From the perspective of Jewish law, the Conservative movement's decisions to count women in a minyan (the quorum necessary
to conduct a public prayer service) and to permit Jews to drive to synagogue
on the Sabbath were far
more radical innovations than allowing women to be ordained as rabbis.
Yet, the Jewish Theological Seminary's 1983 decision to ordain women
provoked fierce attacks, not only from the Orthodox but from many traditional figures in the Conservative movement as well,
particularly among the seminary's Talmud faculty.
In fact, the decision seemed inevitable once the Reform movement started ordaining women rabbis during the early 1970s. Within
a decade of Rabbi Sally Priesand's 1972 ordination by the Hebrew Union
College, women comprised more than one third of the students at the
Reform seminary. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia
likewise decided early on to ordain women.
In his desire to avoid a schism, the Jewish Theological Seminary's
chancellor, Dr. Gerson Cohen, deferred a vote on the issue for
several years until a strong majority was united behind the proposal.
When the decision to ordain women was finally made, it stimulated
the formation of a new group within the Conservative movement
called the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, which might
yet break off and form a new Jewish denomination. In 1990, some
of its members announced the establishment of a new rabbinical
In the last two decades, as women have started being ordained,
the possibility has been raised that the nonOrthodox rabbinate
will increasingly become a women's profession, one from which
men will soon shy away: Indeed, the more or less simultaneous
admission of women into the Reform movement's cantorial school
has apparently led to women becoming the large majority of those
students. The rabbinical schools, however, are still attracting
many male students. As a rule, women rabbis have so far not been
appointed to head major congregations, though they have been invited
to serve as associate rabbis in some. A characteristic problem
besetting many women rabbis, particularly in the Conservative
movement, is one of acceptance and authenticity. Women rabbis
complain of being told, "You're too pretty to be a rabbi,"
and of sometimes being addressed as rebbetzin (the Yiddish
word for a rabbi's wife). While all women professionals have to
cope with the competing demands of motherhood, the problem is
particularly acute in the rabbinate, where hours of work are undefined
and, hence, often neverending. Several leading women rabbis
have left pulpit work after becoming mothers, and gone into chaplaincy
and administrative positions.
Blu Greenberg, a prominent and scholarly Orthodox feminist, has
predicted that Orthodoxy will eventually ordain women too. Few
within the Orthodox world, however, share her optimism.
Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish
Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission
of the author.