Conservative Rabbis Endorse Women’s Ordination

The Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis, adopted a resolution on May 13, 1980 endorsing women’s ordination and calling upon members of the Jewish Theological Seminary faculty Senate to take firm action on the issue. The landmark resolution passed by a vote of 156-115 after six hours of heated debate.

Several important developments led up to the passage of this resolution. These included: the organization of opposition inside and outside the Seminary to the RA’s January 1979 resolution urging that the JTS accept the positive recommendations of the Commission on Women’s Ordination [see Reena Sigman Friedman’s “The Politics of Women’s Ordination” in issue #6—Ed.]; the vote by the JTS Senate in December 1979 tabling the issue; and the subsequent mobilization of pro-ordination forces.

The organization of opposition: The vote by the JTS Senate was originally scheduled for May 1979—and postponed several times, finally to January 1980.

Because there were complaints that a survey of Conservative congregants prepared for the Commission on the Ordination of Women by Yankelovich, Skelly and White was not distributed properly, JTS Chancellor Gerson Cohen authorized another one for the scheduled May Senate vote. It was prepared by Dr. Saul Shapiro, an IBM executive active in the Conservative congregational movement, and Dr. Charles Liebman, a sociologist specializing in Jewish issues.

The survey was based on a questionnaire sent to 17,927 households affiliated with Conservative synagogues. The results were released at the November 1979 Biennial convention of the United Synagogue, the congregational arm of the movement. The accumulated data indicated that the Conservative movement would experience a decline in membership during the next 10 to 20 years and that it would be sustained by a small “minority of those most committed” to Conservative Judaism. The report noted that, “those opposed to ordination are more observant Jews than those who favor ordination, are more committed to Conservative Judaism, and their children are more likely to be. . . Conservative synagogue members.” (Surprisingly, 51% of the respondents [4,000 “usable returns” were received] said they had no position at all on women’s ordination.)

Rochelle Saidel Wolk, reporting for LILITH from the convention, wrote that much controversy surrounded the presentation of the Liebman-Shapiro report. A three-page “recommendations” section was omitted from the document received by the 2000 delegates. Chancellor Cohen maintained that these “recommenations” were never intended as part of the report. Rabbi I. Usher Kirshblum of the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills, a vocal opponent of women’s ordination, contended that these sections were not included because “they point in the opposite direction of the one in which we are trying to go. If the Senate is to take this report to heart, it certainly cannot in good conscience vote for ordination at this point.”

On December 18, 1979, some 150 rabbis and laypeople assembled in New York for a well-publicized Conference on Halachic Process, to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with “the recent tendency of the leadership of the Conservative movement, particularly that of the Rabbinical Assembly, [to] move farther and farther away from the basic tenet of Conservative Judaism: commitment to halacha.”

Those attending the Conference expressed their concern that “the question of the ordination of women, [which] will affect basic halachic norms… is not being considered through halachic process.” Five senior members of the Seminary Talmud faculty presented position papers on this subject, and Dr. Shapiro discussed what he considered to be the implications of the survey he and Liebman had done. [See article by Rochelle Saidel Wolk on this conference in these pages—Ed.]

The tactics employed by the “traditionalist” elements caused the Senate vote to be pushed up from January to December 20—just two days after the Conference on Halachic Process.

The Senate vote and its aftermath: On December 20, 1979, in a closed three-hour session, the Seminary Senate adopted by a vote of 25-19 the following motion introduced by Dr. Ismar Schorsch, Professor of Jewish History:

“For the past two years the prospect of a vote by the Seminary faculty on the question of ordaining women has preoccupied the attention of the Conservative movement. As the time for the vote draws near it is abundantly clear that the question has provoked unprecedented divisions at every level of the Movement. The bitter divergence of opinion threatens to inflict irreparable damage to the academic excellence of the Seminary and the pluralistic unity of the Rabbinical Assembly.

“Accordingly, we move that the question be tabled until such time as a balanced committee of Talmudic scholars to be appointed by the Chancellor has completed a systematic study of the status of women in Jewish law. The proper resolution of the ordination question can be achieved only within this larger context. It is our hope that publication of the committee’s findings will not only serve to sensitize our constituency in the nature of the halachic process but also contribute to the formation of a consensus on the issue.”

The vote was originally described by Chancellor Gerson Cohen as a “defeat of women’s ordination for the foreseeable future.” Following the vote, Cohen clearly stated that he did not consider himself “morally or legally bound to appoint such a commission.” He also announced that he would discuss what he considered to be the “spiritual and moral significance of the vote” at a plenary session of JTS students and faculty. Speaking before a packed audience at that January 15 meeting, Cohen revealed that the 25-member majority voting for the tabling resolution was composed of two groups: 16 individuals who had previously announced their opposition to women’s ordination, including most of the JTS’ renowned Talmudists; and nine faculty members who generally favored women’s ordination but were unwilling to risk a split in the faculty and the Conservative movement. He declared:

“Those of us who hoped to see women studying in our Rabbinical School this year must accept the vote to postpone a decision on the ordination of women as a challenge, rather than a defeat.. . .What the faculty vote really shows is that the majority of the Senate… did not sense.. .the existence of a climate of opinion conducive to change. They placed higher priority on preserving the integrity of the Conservative movement, with the diversity that has always characterized it, than on the ordination of women.”

He maintained that, while the vote posed a challenge to all those desirous of change in the status of women in Jewish religious life, “the task” of creating a favorable climate of opinion “will inevitably fall most heavily on the women themselves who have been denied immediate fulfillment of their dearest aspirations. In living with that frustration, I hope they will find the courage to serve the Jewish community in para-rabbinic functions, thus helping to teach the community the importance of accepting them in new roles, and welcoming their contributions.”

On March 25, Cohen announced the establishment of a new program, approved by the faculty Senate, designed to train men and women for “the religious ministry.” While details of eligibility, curriculum and degree remain to be worked out by a faculty committee, applications are currently being accepted. The four-year course will be “comparable in duration, breadth and depth to that of the Rabbinical School,” but will be distinct from it as well as from the Graduate School. The new program would qualify women for positions similar to that filled by Carol Glass, who served as assistant to Rabbi Arnold Goodman of Adath Jeshurun Synagogue in Minneapolis. He noted that, while Ms. Glass “did not perform weddings or lead the congregation in prayer, she provided spiritual leadership,” through leading youth and adult groups, and teaching adult education courses.

“The new program,” Cohen said, “fulfills what I perceive as a moral and theological mandate to enable women to provide needed spiritual leadership without reviving what threatened to become a pointless debate on ordination.”

The mobilization of pro-ordination forces: Many advocates of women’s ordination, however, continue to demand that this “pointless debate” be revived without delay. Leading the struggle for women’s ordination is GROW, the Group for the Rabbinic Ordination of Women, founded in February 1979. GROW is an organization of Conservative rabbis and laypeople dedicated to the “immediate admission of women to the JTS Rabbinical School, and greater education of the laity in all matters of Conservative practice and ideology.”

Since the December Senate vote, GROW’s coordinators have stepped up their efforts to rally support for women’s ordination. The organization’s membership is constantly expanding, and it has established a Speakers’ Bureau, a Resource Library and a newsletter.

GROW organized a highly successful rally of 200 people on the steps of the Seminary March 18 to “demonstrate to the Seminary and the public widespread dissatisfaction” with the December vote and to “voice strong support for the immediate acceptance of women candidates for ordination.” Speaking at the rally, Dr. David Wolf Silverman, JTS Professor in Philosophies of Judaism, declared:

“The first group of talented women graduates to be ordained by JTS will prove sufficient to convince [the more traditional elements] that the religious life of our constituency will be enhanced and strengthened by their presence… .It is immoral.. .to let [these women] languish in programs which do not promise them the most fulfilling careers. . .We urgently request that the Senate of the JTS vote a resounding ‘yes’ and grant women the right to serve as rabbis with all deliberate speed.”

Other speakers were Rabbi Seymour Siegel, JTS Professor of Theology and Ethics; Lynn Gottlieb, acting rabbi to New York City’s deaf community; Francine Klagsbrun, a member of the Commission on the Ordination of Women and author of Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living (Pantheon, 1980); and GROW coordinator Elaine Kahn.

GROW also sponsored a public forum at a prominent Conservative synagogue in Riverdale, NY on May 1. At that forum, Bernice Balter, Executive Director of the Women’s Leaue for Conservative Judaism, said:

“While the issue [women’s ordination] has been tabled in the Seminary, it has not been tabled in the community.” The issue will be raised at the Women’s League convention in November because “women all over the country are asking for the ordination of women. Let’s not pretend that they are not.”

The 1980 RA resolution: GROW’s major effort this spring was directed toward the RA convention held in May, at which time it lobbied extensively for the adoption of a resolution calling for the prompt acceptance of women into the JTS Rabbinical School.

Women’s ordination was a high-priority issue at the convention, attended by some 600 rabbis, as was clear from RA Executive Vice President Wolfe Kelman’s opening address. Rabbi Kelman, a longstanding advocate of women’s ordination, stated that:

“The Conservative movement must find a way to protect those who want a woman rabbi and those who are opposed, to respect the consciences of the traditionalists and the consciences of those who see the women’s issue as a moral issue.”

At the resolutions sessions, delegates voted down by a wide margin a resolution stating that the RA would take no action on the women’s ordination issue for a period of two years. A resolution was passed expressing support for the creation of the new “religious ministry” program.

The original draft of the major resolution endorsing women’s ordination stated that the RA “stood ready” to help the Seminary “in its deliberations” whenever it was “deemed appropriate.” It was later amended by pro-ordination delegates to read:

“Without wishing to dictate a decision to the Seminary faculty in any way, the Rabbinical Assembly goes on record as favoring the ordination of women.”

The adoption of this resolution marks a turning point in the policy of the RA, which has tended to defer to the Seminary, the Conservative movement’s central academic institution, on this issue. Shortly after the vote, Rabbi Seymour Siegel told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “this vote will certainly influence the members of the faculty senate to reverse the decision last year and approve the admission of women to the program of ordination” at the JTS.

However, only hours after the passage of the monumental resolution, more than 100 convention delegates assembled in a lengthy late-night meeting to form a Halachic Fellowship of the Rabbinical Assembly, a major goal of which will be to mobilize continued opposition to the ordination of women. The group, which includes many of the same people involved in the Conference on Halachic Process held in December 1979, is currently planning a conference to be held at the Seminary at which time the group will issue a formal statement of purpose.

Stating as their primary objective the evaluation of the future development of halacha within the Conservative movement, Fellowship members proposed that “a nine-member panel be commissioned by the incoming [RA] president to study and evaluate the rules and procedures of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards,” the rulings of which have come under attack by traditionalists within the RA in recent years. At one resolutions session, a special panel was formed to evaluate the Committee and report back to the RA by January 1, 1981.

The passage of the RA resolution has spurred renewed efforts to gain reconsideration of the women’s ordination resolution at the Senate’s next meeting in September, said GROW coordinator Lawrence Troster. He predicted that pro-ordination resolutions are likely to emerge from the conventions of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and the United Synagogue, both scheduled for the fall. GROW is also circulating a petition supporting women’s ordination among Conservative lay people, to be presented to Chancellor Cohen when 100,000 signatures have been collected.

Advocates of women’s ordination are determined to maintain their lobbying campaign at full force in the months ahead. As Seymour Siegel pointed out in Sh’ma last February:

“It is now up to the lay and rabbinic members of the Conservative movement to make their opinions known to the leadership of the Seminary. It is unlikely that the faculty will undertake a bruising controversy over women’s ordination again unless there is strong pressure to do so outside of the Seminary. As one who fought long and hard (though unsuccessfully) for the ordination of women, I await strong expressions of support for the admission of women to the Conservative rabbinate. Such vigorous expression plus the workings of the Holy Spirit will, most likely, finally move the learned members of the Seminary faculty to do the right thing.”