Exploring the Link between Womanhood and the Rabbinate: Lilith interviews the first woman ordained in the conservative movement

LILITH: As of June, 109 women have been ordained as Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. What do you think is the reason for the excitement—in the press and generally—about your ordination as the first woman Conservative rabbi? Is it due to the Conservative movement’s being viewed differently?

EILBERG: Someone said to me recently that when the Episcopalian Church decided to ordain women, that engendered a degree of excitement that in some way surpassed the earlier decisions of the more liberal churches. There’s a set of expectations that in the more right-wing religious bodies there still is religious inequality for women. So when women are allowed to move forward there, that is very significant—it affects everyone. There’s hope for all of us, and there’s hope for all of our aspirations. The degree of media and community attention also conveys the sense that there’s work left to be done. If feminism were a closed issue, if we were an egalitarian society, then this kind of event would not engender such excitement. People’s excitement seems to be directly related to their own sense of denied aspirations or frustrations along the way, so that another woman’s achievement gives women hope in their own struggles.

LILITH: What has happened in the community in the past 12, 13 years to cause the momentous event of your ordination to take place?

EILBERG: I think it was a gradual process of the community’s opening its eyes to the fact that while there is still work to be done, women are substantial partners in the society in which we live. The Jewish feminist movement placed the issue on the agenda of the Jewish community and raised the question, “do you really want Jewish society to lag so far behind the general society in which we live?” We as a community gradually came to the conclusion that, if anything, we were proud that our Jewishness represents a progressive, ethical outlook, and we had to deal with the fact that the Jewish community seemed to be adopting an inferior ethical stance with reference to the equality of its women.

Those pockets of the community that are still in opposition will be the next educational target. It is now acceptable if not normative practice in the Conservative movement for a woman to serve as a shaliach tzibur (leader of the prayer service). . . and to be called to the Torah for an aliya (saying blessings). That doesn’t mean that every congregation permits these practices, or that in congregations that do, it is universally accepted. It is as if the Supreme Court has now spoken, but society still has a long way to go in terms of accepting this practice more fully.

Just on the apparently simple level of people getting used to the fact that there is such a thing as a woman rabbi—”what does she look like, and can she really read Torah, and can she really have a baby and be a rabbi?”—there is work to be done. These questions that seem very simple represent people’s profound fears and resistance to change.

I was at a meeting of a group of people who have a traditional egalitarian minyan (quorum of worshippers). One of the feminists in the group suggested a couple of minor changes in reference to God-language. I expected some of the men to oppose her suggestion on grounds that it is against halacha (Jewish law). The responses that were voiced, though, were: “We cannot make those kinds of changes ever, because God in the Jewish religion is male, and the language is accurate in reflecting that.” Now that’s the sort of thinking we have to struggle against.

LILITH: How do you feel about changing sexist God-language?

EILBERG: I am in deep conflict about it at this point. I have a very strong commitment both halachically and emotionally to the traditional liturgy. I have been praying the words of this traditional liturgy literally every day for the past 15 years and somewhat less regularly for more years than I have memory of. Traditional Judaism is a very important part of my life. My connection to the traditional liturgy—which represents in many ways the chain of tradition between me and my Jewish forebears—is very strong. I have great allegiance to the halachic system, as well. I approach the question of liturgical change with great trepidation and great care. There would be a sense of loss for me—loss of that sense of continuity and that sense of allegiance—if I were to begin to change the language with which I pray.

On the other hand, I am beginning to feel very strongly that God-language is very much both a reflection of and a prescription for the kind of society that is to be lived on earth. Thus, the fact that all our God-language and imagery is male convinces us every time we speak that language that it is the natural order of things that males be in control.

So in the same breath in which I come to a congregation to announce that the broader significance of my ordination as a rabbi is an invitation to all the women in the community to consider themselves equal partners in Judaism, I must raise the very obvious question that as women open the siddur (prayerbook), they will see a message that at some level contradicts that invitation to equality.

Most recently I’ve become aware of a very serious theological problem: To conceptualize God as male and to mean it literally—not just to simply use the language as metaphor because of the poverty of our religious imagination— can only be called idolatrous in terms of Jewish theology.

LILITH: You spoke of your commitment to the halacha and tradition. When did this begin for you?

EILBERG: I come from a Conservative family, one very strongly identified as Jews on an ethnic and cultural level; halacha and ritual observance were not a primary concern in our home. We went to shul every now and then—always on the High Holy Days. I went to Hebrew school, lit candles Friday night, had a Bat Mitzvah as a matter of course.

When I was 14, I went on a United Synagogue Youth—USY-on-wheels summer program—a 6 1/2-week cross-country tour. It was my first experience with the traditional Jewish lifestyle: we davened (prayed) three times a day, and observed Shabbat very strictly, kept kosher very strictly, in all sorts of very odd places. That was a watershed point in my life. From then on, I got progressively more observant of various mitzvot (commanded actions). I started to take my Jewish education much more seriously. By the time I entered college, I knew I wanted to be a Jewish educator.

LILITH: What touched you about this experience and made it so important?

EILBERG: I think it was the same two things that make it compelling for me now. One is the sense of connectedness with the faith community, both vertical and horizontal. Vertically, a sense of collection with an ancestral community—with millenia of ancestors—and a connection to the future. And a horizontal community, the community of Jews around the country and around the world with whom I had the sense that I had something special in common, as people who are working toward certain common goals and who share a past and a future.

The other element had to do with my sense of a system that addresses ultimate existential questions about one’s place in the world and about God and the meaning of life. I had the sense—I still do—that ritual and liturgical activity represent a structured attempt to respond to some of those basic questions about life.

LILITH: What happened after high school?

EILBERG: In 1972, I went to Brandeis. The community was tremendously supportive of women’s equality and women’s aspirations. It was the dawn of Jewish feminism. A very important feature of the community was Hillel Rabbi Al Axelrad—who took particular interest in helping women come into their own Jewishly.

When I got to Brandeis, the official service at the university had separate seating, no mechitza (partition between the sexes during prayer) but an aisle separating women and men, and no women’s participation. The freshman class included a bunch of kids who had been in USY and Camp Ramah and some liberal Conservative congregations who were already calling women to the Torah. By the end of that year, we as a group had overturned the policy so that the official service of the university was an egalitarian one—traditional service with mixed seating and full participation by women.

In the spring of my freshman year (1973), the first National Jewish Women’s Conference was held. My life was changed by that conference, which I did not even attend. When a friend told me that Rachel Adler had davened there with tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), this represented an answer to a question I had been asking.

I had come to Brandeis with a fairly strong traditionalist inclination, but also some feminist or at least egalitarian consciousness. But I did have the sense that the call for equality in the traditionalist Jewish community—by which I included the Conservative movement—would have to take into account the issue of obligation. For me, the blanket call for equality wasn’t the whole story. Obligation, however you conceptualize it— from a personally commanding God or a sense of commandedness by God or in a Kaplanian sense of one’s obligation to the community—was a concept that had to be factored into the discourse. … I was very much struck by the connection between the halachic exemption of women from a whole set of mitzvot and women’s exclusion from certain roles in the community.

After learning about Adler’s action, I decided that I would take on the obligations of tallit and tefillin; these being only an example of that series of mitzvot from which women are exempt. I said to myself—and the community—that I rejected the notion that I was exempt and therefore excluded from a certain set of central activities simply by being a woman, and that by my repudiation of the exemption status I had made myself into the type of woman that the halacha would have to see as an equal. It was at that point that I began to feel comfortable leading services, reading the Torah. I had a male friend teach me to put on tefillin, read, lead services. I began to teach other women to be shlichot tzibur (prayer leaders). Two years later I began to think of the rabbinate.

LILITH: Wasn’t this at a time—1976— when the ordination of Conservative women seemed impossible?

EILBERG: The issue was really underground at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in those years; there was a sense of taboo about feminist issues in the mid-70s. … I entered the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Master’s program in Talmud; I loved Talmud, it wasn’t a completely political agenda. . . . [But] the sense was that the more women who were there and who were known to be serious students and serious Jews, the more that would advance the eventuality of ordination.

In 1979, the JTS faculty voted to table the decision indefinitely. I felt such a sense of trauma and threat about the divisiveness of that decision that I believed it would be a generation until the vote would come up again. I said to myself, “Well, maybe someday I’ll have a daughter and she’ll have a chance, but it may not happen in my lifetime.”

I was wrong! I loved Talmud and ordination seemed far away. I began to think about an academic career and headed for a Ph.D in Talmud. When I’d finished almost all the requirements for the doctorate but the dissertation, I went through a period of soul-searching. I felt that I had originally wanted to be a rabbi because I wanted to be able to put together aspects of scholarship and the helping professions, and that I had developed one track but not the other. I still couldn’t be a rabbi so I thought at least I would put together my own kind of rabbinical training program. At that point I did the MSW at Smith College. Two-thirds of the way through the program, the Seminary voted to admit women as rabbinical candidates, so I came back. . . .

I will be a rabbinic chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and the community rabbi of the Jewish Welfare Federation there with some responsibilities in the area of education. It’s not an accident that I am doing this while thinking about the ways of integrating womanhood and the rabbinate, and that I have chosen a position which is devoid of the showy, distant performance aspects of the rabbinate and very much oriented to intense, intimate people-work.

LILITH: Do you believe women have a different contribution to make to the rabbinate?

EILBERG: I hope very strongly that most of the women ordained at JTS will not feel that in order to achieve legitimacy in their own eyes and in the eyes of the community they will have to imitate male models of the rabbinate but will feel free to explore the connection between their womanhood and the rabbinate. I suspect that women, having been raised in a society or perhaps even being intrinsically inclined toward regarding issues of interdependence of relationships, of care, as primary, will, as rabbis practice a model of leadership that will be substantially facilitative, empowering, and cooperative.

I say this cognizant of the fact that in the Conservative movement, halacha is still an important guiding force, so that a completely democratic or egalitarian mode of decision-making is at least partly in conflict with the way the Conservative movement views halacha— there has to be an oligarchy of the most learned. I don’t believe halachic decisions should be made by vote. I do believe poskim (religious arbiters) and rabbis have to listen very carefully to their congregations as I believe the best poskim always did.

LILITH: Which brings us to halachic reform. What are we going to do about edut (women’s not being considered witnesses)?

EILBERG: I think this problem relates to one’s basic understanding of what sort of system halacha is and how it has evolved over the centuries. The more right-wing position holds to an almost monolithic view of halacha as a completely unchangeable system. My view very clearly is that halacha has always been a changing system. Any legal system which can survive tremendous sociological changes must have internal mechanisms for change. The record shows that halacha contains such mechanisms.

We’re in a different situation from the post-Emancipation era, in the 18th century, when it seemed to the leaders of the Jewish community that the walls were caving in; and their response was to rigidify and fossilize.

I think that the Conservative movement has resuscitated a more authentic notion of the possibility of internal development in the halacha. Its approach is one of defining parameters of the halachic process, rather than insisting that there is one single halachic answer to everything.

I’ve come to the conclusion, after many years of careful study of the issues in Jewish law, and familiarity with the particular approach represented by the Conservative movement, that halacha can adapt itself to the feminist challenge as defined in terms of equal access. I include the issues of aliya, shaliach tzibur, and edut—which I consider to be in the realm of the imperative in feminist terms and the realm of the possible in halachic terms for those who are willing to look for that positive answer.

LILITH: How far can halacha be stretched or changed until it breaks? How far can you move it to the point where it will not be halacha anymore?

EILBERG: It is the organism that can grow and breathe and shift and find different places to cultivate its growth that survives and flourishes. It’s apathy toward the law that represents the greatest danger, not a continuing serious process of questioning and demanding and challenging and appropriating aspects of the system for personal meaning. . . .

In 1974, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Law and Standards voted to consider it an acceptable mode of rabbinic practice to regard women as witnesses. That doesn’t mean that all Conservative rabbis are bound by that decision, but that Conservative rabbis may choose between the traditional halachic option, that women may be witnesses, and the less traditional one.

It seems to me, too, that the halachic view of women’s edut is not as monolithic as its proponents would suggest. There are cases in which the halacha itself sets forth a small, and yet, significant number of cases in which women are considered to be reliable witnesses. If we did some more serious thinking about the underlying principles that led rabbis to endorse these exceptions, we might feel more comfortable with the RA decision to widen that permissability to the reliability of all women as witnesses.

LILITH: What about the question of divorce?

EILBERG: In the Conservative movement, the beit din (law court) at the Seminary will call in the couple together if there’s a problem in granting the divorce as per the prenuptial agreement, and attempt to persuade a recalcitrant husband or wife.

LILITH: But still it’s the man who signs that document?

EILBERG: That’s right.

LILITH: Is there any possibility of changing that? Why can’t both sign the document . . .?

EILBERG: That would be the sort of change that could not be done from within the halachic system. . . There’s no question that the system provides for the unilateral male granting of divorce. Much as that’s uncomfortable and offensive to many of us, those of us who want to continue to work within a traditionalist framework to the extent that we can, have to recognize this and accept it. A woman initiating a divorce is a departure from halacha, and there are people who are willing to do that, and I can certainly understand why. I would not think that the Conservative movement would go in that direction.

LILITH: How can you have allegiance to a system which is totally designed by men and in many cases, such as divorce, is not particularly humane regarding women—women are regarded as property . . .?

EILBERG: For me, the question is: why blame those human authorities who created rabbinic Judaism for not having been able to anticipate what it took another 2,000 years for human society to develop? I do not fault those rabbis for not having understood contemporary feminism, although Jewish literature attributes to them a certain degree of divine inspiration. Rabbinic Judaism is a socio-religious construction put together by human beings, who with all of their wisdom and with all of their abilities to surpass that which was present in their societies, were, like all humans, culturally-bound to a certain extent. The fact that Judaism was created by men does not detract from the genius of the system, the compelling nature of the system. . . it does not alter my allegiance to the system.

LILITH: Do you think that if women become poskim they will address various issues, let’s say divorce, in a different way?

EILBERG: I think that’s an important thing we should be striving for. . . . There was a time when there was a great concern for women to join the ranks of the poskim. I’m now hearing more and more Jewish feminists who are saying that women might head toward midrash (interpretation of text)—toward creation of new liturgy and new rituals, new interpretive material on Biblical literature—rather than address their energies to the legal issues.

LILITH: Why is midrash important?

EILBERG: Midrash has always been the way in which communities who are historically detached from the founding documents established some connection between their own experiences and the generation in which the documents were created. Every generation would open the books, and in some cases they then re-read the old books, reinterpreted the old books in light of their new experience, created new books which built on the old, but incorporated their new experiences. That was always the midrashic process. Midrash is really the classical Jewish way to continue to allow the old text to speak to a new situation.

Midrash is the process by which Jewish communities re-establish the link between themselves and the ancient texts. If you read the classic books of the midrash, you see the playfulness and the liberties that they take with the text. There’s a freedom in that process which is probably helpful to our predicament as Jewish feminists today, without the imposition of the sort of strictures that we have when we want to look up an authoritative legal code.

LILITH: How do you feel about the growing trend of people writing new ceremonies?

EILBERG: It is just a marvelously positive phenomenon; an extraordinarily beautiful example of what I mean when I say that women now have to open up the old books and enter into a new relationship with them. Read the books carefully with love, but with the courage to ask the hard question—”how does this speak to me? What’s missing? Are there things I have to add?”

LILITH: The birth ceremonies and other ceremonies seem to be inclined toward celebrating, marking, accentuating something biological. People have written ceremonies about menopause or their first period, and it seems to me that Judaism doesn’t mark biological events. Now, of course, Judaism may not have done that because women may not have been involved in it at that point; on the other hand, maybe it’s against the spirit of Judaism. . . .

EILBERG: I’m not terribly troubled by that. There is the sense of “how can something so new be authentically Jewish?” And I think that as we, the community of women and men, go ahead in the next decades and generations in finding ways of fully incorporating women’s experiences, continuing the interpretive process, we will have to. keep asking that question, but not allow it to serve as a barrier against the creation of new devotional literature.

There is no ceremony, no liturgical material for menopause or for having a baby. I would agree with feminists who identify that as a lacuna in literature and attribute that gap to the fact that this literature was primarily addressed to the experiences of men. The bris is a celebration of a biological event in a certain sense. What is so interesting about it is that all the liturgy makes of it a social, religious and theological event more than a natural biological event.

The one thing that troubles me is the separatist implication of some of this new material. I am personally troubled and perplexed by the question of “where do we go from here?” in terms of the tension between women needing to celebrate their own uniqueness and their own special gifts, and the need to stay very much in touch with the whole community. I think that there is a need for certain kinds of separate women’s celebrations, since we are still so close in history or perhaps even still in a situation in which the predominant social message is that male is good and that female is less. In that sense, women may have to spend time and energy alone in order to rediscover their own sense of value and legitimacy. Yet when male feminists ask, “why are you leaving us out, when will we be able to join the process, is this a temporary process and how will we rejoin you again at some point after you have found your own voice . . .?” I’m not sure any of us knows the answer.

LILITH: Isn’t there a danger in celebrating and marking women’s particular special experiences? It borders on the idea that there is a separate men’s sphere and a separate women’s sphere, which is something that the Orthodox (and right-wing) are always saying. . . .

EILBERG: In a sense, all of the new feminist talk about women’s special gifts, women’s unique psychological portrait, and women’s particular form of experience comes very close to what in another time would simply have been called sexism, or the limitation of women. There was a time when talk about women’s differentness was dangerous, the sense that if we feminists began to talk about women having a particular connection to nurturance and caring, we were afraid that men would come back with, “well, if you’re such experts in nurturance, why don’t you stay home and have children.”

But it seems to me that now that we feel, more or less, that our equality is assured, we do have the liberty to raise those issues again. To remember what, in fact, we have always known. . . human society has always known. . . that there are some gender differences. . . We can rediscover those differences and take a new look at them.

Throughout the ’70s and until a year or two ago, my feminism was primarily of the civil libertarian variety—that is, the struggle for equal access to everything. Anything less than full equality is to me unacceptable in feminist or egalitarian terms. Now I am at the point—and the community is substantially at the point—at which equality is assured. I am feeling free in a way I wasn’t before to explore issues relating to women’s different contribution [to Judaism].

LILITH: What impact do you think your ordination will have on the community?

EILBERG: I think the decision of the Conservative movement to accept women represents the most powerful statement in favor of women that the movement could have made. The movement could have made pronouncements about believing in the equality of women, but it’s when women are actually granted the same rights and privileges in the system and the same symbolic power and legitimacy as men have always had, that women in our country can say, “they really mean that we are to be accepted as partners and that our contributions are welcome.”

I think that’s why women have been so incredibly excited by the news of the Conservative movement’s decision. The message has been sent out in a very clear way that women are being invited to take another step forward, to try to move more fully into the leadership of Federations, and other Jewish communal organizations, across the board, in religious and community life. I think that, in a sense, the leadership of the Conservative movement has sent out the invitation to women to rethink their relationship with the community. And I think women have heard that message.

There’s a long-term process that has to evolve from now on, but the groundwork has been laid and I believe that progress will ensue. This is social change, and such changes come slowly. But as I look back at where we’ve come from—at the progress in the last 15 years—it’s almost meteoric.

Raye T. Katz, educator, studied Talmud with her father, an alumnus of the (pre-World War I) Volozhin Yeshiva.