The First Woman Rabbi?
Ray Frank, 1861 - 1948
Not content with the novelty of Frank's position as "the first woman since Deborah to preach in a synagogue," the press began to speculate about her rabbinical aspirations. Despite Frank's protestations that she had none, rumors swirled.
The buzz about Frank's potential ordination increased in 1893 when she enrolled in courses in Jewish ethics and philosophy at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati. Although not the first female student there, Frank was apparently the first to be taken seriously. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, president of HUC, welcomed her with open arms. "We glory in her zeal and moral courage to break down the last remains of the barriers erected in the synagogue against women," he wrote. "In the laws governing the Hebrew Union College the question of sex or race or confession is not touched upon at all.... We can only encourage Miss Ray Frank or any other gifted lady who takes the theological course, to assist the cause of emancipating woman in the synagogue and the congregation."
By the 1890s, several Christian denominations had already ordained women ministers, and it appeared to many observers that the Jews were about to follow suit. Reform Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch published an editorial advocating the ordination of women as a way to revitalize Judaism, and many others appeared to take for granted that, just as women were moving into a wide variety of other professions, they would soon enter the rabbinate. Seventeen of the 26 women — Orthodox and Reform—who contributed to Hirsch's 1897 symposium on "Woman in the Synagogue" were at least willing to consider the ordination of women. But the debates about the possibility of woman rabbis were fierce, with prominent figures weighing in on both sides.
Although headlines began to refer to Frank, incorrectly, as the first woman rabbi, and she was reportedly offered several pulpits, Frank insisted that she had never had any desire for ordination. She spent only a few months at HUC; even had she remained, she likely would not have been ordained. Opposition to women in the rabbinate remained strong. It was not until 1972 that Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained by a Jewish seminary.
- Reference to Deborah from "The Maiden in the Temple," San Francisco Examiner, November 13, 1892.
- Rabbi Wise quote from "Ray Frank," The American Israelite, Nov. 24, 1892.