There are a variety of values in determining who can be a rabbi. Some seminaries ordain both men and woman, both straight and LGBTQ people, old and young and others do not. My response is not meant to place judgment on that decision making process. Although I strongly believe in equality as a core Jewish value, not everyone shares that concern. And clearly some Jews get to a place after thoughtful consideration where they do not allow women to be ordained and named as rabbi.
My ordination class at RRC contained an equal number of men and woman. I have been blessed to study torah with many great female scholars and rabbis and to learn from some of the greatest women rabbis of our generation. In my reading of halahah (Jewish Law) there is nothing which says specifically that women may not be ordained as rabbis.
Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, was considered to be sage by the Talmudic authors. She was a teacher to many, including her husband at times, and a story is told in the Talmud that on a day with unpleasant weather she stayed inside and learned 300 halahot. Yet, that is the exception which proves the rule that women’s voices are often read out of Jewish tradition. Women are told not to read from the torah or megillot and not to serve as a witness on a beyt din.
In the major liberal denominations of Judaism there is no blockage to women serving as rabbis. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements ordained the first female American rabbis in the 1970s and the Conservative movement followed suit in the 1980s. However, that decision was not without discord. The Conservative movement’s Law Committee voted to count women in minyanim in 1973 but then the next year rejected ordaining women as rabbis. It was not until a decade later that JTS would begin to admit women in to their rabbinical program. Shortly after that decision, Rabbi Halivni broke from the Conservative movement to found the Union for Traditional Judaism.
In Reconstructionism, the decision to ordain women was simple. When the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College opened its doors in 1968 it was policy to accept qualified female applicants in to the rabbinical program. The Reform movement’s process was lengthier – but was the first major denomination to accept and ordain women as rabbis.
As with many issues of difference among the denominations, there are multiple values at play. Within the orthodox community, I believe the value of tzniyut (modesty) is primary. The idea of a woman deciding matters of Jewish Law, reading Torah, leading services and singing, providing the deep pastoral care that rabbis provide – it would simply violate that primary value. For those outside of the orthodox community (and some now within), the primary value is equality. The idea that every Jew should be able to lead and to teach, to judge and to discern matters of Jewish Law.
What is the major blockage to women entering the rabbinate, if any, in each movement? Why does it differ between them?
There are, to the best of my knowledge, no formal barriers to women entering the rabbinate in the explicitly nonhalakhic movements, although I understand that issues of placement equity have been raised, and of course women rabbis face the same challenges in terms of balancing family and work that women )and men) face in any other time-intensive profession. There are elements of the Conservative movement that still resist women rabbis, but I leave it to others to judge the grounds of that resistance. While the question refers to “each movement”, then, it seems clear to me that in practice the interest is in Orthodoxy.
Within Orthodoxy, the first point is that the formal title “rabbi” means something very different than “qualified to serve as the spiritual leader of a synagogue”. Rather, it reflects a teacher or institution’s judgment that a particular person has reached a level of scholarship and judgment sufficient to allow them to issue rulings with regard to a particular set of Jewish legal issues, generally with kashrut at the center of the curriculum. Sociologically, however, men are often called “rabbi” simply because they hold synagogue or educational positions. The Jewish legal issues associated with women in the rabbinate apply largely to questions of employment rather than of academic certification, but the fact that most people see the title as employment certification has been a major drag on the effort to train competent women scholars and grant them halakhic authority equal to that of men, and is the motivation for the set of alternative titles that have been proposed recently.
To concretize: Most segments of Orthodoxy at this point agree that there are no restrictions as to what parts of the Tradition women may learn, although only Open, Modern, and Centrist Orthodoxy generally encourage women to learn Talmud, commentaries and codes at a high level. Most segments of Orthodoxy also agree that in theory women who achieve proficiency in those studies should disseminate their opinions in matters of halakhah and should have those opinions treated no differently than those of equally proficient men.
However, there is much less support in Orthodoxy for women taking on positions in the congregational rabbinate. Some base their opposition or hesitation on technical or intuitive halakhic or hashkafic (values-based) discomfort with women having formal positions of halakhic authority or public Jewish leadership; some on “slippery slope” concerns, as there are some roles, such as communal shofar blower for men, that Orthodox halakhah certainly bars women from performing; some on sociological concerns, building on recent studies of the “feminization of the synagogue” in liberal denominations following the ordination of women; still others on concern that radical sociological change generally diminishes traditional authority, especially when it is clear that the impetus for that change has come from the laity rather than the rabbinate; and finally, others simply are afraid that giving women the title rabbi will fracture the Orthodox community, or at least the non-charedi Orthodox community, and that this will have grievous consequences in many religious areas at least as important for women, such as divorce.
The irony is that the congregational rabbinate certainly and perhaps primarily involves many roles, such as social worker and institutional administrator, that women play throughout the Orthodox community. Furthermore, as noted above, there is little disagreement in principle with the ability of women to issue halakhic positions. Yet somehow the conjunction of the two raises hackles.
I think there is something of a chicken and egg questionhere, or perhaps a catch-22. It is not unreasonable, although perhaps unfair, for the rabbinic community to ask women seeking new roles to demonstrate that they are as qualified as exceptional men, not just that they meet a bare minimum standard, and to ask that they demonstrate a fundamental willingness to function within the existing system, even if it rejects their positions on issues important to them, before they are given influence within it. However, until women are given a clear economic path to such influence, i.e. an expectation of good jobs and broad communal respect, they have many excellent reasons not to invest the massive time and energy necessary to reach that standard within Orthodoxy. But so long as there are at best very few women who reach that standard, the issue does not seem terribly pressing to the majority of the male rabbinate. The pragmatic argument above in fact deeply alienates them, as a core value of the yeshiva student is that Torah must be learned for its own sake, rather than for the sake of a living or of honor.
One way to test my thesis, of course, is to endow an institution for women, parallel to the many kollels that exist for men, in which women simply learn at a very high level for many years with no specific practical goal. As Dean of The Center for Modern Torah Leadership, I would be happy to discuss creating such an institution with any interested donor.
Another approach is to find ways in which women can gain rigidly constrained halakhic authority, and assume carefully delimited positions of spiritual authority, and see how that goes. This is the approach taken by Nishmat and its Yoetzet Halakhah program. This may eventually allow the development of positions for women that don’t use the title “rabbi” but nonetheless provide scope for a full array of intellectual and spiritual religious competencies at the highest level.
Finally, one can simply formally give some women the title “rabbi” and see what happens. My sense is that this would fracture precisely those parts of the community that understand why not giving women such a title is an issue.
To sum up: the barriers to women developing the tools necessary to be (great) rabbis, and then to becoming full and active participants in the development of Halakhah, are largely sociological rather than halakhic, in the sense that the halakhic positions necessary to enable this already exist and enjoy broad acceptance within mainstream Orthodoxy. But sometimes sociology is properly normative, and the intuitions of the observant community should never be dismissed out of hand. I support the cautious approach, so long as it is coupled with full respect for the person and scholarship of women who study Torah, with a commitment to giving such women opportunities to teach Torah commensurate with those given to equally knowledgeable and capable men, and with a vigorous effort to develop women who embody the kind of Torah scholarship that mandates great respect and influence.
In the liberal movements (Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative) there are in fact no blackages to entering the rabbinate. Women are admitted, assuming they are otherwise qualified, for admission. I know that at JTS (my alma mater www.jtsa.edu) women and men are equally considered and encouraged to apply. Within the Orthodox movement it is more complicated and I will allow my Orthodox colleague to address this issue.
As for what might be the differences is the approach to how the different movements might approach gender roles but that is a very nuanced discussion and I would suggest that since the major difference is between Orthodox Judaism and the liberal denominations you expplore that.
As Rabbis Greene and Ain have already answered this question quite ably, I will only comment where I have anything to add.
With regard to women entering the Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative rabbinate: I agree that women face no official institutional blockage. Insofar as we still live in a gender-biased society, and to the extent that individuals in positions of power within a congregation might allow their gender biases to function in the hiring or subsequent evaluation, promotion, or general treatment of a woman rabbi, women continue to encounter resistance, from the (relatively) inconsequential to the severe, from flagrant to nearly invisible. But in the progressive streams of Judaism, this is largely not particular to the rabbinate. (Full disclosure: I am happily a woman and a rabbi who feels grateful for the prevailing support and respect I’ve received throughout my rabbinate from congregants, colleagues and coworkers; I hold an undergraduate concentration in women’s studies and a maintain a persistent interest in women’s issues and the sociology of gender.)
Sara Hurwitz, an Orthodox Jew, was ordained in March of 2009 with the title, “maharat,” a Hebrew acronym invented by her teacher and mentor Rabbi Avi Weiss, meaning a spiritual and halakhic (pertaining to Jewish law) leader. In January of 2010, after Hurwitz had served nearly a year as a full member of the clergy team at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Weiss’s synagogue, he changed her title to “rabbah,” a feminine form of “rabbi,” sparking widespread controversy in the Orthodox world. She now serves as dean of an institution that seeks to train additional women seeking Orthodox ordination. It remains unclear where and in what capacity these women will find opportunities to serve their community.
As to why the various streams of Judaism differ in their attitude toward women in the rabbinate, I believe the answer lies in their relationship to social change, to halakhah (Jewish law), and to the Jewish traditions differentiating men’s and women’s roles. The more rigid a community’s stance in the face of broader cultural and social changes and its impact on the theory and practice of Jewish law, and the more committed that community is to the absolute sanctity of traditional gendered role distinctions, the more resistance that community will mount against women entering the rabbinate.
For a more comprehensive treatment of the history and experience of women in all streams of Jewish life, as rabbis and otherwise, I recommend the Jewish Women’s Archive “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia” (online athttp://jwa.org/encyclopedia, including articles on Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism in the United States).
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