“What does the contemporary rabbi do which a woman is not capable of doing?”
The question was posed by Dr. Sarah Lieberman, a religious school principal in Framingham, Massachusetts, as part of her testimony before the Commission for the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis. The Commission was established some two years ago in order to review this issue and present its recommendations to policy makers within the Conservative movement. At the present time, the issue remains unresolved.
Dr. Lieberman’s question was a simple one; yet it has ignited sparks in the dimly lit corridors of the Jewish Theological Seminary, sparks which disturb the scholarly tranquility of this “fountainhead of Conservative Judaism.” For the first time in the history of the Conservative movement, the Seminary’s scholars and administrators have been called upon to make a major policy statement, one which will have profound implications for the future of the movement itself, for Jewish women and for American Jewry as a whole.
In recent years, the question of ordination for women has been the subject of heated debate among Conservative Jews. Opponents fear that enabling women to enter the rabbinate will give rise to real and symbolic departures from Jewish tradition, encourage defections and severely weaken the movement. For others, the question is not whether, but when. They maintain that, strictly speaking, there are no halachic (Jewish legal) barriers to women’s ordination, that opening the rabbinate to women has become an ethical imperative and that Jewish law must respond to changing times and needs.
In just a few months, a vote will be taken by the faculty members comprising the Seminary “Senate.” They are currently deliberating the issue, acting upon recommendations made by the Commission for the Study of the Ordination of Women As Rabbis.
Although the final vote was originally scheduled for May 30th, it has now been officially postponed until January 1980. The postponement was first announced in an April 27th letter written by Dr. Gerson Cohen, Chancellor of the Seminary, to members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis.
Each delay places another obstacle in the way of those women who seek to serve their communities—in the words of the diploma received by all JTS Rabbinical School graduates—as “rabbis, teachers and preachers in Israel.”
The approximately 40 women who have applied to the Seminary Rabbinical School since 1972 are anxiously awaiting the Senate’s decision. While some have entered other professions, a significant number are pursuing their rabbinical studies at Reform or Reconstructionist institutions. These women, along with others who are seeking private ordination from individual Conservative rabbis, have expressed their hopes of some day serving a Conservative congregation.
Judith Hauptman is Instructor in Talmud at the Seminary and one of the founders of Ezrat Nashim, the Jewish feminist group that in 1971 sparked the present-day campaign for women’s ritual equality within the Conservative movement. She reported that a number of other young women, many of them students in the Seminary’s various graduate programs, are also waiting in the wings, hoping to apply the Rabbinical School courses that they have already taken toward a rabbinical degree.
The Commission on the Ordination of Women was established in September 1977 by Chancellor Cohen, upon the recommendation of the Rabbinical Assembly. It was an interdisciplinary advisory body charged with exploring “all aspects of the role of women as spiritual leaders in the Conservative movement.” The RA was required to receive the Commission’s report at the end of an allotted time period.
During the two years of its existence, the Commission’s 14 members studied the question, drawing upon a wealth of accumulated data, including public-opinion surveys and written statements received from RA members throughout the country. In addition, eight public hearings were conducted by the Commission in major American and Canadian cities in order to elicit the views of Conservative congregants on this critical issue.
After many long hours of deliberation, the Commission’s final report was presented by Dr. Cohen to delegates attending the annual RA convention, held last January 28 through February I in Los Angeles. By a vote of 11 to three, the Commission members recommended that “qualified women be ordained as rabbis within the Conservative movement.
“They proposed further that “this revision of policy be accomplished as quickly as possible, preferably so as to allow applications from women for the academic year beginning in September 1979;” that the Seminary take steps to set up appropriate apparatuses for the recruitment, orientation and, eventually, career placement of female rabbinical students; and that an educational program be launched within the Conservative movement “so as to ensure as smooth and as harmonious an adjustment to the new policy as possible.”
The three Commission members endorsing the Minority Opinion concluded that “appropriate roles [should] be created for Jewish women short of ordination so that their commitment and talents may be a source of blessing and not of unnecessary controversy.”
The 29-page report, written by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Assistant to the Chancellor, and delivered by Dr. Cohen in an historic address on Tuesday evening, January 30th, was enthusiastically received by the approximately 500 RA members attending the convention. Applause filled the large room as Cohen concluded, having outlined his own intellectual journey from skepticism to “passionate” support of the ordination of women as rabbis. This conclusion, he noted, was informed by his understanding that “development has been the guiding principle of Jewish history since ancient times.”
Despite widespread praise for Cohen’s eloquent presentation, the convention delegates remained true to what some regarded as their original mandate. Following lengthy and impassioned debate at the critical Wednesday morning session, some 240 delegates turned aside two propositions—both of which strongly urged the Seminary faculty to adopt the Commission’s recommendations without delay—in favor of a much milder resolution which essentially committed the RA to a “hands-off” policy prior to the Seminary vote.
The resolution, adopted by a vote of 127 to 109, commended Cohen and the Commission members for their work, but also read, in part:
Be it hereby resolved that the RA will hike no action on the question of the ordination of women or on the Commission recommendation prior to the study of the report by the fall membership and the study, analysis and decision of the Seminary faculty on the recommendation.
The passage of this resolution, according to informed sources, came as a surprise to many who had anticipated that, with a disproportionate number of the delegates coming from the traditionally liberal West Coast states, the convention would be much more assertive in implementing the Commission’s findings. A number of those who oppose women’s ordination regard the RA move as evidence of heightened sympathy for the traditionalist point of view within that volatile body.
It should be noted, however, that only a little over half of the Convention delegates were present at the Wednesday morning session and that the resolution was adopted by a very slim margin.
Moreover, as was pointed out by several observers, the group voting in the resolution was, in fact, a “complicated coalition,” including those who genuinely opposed women’s ordination; those who objected to what they regarded as attempts by the RA “establishment” to manipulate their decision; those who were dissatisfied with the Commission report’s brevity and its omission of source materials; and, finally, those who, complying with the tacit understanding that one arm of the Conservative movement may not unduly influence another, wished to reserve action until after the Seminary vote. (See “Gentlemen’s Agreement At the Seminary,” by Amy Stone, Lilith #3).
That this “gentlemen’s agreement” was uppermost in many delegates’ minds, was confirmed by Dr. Seymour Siegel, Professor of Theology and Ethics at the Seminary, Chairman of the RA Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and a long-standing advocate of women’s ordination. Interviewed in Los Angeles by Rabbi Mark Golub of the New York radio program “L’Chayim,” Siegel said:
I personally expected the RA to issue a ringing endorsement of the Chancellor’s report and his strong supporting statement, bat there is some logic to those who believe that the facnlhi has the decision, and therefore it would be presumptuous to make any kind of statement that would be interpreted as pressure upon the facnlhi.
Thus, although during the week following the convention several newspapers hailed the Commission’s recommendations as if the decision were a fait accompli, the RA has merely returned the ball to the Seminary’s court.
This is the first major policy decision to be made by the Seminary Senate. The 50-member body is composed of the institution’s Chancellor and Assistant Chancellors, Deans and Assistant Deans, department chairmen, tenured faculty members with the rank of Associate Professor or higher and three elected non-tenured instructors. Formally reorganized in 1974 “to conduct all business related to the institution as a whole,” the Senate meets three or four times a year.
The 124 members of the Seminary faculty have been invited to prepare position papers on the women’s ordination issue, to be presented before members of the Senate. According to the new schedule outlined by Chancellor Cohen in his April 27th letter, all written arguments are to be submitted by December I, so that in January the Senate will be able to “devote several days to an in-depth discussion of the question and to a resolution of the faculty’s posture.”
“I hope that the papers presented will be convincing and that there will be a consensus, as there has been on other issues in the past,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, Secretary of the Senate. However, most people agree that there will be a vote, by secret ballot, and that it will probably be a close one.
Seminary faculty members have stated their opinions publicly, it is apparent that a person’s position on the issue cannot be correlated with his or her age, sex or academic discipline. Within each department, there are significant numbers of supporters and opponents of women’s ordination.
While advocates of women’s ordination are scattered throughout the faculty, most of the leading opponents are concentrated in the Talmud department. All of the senior, full professors in that department are against women’s ordination, according to Dr. Israel Francus, Professor in Rabbinics, and Chairman of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics, who is among them.
In contrast with the generally subdued atmosphere of the Los Angeles convention, the Seminary is bristling with controversy and, at this point, there can be no certainty regarding the outcome of the Great Debate.
Those at the Seminary in favor of ordaining women generally follow the line of reasoning developed in the Commission’s Majority Report.
Having committed themselves at the outset to making no recommendation which would be incompatible with the dictates of halachah (the body of Jewish law) as it has been interpreted by the Conservative movement, 11 of the 14 Commission members concluded that “there is no direct halachic objection to the acts of training and ordaining a woman to be a rabbi, preacher and teacher in Israel.”
The rabbinate as we know it today, they explain, is a relatively recent innovation, developed in response to the changing needs of the Jewish community. Therefore, one cannot necessarily look to traditional rabbinic texts for a definition of the modern rabbi’s qualifications or functions.
Supporters maintain, as well, that a decision to ordain women would be thoroughly consistent with previous rulings by the influential RA Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Conservative movement’s major lawmaking body, concerning the rights of women to receive aliyot (recite the blessing over the Torah) (1955), be counted in a minyan (the traditional prayer quorum) (1973), and serve as witnesses in ritual matters (minority opinion, 1974).
In the estimation of Rabbi Stephen Lerner, of the Jewish Community Center of West Hempstead, New York, a prominent supporter of women’s ordination, these rulings reflect the fact that “there has been a steady concern for women within the Conservative movement, for their education, for their participation in the synagogue and in all aspects of religious life.”
More importantly, proponents assert that the halachic prohibitions against women’s serving as leaders of public worship and as witnesses in ritual matters, commonly cited as the major legal obstacles to women’s ordination, are not relevant to the issue at hand, since these are “non-essential” functions of the modern rabbinate. Even halachic purists who do not necessarily accept the manner in which the Law Committee has resolved such questions would agree that today’s rabbi is rarely called upon to serve in these capacities.
Moreover, supporters argue that a compelling case could be made, on ethical grounds, for the ordination of women. Chief among these considerations is the right of all people, regardless of sex, to realize their potential to the full, in both the religious and secular spheres. Said Harlan Umansky, of Cliffside, New Jersey, one of those testifying at the New York hearings:
“How can we in all conscience say to our Jewish women: It matters not what new dimensions are open to you in the secular world—the holy dimension is reserved to men alone.”
Barbara Bundt, who testified at the Commission hearing in Minneapolis, also voiced this sentiment:
My fourth child is a gifted person who loves synagogue and Talmud Torah school. This child burns with Torah. This child wants to be a rabbi. But she is only nine years old and does not yet realize that women cannot be rabbis. She does not yet realize the moral inconsistencies in Judaism. How much longer must women of ambition and talent seek career satisfaction in only the secular world?
Ms. Bundt was one of many parents whose appearance at the public hearings had a profound impact upon the Commission members. Speaking of the academic achievements and ambitions of their daughters, these parents maintained that it was manifestly unjust for the Conservative movement to educate young girls equally with boys, only to make a sharp and unjustifiable distinction between the sexes upon the threshold of rabbinical training.
Conservative leaders not only have an obligation to the young women reared within their congregations and religious schools, the proponents’ argument continues, but the movement stands to benefit from the input of female spiritual leaders. At a time when qualified rabbis are in short supply, supporters urge the Conservative leadership to tap the vast potential of its young women as a means toward the amplification and betterment of American Jewish life. At a time when the alienation of Jewish youth is a major concern, they declare that the Conservative leadership cannot afford to take the risk of denying such opportunities to fully one-half of young Jews.
Although supporters within the faculty agree that the issue is complex and problematic, they are convinced that a positive decision by the Seminary would be indicative of growth and vitality within the movement. As Rabbi David Wolf Silverman, Associate Professor in Philosophies of Judaism at the Seminary put it, in his testimony before the Commission:
I believe that women’s entrance to the ordination process can infuse new energy, new youth, new problems, new needs which can help transform what to me is becoming a moribuudly successful movement.
Opponents of women’s ordination are generally quick to point out that their position does not reflect a bias against women or against feminism. “This is not merely an issue of women’s rights,” said one vocal opponent on the faculty, who asked not to be named. He and others observed that, as the Commission report stated, “there is still a wide range of considerations of which account must be taken. These considerations include some peculiar to the rabbinate, to Jewish practice in general and to Conservative Judaism in particular.”
First and foremost, opponents argue, as did Rabbi David Novak of Congregation Beth El in Norfolk, Virginia before the Commission hearings in Washington, D.C., that
The rabbinate as a distinct and necessary institution in Jewish life is necessarily structured by the halachah. To admit women into the rabbinate as it has been traditionally defined is to destroy the very foundation which makes the rabbinate possible.
Opponents go on to explain, in the words of the Minority Report:
“You cannot, within the present climate of the Conservative movement, ordain women and expect that they will not at some point infringe on these halachic restrictions (that is, their inability to be counted in a minyanm receive an aliyah, lead prayer services and act as a witness or judge (Shevuot 30a:4) in the performance of their rabbinical duties.”
A faculty pronouncement in favor of women’s ordination, opponents contend, even if it could be justified on strictly halachic grounds, would be regarded by Jews both within and outside the Conservative movement as a symbolic break with tradition. External symbolic factors, they argue, must be taken most seriously in a movement committed to maintaining the fabric of traditional Judaism.
For Rabbi David Feldman, of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center in Brooklyn, for example, symbolic concerns are preeminent. Speaking on the radio program “L’Chayim,” last February II, Feldman deemphasized the role of halachic considerations in this controversy and added:
My real concern is that women’s ordination so radically alters the character of the synagogue and of the rabbinate as to be a sea change, depriving it of its traditional character for a very small good, a very small accomplishment.
For many the very image of a woman in the pulpit is anathema. During the same radio broadcast, Feldman said:
We … know that the history of Judaism is the history at anti-Qmaanite idolatry and the Cauaauite idolatry featured a woman priestess and, from the standpoint of the Bible, this leads to immorality and other kinds of things.
Opponents contend that, were the Seminary to make such a radical departure from tradition, it would only reinforce the belief, widely held by Orthodox leaders, that Conservative Judaism is not an authentic halachic movement. The less Conservative Jews are perceived as adhering to traditional practices, the more likely they are to be identified with the Reform movement. As Professor Francus noted, the question of ordination for women has become the “symbolic dividing line” between Conservatism and Reform, just as the mechitzah (partition between men and women in the synagogue) issue was used to distinguish between Orthodoxy and Conservatism.
The anticipated reponse of both Orthodox and secularist groups in Israel is of particular concern to opponents of women’s ordination. Bruce Ginsburg, a recent graduate of the Seminary Rabbinical School and a vocal opponent of women’s ordination within the student body, noted that such a decision would only “confirm the suspicions of Orthodox Israelis that the Conservative movement acts outside halachah.”
Opponents also warn that a decision to admit women to the rabbinate would hamper ongoing efforts to firmly establish the Conservative movement in Israel. They argue that many secularists who are now beginning to turn to Conservatism as an authentic Judaism with an attractive progressive style, would be extremely disillusioned were the Seminary to take this step.
Finally, it has been claimed that this decision would mark the first time that the Seminary, as the Conservative movement’s central academic institution, has entered the arena of halachic decision making. Many fear that such a move might alienate right-wing minorities within the movement by denying them the right to have their “commitment to conscience respected.” Opponents maintain that, while such individuals could, in the past, dissociate themselves from rulings of the RA Law Committee, they would be bound by a Seminary decision which could become the standard for the movement. As Professor Francus put it:
“There is a fundamental difference between action taken by the Law Committee and the Senate. When the Law Committee takes an action, there is an option open. Their ruling is not a reality until the congregations decide whether or not to adopt it. But, if the Seminary decides to ordain women, this is already a reality, in the minds of Conservative rabbis and congregants alike.” Francus explained that a Seminary decision to ordain women would “undermine” the position of traditionalist rabbis in relation to their own congregations.
One cannot understand the complexity and intensity of this debate without recognizing that much more than the women’s ordination issue is at stake. The arguments of supporters and opponents alike touch upon fundamental questions at the very core of Conservative Judaism.
The leadership of the Conservative movement has always striven to preserve traditional laws and practices in all areas of Jewish life. At the same time, interpreters of halachah within the Conservative movement recognize the need for development in Jewish history and are prepared to accept subtle changes in Jewish law over time.
Above all, the prolonged debate over women’s ordination exemplifies this characteristic Conservative attempt to strike a delicate balance between tradition and change. A person’s stand on this issue reflects the extent to which he or she is willing to seek modifications in the code of behavior prescribed by the Torah and Talmud, and amended in the Responsa, in response to changing social conditions.
In the opinion of Professor Seymour Siegel, “if any halachic norm results in some unethical outcome, then it is incumbent upon the interpreters of Jewish law to modify that law so that it is in conformity with fairness and ethics.” He maintains that Jewish law, particularly as it has been understood within the Conservative movement, must not become fossilized, but must continue to evolve in different periods of history.
“To tell women that you should and can participate in the Jewish educational enterprise as far as you want, except to this one area, is very hard to explain ethically,” Siegel contends. “The modification of halachah in order to approach a more perfect ethical state has always been a part of the tradition in its creative eras. It has not always been invoked because those who made the tradition were afraid.”
Opponents, on the other hand, have argued, now and in the past, that halachic changes can only be made with the utmost caution. In the case of a conflict between halachah and human ethics, they maintain that one must reexamine one’s ethics before attempting to challenge that which represents the word of God.
In the opinion of Professor Francus, “Equality is important and always has been, but I’m not obsessed with equality, because if we are going to change halachah or traditions whenever they conflict with current social ethics, this is tantamount to abolishing halachah. Unlike Reform, Conservative Judaism adheres to halachah.”
Clearly, the arguments advanced by individuals on both sides of the women’s ordination debate reflect their proponents’ personal conceptions of the Conservative movement, as it has been formulated in response to both Orthodoxy and Reform.
Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, Executive Director of the RA and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Jewish History at the Seminary, and other advocates of women’s ordination within both the Seminary and the RA, argue that nothing Conservative Jews will ever do will fully legitimate them in the eyes of their Orthodox colleagues; therefore, women’s ordination can hardly be regarded as the decisive issue. In particular, Kelman pointed out that, at the present time, Conservative rituals and documents are not recognized by the Orthodox establishment in Israel anyway. A Senate vote in favor of women’s ordination would, in his view, have little impact upon the Conservative movement’s position in Israel.
According to Kelman and others, at the heart of opponents’ concern regarding the possible reaction of Orthodox leaders to a Seminary decision in favor of women’s ordination is the fact that some members of both the Seminary faculty and the RA regard their movement as, in Kelman’s words, a “decorous wing of Orthodoxy.” That is, they identify with the traditionalist Orthodox community in every sense but the fact that they engage in “critical scholarship” of rabbinic texts at the Seminary, a manner of study and instruction which is generally frowned upon by Orthodox institutions. As Kelman summed up:
“That’s what it gets down to. It’s an identity. Are we a Conservative movement with our own ideology, which believes in tradition and change and all the other things that we say we do, or are we just a decorous wing of Orthodoxy?”
Many opponents, however, maintain that they are by no means Orthodox in their orientations. Israel Francus said that he considers himself a Conservative Jew. “I don’t condemn people because they observe less than I do,” he said. “[By the same token] they cannot label me Orthodox.”
What those who express concern about the Conservative movement’s increasing resemblance to Reform are really saying is that they do not want to appear to be yielding to popular pressures in making so momentous a decision. Said Professor Francus:
“I am sorry. We can’t go by the rank-and-file as leaders of Judaism. There is a good chance, if we do so, that we could do away with Kashrut and Shabbat. The members of the medical profession don’t go to the rank-and-file to make medical decisions. In my opinion, the rank-and-file is not now clamoring for women rabbis.”
Yet, many supporters and opponents of women’s ordination feel that public opinion on this issue must be taken most seriously by decision makers at the Seminary. Individuals on both sides of the debate repeatedly cite pop-ularist considerations.
The results of a survey of 14 selected congregations conducted over the past two years for the Commission by Yankelovich, Skelly and White, the highly respected market research firm, shed some light upon public sentiment with regard to the women’s ordination question. Dr. Cohen, addressing the Los Angeles convention, reported that, according to the survey, “in absolute numbers, a significant majority of the laity of the Conservative movement are ready and willing to accept an actively practicing female rabbi.”
The study does indicate, as well, that some Conservative congregants are sufficiently opposed to women’s ordination that they would leave their congregations if a woman rabbi was hired. (A more extensive public opinion survey has recently been undertaken by a group working with Dr. Charles Liebman, Visiting Professor of American Jewish History and Sociology of Religion at the Seminary, the results of which will be tabulated for the Senate’s review).
It seems clear, then, that the nation’s Conservative Jews are, for the most part, prepared to see women in the pulpit. As the Commission report states, “The overwhelming majority of those who chose to testify at these meetings (the public hearings) strongly favored the ordination of women.” Conservative congregations in which women have served in rabbinical or quasi-rabbinical capacities have expressed satisfaction with the results.
Opponents within the Seminary and the RA repeatedly point out that even the female graduates of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinical seminaries have generally not been hired by congregations as their senior rabbis, but rather as associate or assistant spiritual leaders.
Advocates of women’s ordination acknowledge that, initially, some congregants may be emotionally unprepared for the image of a woman in the pulpit. They maintain, however, that, as people become more accustomed to seeing women in rabbinic roles, they are much less likely to regard this as a radical departure from tradition, just as many more Conservative congregations have come to accept the greater participation of women in all aspects of the synagogue service.
Finally, supporters are convinced that a well-organized “educational” campaign conducted within Conservative congregations will go far to assure those who are still skeptical that this move does not constitute an arbitrary break with halachah, but rather has been arrived at by means of traditional interpretive methods.
Rabbi Wolfe Kelman sees the halachic barriers to women’s ordination, cited so often by opponents, as merely a “red herring,” since rabbis today are rarely required to serve as either witnesses or leaders in public worship.
Yet, individuals on both sides of the debate agree that it would be unfair to ordain women only to impose restrictions upon their performance of rabbinical duties. There is a general sense among supporters and opponents alike that the Commission report cleverly sidestepped this issue in its attempt to distinguish between “essential” and “nonessential” roles of the modern rabbi.
Judith Hauptman and Seymour Siegel are prepared to grapple with this problem. They feel that, halachically speaking, the correct procedure would be to firmly resolve the questions of edut (witnessing) and shatiach tzibur (representative of the congregation) prior to making a decision on ordination. This would ensure that the women who are ultimately ordained would be full-fledged rabbis.
Steps are already being taken toward this end. In 1974, a substantial minority of the RA Law Committee voted to enable women to serve as witnesses which, according to the Committee’s by-laws, makes this a legitimate option for Conservative Jews. Moreover, on March 2, 1979, the Law Committee took up discussion of a new takkanah (ordinance) that would obligate women equally with men in the performance of positive time-bound commandments. This tak-kanah is still under consideration by the Law Committee. The adoption of the proposed ruling would enable women to serve as leaders of public worship, since this is a prime example of a time-bound mitzvah from which women have traditionally been exempted (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7).
Both Hauptman and Siegel, however, indicated that they would discourage women rabbis from signing marriage, divorce and conversion documents on the occasions when they might be asked to do so. They make this recommendation only because the signature of what some Jews may regard as an invalid witness could have a harmful effect upon the particular individuals involved. For example, if a writ of divorce is declared invalid, the children of subsequent marriages could be branded illegitimate under Jewish law.
Several people have expressed the concern that, even if the Senate elected to ordain women but to circumscribe their functions in these areas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Seminary to enforce its ruling. Hauptman and Siegel expressed disbelief at opponents’ contentions that restrictions against women acting as witnesses could not be enforced.
“This whole thing that we can’t trust women or we can’t rely on them is ridiculous,” Hauptman said. “Since I know a lot of these women who want to become rabbis today, if it’s true that the Conservative movement doesn’t want them to be witnesses, I have full faith in them that they won’t be witnesses…. The Seminary has always trusted its men graduates.”
Thus, advocates of women’s ordination are convinced that the halachic problems related to ordination can be resolved. They argue that a Senate decision on this issue will not mark the first time that the Seminary has entered the arena of halachic decision-making. The Seminary, Seymour Siegel said, has already taken stands on this question by permitting egalitarian services in both its Mathilda Schecter Residence Hall and Camp Ramah, both operated under Seminary auspices.
Siegel concluded that, on the contrary, “The Seminary’s involvement will have a positive effect… because, till now, the bulk of the Conservative movement has seen the senior Talmud faculty as being irrelevant to the halachic issues as they are faced by the Conservative movement. This will be a way for the faculty to reenter the Conservative movement in a meaningful sense.”
The arguments for and against women’s ordination heard time and again in Seminary classrooms and offices, on crowded elevators and cafeteria lines, have about them an aura of reasonableness and rationality. Yet, one need only probe the surface to recognize that the women’s ordination issue has touched a sensitive nerve in the minds of supporters and opponents alike. Stripped of their legalistic language, the arguments are profoundly emotional and reflect their proponents’ reactions to their family backgrounds, educational training and social networks.
If one listens carefully to the arguments of those who oppose women’s ordination, it becomes readily apparent that much of what motivates them is fear—fear of the unfamiliar, of hasty change, of the disruption of well established patterns of worship and religious observance. For many people who are convinced that a Seminary decision to ordain women would constitute a serious threat to their conception of Conservative Judaism, this is a very painful debate.
Advocates of women’s ordination must struggle against not only the chronic insecurities and tensions which plague the Conservative movement, but also against a Zeitgeist which appears to be turning against them. The decline of political activism, and the concomitant revival of interest in religion and tradition, have placed new obstacles in the way of the feminist movement in general and the campaign for Jewish women’s equality in particular. Thus, Conservative rank-and-file support for women’s ordination, which had previously been overwhelming, has now diminished to a certain extent, although supporters remain in the majority.
Time and again, opponents of women’s ordination point to the fact that, in both the Jewish and secular worlds, there has been a marked shift to the right. Time and again, they insist that an affirmative vote by the Senate would run contrary to the spirit of the times.
“When the entire Jewish world is moving to the Right,” Israel Francus said, “should we move to the Left to satisfy the needs of a handful of women and their male supporters?”
Indicative of the role which this conservative mood plays in the debate over women’s ordination is the fact that opponents, such as Bruce Ginsburg, reassert the superiority of the traditional Jewish pattern of sex role differentiation over the more egalitarian model held out by secular society. He said:
“I believe there should be halachic change when there is an ethical imperative. What we have to determine is whether that ethical imperative is a Jewish ethical imperative or whether it’s stemming from some outside source The idea that there is no difference in function due to biology 16 a Western idea— Judaism stresses that difference of function is not only legitimate, but important and desirable, although every person can reach the same high level of spiritual achievement.”
Many opponents fear that the ordination of women, with its premise of sexual equality within Judaism, somehow, spells disaster for the survival of the Jewish family. They believe this despite their own contention that only a “handful of women” are involved.
Women have often been among the foremost proponents of the traditionalist position, arguing that women need not seek “absolute” equality with men in synagogue ritual in order to make valuable contributions to Jewish life. Miriam Klein Shapiro is a doctoral candidate in Bible at the Seminary and works at the Teacher’s Center of the Board of Jewish Education in White Plains, New York. In a recent article in Sh’mu she noted:
“If the movement should choose to ordain women, it will continue a trend which bothers me not only as a traditional Jew but also as a woman Men are telling us that to be truly equal a woman must do as the man does. This is the height of male chauvinism, and, unfortunately, too many women are buying it. I think that both the status of women and the quality of our religion can only suffer when there is no pride in women’s roles. If anything, we need these more than ever today.”
The new conservative mood has made its presence felt among members of the Seminary student body as well. One Rabbinical School student told this reporter that he was disturbed by the “hasty” manner in which changes had been instituted, especially in connection with women’s issues, in recent years. Such innovations, he maintained, have so altered the face of the movement that, were he to apply to Rabbinical School today, he might not have selected the Seminary.
This student was one of 22 others who signed a petition opposing women’s ordination “at the present time,” which was sent to Chancellor Cohen last February 12th. The signatories to this letter felt that an earlier student poll, cited in the Commission report, was not sufficiently representative of student opinion on the issue. Israel Francus said he has observed this trend within the student body.
“Women’s ordination is not inevitable and not the wave of the future,” he said. The wave of the future, of a large proportion of the young rabbis, is toward tradition, which they feel is more authentic.”
Yet, the “pro” forces within the student body have been the most vocal in making their position known. A number of Seminary students organized a Group for the Rabbinical Ordination of Women (GROW), which held its first meeting on February 29th. The group held a series of public forums over the following months that featured speakers on both sides of the debate in an attempt to educate the student body to the issues involved, and to organize them for political action.
It is not surprising that both supporters and opponents of women’s ordination are preoccupied with young Jews and the impact which a decision in either direction will have upon their Jewish identification. For, in the view of all concerned, the future of the Conservative movement lies with its youth.
Opponents, such as the three signatories to the Commission’s Minority Report, clearly feel that, “at a time when American Jewish youth seem to be turning more toward traditional values, and to an authentic halachic life style, this would seriously compromise the traditional image of the Conservative movement.”
Others, such as Rabbi Stephen Lerner, insist that, “there are a lot of people … on the fringes of the synagogue world for whom a rejection on this issue will disaffect them from the Conservative movement. It will confirm the rigidity of the movement in their minds.” He was referring, in particular, to what he termed an “egalitarian traditional” group of young Conservative Jews.
“In the long run,” he added, “we stand to gain a great deal from this decision, religiously, morally and practically in terms of numbers, though we may have some losses in the short run.”
Undoubtedly, much of the controversy over this issue is aggravated by difficulties inherent in the organizational structure of Conservative Judaism, which functions as an umbrella group within which individuals at both ends of the religious spectrum can ideally feel comfortable. Thus, issues of this magnitude, which call for a major policy statement, have always threatened to split the movement.
Long-standing frictions among the various arms of the Conservative movement have been accentuated by the current debate over women’s ordination. In particular, the problem of which group is to be recognized as the ultimate source of halachic authority has once again emerged in the tension between the RA Law Committee and the Seminary’s Talmud Department faculty.
While the Law Committee has passed several rulings in recent years designed to increase the participation of women in all aspects of Jewish ritual, the senior members of the Talmud faculty have consistently opposed such decisions and are currently the most prominent opponents of women’s ordination.
Within the RA itself, the simmering conflict between the organization’s top leadership and its rank-and-file has once again erupted over the women’s ordination question. To some extent, as has happened with other issues in the past, the women’s ordination question has been “victimized,” as one observer put it, by those involved in intra-RA struggles.
A number of RA members interpreted the adoption of the “no-action” resolution at the Los Angeles convention as a “vote of no confidence” in the generally liberal members of the RA “establishment” who, reportedly, made every effort to pass one of the more positively worded propositions.
Among those is Rabbi I. Usher Kirshblum, of the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills in Flushing, New York. Reacting to what he regards as widespread dissatisfaction among RA members with the manner in which the Law Committee and top RA executives have handled the women’s ordination issue and other major questions, Kirshblum has established a Committee for the Preservation of Tradition within the Rabbinical Assembly.
Kirshblum, who has challenged Wolfe Kel-man and other RA leaders on several issues in recent years, reported that his group, organized in 1975, now numbers over 150 members. Its purpose is to lobby on behalf of the traditionalist point of view among those sitting on the Seminary Senate. The group has recently sent a letter, stating its members’ beliefs, to all JTS faculty members. While he stressed his group’s commitment to traditional beliefs and practices, Kirshblum added:
“What I abhor is the lack of democracy that has been existing in the Rabbinical Assembly and this, as much as anything else, our Committee is starting to fight and rebel against. We will not be pushed around and be pawns in the hands of a few who have been running the RA.”
Kirshblum has predicted that there may eventually be a split within the RA over the question of women’s ordination. Comparing his group to that of the Reconstructionists, who before the creation of their own movement, remained within the RA for some time after the group’s founding, he speculated that traditionalists might continue to be RA members, but could establish their own Law and Placement Committees. “I will not walk out on the RA,” he said, “but I shall continue my battle and raise my voice. What may happen will be that there will be a movement within the movement.”
While Kirshblum and other opponents of women’s ordination within the RA have received much public attention in recent months, a nation-wide RA survey, taken two years ago by Rabbi Morton Waldman of the Queens RA Region, indicated that a clear majority of RA members supported women’s ordination. Furthermore, according to Wolfe Kelman, a “Proclamation of Support” for women’s ordination, which was circulated by a group of RA members among the delegates to the Los Angeles convention, and presented to Dr. Cohen, demonstrated that an “overwhelming” majority of those present endorsed the Commission’s recommendations.
Kelman is convinced that an intra-RA split, as envisioned by Kirshblum, is highly unlikely. He recalled that, in years past, other equally explosive debates involving observance of the second day of the three “pilgrimage festivals,” cooperation with the Reform movement in Israel, annulment of marriages and counting women in the m’myan produced alignments of individuals for and against nearly identical to those which have emerged in the debate over women’s ordination.
“Halachically speaking,” he said, “counting women in a minyan is more serious (than women’s ordination). Not one member of the RA resigned. As a matter of fact, it is to me most fascinating that in the 29 years I’ve been here, at least 200 Reform and Orthodox rabbis, and probably more, have joined the RA. I cannot think of five RA members who left to join the Rabbinical Council of America or the Central Conference of American Rabbis,” the Orthodox and Reform rabbinical organizations, respectively.
While supporters of women’s ordination are sensitive to the fact that some members of the movement would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with a Senate decision to ordain women, they maintain that the legitimacy of traditionalist opinion would be no more threatened than previously. Individual congregations, they argue, could elect to have a female rabbi or not to do so, just as they have had options with regard to Law Committee decisions in the past. Chancellor Cohen reassured members of the movement’s right wing in his address before the Los Angeles convention:
“We reaffirm the legitimacy of a right and a left in our own movement.. . . We are determined to respect and to cherish those who find established usage viable, and to indicate that established usage and new usage, provided they are both halachically grounded, are equally legitimate…. We are opening the doors to new sources of strength for us and for the whole House of Israel. . . .”
In recent weeks, the Seminary atmosphere has grown increasingly tense as supporters and opponents step up their lobbying efforts. While heated discussions are undoubtedly being carried on behind the scenes, the Seminary administration appears to be making a concerted effort to keep these exchanges out of the. public eye.
Lilith was unable to obtain an interview with Chancellor Cohen, despite several attempts to do so, because, according to the Seminary Press Office, it is felt that a public airing of the debate at this time would only aggravate the situation. As Cohen warned in his April 27th letter, “public debate” on this controversial issue “could only be divisive.” Similarly, some faculty members, all opponents of women’s ordination, declined to be interviewed, because they felt that it was best to keep things as “calm” as possible.
Although, at this point, no one is willing to predict the outcome, sources within the faculty have speculated as to the possible consequences of a vote in either direction. If the decision is in the affirmative, applications from female candidates would be processed as soon as possible, so as to allow them to enter the Rabbinical School in September, 1980.
While a significant number of faculty members would probably voice their protest against an affirmative Senate decision, the general sense among proponents is that these professors are not likely to either resign or leave the movement. They point out that equally stormy debates in the past gave rise to threats of resignation, none of which were carried out. As Wolfe Kelman observed:
“Nobody is going to leave. … I think that’s the genius of the Conservative movement— that we have learned to live together even with irreconcilable differences. … In all these years that I’ve been here, there have been many turbulent debates. But turbulence is the sign of a lively organization.”
However, Francus said, “I think that the question [of opponents leaving] is irrelevant because I think that good sense will prevail, that. this will not happen, that the Seminary at this time will not vote for the ordination of women.”
Asked how she felt female rabbinical students would be received by instructors who are now opposed to women’s ordination, Judith Hauptman replied, “For the past five years, Rabbinical School classes have been open to every student at the Seminary. There has yet to be a single faculty member in any department who refuses to admit women to his class. If this decision is made to ordain women rabbis, and if they [opponents within the faculty! remain here, as I believe they will do, there won’t be any revenge. I don’t think at that point they would turn around and say, ‘I won’t teach women.'”
If the Senate elects not to accept the Commission’s recommendations, it is reasonable to assume that the RA would take independent action. For one thing, the RA could open its membership to female graduates of other rabbinical seminaries, a step provided for by the RA constitution, which was made sexless a few years ago. In addition, individual RA members may, in time, agree to privately ordain qualified women candidates, something which has already been accepted in principle by a number of rabbis.
In his address before the delegates to the Los Angeles convention, Gerson Cohen said, “It is my firm belief that we have the capacity to make this decision into the beginning of a new dedication and vitalization of the Conservative movement as a dynamic and self-confident force for Torah and Jewish values. It will require the seriousness, effort and dedication of each and every one of us.”
A great many committed Conservative Jews are observing the Seminary debate in the hope that the faculty members will take up that challenge. Sarah Lieberman, the Framingham, Massachusetts woman who addressed the New York hearings last November, is one of them.
As she spoke before the Commission, she was no doubt thinking of young Jewish girls in the school of which she is principal, or in the congregation of which her husband is the rabbi. Responding to her own question, she said:
“A woman (rabbi) can engage in scholarly pursuits, counsel couples and families, lead in study and prayer and visit hospitals and homes of bereavement. On a lighter note, she can certainly announce pages, lead in responsive readings, attend endless meetings and deliver invocations at shopping center dedications.
“But, above all, like her male counterpart, she can be a role model, exemplary in moral and religious conduct which, together with learning, is the basic requirement of clergy.”
Reena Sigman Friedman is News Editor of LILITH, and is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in various Jewish newspapers and magazines. She is also a doctoral candidate in American Jewish History at Columbia University.
All quotes in this article, unless otherwise indicated, derive from interviews conducted by the author over several months in the Spring 1979. Excerpts from testimony at Commission hearings around the country were selected from transcripts of these hearings, researched by Eddi Wolk. Reporter for the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Los Angeles was Hope Chaikin Kosh. Excerpts of this article appeared in the May 1979 issue of Israel Horizons.