony is called a “simchat bat,” marking the “joy of a girl.” More commonly, it is called a baby-naming, a term that in no way indicates the true significance of welcoming a new member into the Jewish community. The new Rabbi’s Manual includes a traditional naming ceremony calling forth for the girl the blessings of Torah, marriage and good deeds. It also includes what it calls the “innovative ritual,” in which the girl’s learning of Torah is invoked at greater length. However, the baby girl is nowhere inducted—as she is in the Reform movement—into the covenant of all of Israel, the brit Yisrael. This is something that parents should demand for their daughters.

THE KETUBAH. Turning to marriage and divorce, we find that both ceremonies are rituals with symbolic value only. The issues of substance in both areas are governed by the civil courts, so the symbolism is of supreme importance.

It is surely no accident that the ketubah is hardly ever printed with an accurate English translation of the Aramaic. If it were, it would indicate the acquisitive nature of the traditional text, stating (in the groom’s voice): “I obligate myself to give you the sum of 200 zuzim as the purchase price of your virginity.” The Reform movement has created a new ketubah, in which the bride and groom express a mutual commitment to each other, with identical Hebrew and English texts. The texts do not mention the monetary value of the bride or any other financial arrangements.

Unfortunately, many Conservative rabbis want to preserve rituals in their traditional forms, even if their meanings are now repugnant to us. In the new Rabbi’s Manual, a very small change was made, so the rabbi has an option: the rabbi can either use the traditional 200-zuzim-for-virginity language, or he can simply use the word ketubah instead of virginity. The English can be misleading because it never translates “virginity” nor the phrase “purchase price.” So of course, a couple who does not know Aramaic or Hebrew will not know which version they are signing.

In hewing to this traditional line, the Conservative movement ignores the fact that rituals are important precisely because of the values they express. In 1978, during a Law Committee discussion about the ketubah, one rabbi actually argued:

We cannot change the text of the Ketubah. It must be maintained for its own value. We cannot deny that the entire ceremony as well as the text of the Ketubah are sexist. The marriage might be mutual but the ceremony of marriage is not.

This attitude is outrageous! It is precisely the people who are most devoted to halakhah who should be concerned with devising rituals that embody the highest moral standards of our time. Here, the Conservative rabbis should follow the lead of their Reform counterparts.

THE MARRIAGE CEREMONY. The new Rabbi’s Manual also still provides a marriage ceremony that symbolizes a one-sided acquisition of the bride by the groom, not a concept of marriage to be proud of.

In this ceremony, the groom offers a declaration that “consecrates” the bride to him. Most people are thrilled at this mention of consecration. What they don’t realize is that the groom is really establishing his claim to the bride, setting her aside for himself exclusively, just as vessels “consecrated” to the Temple were used only in the Temple.

When the question was raised in 1974 of the bride “consecrating” the groom in return, the Law Committee ruled: “A rabbi may officiate at a double ring ceremony … but under no circumstances may [the bride] say, ‘Harei atah mekudash li’ (Behold you [the groom] are consecrated to me).

At my own wedding in 1952, I insisted on reciting the same formula as the groom. After a long, bitter argument, our liberal Conservative rabbi finally yielded, telling me, “Okay, you can make the same declaration, but I have to tell you it won’t mean anything.”

Forty-six years later, nothing has really changed. Many rabbis do “allow” the bride to recite the consecration formula. They can permit this statement, however, only as an expression of the rabbi’s opinion and not as a binding vow. As such, it only gives the bride the illusion of equality. Furthermore, should the marriage end in divorce, these same rabbis would still require a get, a bill of Jewish divorce, which can now be authorized only by the husband.

In the Reform ceremony the bride and groom do make identical declarations to each other “to emphasize,” explains their rabbi’s manual, that both husband and wife are now ‘set aside’ for each other, in full equality.” To change all this in the Conservative movement would require an official statement that the two identical declarations are necessary to establish the marriage. But, of course, the rabbis tell us that such a change would be contrary to halakhah. In order to effect change, couples should demand an egalitarian marriage.

DIVORCE. If the wedding ceremony is problematical, the divorce is even worse. The essential clause of the get, the traditional Jewish bill of divorce that is still used by the Conservative movement, is a statement by the husband that he and his one-time bride are no longer married and that she is free to remarry. Regardless of the real reason for the divorce—even if in reality the wife is the partner demanding the split—the get includes this statement by the husband: “I release, set free, and put aside you, my wife.” In a mirror image of the wedding ceremony he adds, “Harei at muteret I’khol adam,” behold you are permitted to all men. The symmetry here is perfect. In each case, the husband does the prohibiting and permitting, while the wife remains silent and passive—all in accordance with halakhah. This is insulting even when the husband is cooperating fully in the divorce!

In a talk in Philadelphia a few years ago. Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz, a member of the Law Committee and a teacher of Talmud, spoke adamantly against an egalitarian get. He revealed that when a member of the Law Committee once proposed such a get, he received exactly one vote—his own.

There are those who say…

On Welcoming a Girl: “The editors’ original title for the welcoming ceremonies for girls was Brit Banot, or the Covenant of Girls. The title was rejected by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. The rejection was twofold. First, girls are automatically a part of the covenant. Boys are not. Therefore, any suggestion that a girl must be brought into the covenant is in error. Secondly, because entry into the brit is so closely associated with circumcision, the CJLS [the Law Committee] did not want to give any credence to the need for a parallel rite of circumcision for girls. There is no place for female genital mutilation In Judaism. At any rate, without invoking the term brit, we pray that girls enjoy the blessings of Torah, huppah [wedding canopy], and ma’asim tovim [good deeds], which is language identical to that as found In the prayers welcoming boys into the brit.”
by Rabbi Rank

On the Wedding Contract: “The ketubah printed in Moreh Derekh sports more than a minor change. It is a revision of the ketubah that took place in 1987. Not only does it call for the bride’s active participation in creating a home filled with love, harmony, and peace, etc., but it offers the rabbi options for referring to the bride without reference to her marital status (i.e., virgin, divorcee, widow, etc.), rendering her an individual in her own right.”
by Rabbi Rank

On Consecration of the Bride: “Kiddushin is the Hebrew term for engagement, which in Jewish terms is more critical than marriage. As most women agree, it’s getting the guy to make a commitment that is so difficult. But kiddushin is not acquisition. The groom does not say, ‘I own you.’ The groom says, ‘You are consecrated to me…,’ that is to say, ‘You are special for me…’ We chose other language for the bride to convey the same message to the groom, ‘You are special to me….’ There was no need for any slavish parallelism here. The wedding ceremony is a combination of law and poetry.
by Rabbi Rank

On Divorce: “In a divorce proceeding, the woman is not necessarily passive and not necessarily silent. It is interesting to note that the get process is completed not with the husband writing a get, but with the wife accepting the get.”
by Rabbi Rank


If we take Judaism seriously, we must also take seriously its claim to be a source of morality and of religious fulfillment for all Jews, men and women. This is not only a women’s issue. Just as Jews have worked for equal rights for other groups, Jewish men should also be willing to work for equality of Jewish women. Equality cannot be extended as a favor; it must be recognized as a right.

In 1984, Rabbi Phillip Sigal, a member of the Law Committee, proposed a takkanah, a rabbinic directive that has the force of law, on women’s equality in the Conservative movement. Though never enacted, this visionary takkanah could be the rallying point for feminists in our movement today:

The preferred path for the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in this era would be to issue a comprehensive resolution, a takkanah that would serve as a halakhic ERA. This would state that women are to be considered equal with men in all aspects of Judaic religious life, that no prior statement of the Torah, rabbinic literature, medieval or modern commentaries and compilations, whether aggadic or halakhic, should be construed in any manner as valid to prejudice this equality.

There are those who say…

On a Jewish ERA: “I have long been an advocate of egalitarianism in Judaism. But the real question is not whether the community advocates it, it’s whether or not women embrace it. I have been a rabbi for 18 years now and within the past five years, I have seen more women adamantly opposed to wearing kippah, tallit, and tefillin. I have also had, within the past year or two, many more requests from brides to walk around the groom, a ritual that had almost been treated with disdain only five years ago. I don’t think that women are rejecting egalitarian Judaism per se. I think they are searching for and discovering who they are Jewishly, without accepting any preconceived notions about the definition of full Jewish womanhood. What does it mean to be fully Jewish, whether one is a woman or a man? Good question.”
by Rabbi Rank


by Sarah Blustain

At a meeting in March that surprised and upset rabbinical students at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the chancellor announced that Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner would end her six-year tenure as vice chancellor. “I think she was wonderful in the position,” commented Francine Klagsbrun, a LILITH board member who for a decade was head of the Board of Overseers of the Seminary Library and who is slated to receive an honorary degree from the school. “I think it is a loss for the Seminary.”

Though Lerner is returning to full-time teaching and scholarship, students were outraged. As the highest-ranking woman at the Seminary, Lerner had come to represent women’s power at an institution that is not always considered woman-friendly. Creator and director of the master’s program in women’s studies, and an unofficial mentor to many women at the school, she had come to be seen as a powerful advocate for women’s issues. Her removal “diminishes the position that women seem to have there,” says Klagsbrun.

“The position of vice chancellor made me a symbol which for many represented the contributions that women could now make to Judaism,” Lerner told LILITH. “What message is being sent by removing me from this position?”

Students at the school, the flagship educational institution of Conservative Judaism and a training ground for its rabbis and scholars, have jumped to Lerner’s defense. They fear that the vice chancellor may have lost her position because, in supporting women at JTS, she had stepped on important toes.

Amanda Brodie, a fourth-year rabbinical student, wrote to Chancellor Ismar Schorsch: “She gave me the feeling that women were not only welcome at J.T.S., but also could rise to positions where they could impact upon what was happening in the Movement… [The] message seems to be that that is not the case.”

Brodie, who said the demotion “sends an awkward message when the Conservative movement is supposed to be all rah-rah egalitarian,” also wrote to Schorsch her concern that the move might be “partly because of Dr. Lerner’s involvement in [women’s issues] and the establishment of the women’s center at J.T.S.”

Heather Altman, formerly president of the Rabbinical School Student Organization, said Lerner was the only faculty member at the Seminary who had ever invited her for Shabbat, “which is a whole different type of leadership and a kind of leadership that we need.”

“I remember the buzz when it was announced that she would become a vice-chancellor,” commented Rabbi Andi Merow, who completed her undergraduate studies at JTS in 1992 and was ordained in 1997. Lerner was her undergraduate dean. “It was momentous for many of us to be able to say, finally, JTS has a female vice chancellor. And now we return to a time with no women as vice-chancellors and no women in the leadership of the Rabbinical School. Eikh naflu, how we have fallen. … I make these comments,” added Merow “out of love and concern for the school and my teachers.”

Chancellor Schorsch told LILITH that “the change has nothing to do with diminishing the role of women at the Seminary. The change has everything to do with increasing the efficiency of the Seminary.” While he said he could understand women students’ displeasure at this change, he also believes “some of the anger is symbolic instead of substantive…. The response is in part political.”

Schorsch, however, said he did not believe the students’ displeasure was symbolic of a problem in the Seminary’s climate vis-a-vis women. “Numbers are concrete,” he said, naming a number of women in positions of power at the Seminary. “Climate is elusive.” And he said there would be no formal response to the student anger. “We will not make more of it than it is.”

When asked if the atmosphere would feel more male without Lerner in the vice chancellor’s chair, Brodie commented: “The Seminary is not a particularly woman-friendly place to begin with, so the question of how it will be negatively impacted [by Lerner’s demotion] is hard to answer.” Altman concurred: “That’s a scary question. I don’t know how it could feel more male.”


by Naomi Graetz

I am writing this review from a dual perspective, as a feminist and as an active user of the new Siddur (prayer book) Va’ani Tefillati in a Masorti (Conservative) congregation in Israel. To complicate issues, I am also married to the chairperson of the committee of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel that formulated the [Israeli] siddur, Rabbi Michael Graetz. Although I have been privy to the process, I will relate primarily to the product, to which I and any other user have access on a daily basis.

The siddur has taken the direction of including women and recognizing their contributions to Jewish life and history, but it has done so in a manner that clearly expresses the dispute around this position and the compromises that were made. For example, the word ve-imoteinu (“and our foremothers”), wherever it appears next to avoteinu in the obligatory prayers (and it does not always appear), is placed in brackets, making it evident that this is merely an optional alternative to the male norm. For many of us, this amounts to a bone thrown to the starving.

The inclusion of women in religious life, on the other hand, is much less in dispute, as exemplified by the ceremony for the birth of a daughter (Zeved habat), the assignment of significant roles to women in the circumcision ceremony, the revision of the customary prayer for rain to mention both forefathers and foremothers, and the equivalent prayers for bnot and bnei mitzvah. The picture used to show the correct placement of the head phylactery is of a woman. And despite the controversy about the insertion of imahot in the central Amidah prayer, the imahot are inserted before the avot in the Grace after Meals.

Despite these very important efforts to include women more thoroughly in the siddur, I found it very disturbing to discover in the daily Amidah a newly created passage for Yom Hashoah {the Memorial Day for the Holocaust) in which no attempt at inclusivity is made. Thus, we read “our fathers” (no imoteinu this time) and Zaken ve-na’ar (“old and young,” in the masculine). On the other hand, the very moving Seder Yom Hashoah included elsewhere in the siddur relates to women’s experiences as well.

It is also serious to me, as a feminist, that the God-language of the siddur is exclusively male. Tikva Frymer-Kensky has pointed out the problem:

“The God of Biblical Israel is grammatically male: all the verbal forms, adjectives and pronouns are masculine. God in the Bible is also sociologically male: the husband, the father, the king…. This cumulative impact of male-centered language and imagery is profoundly alienating to women.”

She thus states for me the problem that I have as a “traditional” feminist. On the one hand, I recognize the abusive potential of an all-powerful God. On the other, if I toss out many of the traditional images, I lose a lot of the beauty— melodies to words I know, images, associations— that are part of the Jewish tradition that I grew up with. I am often in a state of cognitive dissonance when I pray.

Cognitive dissonance may help me to understand why I put up with the old imagery, but, as Frymer-Kensky eloquently points out, there is no going back once we see the light. Once we engage in de-gendering, incorporating feminine forms for God, we can either leave the fold or remain and be complicit.

The above is adapted from a much longer review of the siddur in the Israeli, English-language feminist magazine Nashim.