Women Rabbis: A History of the Struggle for Ordination

While the Reform movement was theoretically in favor of women's ordination as far back as 1922, it was not until 50 years later that the first women was ordained as a rabbi in North America.

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Progress was rather slower within the Conservative movementIn 1971, a group of thirteen young women from traditional back­grounds formed a study group, Ezrat Nashim ("Women's Help" [and also "Women's Area", the name for the women's section in synagogue]). Like their Reform counterparts, they were perturbed by the sexism in Jewish religious law. The following year, several of them barged unin­vited into the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the collegium of Conservative rabbis, to demand an end to Judaism's gender bias. Above all, they demanded the right to attend rabbinical school and to receive ordination.

A majority of the rabbis appeared sympathetic. Indeed, over the years, increasing numbers of synagogue boards al­ready had countenanced women's participation in minyans and in Sabbath Torah readings. In 1973, the Rabbinical Assembly even lent the practices its "official" endorsement. Yet four more years passed without movement on the issue of ordination. In the interval, Jewish women's study groups were formed to exert pressure on the Assembly. The liberalized practices of individual Conservative synagogues also made their impact.

Finally, in 1978, the Assembly bestirred itself, petitioning the Jewish Theological Seminary to study the ordination issue. The school's chancellor, Gerson Cohen, re­sponded affirmatively. He appointed a faculty committee, which then conducted a nationwide poll of individual congregations. Two more years passed before the committee members issued their report. The document was favorable.

Even then, the full faculty plenum procrastinated, tabling the issue for yet another year. The professors were by no means blind obscurantists. It was their point, rather, that the essence of Conserva­tive Judaism itself was based on gradualism, that the tradition of the Jewish wife and mother, as sanctified over the millennia, dared not be exposed to as sudden and traumatic a reversal as female ordination.

But in 1981, an exasperated Chancellor Cohen decided to wait no lon­ger. A former Columbia University professor of Judaica, husband of the distinguished Jewish historian Naomi Wiener Cohen, he had long been in the forefront of Conservatism's progressive wing. With the support of a small group of colleagues, therefore, Cohen established a four‑year program for women with a curriculum identical to that of the rabbinical school. In effect, he was playing shrewd politics, oblig­ing his faculty members to risk future outrage by denying women graduates the privilege of ordination.

None did. In 1983, the faculty voted to accept women into the regular ordination program. A year after that, Amy Eilberg became the first woman to receive ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The great majority of Conserva­tive rabbis and lay people accepted the change calmly. By the end of the decade, a fifth of the Seminary's student body were women, a dozen had been graduated, and half had secured employment in established congregations, although usually as assistant or associate rabbis.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.