The current controversy over the admission of women to the rabbinate of the Conservative movement is one of the few local and “internal” issues to stir the temperate world of American Judaism in recent years. Prompted by no crisis in the polity at large, responding to no call for aid from any threatened brother community, oblivious in this instance to the moods and needs of the state of Israel, affiliated American Jews have addressed themselves to the question of whether women should serve as rabbis with a degree of energy and interest that has been uncharacteristic of indigenous Jewish affairs. The quality of the debate and the arguments advanced by both sides tell us something of the direction of middle-American Judaism when nothing but its own present and future is at stake.
Though the status of women is a matter of equally intense concern to modern Orthodox and Reform Jews, the present debate centers on the Conservative movement and on its main institutions—the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the organization of Conservative rabbis; the United Synagogue of America, which is the association of Conservative synagogues; and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical and educational center of the Conservative movement. The centrist position of Conservatism has helped make it numerically the most prominent branch of American Judaism, with a larger number of members and affiliated congregations than either Reform or Orthodoxy in all its manifestations can claim. But of the three, it is also the most vulnerable and exposed. Reform, which does not acknowledge the binding authority of Halakhah, Jewish religious law, has long been free to make whatever adjustments the modern age demanded. Orthodoxy, which remains bound by Jewish law in its traditional rabbinic interpretation, is consistent in its resistance to innovation. In its simultaneous dedication to both tradition and adaptation, Conservatism alone must always choose between weakening the religious way of life it was founded to “conserve” and sacrificing its immediate relevance to contemporary American society. By choice and by necessity, Conservatism remains the proving ground of American Judaism, reflecting its patterns of change and its degree of stability.
During the past few years, since the popularization of the women’s movement, and the ordination of the first female rabbi by the Reform movement in 1972, there has been growing pressure within Conservatism for the extension of women’s religious rights to include rabbinic ordination. In October 1977, at the request of the Rabbinical Assembly, a commission was appointed “For the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis.” Composed of fourteen representatives, the commission heard testimony from all segments of its constituency, and after long deliberation recommended, by a vote of 11 to 3, that women be trained as rabbis by the Conservative movement and that their admission to the designated program of instruction be arranged “as quickly as possible.” Looking beyond the preparatory stages to the actual employment of these women in local congregations, the commission also urged that the community be educated concerning issues raised in the report “so as to insure as smooth and as harmonious an adjustment to the new policy as possible.”
The report was duly submitted to the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in January 1979, with the anticipation of overwhelming endorsement, the more so as the Assembly was meeting this year not in New York but in Los Angeles, where the liberal wing could be expected to form a majority. Yet there was considerable opposition to the recommendations on the part of younger rabbis as well as known traditionalists among the older members. If put to a vote, a strong resolution of endorsement might have met with defeat. Rather than risk an embarrassment on an issue of such declared urgency, the Assembly left the decision to the faculty of the Seminary where candidates for ordination must be trained and certified. There, for the moment, the matter rests.
The current challenge to rabbinic Judaism is a variation on a major modern theme. The emphasis on male responsibility in traditional Judaism has been under attack since the first incursions of modernity, and all the modern Jewish ideological movements, whether secular or religious, have proclaimed and variously encouraged the equal participation of women. In Reform Judaism, where men and women are equally obligated—or as critics point out, equally free from obligation—women have always been theoretical candidates for ordination. In the Jewish Socialist Bund and several branches of Zionism, reaction against the traditional role division was so absolute that free love was originally encouraged as an alternative to marriage and the same kind of work was demanded of members of either sex. What distinguishes the current debate from its predecessors is the desire to reinterpret radically the role of women within the legitimate context of tradition.
To this end, the commission report underlines, literally underlines, its intentions of remaining true to the authority of Jewish law despite the force of its recommendations for change. Previous changes in the status of women, and the mixed seating of men and women during religious services, already constitute the most serious deviation of Conservative Judaism from Orthodox practice. The commission report now contends that its recommendation of ordination for women is but the logical extension of earlier, acceptable modifications and no threat to the core of the tradition to which it remains committed.
The report, a 27-page document to which is appended a brief minority dissenting opinion, presents the case for ordination in unequivocally positive terms. It points out that at public meetings the “overwhelming majority” of those who testified strongly favored the ordination of women. On the question of “general feminist issues” there was unanimity among members of the commission, and no dispute whatsoever within the community at large. Even the structure of the report manifests its support, placing the burden of persuasion not on the proponents of women’s ordination to show why the rabbinic tradition should be altered, but on the rabbinic tradition to show why it should not be modified according to generally accepted notions of improvement. The only real problem, the one to which the report devotes sustained attention, is the compatibility of this proposed innovation with the “requirements of Halakhah as [they] had been theretofore observed and developed by the Conservative movement.” Most of the report is therefore an attempt to show how the proposed changes are justified within a continuum of legal development in a movement still devoted to the same traditional “core.”
The report first explains the general circumstances under which development of the law is considered acceptable. Distinguishing between that part of Jewish law which is d’oraita, biblically ordained, and that which is d’rabbanan, rabbinically developed, the Conservative movement from its inception declared itself bound by the first, but free to develop the second as “the conditions of the Jewish community change.” Because classical Judaism recognizes no such distinction and considers the two areas inseparable, the Conservative movement introduces changes even in this second domain only under special conditions: the development must be gradual and not abrupt; it must be exegetically rooted in traditional methodologies; it must be initiated from within the “community of the committed and the informed” and must be ratified by that community before it can gain legitimacy. Anticipating the difficulties of drawing fine lines of demarcation, the report warns that the existence of inevitable “gray areas” of ambiguity dare not be taken as an excuse to thwart all efforts at change.
Satisfied that the general conditions for development have been met in this particular instance, the report enumerates some of the distinguishing criteria of men and women in Judaism, but shows why each in turn is irrelevant or unconvincing when applied to the question of women as rabbis. It notes that according to some sources women may be ineligible to hold any office of communal responsibility in the Jewish community; that women are exempted from the obligation to study Torah though they may voluntarily assume that obligation; that women are generally exempted from positive time-dependent commandments, including those relating to public worship, and may therefore be legally unable to discharge the obligations of another person who cannot claim exemption; that women are ineligible as witnesses in judicial proceedings, “including the execution of documents determining personal and familial status”; and that women are, by virtue of the foregoing, traditionally considered to be ineligible as judges. These points are examined, but none is considered applicable or persuasive in the matter under consideration.
The report’s arguments against these criteria may be summarized as follows:
- The role of the contemporary rabbi is not one which is established by the classical tradition, and is consequently subsumed under no existing category of Jewish law. Even rabbinic ordination by the Jewish Theological Seminary more closely resembles the granting of an academic degree than the traditional conferring of rabbinic authority through semikhah.
- The Conservative movement has over the years already taken a strong stand in favor of obligating women to study Torah, and in fact, many of the prospective female rabbis are graduates of the movement’s educational programs. The report makes much of the “ethical” plight of parents who, having given their children of both sexes an identical Jewish education, are unable to explain the “sudden differentiation” to their daughters.
- Although the status of women in certain areas is still a controversial matter, this should not affect the rabbinic functions a woman can comfortably fulfill. Halakhic matters in Conservatism are normally referred to the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which can issue either a consensus or a split decision; a minority opinion with at least three adherents becomes a legitimate option for individual congregations and rabbis, allowing considerable diversity of practice within the movement as a whole. During the past twenty-five years, majority opinions have given women the right to be counted as part of the prayer quorum and to be called up to the Torah reading. A minority opinion permitted women to serve as witnesses. Nevertheless, despite the disagreement that persists, the commission report argues that none of these functions is actually “essential” to the function of a rabbi:
The simple fact is this: since the modern rabbinate, as noted above, is not defined or circumscribed by halakhic strictures, there can be no direct halakhic objection to the conferral of the title “Rabbi” upon a woman, together with all the rights and responsibilities to perform the functions essentially connected to the office. In connection with this, the commission noted that it is a commonplace to ordain kohanim [descendants of the biblical priesthood], even though officiating at a funeral, which can pose halakhic problems for a kohen, is popularly viewed as a rabbinic function.
In addition to the legal arguments, the report also advances some ethical considerations, deriving from the idea that the history of Jewish law “exhibits a strong tendency to approach ever more closely an ideal ethical state. . . .” Since each person should have “equal opportunity to pursue a chosen career on a footing equivalent to that of everyone else,” it would be wrong to deny such an opportunity to a young Jewish woman, given the lack of a direct legal argument against it.
One additional point that has been emphasized by supporters of women’s ordination in the report and elsewhere is that the movement cannot afford the cost of refusing to take advantage of the leadership pool that young women now represent. Even as their ordination is being proposed, women rabbis are looked to as an essential revitalizing force, as potentially 50 per cent of the “spiritual leaders” of the future, as the great source of untapped energy yet dormant in American Jewry.
The minority opinion, opposing the ordination of women, raises several points of unequal weight:
- Citing the wide diversity of practice in Conservative congregations, including some which neither count women as part of the prayer quorum nor invite them to lead public service, the minority argues that it is unreasonable to expect that women will not “at some point infringe on these halakhic restrictions in the performance of their rabbinical duties.”
- The unity of the Conservative movement is threatened by the ordination of rabbis whose religious authority in certain areas would be questioned by others of their colleagues.
- This would mark the first time that the Seminary actually entered the arena of “halakhic decision-making.” Until now the procedures of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards have permitted dissident minorities within the movement the option of remaining part of it. A decision to train women for ordination, taken by the movement as a whole, would force out those who disagreed with this interpretation of the law.
- If, as it seems, American Jewish youth is turning these days “toward traditional values, and to an authentic halakhic life style [sic]” does the Conservative movement not stand to alienate more committed Jews than it may attract by this decision? In its eager response to one social phenomenon, is the movement not ignoring the emergence of another?
For the outside onlooker, who may be concerned not only with the substantive matter of women’s ordination but with the cultural posture of the community it represents, the commission report is a fairly revealing contemporary document. There is no doubt that in declaring so forcefully in favor of this issue, the majority report feels it has acted with uncommon boldness, affirming what one of the movement’s leaders has called “our determination to respond to modernity, to resist fossilization.” The commission report has been hailed as proof of the “life-affirming adaptability of the Jewish tradition” and of the creative vitality of the Conservative movement. Certainly within the institutional framework of the Conservative movement, the democratic procedures observed by the commission, the social timeliness of the question, and the declaration on the side of change must indeed feel bracing and fresh. But there is enough in the report to suggest quite the opposite conclusion. In the kinds of issues it raises and fails to mention, in the manner and the assumptions of its argument, the commission report offers more evidence of defensiveness and indirection than of sober, confident optimism.
By all admissions, the immediate catalyst for the current debate on female rabbis was the modern feminist movement which has inspired a reconsideration of women’s roles in all the major religious denominations and in all the branches of American Judaism. Although it naturally invokes this vast social movement as the ideological premise for the discussion, the commission report alludes to it with all the delicacy of a wooing lover. Referring always to “general feminist issues” and “general feminist debates,” the report appears to define feminism as the ability and right of women to pursue careers of their choice outside the home, an ideal, as it used to be said of motherhood, that can be readily upheld by all. But of conflicting trends and choices within modern feminism that would have a critical bearing on the question of the ordination of women in the same capacity as men, there is no mention or even acknowledgment. Does feminism oppose all distinctions between male and female roles as a euphemistic device for keeping women in allegedly subject positions, or does feminism insist on equal rights and opportunities for women as women? Does “general feminism” believe that biology influences ontology, or does it regard social conditioning as the only determinant of sexual roles? If “general feminism” is thought to favor social androgyny, then it seems about as compatible with traditional Judaism as Delilah was with Samson. If it assumes, on the other hand, that the biological differences between men and women must find expression in certain social forms, then the stated arguments for the feminization of the rabbinate are not as straightforward as the commission report assumes.
The unexamined premises of the discussion suggest that the commission tried to stir the waters no more than was necessary, preferring broad references to the spirit of the times to an examination of potential areas of social conflict. But it is in itself noteworthy, and symptomatic of the report’s stance, that Judaism should be asked to conform to the accepted general ideas of the moment without subjecting those ideas to the same measure of scrutiny as the civilizing structure they seek to modify. The commission report might have been a more sinewy and realistic document if it had undertaken to mark what it felt to be the boundaries of accommodation between “traditional Judaism” and contemporary feminism as well as the many areas of halakhic adaptability.
While the status of women is its primary concern, the report necessarily devotes some attention to the target of innovation, the Conservative rabbinate. Advancing the argument of “equal opportunity,” the report defines the rabbinate not as a religious vocation but as a normal profession “with a wide variety of functions including teaching, preaching, counseling, officiating at religious ceremonies, representing the Jewish community, etc.” In fact, the task of squaring the ordination of women with halakhic directives that seem to contravene it is facilitated by the contention that the rabbinic role is no longer that of the established classical tradition. Women are not to be admitted to the great lineage of the rabbinate upon which Judaism has stood in its Diaspora history, but to a somewhat indeterminate and evidently reduced role whose functions they may serve at least as well as men.
It is understandable that once having decided to press for the admission of women to the rabbinate, the commission should recommend that it be done with all fervor. But it is puzzling to note, in a movement committed to gradual rather than abrupt transition, that while their status as public prayer leaders and even members of a prayer quorum is still in question, and their acceptability as witnesses even more so, women should be encouraged to hold the highest position of religious authority on the argument that these particular duties are not “essential” to the rabbinic role. The image of the rabbi projected by this kind of backdoor defense is hardly ennobling.
No one doubts the gap between the rabbinic ideal and the reality of the contemporary congregational leader who all too often has to court his parishioners like an auditioning actor, follow their impulses like an opinion pollster, and offer direction with all the authority of a horse in harness. It may well be that American rabbis are no longer the authoritative judges in Jewish life, but play only a custodial role in local institutions and communities. What emerges from the commission report, however, is an embrace of the status quo that buries not only the past but even the future in the limitations of the present.
The vision of an exemplary rabbinate, as the sociologist Charles Liebman persuasively contends, must precede the institutional reality. The commission report, which, in effect, welcomes women into the rabbinate by conceding its limitations and the secularization of its functions, offers up the present as its vision and the current job description as its sufficient ideal. A religion so supremely pragmatic is not very likely to inspire. And to settle for women of little synagogues because one no longer aspires to men of the Great Synagogue may be to deprive Judaism of more than one is granting its women.
In his pioneering study of Conservative Judaism, Marshall Sklare pointed out many years ago that the single most disruptive strain to Jewish traditionalism in America was the position it accorded women. Female subordination constituted not merely “an important violation of Western norms,” but a strong organizational threat. Since men were no longer showing the same degree of religious interest they once had, the void created by their absence could only be filled by women, “the logical group which can bridge the gap.” The modification of the norms of Judaism to encourage the fuller participation of women has given Conservative Judaism some of its strength and aligned it more closely with democratic American expectations.
The arguments for the ordination of women mark a stage further in this development. As the women’s movement has emphasized the aspirations of women outside the home and drawn attention to those professions from which women are still customarily excluded, the declining interest of the most qualified males in a rabbinical career has made the admission of female applicants an immediately attractive institutional prospect. This convergence of interests helps explain the commission report’s otherwise odd emphasis on the immediacy of implementation, a dedication to change that seems more closely attuned to the tempo of North American culture than to the pace of the religious community it is meant to represent. The argument for the admission of women, however welcome it may be to those who want to be rabbis and to those who believe it is right, also offers a glimpse of real institutional insecurity as the leadership hastens to catch up with part of its constituency whom it “cannot afford” to lose.
It is, indeed, hard to keep pace. Though the Conservative movement has yet to take an authoritative stand on this issue, a Conservative congregation in Pennsylvania has already appointed a woman rabbi who the congregation expects “will put new life in our temple by appealing to the newer and younger element.” A leading spokesman of the Conservative movement, who commented six years ago on the development of American Jewry with the observation that “most problems are the result of solutions; pursuing a goal or ambition is often more satisfying than a realized dream,” is quoted as having hailed this appointment as a “historical breakthrough and simply fantastic,” and as a hopeful trend for other congregations to follow.
Nevertheless, with all this fervor, some difficulties remain which the Conservative movement cannot altogether ignore, though it apparently hesitates to confront them. At the very end of the report, before the appended signatures, is a single sentence with the air, but hardly the significance, of an afterthought: “In making these recommendations, the commission is making no recommendations in regard to traditional practices relating to testimony, and no implications concerning such practices should be drawn on the basis of this report.”
This expression of the conservative impulse of Conservative Judaism suggests that despite its recommendation of a radical departure from accepted Jewish practice, based on far-reaching reinterpretations of Jewish law, the commission does not intend to force the hand of its law committee which has not yet ruled that halakhic law can accept women as witnesses. The context of the report makes it clear that there is no readiness to defend such a regulation, nor any eagerness to explain it. It is simply there, an unfortunate anachronism that Conservatism is stuck with as long as it remains bound by the inviolability of the revealed law in some form of its classical interpretation.
Supporters of the commission report argue that if such negative encroachments on “equality” between men and women cannot altogether be removed, at least their effect should be minimized and confined to the narrowest possible sphere. The report itself, as has been shown, uses the analogy of the kohanim, who according to Jewish law may not officiate at funerals yet are permitted to serve as rabbis though they cannot undertake this common rabbinic function. Women, according to this logic, should not be barred from certain functions within the rabbinate just because they cannot fulfill all.
The analogy is ingenious but also ingenuous. The original proscription against kohanim coming into any contact with the dead was in no way meant to limit their priestly role, but rather to define the absolute ideal of its purity. The law was hardly intended to prevent priests from serving as religious authorities.
The injunctions governing the testimony of women, on the other hand, are clearly meant to discourage not only their assumption of authoritative leadership, but even their participation in certain judicial and religious areas that were not considered their primary domain. To have women serve in the highest judicial and religious office while the law in whose name they serve bars them from one of its basic civil and religious functions seems an obivous transgression of the spirit of the law with, at best, only token observance of the letter.
Rabbinic Judaism interpreted biblical law in accordance with its understanding of the obligations binding on males and females, and the social ideal it considered most fitting for each sex. A modern student of the problem points out that “the talmudic sages made not a single attempt to formulate a general principle governing the status of women,” and today’s interpreters can find legal precedents for liberalization in a variety of sometimes contradictory pronouncements. But Jewish law undeniably expects different things of men and women, and though its expectations are endlessly reinterpreted, they cannot be wholly eliminated without calling into question, as the Reform movement did, the binding nature of the law itself.
The restricted religious role Orthodox women occupy in Judaism may not satisfy modern notions of equality; even among Orthodox women they have recently been subject to vigorous reexamination. But within the internal logic of Judaism they were part of the noble and potentially sublime purpose of perfecting the Jews and humankind. Judaism’s ability to create an alternative model of virility, one which depended on intellectual and spiritual prowess rather than political and physical might, helped to compensate for the great social dependency of the Jews without undue sacrifice of masculine self-confidence and biological zest. A group that cares as much for its collective survival as for the individual self-realization of its members, and that must transmit its communal values without benefit of national territory or political machinery, may still find in the halakhic system a decipherable and defensible system of social priorities. Yet the changes recommended by the commission report, which call upon women to assume social and religious leadership while apologetically acknowledging their restrictedness in fundamental areas, leave the impression of a meaningless body of tradition whose forms are only adhered to when there is not a shrewd enough argument to break them down. That Judaism may still have something residually relevant to say on the question of sexual roles is never alluded to by the commission members of either the majority or the minority persuasion.
Women rabbis, if and when they are ordained in the Conservative movement, would still be faced with the need to interpret a law that is felt to have no obvious intrinsic value in this important area of human affairs. And both they and the Conservative movement as a whole may then find it increasingly difficult, when the distinctions between women and men have no known consequence or meaning, to maintain Judaism’s unyielding differentiations between wool and linen, between milk and meat, between Sabbath and week, between Israel and the Nations.