Women in the Rabbinate
Ray Frank, 1861 - 1948
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, as they watched the first women ministers occupy Christian pulpits, Jewish women began to raise the issue of their entry into the rabbinate. In 1889, inspired by the Jewish women who had broadened their participation in synagogue life and made significant educational gains, journalist Mary M. Cohen published a short story in which she asked the question directly: "Could not our women be ministers?"
For many decades, opponents of the ordination of women argued that women rabbis would be contrary to Jewish law, that Judaism was not ready for such a radical innovation, or that women would feminize the rabbinical profession, lowering its status and discouraging men from entering it. Proponents—female and male—countered that women, supposedly more spiritual and nurturing than men, could revitalize the profession, particularly in an era of religious apathy on the part of men. They argued also that ordination of women would not be a radical break with the Jewish past, for Judaism always adapted to new situations; in any case, women such as Miriam and Deborah had always acted as leaders of the Jewish people.
In 1921, Martha Neumark became the first female student at Hebrew Union College to express openly her desire to become a rabbi. Although she did not achieve her goal, the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1922 proclaimed that "Woman cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination." But HUC's Board of Governors refused to allow women to enroll as rabbinical students.
Over the decades, individual female seminary students presented themselves as candidates for ordination, forcing the Jewish community to continue to confront the question of women rabbis. In 1935, Regina Jonas was ordained privately by a German rabbi, but because her ordination was not by a seminary, her achievements did not set a strong precedent. Not until the late 1960s did the Reform movement finally allowed women to enroll at HUC "for the purpose of entering the rabbinate." In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained by HUC; two years later, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first woman ordained by the new Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Amy Eilberg broke another barrier in 1985 when she became the first Conservative woman rabbi.
While Orthodox Jewish women have made great strides as scholars and teachers in recent years, Orthodox leaders continue to maintain that Jewish law forbids ordaining. Since 1998, however, a few modern Orthodox congregations have employed female "congregational interns." Although these "interns" do not lead worship services, they perform some tasks usually reserved for rabbis, such as preaching, teaching, and consulting on Jewish legal matters.
- Pamela S. Nadell, Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination 1889-1985 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998).