The Changing Face of the Rabbinate

Exclusively the territory of young men for so long, rabbinical schools today in the non-Orthodox movements are welcoming women and gay students.

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The second half of the 20th century saw more change in social mores and roles than the world had seen in centuries. Together with the unprecedented affluence of post-war America and the choices and opportunities that came with it, few established institutions and social systems emerged from the period unchanged. The rabbinate is no exception. No Jewish denomination Judaism has seen the rabbinate emerge totally unscathed from the social transformations of late 20th-century America. 

Women Rabbis

Though the question of women in the rabbinate was formally raised in the Reform movement as early as 1922, it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s, as feminism spread and growing numbers of women sought education and careers outside of the home, that the idea took flight.

When the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College opened in 1968, it became the first seminary to admit women. In 1972, however, the Reform movement became the first to actually ordain a woman, Sally Preisand. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was ordained as the first female Reconstructionist rabbi two years later. In the Conservative movement, where allegiance to traditional notions of halakhah (Jewish law) remained stronger, the issue proved more contentious. In the late 1970s the Jewish Theological Seminary discussed, studied, and ultimately decided to postpone a decision on women rabbis.

In 1983, the question was raised again, and this time Conservative leaders voted in favor of ordaining women. The decision proved so controversial that some rabbis left the movement and founded an alternative seminary and communal organization, the Union for Traditional Judaism. Nevertheless, 18 women entered JTS in 1984, and in 1985, Amy Eilberg became the first woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi.

sally priesandThe Orthodox movement remains the only major denomination with a male-only rabbinate. The question of Orthodox women in the rabbinate, however, is not entirely moot. With Orthodox girls in many communities receiving a Judaic education on par with their male counterparts, and Orthodox women pursuing advanced degrees and careers in everything from medicine to academia, some Orthodox rabbis and leaders have called for women to be ordained as rabbis as well, including the Los Angeles-based rabbi Yosef Kanefsky and the well-known Orthodox feminist author Blu Greenberg.

One woman, Mimi Feigelson, was ordained by a panel of three Orthodox rabbis following the death of the teacher with whom she'd studied for the rabbinate, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. At least one other woman, Haviva Ner-David, was ordained privately by the rabbi with whom she trained and studied, and other women are pursuing this route.

In the meantime, women in some Orthodox communities are finding ways to achieve new levels of communal and ritual leadership without the title of rabbi. They may run prayer groups, serve as official capacities in roles called "resident scholar" or "madrikha ruhanit (spiritual leader)" in synagogues, and work as advisors on and even deciders of Jewish law, especially as it pertains to questions of family purity.

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Michael Kress

Michael Kress is the executive editor of Parents.com. He was also the the VP of Editorial and Managing Editor at Beliefnet and the founding editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.com.