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Women Enter Conservative Rabbinical School

A new era dawned for the Conservative movement—and the American Jewish community—this fall, as the first women Rabbinical School students entered classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Conservative movement’s central academic institution.

 The 18 women students, comprising approximately 50% of this year’s incoming class, were admitted in keeping with the momentous 34-8 vote by the JTS Faculty Assembly on October 24,1983 that accepted women to the Rabbinical School after some ten years of heated and often bitterly divisive debate within the movement.

The ruling came at a special session of the Assembly called by JTS Chancellor Gerson Cohen after the presentation of faculty papers, and after the issue had been tabled by a 25-19 vote of the JTS Faculty Senate on December 20, 1979. In May 1980, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative Rabbis, had passed a resolution “favoring the ordination of women.” [See LILITH #3, 6 and 7 for the background of this historic debate.]

Although 21 women had been expected to enter the Seminary this September, two chose to defer admission and one will begin her studies at Neve Schechter, the movement’s branch in Israel, according to Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School. (The New York chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women plans to do an oral history of this class.—Ed.)

While the normal Rabbinical School program of study is six years, several of the incoming women students have taken courses there in the past for which they will now receive credit. Thus, women will begin entering the Conservative rabbinate in the next few years joining some 90 colleagues in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. One student, Amy Eilberg, originally from Philadelphia and now of Providence RI, who received a master’s degree in Talmud from the JTS in 1982, may have accumulated enough credits to be ordained next spring, according to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

Women’s admission to the Rabbinical Assembly will probably be the next step. Last May the RA rejected, for the second year in a row, the application of Rabbi Beverly Magidson, ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1979, and currently rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Clifton Park NY.

The vote was 230 in favor of Magidson’s application to 99 opposed, or 17 votes short of the 75% required for admission; at last year’s convention, she had fallen only four votes short (one percent). The repeat rejection, and the seeming decline in support for Magidson, were attributed primarily to the feeling of many RA members that, in view of last October’s decision, the first woman admitted to the RA should be a JTS graduate.

Another factor cited was the geographic location of the 1984 convention, held in Kiamesha Lake NY as contrasted with Dallas last year. The East Coast is generally seen as more traditionalist than other parts of the country.

Magidson will probably have no difficulty being accepted into the RA once the first female Seminary graduate has become a member. In the past 40 years, the RA has admitted more than 400 (male) graduates of Reform and Orthodox rabbinical seminaries, according to Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, RA Executive Vice President.

Ten of the women entering JTS this fall have signed a letter urging the acceptance of Magidson and Jan Kaufman, another Reform rabbi from Washington DC, which was read during the RA debate in May.

The entry of women into positions of religious leadership in the Conservative movement—the largest and fastest growing group within American Jewry, with more than one million members at present—is expected to have wide-ranging implications.

Among the possibilities envisioned are the alienation of right-wing elements within the Conservative Movement—in both the U.S. and Israel; and halachic (Jewish legal) change that would allow for women’s equal participation in Jewish ritual.

While the Seminary’s decision to admit women to the Rabbinical School has not resulted in the large-scale defections by right-wing elements predicted by opponents of women’s ordination, they remain a vocal lobbying group within the movement. The Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism (a successor to the Committee for the Preservation of Tradition within the RA, organized in the spring of 1979) held a “Founder’s Conference” last May.

The Union’s Panel of Halachic Inquiry recently issued a statement on “Women as Witnesses in Jewish Ritual Proceedings,” which declared that “in usual Jewish ritual proceedings women may not function as witnesses, especially in matters pertaining to Jewish identity and internal Jewish status. Whoever relies on such invalid testimony will cause irreparable damage to the unity of the house of Israel and to individual Jewish families. Furthermore, whoever accepts such testimony is himself disqualified to be a witness on the grounds that he has aided and abetted a grave infraction of the law.”

Most observers agree that the admission of women to the Rabbinical School will impel the Conservative leadership to resolve such halachic issues as shaliach tzibur, edut and dayanut (Jewish legal prohibitions against women serving as leaders of public worship, witnesses in ritual matters, and judges in religious courts).

The RA’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards did issue a 1974 minority opinion favoring women’s serving as witnesses. Although the 1979 report of the Commission on the Ordination of Women, established by JTS Chancellor Gerson Cohen, declared these to be “ancillary functions” of the modern rabbinate, many believe that the issues must be confronted before the first women enter the field.

The Seminary has taken a major step in this direction with the formulation of new religious requirements for admission to the Rabbinical School by a special committee appointed by Chancellor Cohen immediately after the October vote and included in this year’s JTS Academic Bulletin. In addition to requiring candidates for admission to demonstrate commitment to Jewish law and observe rituals such as the Sabbath and festivals, regular daily prayer and the dietary laws, the new insert states that “Women are expected to accept equality of obligation in the performance of mitzvot” (commandments).

This statement has potentially radical implications, in that women’s traditional “exemption” from the performance of positive time-bound mitzvot is regarded as the basis for much of their ritual exclusion. Moreover, beginning this fall, the Seminary will conduct two daily services—one with separate seating and no ritual participation by women, and the other based on women’s equal participation.

Observers additionally predict that women’s entry into the Conservative rabbinate may promote the clarification of the movement’s goals and identity; active participation of women in shaping the tradition through the interpretation of text, changes in liturgy to reflect women’s experience and sensibilities; emergence of new styles of religious leadership; re-ordering of communal priorities; and expansion of American Jewry’s pool of talented leadership.

The women entering JTS this fall are, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Toba August, Brooklyn; Deborah Blank, Peru IN; Susan Grossman Boder, The Bronx; Carolyn Braun, San Mateo CA; Deborah Cantor, Hartford; Amy Eilberg, Providence RI; Lori Forman, Berkeley CA; Jodie Feutornickl, West Orange NJ; Pamela Hoffman, Highland Park NY; Elana Kan-tor, Rochester NY; Naomi Levy, Brooklyn; Shelly Meltzer, Madison WI; Rhoda Na-bel, Stoughton MA; Deborah Orenstein, South Orange NJ; Nina Cardin Reisner, Teaneck NJ; Michal Shekel, Oberlin OH; Marion Shulevich, Hialeah FL; and Jonina Skioff, St. Louis MO. The student who will attend Neve Schechter is Melody Johnson of North Hollywood, CA.