by Amy Stone
For the past four years, ever since she was a freshman at Berkeley, Sandy Levine has been attempting to apply to the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Although the Seminary’s catalogue does not specify “men only,” she was informed that “the present policy of the Rabbinical School is to admit only male candidates” and advised to apply to one of the Seminary’s other graduate programs.
Since then, she has been trying to pin down the reasons behind the Seminary’s refusal to ordain women rabbis. Chancellor Gerson Cohen wrote to her of his “personal anguish” at the many letters from “talented and committed young Jewish women who feel that they have been deprived of the right to fulfill themselves fully as Jews because of the Seminary’s current policy against the ordination of women.” Sandy Levine’s response was to wonder just how many other women share her frustration at not being able to enter the Conservative rabbinate.
She herself had wanted to become a rabbi ever since she was a rabbi for her junior congregation. As a youngster, the family’s Conservative synagogue was her home away from home, and it was perfectly normal for women in the congregation to wear tallises and read from the Torah.
It wasn’t until much later that Sandy Levine found out that this upstate New York synagogue was unusual among Conservative congregations. And it was not until she attempted to apply to the Seminary’s Rabbinical School that she found out that it was impossible for her to become a rabbinical student.
Ironically, as the Seminary’s Rabbinical School continues to turn away women attempting to apply, it has simultaneously mounted a full-scale recruitment effort for suitable male students. Since the Seminary has a monopoly on the ordination of Conservative rabbis, and since more than 100 Conservative synagogues are in need of rabbis, the 20 or so students ordained each year only partially fill the need.
Sandy Levine and other Conservative women seeking to become rabbis have grounds for concern. Not only is the Jewish Theological Seminary the only place they can be ordained as Conservative rabbis, but, beyond that, the Seminary is not just the academic arm of Conservative Judaism. In its own estimation and that of others, it is “the fountainhead of Conservative Judaism.”
Compared with the other institutions of Conservative Judaism—the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the international organization of Conservative rabbis, and the United Synagogue of America, the congregational organization —the Seminary has the seniority and the prestige. The Seminary is sheltered from pressure from the other two institutions thanks to the gentlemen’s agreement that one body of Conservative Judaism does not make decisions affecting another. Within the Seminary, the gentlemen making policy decisions have their own agreements, and there is definite agreement that now is not the time to allow women to become rabbinical students at the Seminary.
Although critics see “a tremendous gap between the Seminary and the rest of the world” and even some within the Seminary find it “a very unsupportive place,” these same people feel it is the outstanding institution for the study of Jewish texts and that it is unfair to women who want to become rabbis not to have the opportunity to be ordained at the Seminary.
Those at “the fountainhead of Conservative Judaism,” the faculty members, fear such a move’s effect on the community. By community they mean the Seminary, Conservative Jews, and, by extension, all of Judaism since Conservative Jews are the largest group in America, claiming 51 percent of all affiliated Jews, with some 1.5 million congregants in 830 synagogues (as compared to 1.1 million Reform congregants in 720 synagogues at last count).
There’s the carefully maintained fabric of the Seminary community—the distinguished scholars along with the rest of the faculty, administration, and, to a lesser degree, the students enrolled in the various schools of the Seminary (the undergraduate Seminary College of Jewish Studies-Teachers Institute, the Cantors Institute-Seminary College of Jewish Music, the Rabbinical School, and the Graduate School). Including the Seminary’s University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the Jerusalem Center, the Jewish Theological Seminary has 150 faculty members and some 900 students.
Change does take place at the fountainhead, but only in a manner which the Seminary leadership considers appropriate, and any bending to outside agitation is considered distinctly inappropriate.
The symbol of the Seminary is not its great iron gates, which have long opened for both men and women, but the Seminary synagogue. It is sublimely reactionary, with its separate seating for men and women and its refusal to allow women to read from the Torah during services or count in the minyan needed for communal prayer, despite the decision by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that it was permissible for women to do both.
Women’s struggles to enter the Seminary started with Henrietta Szold back in 1903. In order to attend classes, Szold had to obtain permission from every member of the Seminary board. Although the gentlemen allowed her to study, they had their doubts. As board member Mayer Sulzberger wrote Szold: “A leisurely stroll in the open air of about two hours a day…. might have uses… more beneficial than rabbinics.”
The Seminary now allows women to obtain all degrees except those of rabbi and cantor. The last great debate on the question of ordaining women at the Seminary took place in January and February, 1973. Gerson Cohen had recently become Chancellor and wanted to be “guided” by the Rabbinical Department faculty on the issue of women applicants for ordination. Among the women attempting to apply was Susannah Heschel, daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, distinguished theologian and Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Seminary for 27 years. The consensus was “very obviously against admitting women to ordination at this time,” according to Rabbi David Kogen, Chairman of the Department of Practical Rabbinics and Director of the Cantors Institute-Seminary College of Jewish Music. Kogen said, “I doubt very much if it will come up for a full-dress debate in the very near future. There have been few changes in the line-up of opinion.”
Women applicants such as Sandy Levine trying to understand the reasoning behind the decision are told by the Rabbinical Department Director of Admissions, Baruch Feldstern: “I am sure that you are aware of the tension between tradition and change which constitutes one of the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism.”
It is not surprising that the reasons for not ordaining women remain elusive since the only overall grounds for agreement among the mostly male faculty is that Jewish history is long and the Seminary should not rush into such a decision. The aversion to women becoming rabbis is justified on various halachic, sociological, psychological and political grounds.
Not even those opposed to admitting women rabbinical students agree that Jewish law is the major barrier. According to the Chairman of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics, David Weiss Halivni, who presented the paper opposing the ordination of women in the 1973 debate, “The only real halachic problems would be marriage and divorce, since women cannot be witnesses in ritual matters.” Although Halivni comes from a European Orthodox background, was ordained at a Rumanian yeshiva, and is against the idea of women rabbis, he is ready to play with the idea, mentioning the Talmudic precedents for women putting on tefillin. (He considers the halachic grounds for women not becoming cantors much more clear-cut, specifically that anyone not obligated to fulfill time-bound commandments cannot be the shaliach tzibur, the representative of the community reading from the actual Torah scrolls.)
Rabbi Kogen described grappling with the problem of women who want ordination as akin to the challenge of the Yiddish expression “The lamb should be safe while the wolf is well-fed.” In fact, Kogen suggested that one possible compromise would be the creation of different degrees of ordination, so that a woman would be allowed to preach and teach as a rabbi but not have the full degree of rabbi. Though with the full title of rabbi available to women through Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, Kogen doubted that women would want the lesser degree from Conservative Judaism.
“I want as much as possible for women to have equal rights,” Kogen said. “They ought to be treated like human beings. But I don’t want to rip apart the Jewish people. We’re a small enough people as it is.”
For many at the Seminary, it’s a case of concern over what Orthodox Jews will think, and that they will discount Conservative ritual acts performed by a woman.
The response to these arguments from Instructor in Talmud Judith Hauptman, the first woman to teach Talmud at the Seminary, is that “These laws today are unfair. Change them, or have two other witnesses at weddings in addition to the woman rabbi. ‘Rabbi’ means teacher, that the person has attained a certain level of education.”
In fact, a rabbi is, strictly speaking, a teacher, and even the role of arbiter is not inherent. At weddings, the rabbi’s responsibility under Jewish law is to be sure that everything is done properly and that the two witnesses are kosher. The rabbi’s role in divorce is as a member of a rabbinical court granting the divorce, and under Jewish law a woman cannot be a judge or witness.
One of the faculty members considered an important ally in efforts to admit women rabbinical students is Seymour Siegel, Professor of Theology and Ethics and Chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Siegel sees no halachic reason barring women from the rabbinate: “Personally,” —and he emphasized the “personally”—”I am in favor of ordaining women. If we keep preaching all the time that a rabbi is not a recipient of special gifts from heaven, doesn’t dispense sacraments, is the teacher of the community, its leader, has no special ritual status, it seems clear to me that a woman can fulfill these functions in the same way that men do.” Siegel presented the 1973 paper in favor of admitting women rabbinical students and is spending his sabbatical at the Kennedy Institute for Bioethics concerned with the Jewish view on bioethical questions.
The oral tradition has it that distinguished faculty members would resign if the Seminary started ordaining women. The men most often mentioned in this connection are Saul Lieberman, the Seminary’s most distinguished Talmud scholar, Rector of the Rabbinical School and rabbi of the Seminary synagogue; and Louis Finkelstein, President of the Seminary for 32 years, Chancellor before Gerson Cohen, and now Chancellor Emeritus. Lieberman said he did not wish to discuss the issue, and Finkelstein’s assistant told this reporter that he was too busy with his research for interviews.
But faculty members attuned to the subtle process of change at the Seminary doubt that any major change would occur in a manner causing leading faculty members to resign. One scholar, who preferred not to be named, feels that the last male bastion was broken when a woman entered Lieberman’s Talmud class. The breakthrough was quietly negotiated by Judith Hauptman, the first woman in the Seminary’s master’s program in Talmud, who was, in the words of this source, “so bright, Lieberman couldn’t turn her down.”
The second major breakthrough came with Chancellor Cohen’s uncluttering of the Seminary’s course offerings so that all overlapping courses in different departments were eliminated by the 1974-75 academic year. Seminary students were allowed to take any course in any department at their appropriate academic level. One major byproduct was that every course in the Seminary was open to women, Hauptman wonders, “How would women rabbinical students change the faculty members’ lives? They’re already teaching women. So these faculty members wouldn’t come to their ordination. How else would it affect the Seminary?”
Apparently, most of the faculty feel such a change would be bad for the Seminary since it is not just a few elderly and powerful faculty members who oppose admitting women as rabbinical students. It is the majority of the Seminary faculty, young, old, male—and female, with the Bible and Talmud department the most conservative-with-a-small-“c.” Some see the Seminary’s growing number of American-born faculty members as more open to change than their older, European-born colleagues.
Professor Robert Gordis, a noted Biblical scholar, Seminary gadfly, and one of the few faculty members who has written in favor of women rabbis, disagrees: “Very often, the young faculty members are more right-wing than the older faculty.”
Gordon Tucker is a 25-year-old Instructor in Philosophies of Judaism and Assistant to the Chancellor. He was ordained by the Seminary two years ago and is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Membership Committee. On the wall of his office is a dart board. On his desk is a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Tucker speaks of “the psychological dimension of the father figure” and says, “If present sociological conditions make a woman rabbi ‘peculiar’ to most people on a subconscious level, if society is repelled by a matter of form, this gets in the way of fostering spiritual growth. I think it’s unfortunate, but I feel a certain responsibility to something more than my own proclivities. The best of all possible worlds right now would be to have women admitted to the Rabbinical School but not ordained.”
Tucker seems to have absorbed the wisdom of the Seminary’s Chairman of the Department of Pastoral Psychiatry, Mortimer Ostow. Speaking on “Women and Change in Jewish Law” three years ago at the Rabbinical Assembly Pastoral Psychiatry Conference, Ostow said, “Among the men who will oppose the presence of women on the bimah will be many who fear that a menstruating woman will contaminate them and the sacred objects on the bimah, especially the Torah. Others… will be awed and humiliated by the woman whose competence in religious matters clearly exceeds their own. While such men will not be challenged directly in a sexual encounter with these dangerous and powerful women, their self-esteem within the community in which they live will be shaken, as will their confidence in their own vitality. And so an important prop to their mental stability will be removed.”
Gordis sees in the JTS policy of excluding women rabbinical students “some degree of male chauvinism and the general feeling that women’s roles is not to be in the forefront, that second-rate status for women is good for the Jews and good for the world. Ultimately there is going to be a shift in climate. It’s part of a moving glacier.” Gordis has the perspective of time on the Seminary scene. Besides holding two chairs as Professor of Bible and Philosophies of Religion, he is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and was President of the Rabbinical Assembly in the 1940’s.
Many of the women in the Seminary faculty and administration agree with the men opposed to ordaining women, and those who favor women rabbis keep a low profile. Among the women who find the idea of women rabbis unacceptable is the first woman hired by the Cantors Institute-Seminary College of Jewish Music 23 years ago, Professor Johanna Spector. Spector, who heads the Department of Ethnomusicology and was the first person to put Jewish musicology on the map, said, “I was brought up in a man’s world, and I really think like a man in many respects. I doubt that I would accept a woman rabbi in my congregation. It has nothing to do with the talent of the woman. Women throughout history in all religions have played a very inferior role.”
Even those not opposed are cautious. Sylvia Ettenberg, the first woman registrar at the Seminary College 30 years ago, organizer of the first Ramah camps, and current Dean of Educational Development, feels, “There has to be a climate of acceptance for the Rabbinical School to accept women. I’m not ready to lead a crusade.” As for her own career, she said, “I was fairly comfortable here as a woman. I never felt mistreated as a woman. Probably that was because I was not in the Rabbinical Department.”
Judith Hauptman advises women to enter the Seminary as graduate students, then, on their own, complete all the courses required for ordination—the Master of Arts in rabbinics, which takes rabbinical students one to three years to complete, followed by the Graduate Rabbinical School program for ordination, which takes an additional three years. A woman will then be able to “step forward with her transcript in 10 to 15 years when a majority of the faculty agrees to ordain women. She just can’t have a pulpit now,” Hauptman said. She is afraid that if women interested in entering the Rabbinical School “sit around waiting 10 to 15 years, they won’t come back when it’s okay for women to be rabbis.”
Other faculty members in favor of women rabbis believe that the direct approach of women attempting to apply to the Rabbinical School simply by writing for applications is no way to create a test case. They suggest that a well-qualified applicant would do well to get as many faculty members and prominent rabbis as possible to sponsor her and to accompany the application with some well-timed publicity in Jewish newspapers. Both Professors Siegel and Gordis say they are willing to sponsor a woman candidate if she is qualified in all other ways, although Siegel said, “Knowing the make-up of the faculty at this time, she couldn’t make it.”
But even those men and women faculty members most in favor of ordaining rabbis do not want to push for change. For one thing, with a majority of the faculty so solidly opposed, it would be political folly. The one person in a position to lead such a move is the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ger-son Cohen. A scholar in the field of Jewish history, Cohen is seen by many faculty members as a religious liberal who’s become increasingly conservative in office.
Shortly before he became Chancellor in 1972, Cohen told The New York Times, “I, for one, would urge serious consideration if a woman applies (to the Rabbinical Department) who has qualified academically, characterologically and religiously, and I would urge the faculty and my colleagues in the Rabbinical Assembly to consider it.”
The next year as Chancellor, Cohen wrote in Women’s League Outlook: “… anyone who has considered the matter dispassionately will concede that admitting her (an applicant) to candidacy for ordination at this time (Cohen’s italics) would hardly reflect the consensus of the Conservative Movement, whether of its laity or its professional leadership…” And in words akin to Mortimer Ostow’s thinking, the Chancellor concluded: “Will the ordaining of women be a step toward deepening and strengthening religious commitment, or will it be a concession to the current wave of sexual homogenization [in popular terms, unisex; in plain English, homosexualization] that seems to have invaded every corner of contemporary life?”
The Chancellor’s current position on the Seminary’s ordaining women is: “For the present and foreseeable future, no.”
In fact, when recently reminded at an informal meeting of rabbinical students that a few years ago he had said that he thought women would be admitted to the Rabbinical School in a few years, the Chancellor answered that women will not be admitted during his lifetime. As if to emphasize his current stand, at an informal meeting with Seminary graduate students, Cohen said that admitting women rabbinical students would cost the Seminary $2 million.
When interviewed, at the mention of the statement by the Rabbinical School Director of Admissions about “the tension between tradition and change,” the Chancellor flew into a rage, saying, “I’m not committed to any change whatsoever. I’m committed to exegetical development.” In fact, for members of the Seminary faculty and administration, any tension between tradition and change is experienced with exquisite sensibilities. Even the subtlest change registers as an earthquake on the Seminary Richter scale.
The fact that women were allowed to have their own parade of Torahs and read from the Torah in their own minyan at the Seminary synagogue last Simchat Torah is considered a revolution, even though it is entirely acceptable under Jewish law. The fact that, since January, student services in the Mathilde Schechter dorm allow women to read from the Torah although they are still not allowed to count in the minyan or lead the service is viewed as a daring development for the Seminary.
To women such as Sandy Levine who are seeking to enter the Rabbinical School, the Chancellor is a frustrating enigma. Another woman who attempted to apply to the Rabbinical School shortly before the 1973 great debate feels that she was “led on” by Cohen, who encouraged her to try applying. Her preliminary application was eventually rejected with the explanation that her Talmud background was weak. She considered this a ploy since, she said, “A man with an equally weak background would be accepted. The Rabbinical School has a very strong mechinah (preparatory) program, an intensive, tough one-year program where they take people who can’t put two words of Hebrew together and push them through 25 pages of Talmud.” In fact, one rabbinical student estimated that a quarter of his class had been through the mechinah program.
People close to the scene feel that the Chancellor is playing politics. In the words of one faculty member, “Cohen’s feeling that it’s not judicious at this time means that more faculty members would be displeased than pleased if women were ordained. He’s not willing to be a leader.”
The debate over whether to admit women rabbinical students may finally be spreading to the Seminary’s own board of directors. While most of the board members are elderly, genteel and not about to start a revolution, the board’s only woman, Peggy Tishman, feels the policy of not ordaining women is “totally wrong, archaic, anachronistic and—unfortunate.” Tishman is a woman highly respected for her work as director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds and cabinet member of the UJA-New York Federation Combined Campaign, of which she is past chairman. She is married to Alan V. Tishman of Tishman Realty.
Tishman, now in her third year on the Seminary board, said, “I don’t consider myself a feminist. I consider myself a civil libertarian. It just doesn’t make sense to exclude women. I get the funny feeling that Gerson Cohen feels exactly the same way. Maybe he just doesn’t know how to get started.” At least one other board member, Laurence Tisch, chairman of the Loew’s theater and hotel corporate empire, favors admitting women rabbinical students and wants the board to discuss the issue.
Meanwhile, as if to counter Peggy Tishman’s optimism concerning change, it was reported that Cohen had seriously considered presenting a personal resolution at this year’s Rabbinical Assembly convention which would have forbidden Rabbinical Assembly membership to anyone not qualifying for admission to the Seminary Rabbinical School, i.e. women.
The debate over whether to allow women to become Conservative rabbis is becoming increasingly intense within the Rabbinical Assembly. And although at least in theory one arm of the Conservative movement does not tell the others what to do, as one Seminary faculty member said, “There is always a tug and pull between the RA and the Seminary” and as Professor Gordis put it, “It would be a bit of an embarrassment to the Seminary if the RA votes for women.”
Back in 1975, Rabbi Mordecai Wax-man said in his presidential address opening the Rabbinical Assembly Convention that “the question of entry of women into the Conservative rabbinate is not a question of whether, but when.”
Even without an actual female candidate, the issue of women rabbis has already touched off additional conflicts. There is resentment at the breaking of the gentlemen’s agreement that one arm of Conservative Judaism does not bring up resolutions affecting another, and there is outrage at the possibility of private ordination of a woman rabbi.
In May, at this year’s Rabbinical Assembly annual convention, a resolution encouraging the Seminary to admit women to the Rabbinical School plus directing the Rabbinical Assembly’s Membership Committee to consider qualified candidates regardless of sex was finally tabled after lengthy debate. As a compromise at a midnight session, the convention established a commission to study all aspects of the role of women as spiritual leaders in the Conservative movement. Chancellor Cohen agreed to form the study group and accept the findings “only if all activity is suspended for two years, so our faculty will not be exploded.”
(One indicator of how the Seminary’s rabbinical students now feel, is that just before the Rabbinical Assembly convention, 43 of the 103 rabbinical students signed a petition in favor of the resolution to admit women to Rabbinical Assembly membership and the Seminary rabbinical school. The petition was presented to the Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue.)
Meanwhile, adding to the complexity of the debate, Wolfe Kelman, the Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly and a member of the Seminary faculty, has agreed to be one of three rabbis privately ordaining a woman who is currently pursuing rabbinical studies with a Conservative rabbi.
As if the specter of rabbis being ordained outside the Seminary walls weren’t enough, this woman, Lynn Gottlieb, hardly fits the image of the sedately conservative Conservative rabbi. Besides serving as rabbi for the deaf and creating her own Jewish liturgical sign language, Gottlieb is founder and dancer in what is probably the only Jewish feminist dance group, Bat Kol. She has studied in Israel at the Hebrew University and at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and is now studying at the Seminary. Gottlieb says, “People personally involved in the issue, like myself, have to have courage. It’s a case of the disenfranchised, powerless group having to depend on the people in power.”
While opinion within the Rabbinical Assembly varies on whether to admit a woman rabbi, the idea of Conservative rabbis independently ordaining new rabbis—male or female—is disapproved of almost unanimously. Seminary and Rabbinical Assembly members are furious. Former President of the Rabbinical Assembly Waxman feels, “Kelman in his official position should not be doing this. He has no right to commit the RA to this.”
Even Kelman says, “Lynn would have made life a lot easier if she’d been ordained by HUC (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordains Reform rabbis). A lot of people feel private ordination is wrong, including myself. The question is, shall we make an exception.”
In any case, one result of Chancellor Cohen’s cutting off “all activity” concerning women rabbis during the next two years while his commission studies the issue, is that Lynn Gottlieb cannot be ordained for two years.
While there is a tremendous spread of opinion among the 1,000 members of the Rabbinical Assembly—the majority of whom have been ordained at the Seminary but some of whom come from Orthodox yeshivas and the Reform rabbinical school —the current best bet is that the Rabbinical Assembly will admit women before the Seminary Rabbinical School does. A recent questionnaire sent to all members by the Queens, New York region of the Rabbinical Assembly indicated that 53 percent favored admitting women to the Rabbinical Assembly. This was based on an unusually large response of 570 from an international mailing of 1,000 questionnaires.
Obviously no real test can take place till a woman rabbi applies to the Rabbinical Assembly. So far none of the handful of Reconstructionist or Reform women rabbis have been interested, but at least two of the women turned down by the Seminary Rabbinical School and now studying to become Reform rabbis are interested in applying for membership in the Rabbinical Assembly. This would still put the first test case four years away since these women have two more years of study before they are ordained, and the Rabbinical Assembly requires two years of pulpit service or other work by ordained rabbis before they can apply for Rabbinical Assembly membership. (Currently, rabbis ordained by the Seminary automatically become associate members of the Rabbinical Assembly, but as of next year, associate membership will be dropped and Seminary graduates will also have to serve as rabbis for two years before applying.)
Women trying to bring community pressure to bear on the Seminary know they can’t expect any support from the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the organization of the Conservative movement’s sisterhoods. Since the League raises a major part of the Seminary budget—$1.2 million of the current $6.5 million budget—women seeking ways of opening up the Rabbinical School would like to see the Women’s League withhold its financial support until the Seminary agrees to ordain women.
In fact, the leadership of the Women’s League would not consider such a thing. In the words of Ruth Perry, National President of Women’s League, “Our people don’t support the Seminary conditionally. They recognize that the Seminary contains greater minds than theirs. They recognize the Seminary as the fountainhead of the Conservative movement. We rely on their judgment concerning the ordination of women. We’re not scholars. Out goal is to educate the Jewish woman in perpetuating Judaism.”
Somewhere out there, beyond the Jewish Theological Seminary and its support groups, are the one-and-a-half million Conservative congregants, who so far have shown minimal concern over the question of women rabbis. Nevertheless, the women congregants were undoubtedly among those responding to Redbook’s Survey on Women’s Attitudes Toward Religion. Among the findings published in the April 1977 issue was the fact that 86 percent of Jewish women supported the ordination of women.
Back in 1973, the congregations’ organization, the United Synagogue of America, issued the strongest statement for equal religious participation yet to be made by any arm of the Conservative movement. This included the resolution that “the United Synagogue of America… looks with favor on the admission of qualified women to the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.”
The response of Seminary faculty and administration has been simply to dismiss the resolution as violating the gentlemen’s agreement not to encroach on each other’s territory or, as Chancellor Cohen has done, to dismiss the statement as “a passing fad.” Women’s League President Ruth Perry considers the resolution “the quietest thing ever done. Not even half the Conservative Jews know about it.”
While the men who make Seminary policy continue to debate the appropriateness of women rabbis, the women and men who are part of the Conservative movement might do well to start raising the issue of a woman rabbi in their own congregation. As one Seminary scholar put it, “If there were a hue and cry from dozens of congregations for women rabbis, the Seminary Rabbinical School would find a way to admit women.”
In fact, many congregations have not yet even accepted the 1973 decision of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that permits women to be counted in the minyan or its 1955 decision allowing women to be called to the Torah for an aliyah on an equal basis with men. According to the Rabbinical Assembly survey, while 62 percent of the rabbis favor calling women to the Torah equally with men, only 36.7 percent of the congregations give equal aliyot to women. And although 56.3 percent of the rabbis said they favor counting women in the minyan, only 39 percent of the congregations count women.
In major Conservative congregations such as Rabbi Sol Landau’s Beth David Congregation in Miami and Rabbi Waxman’s synagogue, Temple Israel of Great Neck, Long Island, the vote to extend these equal rites to women followed two years of education and discussion.
When all other arguments fail, those opposed to ordaining women argue that not even the Reform or Reconstructionist congregations are eager for women rabbis. Only one of the three Reconstructionist women rabbis and two of the three Reform women rabbis have pulpits. Women who are Reform student rabbis have run into resistance in placement. As a result, the rabbinical and congregational arms of the Reform movement have set up task forces to see that Reform Judaism’s principle of sexual equality is also practiced. In fact, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Reform Judaism’s congregational organization, estimates that by 1979, one-third of all newly ordained Reform rabbis will be women. Among them will be women who would have been ordained as Conservative rabbis if their applications had not been rejected by the Seminary.
Sandy Levine is one of these women. She is turning down acceptance as a graduate student at the Seminary in favor of training at the Reform rabbinical school, though she is still determined to become a Conservative rabbi. In fact, she hopes that others concerned about opening the Seminary Rabbinical School to women will write to her at the Berkeley Jewish Women’s Alliance, 1644 Oxford St., #10, Berkeley, CA 94709. “There’s no reason I can’t keep battling from outside, applying to the Seminary every year,” she said. “I still want to fight to let women have the option of being ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“My heart is set on the Conservative movement because I’m a Conservative Jew,” she continued. “This movement has molded and shaped me into wanting to be a rabbi and this same movement is closing the door to me.”
Amy Stone is senior Editor of Lilith.