Rabbis in the United States
In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained a rabbi, teacher, and preacher in America. Since then more than 350 women have become rabbis in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative branches of American Judaism.
Jewish women’s recent entrance to the brotherhood of the rabbinate masks a lengthy history of the question of women’s ordination. In fact, in almost every decade since the 1890s, the challenge to the male hegemony over the rabbinate was raised among some sector of American Jewry. At times discussions surfaced in the Anglo-Jewish press and at meetings of various Jewish organizations. But generally in these settings the question was an abstract one. Not only would its outcome scarcely affect the lives of those engaged in the debate, but as one observer noticed in 1897, there were no women then—or so she assumed—who wanted to be rabbis.
Yet parallel to this hypothetical debate and often removed from it were those who, beginning in the 1920s, sought rabbinical ordination for themselves, as Sally Priesand later would. Like the nineteenth-century pioneers who tried to crash the barriers against women in American medicine, law, and the ministry, these women enrolled in rabbinical school, hoping to complete the curriculum and, alongside their fellow students, receive ordination.
In 1889, the journalist Mary M. Cohen, a leading member of her traditional Philadelphia synagogue, broached the topic of women rabbis in “A Problem for Purim” on the front page of The Jewish Exponent. In this short story crafted for the Jewish holiday of masquerade, Cohen asked whether or not women could contribute to the development of American Judaism by becoming rabbis. The arguments she gave revealed a climate of rising expectations for changing female roles in American Judaism.
From the 1890s forward, the question eddied out to American Jewry, striking a particularly responsive chord among its more liberal sectors, namely Reform Jews. Yet, in these early years, the issue, as Mary M. Cohen had shown, was by no means confined to Reform Judaism. By the beginning of the twentieth century, those at more traditional institutions, such as Conservative Judaism’s Jewish Theological Seminary, were well aware of the emerging debate. In 1903, when Henrietta Szold, the foremost Jewish woman of her day, went to meet with seminary president Solomon Schechter about studying there, the subject came up. As she subsequently wrote: “After he was assured that I was not an aspirant after Rabbinical honors, he agreed to put no obstacles in my way.”
From time to time over the course of the next century, committed American Jews—rabbis and rebbetzins [rabbis’ wives], sisterhood presidents and seminary professors, and men and women committed to shaping Judaism in the spirit of democratic egalitarianism—continued their often theoretical debate about the question of women’s ordination. As they did, they could point to a small number of trailblazers who, at times, presented Americans with examples of women functioning—albeit unofficially—as rabbis.
Although Jewish history offers a long list of erudite women some deemed “well-nigh ... lady rabbi[s]” (Frank, p. 59), the first American paradigm was the “girl rabbi of the Golden West” (Clar and Kramer), Ray Frank. In 1890, learning that there were to be no High Holiday services in Spokane, Washington, Frank, a Sabbath school principal, agreed to preach. From then until shortly before her marriage a decade later, she preached and led religious services, studied for a time at Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College, and wrote about what she would do if she were a rabbi, explaining that she did not desire to be one.
While Frank may be considered the first American Jewish woman functioning, without formal ordination, as a rabbi, she was by no means the last. In fact, she was followed by a number of women, mostly—but not exclusively—in the more liberal settings of Reform Judaism, who from time to time found themselves leading and preaching as if they were rabbis. Among them was rebbetzin Paula Ackerman of Meridian, Mississippi. In 1950, when her husband, Rabbi William Ackerman, died, the president of the congregation asked her to fill in—temporarily. For the next three years, until Temple Beth Israel hired a man to replace her, she conducted weddings and funerals, led services, and preached. Ackerman’s practical rabbinate gave Reform Judaism’s leaders the opportunity to reiterate what, by 1950, had long been its official stance: In principle, women could be rabbis; in practice, none were.
Reform Jewish leaders had not come to this position from observing the informal, but nevertheless real, religious leadership of women like Ray Frank and Paula Ackerman. Rather this posture evolved in the 1920s and 1930s after a series of formal challenges to the seminaries of Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Institute of Religion (the two merged in 1950). In the 1920s, following the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote and the heightened expectation that now all barriers to woman’s full equality would fall in American life, a small number of women entered rabbinical school, hoping to become rabbis.
The first was Martha Neumark. In 1921, the seventeen-year-old student at Hebrew Union College launched a two-year-long debate over whether or not the college would ordain women rabbis. In the course of that debate Reform rabbis affirmed, in principle, that “woman cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination” (Central Conf. of Amer. Rabbis, p. 51). But the college’s board of governors, fearing this act would constitute an irrevocable break with the more traditional sectors of American Jewry, prevented her from achieving her goal.
Neumark was not the only woman in the interwar years to challenge the exclusion of females from the rabbinate. Irma Levy Lindheim, Dora Askowith, and, most important, Helen Levinthal (later Lyons) raised the very same challenge. In 1939, the Jewish Institute of Religion awarded Helen Levinthal a master of Hebrew literature, not the rabbinical ordination she had sought. By then she had completed the entire rabbinical curriculum and written a thesis on woman suffrage from the point of view of Jewish law. Subsequently, like Ray Frank, Levinthal for a time exercised informal rabbinic leadership, preaching at High Holiday services in Brooklyn in 1939. But eventually she, like many of the other pioneers before and after her, settled down to a life as wife, mother, and exemplary Jewish volunteer.
The failure of each of these women to become a rabbi illustrates the roles—student, teacher, and principal; volunteer, especially for Jewish women’s organizations; and most importantly, wife and mother—sanctioned for American Jewish women at mid-century. Women could do many things in American Judaism, but they could not become rabbis.
Within the next quarter century, however, this would change. In 1972 in Reform Judaism, in 1974 in Reconstructionist Judaism, and in 1985 in Conservative Judaism, the first women received rabbinic ordination. That these women succeeded where those before them had failed reflected the coalescence of several factors in American Jewish life in the second half of the twentieth century. Surely, the long history of the consideration of women’s ordination paved the way, especially in Reform Judaism, for its leaders to accept women rabbis at last. Of inestimable significance, too, was the new wave of American feminism, launched in the 1960s, which renewed the nineteenth-century call for women’s access to the professions. The elite seminaries producing rabbis thus became another of the exclusive male institutions and restricted professions then under siege, as, in a changing political climate, women fought and won access to places historically closed to them. As American Judaism—especially its more liberal sectors—continued to accommodate to the changing tempo of the lives of its members, equal rights for women came to sit squarely on its agenda in the 1970s and the 1980s. These factors and others, including the increasing numbers of American—and American Jewish—women, especially married women with children, entering the workforce, help to account for the dismantling of the barricade to women’s ordination. Yet in the 1970s and 1980s, the successful resolution to the question continued to depend, as it had since 1897, upon the perseverance of individual women who continued to push for ordination for themselves.
In 1964, when Sally Priesand crossed the threshold of the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion as a freshman in its undergraduate program, she followed the path of the pioneers, like Martha Neumark, who had already raised the question in the very same halls. But while the earlier unsuccessful challengers stood largely in isolation, the future Rabbi Priesand found an ever-widening circle of supporters, whose imaginations were sparked by the nascent feminist movement. Most important, she won the favor of Hebrew Union College president Nelson Glueck, who decided to act on what his predecessors had simply asserted, woman’s right to ordination. At the same time, both the Anglo-Jewish and the national press carefully monitored Priesand’s progress as a symbol of women’s liberation and the inroads it was making in American religion. In June 1972, Priesand became the first woman in America ordained a rabbi. (In 1935, in Germany, Regina Jonas, who later perished in the Holocaust, had received private Reform ordination.) Already it was clear she would not be the last.
In Philadelphia at the same time, a new rabbinical school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, had also admitted its first students. Once the liberal wing of Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism had since split off. In 1968 its rabbinical school opened, and women were among its first students. In 1974, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso achieved rabbinic ordination there.
While the lengthy battle for women’s rabbinic ordination was fought largely on the ground of Reform Judaism, the campaign blazed fiercely in Conservative Judaism. In fact, Conservatism was never utterly removed from the topic. Each time the debate about women’s ordination swelled in Reform Judaism, Conservative leaders found themselves reacting to the issue, much as Solomon Schechter had in his meeting with Henrietta Szold. But as Seminary officials routinely diverted women interested in rabbinical school to teacher-training programs, Conservative Judaism failed to develop a pioneering core of challengers to the historic status quo.
The question surfaced again in Conservatism in 1972, at the height of the contemporary wave of American feminism, and this time it refused to go away. In the spring of 1972, a group of committed Conservative Jewish—and passionately feminist—women, well aware of Priesand’s impending ordination, vociferously demanded equality in their branch of American Judaism. At the same time, a handful of other women found their requests for rabbinical school applications from the Jewish Theological Seminary denied. National media attention involved a wide audience in the debate. In particular, in these years the New York Times published feature-length articles on the first women in Conservative synagogues in pararabbinic jobs and those who abandoned Conservative Judaism to become Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.
The result was that Conservative Jewish leaders found themselves inextricably entangled in the issue of women’s rabbinic ordination. For a long decade between 1972 and 1983, they engaged in an intricate political dance of shifting alliances, studies undertaken, commissions formed, hearings held, motions tabled, and votes counted. Finally, in 1983, over the objection of a number of colleagues who boycotted the vote, the faculty of Jewish Theological Seminary agreed to admit women to the rabbinical school. In 1985, Amy Eilberg, one of a cluster of women waiting in the wings for a favorable decision, biding their time by taking the curriculum necessary for rabbinic ordination, was ordained.
The debate around women rabbis, whether divorced from the women contending for the honor or raised by those who were its pioneers, reveals an unexpectedly long and broad history of this question within American Judaism. That no sector of American Judaism has been immune from the challenge of women’s religious equality, symbolically represented by female ordination, is evident from the recent emergence of this old question among a new sector of American Jewry, the modern Orthodox. In the 1990s, the first advocates of women’s rabbinic ordination in Orthodoxy and the first women seeking admission to its rabbinical school, Yeshiva University, have roused some of America’s most traditional Jews to realize that here too the debate is underway.
The prehistory of women rabbis opened with the raising of the question over a century ago and closed with the ordination of the very first women. By 1996, 255 women had been ordained at Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, including, starting in 1992, the first women ordained in Israel. Of the 184 rabbis ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College between 1973 and 1996, seventy-three were women. Between 1985 and 1996, Conservatism’s Jewish Theological Seminary ordained fifty-one women.
Just as Mary M. Cohen’s character had stunned her audience by posing the very notion of women in the rabbinate, this first generation of female rabbis has jolted American Judaism. Not content with simply replicating what they found in synagogue life, the first women rabbis self-consciously perceived themselves trailblazers. They voiced, to some ears stridently, a critique of Judaism’s status quo, arguing that it was largely created by men and that, for far too long, it had marginalized women. Standing in their own eyes as pathbreakers, these rabbis have striven collectively to push American Judaism toward an egalitarian future, one which fully incorporates women’s many different voices.
But before the very first female rabbis could begin to raise their particular concerns, they had to win approval from a wide swath of American Jewry. The very first women in the rabbinate discovered that ordination was but the first hurdle. Those ordained in the 1970s and early 1980s, before a significant cohort of women rabbis emerged, found themselves struggling for acceptance. Congregations refused to interview them for jobs. Community boards of rabbis opposed their participation. Conservatism’s Rabbinical Assembly, the collective of rabbis that for years had routinely admitted to its ranks rabbis trained at Reform seminaries, turned away qualified female applicants.
At the same time, the new rabbis found themselves struggling to overcome the conviction that this was one job women could not possibly do. Congregants worried that women rabbis could not carry heavy Torah scrolls. They feared the rabbis would be too soft-spoken for the job, or alternatively that they would always preach on feminism. Unaccustomed to seeing women in the ritual garb of kippa and tallit, the congregants displayed their sense that women rabbis disturbed the traditions they knew.
Drawing upon the strategies pioneered by the feminist movement, the first female rabbis organized to challenge these objections. Via Reform’s Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Central Conference of American Rabbis Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate, they began addressing these and a host of other issues, like maternity-leave policies, which had never concerned an all-male rabbinate.
As more and more women entered the ranks of the rabbinate, some of the initial difficulties waned and new questions emerged. Among them was whether or not women rabbis perform their roles differently than their male colleagues; and, if so, what bodes for the future of American Judaism. Extensive interviews reveal that the first generation of women rabbis contend—although their male peers by and large deny this—that, as women, they offer a different model for the rabbinate. Self-consciously reflecting the influential work of psychologist Carol Gilligan, the female rabbis describe themselves as more approachable, prone to involve their congregants, and likely to speak sermons in a different voice.
Determined to bring their perspectives as American and Jewish—and often as feminist—women to bear upon American Judaism, many in this first generation have sharply critiqued Judaism’s historical marginalization of women’s religious activities. They have sought to mark the major milestones of women’s biological lives, to push for female-inclusive and gender-neutral liturgy, and to seek new interpretations for texts read largely in the past through male eyes. In particular, several have written for children, believing that the key to change lies in shaping the next generation’s perspective on gender and Judaism.
In so doing, these new leaders of American Judaism have pioneered and challenged not only the institution of the rabbinate but also American Jews and American Judaism to listen, at long last, to the voices of women.
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How to cite this page
Nadell, Pamela S.. "Rabbis in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 22, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rabbis-in-united-states>.