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Last month saw the anniversaries of two great leaps forward for women in American Judaism: It was 50 years since the ordination of the first American woman rabbi, Sally Priesand, and 100 years since the first bat mitzvah. It seemed like a good opportunity to talk gender issues with the rabbis, though we didn’t know at the time just how timely gender issues would be. Who knew that this would also be the month when women’s rights gave signs of being about to collapse?
Not that female rabbis will have a single view on the apparent imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade, or of any other issue. Still, it seemed as if the rabbinate, and those who look to rabbis, might see the world and women’s lives a bit differently after half a century of gradually accepting women as leaders. Hence the question we originally asked: “How—If At all—Is Judaism Different After Half a Century of Female Clergy?”
As it turned out, all ten of the responding rabbis said they’d observed changes in the community in the course of this monumental shift, so we dropped the “if at all” from the question when we sent the magazine to print. (Our page designer appreciated it.)
Not surprisingly, even those rabbis whose denominations don’t ordain women have seen ripples from the change, and the responses from two such rabbis—Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who’s Orthodox, and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who’s Modern Orthodox—are especially interesting on that score. Adlerstein notes how Orthodox communities, in reaffirming the choice not to ordain women, nonetheless were pushed to expand women’s roles and learning in other ways. Yitz Greenberg, of course, has been a major voice calling publicly from within Modern Orthodoxy for the ordination of women, and he’s married to (and quotes) Blu Greenberg, a founding mother of that movement and of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. We also hear from Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first woman ordained by what some call Open Orthodoxy and now running its Yeshivat Maharat, where more Orthodox female clergy are being educated and ordained every year.
Many of our other regulars can speak from firsthand experience about their years as women in the rabbinate, whether they came of age after the road was open to them or, like Humanist Rabbi Miriam Jerris, had their initial applications to rabbinical school sent back: “In 1969,” she writes, “I asked a rabbinical school to send me an application and quickly discovered that women were not eligible to be rabbis. Who knew?”
Female rabbis are already an important voice in the abortion debate, and in what’s certain to be a long, acrimonious argument about abortion rights now that a draft Supreme Court opinion has proposed overturning Roe v. Wade. Our Moment Debate last issue featured Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a major voice in that debate, sparring with Rabbi Shlomo Brody. Despite differences, both rabbis agree on some facts that got a lot less airtime in previous arguments about Roe: the fact that even the most traditional interpretations of Jewish law not only permit but sometimes require abortion in certain cases, such as when the life or health of the mother is threatened. Is this important distinction getting heard because more women are in the rabbinate, or more women are in public life, or is it just a Twitter thing? Either way, it feels as if women this time at least have a team on the field. Whether that changes the direction of public policy is something we may still be revisiting in 50 years.
(Plus: Read this issue’s Moment Debate, on affirmative action, here.)