How the Struggle to Be Rabbis Began

Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985
by Pamela S. Nadell
Beacon Press, $27.50 

From 1977 to 1978 I served on the Commission for the Study of Women in the Rabbinate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, formed to examine the issue of whether women should be ordained as rabbis in the Conservative movement. Throughout that year, the commission deliberated such questions as: “Are there halachic [Jewish legal] barriers that would prevent women from becoming rabbis?” “Will the community regard women’s ordination as a dangerous break with tradition?” “Should women have the same roles as men in religious life?”

We knew that the Reform movement had been ordaining women as rabbis for some time. But because that movement does not consider itself bound by Jewish law, we viewed our investigation as a first. Had anyone told us, in fact, that for almost a century other Jewish communities had repeatedly grappled with the same questions as we, our commission would have been shocked. Those of us committed to seeing women become rabbis might also have found important precedents and support for our position in those earlier conflicts.

In her lucid and engrossing book, Women Who Would Be Rabbis, Pamela Nadell gives us that necessary background to women’s struggles to be ordained as rabbis. With authoritative research and sometimes heart-breaking examples, she show show women who wanted to be rabbis raised the same arguments again and again, often unaware of those who preceded them. Only when enough women joined forces to sustain and strengthen one another did they succeed in their cause. And only then were they able to build on past history, not reinvent it.

Back in 1889, a journalist named Mary M. Cohen, writing in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, posed the theoretical question; “Could not our women be ministers?” During the decades that followed, individual women strove to answer that question affirmatively. There was Ray Frank, known as the “girl rabbi of the golden west,” who in the 1890s preached from Reform synagogue pulpits in the American West. But though she studied at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and maintained that women should be able to hold any position they wanted in Jewish life, including that of rabbi, she never sought formal ordination.

There was Martha Neumark, who did seek, but failed to achieve, a Reform rabbinical degree. As a student at Hebrew Union College in 1920, she asked to be assigned a High Holiday pulpit. Her request set off an intensive two-year debate on women’s ordination throughout the Reform movement. Those opposed argued, as they would for years to come, that ordaining women would cause a major schism in the Jewish world. Proponents held, as they would continue to, that women educated equally with men deserved the equal honor of ordination. In the end, although many faculty and alumni supported Miss Neumark, the school’s Board of Governors decreed that ordination must remain limited to males only. Half a century would pass before they would reverse that decree.

Perhaps the most poignant life story was that of Helen Levinthal, daughter of renowned Conservative rabbi Israel Levinthal. In 1939 she completed the entire rabbinical curriculum at the Jewish Institute of Religion, a liberal rabbinical school that would later merge with Hebrew Union College. But the faculty refused to ordain a woman, and she graduated with only a Master of Hebrew Literature degree. Thirty-three years later, with the Reform movement about to ordain its first female rabbi, Helen Levinthal requested that she now be granted her rabbinical degree. Sadly, and mysteriously, her academic record at JIR could not be found, and her plea was refused. Instead, in 1988, less than a year before her death, she received a special award as a pioneer in women’s scholarship.

The dispute about women’s ordination in the Conservative movement dragged on for years, even after our commission recommended in favor of it. The debates pro and con that raged in the Seminary halls echoed once again those heard through the century. The battle ended definitively in 1985 with the ordination of Amy Eilberg as the first female Conservative rabbi.

Now the issue of ordaining women has been raised in the Orthodox movement. “Once the question of the woman rabbi is opened, it will not go away,” Pamela Nadell says in concluding her thoughtful analysis. Orthodox women who would be rabbis would do well, she suggests, to look to the scholarship and arguments of others before them. By learning from the past and bolstering one another in the present, they, too, can “create their own revolutions.”

Francine Klagsbrun  is a writer and lecturer Her most recent book is Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the Year.