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Women in Judaism: A History of Women's Ordination as Rabbis

by Avi Hein

Up until the haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, the idea of women rabbis would have seemed farfetched. Women did play an important role in Jewish life prior to modern times. But only in the last few decades, have we seen an increasing number of women graduating from rabbinical schools. Most women rabbis today have been ordained from Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionists seminaries. But a few Orthodox women have also become rabbis — and an effort is underway to incorporate more women into the Orthodox rabbinate.

The word rabbi literally means teacher. Traditionally, a rabbi was an observant Jewish male who obeyed mitzvot, knew Jewish law (halacha) and tradition, resolved halakhic disputes, and instructed the community. A rabbi does not have to serve as shliach tzibur (prayer leader), and has no more authority to lead services than anyone else. Prominent Orthodox feminist thinker Blu Greenberg believes that female rabbis, like their male counterparts, don't need to serve in a congregation or to be prayer leaders. “There are countless men,” she writes, “perhaps the overwhelming number, who are ordained in the Orthodox community, yet do not perform any functions additional to those of their lay fellows. So be it for women.” (Greenberg, Judaism, 31).

The role of women in the rabbinate has been hotly debated within the Jewish community. The first female rabbi ever to be ordained was Regina Jonas of East Berlin. On December 25, 1935, Rabbi Dr. Max Dienemann, head of the Liberal Rabbis Association of Offenbach, ordained Jonas to serve as a rabbi in Jewish communities in Germany. In the United States, the Reform movement ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, the Reconstructionist movement in 1974, and the Conservative movement in 1985. The Orthodox movement has yet to officially accept women in its rabbinate, although a few Orthodox women have been ordained in some seminaries.

Each movement, except the Orthodox, has come to accept the right of women to become rabbis after long periods of reflection and debate regarding their own religious philosophies.

Reform Movement

From the start, Reform Jewish ritual allowed men and women to pray together — a decision based on egalitarian philosophy. Leaders from within the movement proposed the idea of women rabbis in the late 1800s, but it wasn't until 1922 that women in the rabbinate was discussed formally by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). The discussion focused on two issues: The position of women rabbis within traditional Judaism, and the question of whether the Reform movement should follow tradition. Reform leaders considered ordaining women as violating halakhah, and worried that granting women a place in the Reform rabbinate would “give the larger group of Jewry that follows traditional Judaism a good reason to question our authority…” (Jacob 202). In addition, the Reform rabbinate felt that admitting women would be detrimental to family life since it would require women to choose between the full-time role of the rabbi and the task of homemaker.CCAR voted against allowing women becoming rabbis.[1]

The role of women, however, changed drastically throughout the 20th century, and women fought to be granted more power in society, including the right to vote. The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and Hadassah were also formed during this time period, paving the way for women to participate in traditionally male institutions, such as the rabbinate. (Nadell 30-35, 151-152).

Conservative Movement

The Conservative movement, on the other hand — founded on the theory that halakha is binding yet evolving — made more radical changes in halakhah.. But the decision giving women access to the rabbinate also caused a riff among leaders, resulting in many Talmudic scholars from the JTC leaving the organization to start their own institution. In 1973, JTS's halakhic decision-making body, the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (CJLS), passed a law allowing women to count in minyanim. But one year later, the committee voted against women rabbis and cantors. The question as to whether women should be able to become rabbis, the Committee decided, warranted further study. In December 1977, the Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary's jointly created commission, the Commission for the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis, convened.

Within a year, eleven members agreed that “there is no direct halakhic objection to the acts of training and ordaining a woman to be a rabbi, preacher, and teacher.” The findings were presented to the Rabbinical Assembly. But the issue was shelved, and controversy continued. In the spring of 1983, JTS Chancellor Gershon Cohen announced that he would raise the issue again before the Seminary faculty. That October, the Seminary faculty voted to admit women to the Rabbinical School. [2] (Nadell 172-186, 191-192). Soon after, JTS’s new chancellor, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, admitted women to Cantorial School on the same grounds.

Reconstructionist Movement

Founded by Mordecai Kaplan, an eminent professor at the JTS, the Reconstructionist Movement ordained women from the start. In 1968, women were accepted into the the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, under the leadership of Ira Eisenstein, (Nadell 187-188). Reconstructionist philosophy, like Reform beliefs, is founded on the basis that men and women have equal rights, regardless of halakha. The first ordained female Reconstructionist female rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, gained a pulpit in 1977at Indianapolis’s Beth El Zadok, a synagogue which was affiliated with both the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements. She thus became the first female rabbi in a Conservative-affiliated congregation.

Orthodox Women

Orthodox women began pursuing a role in the rabbinate several decades later, but their enthusiasm has been continuously squelched by prominent Jewish leaders. Some women, however, have broken through the barriers to become rabbis. At least two women have openly declared that they have received Orthodox smicha and several Orthodox women are currently studying in Israel to receive smicha under an Orthodox rabbi. Blu Greenberg has advocated for women to become rabbis since the mid 1980s. “Orthodox women,” she wrote, “should be ordained because it would constitute a recognition of their intellectual accomplishments and spiritual attainments; because it would encourage great Torah study; because it offers wider female models of religious life; because women's input into p'sak (interpretation of Jewish text,) absent for 2,000 years, is sorely needed; because it will speed the process of reevaluating traditional definitions that support hierarchy; because some Jews might find it easier to bring halakhic questions concerning family and sexuality to a woman rabbi. And because of the justice of it all (Greenberg, Moment Magazine, 52, 74).”

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, rabbi of Los Angeles Congregation B’nai David-Judea, agreed with Greenburg. He said, “The stupidest thing the Orthodox community does now is not having women rabbis. It wastes intellectual and spiritual talent” (JTA).

But orthodox women have not given up. In recent years, women’s yeshivot and learning opportunities have expanded. From Drisha in New York City to Midrashat Lindenbaum (Brovenders) in Israel, women’s learning opportunities have led to a new class of learned Orthodox women. Mimi Feigelson, a student of Rabbi Shlomo Carrlebach, was ordained by a panel of three rabbis after her teacher's death. Feigelson, however, doesn't use the title “rabbi” out of respect for the current social structure of orthodoxy. [3] Eveline Goodman-Thau was ordained in October 2000 in Jerusalem by Rabbi Jonathan Chipman. [4]

But the orthodox religious establishment has harshly condemned the actions of these women and others with similar aspirations. In 1993, Haviva Ner-David applied to Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. She never received a response. Instead, it has been reported to her that her application was ridiculed at a Purim shpiel (Nadell 218, Ner-David 196-198). She began studying in Israel under Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, and received her ordination from him in 2006.  

Why are women excluded from these seminaries? Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, has said that women's entry into the rabbinate “smacks of innovations of Reform and Conservative Judaism, which would not be acceptable.” Zevulum Charlop, dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University argues that women can not receive smicha because it originated with Moses and was passed down only to men (Goodstein). “

Criteria for becoming a rabbi today, however, differs dramatically from standards in place during the days of Moses (Ner-David 195). Blu Greenberg wrote that: ”A close look at the convention of ordination reveals that it is not a conferral of holy status nor a magical laying on of hands to transit authority. Nor does the process uniquely empower a rabbi to perform special sacramental functions that a knowledgeable layperson cannot. Ordination is the confirmation of an individual's mastery of texts (largely from the Talmud and codes); familiarity with precedents; and ability to reason analogically and apply precedents to contemporary questions. Conferring the title “rabbi” is a guarantee to the community that this person has been judged fit by a collective of rabbis or by a single great scholar to give guidance on matters of issur v'heter, the forbidden and the permitted, primarily as it concerns the laws of kashrut, Shabbat and family purity. The smicha process assumes but does not even test for personal piety, good character or a spiritual bent. the formal criteria are almost wholly intellectual, but does not even test for personal piety, good character or a spiritual bent. The formal criteria are almost wholly intellectual.“

But women shouldn't rush into training to become rabbis. “The first steps might be a teacher, a Rosh yeshiva, or a rabbi of a women’s tefilah group, or a position in the secular organizational structure that calls for the title of rabbi,” Greenberg states. “Another milestone would be for a woman to write pirkei halakhah and teshuvot” (Greenberg, Judaism, 32). Haviva Ner-David, an Orthodox Rabbi ordained in 2006, says, “there should be a woman studying for Orthodox smicha. The time is ripe. I have the motivation, the desire, and a rabbi who is willing to take this step – there is no reason not to move forward” (Ner-David 199). Orthodox smicha for women is going to require women to push for it, however it is halakhic. Blu Greenberg says “some highly respected Yeshiva University-ordained, modern Orthodox rabbis see no halakhic barriers to women’s ordinations” (Greenberg, Moment Magazine, 74). As Ner-David says, “If we want to see major changes for women’s status in the Orthodox world, it will be up to women to agitate for and make change” (Ner-David 209).

Sources: [1] For a fuller historical discussion, see Pamela Nadell Women Who Would Be Rabbis.
[2] Most of the faculty papers were published by the joint JTS/RA committee. See The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Responsa.
[3] Personal conversation with Mimi Feigelson, July 2000 at Lishma program, Camp Ramah in California.
[4] Rabbi Chipman was ordained by Rabbi Jehudah Gershuni and is considered to be a respected rabbi in Israel.

Cohen, Debra Nussenbaum, “Orthodox feminists-male and female-talk about successes and frustrations.” New York Jewish Week 18 February 2004. (Reprinted in JTA)
Dayan, Aryeh. "A forgotten myth." Haaretz. 2008.
Goodstein, Lauren. “Ordained as Rabbis, Women tell Secret.” New York Times 21 Dec. 2000, late ed.: 29A.
Greenberg, Blu. “Will There Be Orthodox Women Rabbis?” Judaism 33.1 (Winter 1984): 23-33.
----- “Is Now the Time for Orthodox Women Rabbis?” Moment Dec. 1992: 50-53, 74.
Greenberg, Simon (ed.). The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Response. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1988.
Grossman, Susan and Riva Haut (ed.). Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1992.
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Jacob, Walter and Moshe Zemer (ed.) Gender Issues in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001.
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Nadell, Pamela. Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination 1889-1985. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Ner-David, Haviva. Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination. Needham: JFL Books, 2000.