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 seminary.
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.