To the Editor:

In her article, “Women as Conservative Rabbis?” [October 1979], Ruth R. Wisse is responding to three different but related issues: the quality of the report of the Commission on the Ordination of Women as Rabbis; the actual question of women’s ordination; and a far broader issue, the internal vitality and creative potentiality of contemporary Jewish life.

Mrs. Wisse raises a number of points regarding the report itself.

Feminism: she claims that the report treats feminism and the feminist movement with the “delicacy of a wooing lover.” That my perusal of the report did not lead to a similar conclusion may be more symptomatic of different interpretations of the nature of wooing than of contrary positions on the ordination issue. The report does fail, as Mrs. Wisse maintains, to deal with substantive questions regarding the implications of the feminist critique for Jewish tradition. There are, she accurately observes, aspects of feminism which, if carried to their most radical conclusion, are as “compatible with traditional Judaism as Delilah was with Samson.” But was the commission’s report the proper place to confront these questions? They were not part of its mandate, and a general debate over the feminist movement—which like Judaism is not a monolith—would deflect attention from basic halakhic considerations. Mrs. Wisse’s hostility toward feminism may be a product of the fact that the relationship of many feminists to Judaism and Jewish tradition has been, at the least, problematic. Some of the more hostile attacks on Jewish life have come from feminist sectors. Certainly this too needs to be confronted, but not in the commission’s report.

The contemporary rabbinic role: Mrs. Wisse is distressed, and properly so, by the image of the rabbi portrayed in the report. The American rabbi does all too often “court his parishioners like an auditioning actor” and plays but a “custodial role” in the community. Mrs. Wisse accuses the commission of embracing this status quo instead of trying to return the rabbinate to its bygone grandeur. But the commission’s mandate was to study the “role of women” as rabbis and not the role of the rabbi. In light of the sorry stature of the American rabbi, one wonders why so many gifted women are anxious to join rabbinical ranks. Could it be that they believe they can rectify this state by refusing to embrace a status quo which diminishes the previous fruits of their long-fought battle?

Rabbis as witnesses: Mrs. Wisse correctly observes that the commission dismissed the thorny halakhic obstacle to ordination— the question of edut (witnessing)—with the air of an afterthought. Proponents and opponents of the report believe, depending on their views, that it either wisely avoided or cowardly sidestepped the question of rabbinic duties. Among the proponents there are some, e.g. Seymour Siegel and Judith Hauptman, who seem ready to grapple with it. Regrettably the commission was unwilling to do so, thus weakening the report’s impact.

Mrs. Wisse’s critique cannot be easily dismissed. She isolates legitimate shortcomings in the report. But do they constitute sufficient grounds to reject ordination? Prior to musaf on Yom Kippur, the cantor intones the Hinneni, imploring the Almighty not to reject the congregation’s petitions because of his failure to vocalize them properly. Understandably anxious to maintain shalom bayit within Conservative ranks, the commission failed properly to vocalize the entire issue. Is the cause to be rejected because of some shortcoming of this brief?

Ultimately Mrs. Wisse’s main agenda is not the question of ordination but the nature of contemporary Jewish societal and sexual patterns. She notes that Judaism’s ability to create alternative models of virility rooted in intellectual, not physical, prowess, helped to compensate for Jewish dependency on the non-Jewish world and prevented the evolution of an emotionally and spiritually castrated male figure. While there were once legitimate grounds for this particular sexual differentiation, what is the contemporary justification for the preservation of this historical anachronism? If it was for the “noble and potentially sublime purpose of perfecting Jews and humankind,” then Mrs. Wisse’s focus should not only be the desire of women to serve as rabbis but their inclination to fill a myriad of other “non-traditional” roles, from prime minister to professor.

Deborah E. Lipstadt
University of California
Los Angeles, California



Ruth R. Wisse writes:

Deborah E. Lipstadt concurs with my major criticisms of the Conservative movement’s report favoring the ordination of women as rabbis, but she does not think the failings of the report should prejudice the issue. “Is the cause to be rejected because of some shortcoming of this brief?”

But this brief is no less than the position paper of the Conservative movement on the issue in question. Unless the introduction of women rabbis is to be taken as a new article of faith, the report’s weakness in making its own case certainly does raise serious doubts about the advisability and wisdom of the proposed change.

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