Conservatives to Certify Women Cantors

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America will begin granting the diploma of Hazzan (cantor) to women in its 1987 commencement, a certificate JTS reserved only for men until now.

The announcement by JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch in February is viewed as a historical break with the tradition, but one which Schorsch contended followed from JTS’ controversial 1983 decision to ordain women as rabbis.

Erica Lippitz and Maria Rosenfeld Barugel, both studying in the Cantorial Institute/Seminary College of Jewish Music, are expected to be the first recipients of the diploma of Hazzan in the 1987 JTS commencement.

Critics of the new decision said it is even a more serious breach of halacha (Jewish Law) than the earlier one because women will be obligated to serve a function halacha forbids them.

Rabbi Ronald Price, executive director of the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, said the decision is tantamount to obliging women to violate Jewish law. He contended that cantors traditionally lead the prayer services and fulfill the obligations of their congregants to recite some mandatory prayers. But, Price said, “women cannot fulfill the man’s prayer obligation, which is the major function of a cantor.”

Schorsch defended his decision as being in accordance with Jewish law, saying he had based it on the same justification as the decision to ordain women.

He reasoned that women can change their status under Jewish law by accepting the timebound obligations traditionally reserved for men. If a woman chooses to honor those obligations — which include praying three times daily, putting on tefillin (phylacteries) and other time-oriented rituals—she may serve as a rabbi or cantor.

Responding to Price’s charge that JTS has taken the egalitarian principle too far, and was overly concerned with feminist issues because they are popular and attract attention, Schorsch said egalitarianism is “the popular will of the [Conservative] movement.”

The future cantors said the decision was a victory and a profound joy for themselves and other women who want to receive the diploma. They called the decision “a new chapter in Jewish history.”