Revolution or Evolution? 30 Years Later, Community Considers Impact of Women’s Ordination in Conservative Movement

Female members of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, who gather at JTS (December 2012). Photo courtesy.
Female members of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism gather at JTS (December 2012). Photo courtesy.

By Maayan Jaffe
eJewish Philanthropy

An image of a Chabad emissary placing tefillin on a woman in New York, apparently mistaking her for a man, recently went social media viral. The sensationalism? Women wearing tefillin is discouraged – if not forbidden – in the ultra-Orthodox movement.

This is not the case in the Reform and Conservative movements, where women take active roles in Jewish worship. To date, more than 350 women have become rabbis in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative branches of American Judaism.

Last month, the Conservative movement celebrated 30 years since the May ordination of the first Conservative woman rabbi, Rabbi Amy Eilberg. She was ordained in 1985 by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since then, Conservative women leaders have revolutionized the field.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, says three main contributions of Conservative women rabbis on the Conservative movement are in the realms of ritual, scholarship and leadership.

“Our Jewish tradition imagined certain religious obligations as belonging only to men,” says Schonfeld. As women started learning, they began exploring these obligations – or lack thereof – and what that means for women … and everybody else.

Jewish feminist scholarship triggered a “grand reexamination” of traditional texts, too.

“Women looking at the text – not just women’s roles, but the text as a whole – brought a new lens and that gave way to gender studies and new ways of interpreting these texts,” says Schonfeld.

Women leaders also altered the way that we traditionally view Jewish leaders. Offering new skills, Schonfeld says women rabbis enabled the Jewish community to reexamine what it needs from its leaders.

“We were able to ask ourselves, ‘What does leadership look like for the Jewish community?’” she says.

However, none of these contributions were apparent overnight. Change did not come without challenges. Eilberg tells eJewish Philanthropy there were “tremendous challenges” during the years leading up to her ordination.

“In those years, I had an image of my fists clenched, banging against the door – a big metal or bronze door, like on a medieval castle. I would almost feel these bruises on my hands, from beating against this locked door,” Eilberg describes. “We were working to open a door that had been closed.”

While Eilberg says she was always confident the Conservative movement would admit women rabbis, the question was one of when. Would it happen in her time? In time for her daughter? The seminary had been debating the question for between 10 and 30 years before she became a rabbi. She recalls that as the rabbis began examining the halachic (Jewish law) considerations, it quickly became clear there was nothing wrong with giving women the title rabbi. The questions were whether women could read prayers on behalf of the community, could be counted in a minyan or bare witness, such as for marriage or divorce.

“That was the hardest piece,” says Eilberg, recalling how she was asked whether she would refrain from being a witness shortly after her ordination, a question to which she answered no. “It was one step forward, two steps back.”

The decision to ordain women caused a deep divide in the Conservative movement, which led to a group of leaders breaking off from the sect to start their own movement, though it never really took off. But even after 1985, says Eilberg, there was a gradual evolution, slow growth in numbers, influence and visibility.

Women rabbis did not experience anything too different when reflected on in the context of the happenings of that generation. The first ordination took place on the heels of the women’s liberation movement, the collective struggle for equality, most active during the late 1960s and 1970s. The women’s liberation movement consisted of women’s liberation groups, advocacy, protests, consciousness-raising, feminist theory and a variety of diverse individual and group actions on behalf of women and freedom.

“I cannot say whether it was inevitable” that the Conservative movement would ordain women, notes Schonfeld. “Certainly this was part of a larger trend and a set of issue with which society was grappling.”

Dr. Lauren B. Strauss, a historian and director of the Foundation for Jewish Studies, tells eJewish Philanthropy that many of the documents from those days reveal that women rabbis were experiencing the same challenges as women in the corporate world. The thought was women wouldn’t be able to handle the stresses inherent in a rabbinical role, they wouldn’t be able to balance this top spiritual job with their jobs as wives and mothers.

Strauss says in her research she has fallen upon “incredible stories” of women who were not interviewed because of gender or where women would complete an interview process, only to be told they were very learned and qualified, but that members of the congregations “wouldn’t be able to respect seeing you up there wearing a tallit or kippah.”

“This is astonishing in 2015,” says Dr. Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “What seemed shocking 30 years ago, is pretty normative today.”

Sarna says that in some cases there is even concern today “that men are leaving the realm of religion to women.” For the first time, there are more women enrolled in the Reform movement’s ordination programs than men; Conservative is not far behind.

“In America, there has long been a sense that religion is the women’s domain. In Christianity, women far outnumber mean in the pews. There is a fear that not giving men special responsibilities – to make up the minyan, to serve as a rabbi – they will be happy to leave it to the women,” says Sarna. “I think we now see this will take more work. … Perhaps we did not properly anticipate that problem 30 years ago.”

This concern, however, does not seem to be putting halt to similar changes, which are starting to take place in the Modern Orthodox world, according to Strauss. While she says ordaining Orthodox women is still “on the fringes,” it is becoming more mainstream.

Earlier this year, the Har’el Beit Midrash in Israel graduated its first cohort of two fledgling women rabbis. Likewise, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin came under fire when he named a first female spiritual advisor for his Efrat community. Now, the shock has subsided and the Efrat community has accepted the decision.

The decision to ordinate women by the Conservative movement demonstrates “the Jewish capacity to change and grow,” says Eilberg. She sees her ordination and all subsequent accomplishments as a part of the ever-evolving Jewish women’s story.

In Ezra 7:10, the prophet consults and applies the Torah to help him make a decision, which was a “game-changer” according to Rabbi Gordon tucker, who spoke at an April 29 event celebrating the first Conservative women rabbis. He says that today we live by “Torat Chayim” (living Torah), which can be applied and developed to help us navigate modern challenges.

The real question, says Strauss: What’s next?

“There are many women who were not born when Amy Eilberg was ordained. Will they even consider themselves ‘women rabbis’?” Strauss asks. “Will they just accept as fact that they can be rabbis and, if so, what does that mean for the further development of Jewish women leaders? It will be interesting to see …”