How Have Female Clergy Transformed Jewish Life, Ritual and Practice?

By | Sep 27, 2018
How Have Female Clergy Transformed Jewish Life, Ritual and Practice?

The history of female clergy in Judaism is a short one. In modern times, it begins with Regina Jonas, who was privately ordained in Nazi Germany in 1935 and later died in Auschwitz. It has continued over the past five decades as Sally Priesand, Sandy Sasso and Amy Eilberg became the first ordained Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative female rabbis, respectively, and Sara Hurwitz the first ordained Orthodox female clergy. But Jewish women served as spiritual leaders long before modern times, although their histories have largely been erased.

Historically, Jewish women faced enormous obstacles when trying to obtain a Jewish education and were usually barred from yeshivot. Those who overcame these barriers were normally the daughters of male scholars who had no sons to educate, or those who benefitted peripherally from the education of their brothers. The first such woman was likely Beruriah (ca. 150 CE), an accomplished scholar who the Talmud says “learned 300 laws a day from 300 different teachers.” Her father was probably the renowned teacher Chanina ben Teradyon, and her husband may have been Rabbi Meir, a Talmudic commentator who helped shape the Mishnah. Beruriah, best known for ingenious explanations for biblical verses, rose to fame after challenging the great male scholars of her time.

And although the frequently cited erudition of the daughters of the 11th-century French commentator Rashi is entirely mythological, one of his 14th-century descendants is credited with educating the women of her community, and the wife of another was a respected Talmudic scholar. By the 16th century, a growing number of upper-class Italian women received a good Jewish education, over the objections of rabbinic authorities that it would corrupt them. One, Anna d’Arpino, was paid for leading women in prayer in a synagogue in Rome, making her the first Jewish woman known to earn a salary for a clerical role.

As Hasidism spread in the 18th and 19th centuries, more women became religious leaders and scholars. Hannah Rachel Verbermacher (1805–1888), known as the Maiden of Ludmir, resisted marriage in order to study Hebrew texts and gained a modest following of both men and women. Eidel, the daughter of the 17th-century founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, also became a popular Hasidic leader and teacher. These and other women performed most of the functions of rabbis, but without any official recognition. From the late 1800s through the 20th century, a number of Hasidic women actually led and sustained their communities after their fathers or husbands passed away. Many of those Hasidic dynasties still exist today, but most won’t acknowledge the female leaders in their past. These women and others set the stage for female clergy to come, but none of them enjoyed the authority and prestige that accompanies the title “rabbi.”

All that changed on June 3, 1972, when Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president of the Hebrew Union College, placed his hands on Sally Priesand’s head and granted her smichah. When Priesand later said of her long journey to the rabbinate, “I not only envisioned it; I fought for it,” she could have been speaking for centuries of her foremothers.

It’s been only 46 years since that day—but outside the Orthodox movement, it’s increasingly rare to find a synagogue without female clergy. Moment asks Priesand, Sasso, Eilberg, Hurwitz and many others—including those who still adamantly oppose the ordination of women—to weigh in on how female clergy have transformed Jewish life, ritual and practice.—Marilyn Cooper

Sally Priesand

Sally Priesand was the first American woman ordained as a rabbi (1972).My experience these past 46 years tells me that female rabbis have changed Jewish life in the following ways: rethinking previous models of leadership and opening doors to partnership and networking; training new leaders to be more gender-aware by welcoming to our institutions of higher learning respected female scholars able to share with us valuable lessons and insights unique to women; creating new role models and allowing to be heard, often for the first time, the stories of those whose voices have been silenced for too long—the countless number of women who have enriched our people from biblical times on.

Feminism has had an important impact on theology. Like many, I grew up with the image of God as King, omnipotent and clearly male. Life as a congregational rabbi, however, gave me the opportunity to discover new models of divinity, to know that God embodies characteristics both masculine and feminine and to fashion for myself, and hopefully for my congregants, a meaningful theology that has been a source of strength.

As America’s first female rabbi, I experienced many challenges along the way. When I first arrived at Hebrew Union College, there were those who thought I had come to marry a rabbi rather than be one, and my sincerity was often suspect. I always felt the need to be better and do better than my classmates so that my commitment and my academic ability would not be questioned. Occasionally, I sensed that some people would not be overly upset if I failed. More than once it would have been easy to drop out, but I persevered because I truly wanted to teach Torah. Finding a job was not easy. Some congregations would not consider me from the get-go, and others wanted me only for publicity value.

In talking to colleagues, I have discovered that one of the greatest tensions, both for the rabbi and the congregation, centers on being a congregational rabbi, having a family and being pulled in so many different directions all at once. I did not face this challenge because I consciously chose not to marry and have children. I know myself well enough to know that I could not have a family and be a congregational rabbi and do both well. I admire those who can, but I know that I am not one of them. If we want our rabbis, both female and male, to model meaningful family life, then we must support them in the choices they make and enable them to spend more time with their families.

Sally Priesand was the first American woman ordained as a rabbi (1972). She spent 25 years as a rabbi at Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey.


Amy Eilberg

Amy Eilberg was the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi (1995).The symbolic meaning of women serving as rabbis sends a profound message of equality—that women are needed and welcome in all aspects of Jewish life. While not all women rabbis are the same, women rabbis in general tend to have a primarily relational focus in life. One’s own self-advancement is not as important as caring about those around us. This has transformed the new generation of Jewish leadership. Women are less concerned with being on top and more concerned with attending to the needs of other people in building Jewish communities, life and spiritual practice. The younger generations of rabbis—both men and women—prioritize this. The standard image of a rabbi as remote and far away from the community is no longer current. This would not have happened without female clergy. That style of rabbinic leadership served some generations well, but it is passing away—few rabbis even choose to stand on raised platforms anymore.

Women rabbis have been in the lead in creating women’s rituals for parts of the life cycle that are not in the canon. We have created feminist liturgy and midrash, non-gendered God language and an entire feminist ethos. Judaism itself evolves differently now that the whole Jewish people, not just half of them, are involved in creating it.

Amy Eilberg was the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi (1995). She serves as the coordinator of Jewish engagement for Faith in Action Bay Area.


Avi Shafran


Avi ShafranI can only bear witness to the haredi and tradition-bound Orthodox worlds. There are halachic limitations on the roles of women, but halacha contains no particular section on the qualifications of a congregational rabbi. So contemporary halachic decisors, scholars who make Jewish legal decisions, must extrapolate a position on the matter from other halachic areas. The spirit of the law is most important when weighing any new questions. Decisors must judge whether a departure from the de facto tradition is within that spirit or not. They must weigh things such as “Is a proposed innovation motivated exclusively by the determination to create a better-functioning Jewish world, or might it be fueled, in part or in whole, by a particular society’s secular ideals?”

My concern, therefore, is that the acceptance of female clergy is at least partly motivated by non-Jewish societal values and not inherently Jewish ones. That is a major part of why the idea of female clergy has been rejected by the haredi and traditional Orthodox communities. The bottom line, though, is that Orthodox Jews look to their halachic decisors for guidance, and all widely accepted decisors who have opined on the matter have determined that it is unacceptable for women to lead congregations.

Through the ages, accomplished Jewish women have had a powerful influence, but it has been brought to bear—as is the case with many male role models and religious guides—quietly and modestly. Neither the title “clergywoman” nor public appearances or speeches have ever been necessary for women to influence Jewish lives, and they won’t be necessary for that meaningful influence to continue. In the haredi and traditional Orthodox worlds, the wife of a congregational rabbi is usually an intrinsic and important part of the leadership of the congregation. Although a traditional rebbetzin will not offer sermons before men or engage in other public demonstrations of her leadership, she will often counsel female congregants and serve as a role model for them. That has always been the case and has not, to my witnessing, changed in any way since the advent of female clergy in other parts of the Jewish world.

Avi Shafran, an Orthodox rabbi, is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. 


Sandy Sasso


Nearly five decades after the ordination of the first woman in the United States, so much has changed. What was once alternative, even countercultural, has for many become tradition. The unwritten narratives of women’s lives have shaped the contours of religious renewal. From birth to death, from menarche to menopause, new landscapes have been sculpted from the soil of tradition. Women rabbis not only help create new ritual, they also reshape its performance, from something acted out upon us to something we enact. When a baby girl was born in our rabbinic community in the 1970s, my husband and I created a covenantal ceremony for girls. It made the newspapers and the first issue of Moment Magazine. Now it is tradition. Women rabbis not only brought their perspectives to life cycle ritual but also to holy day celebrations. From adding voices of women to traditional narratives to creating new symbols for the Seder, they have enriched sacred moments. As women transformed the ritual landscape, they became narrators of our sacred stories. Refusing to accept their absence from the text, they became interpreters of Torah, writing commentary and midrash. They gave voices, names and stories to women who had none. As women called God by different names, the language of prayer began to change. Now there are few prayer books that are not gender-inclusive.

People often expected women to adapt to the male rabbinic model. But women established new models and new ways of looking at gender. Because women traditionally had been denied a place in the public square, they often experienced the sacred moving through interior space. Having been excluded from the religious center, women’s leadership is marked by inclusivity, sensitivity to the periphery, a belief that difference doesn’t mean superiority or inferiority. Despite advances, women still have lower salaries, inadequate family policies and fewer opportunities to rise to powerful leadership positions. Sexual harassment is a serious concern. Yet, for nearly five decades, Jewish women have poured their souls into the crucible of time and affixed their names to the holy narrative of our people. What happened is nothing short of a revolution. It is not finished yet.

Sandy Sasso was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in Reconstructionist
Judaism (1974). She is the director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts
Initiative at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary.


Baruch Efrati


In considering female clergy, we first need to understand what leadership is. It means leading to a better place, and there are all kinds of leaders. There are those who are responsible for rabbinical leadership and those responsible for other kinds of leadership.

Rabbi Kook, the chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine, taught that the main identity of women is different from man’s obligations and identity. Women were not responsible for creating Jewish law in the past or in the present. Therefore, women who want to imitate the identity of men are not following the guidance of our rabbis. The Jewish legal book, Shulchan Aruch, explicitly states that it is unacceptable for a woman to serve as a judge in Jewish court and that she is not obligated to study Torah all day. Why? Not because women lack the mental capability for this, heaven forbid, but rather that this should not be a woman’s goal or purpose. The text states that a woman’s spiritual work should focus on building the Jewish internal structure as leaders. Therefore, she is exempt from part of Torah study and not obligated to perform many of the mitzvot or commandments. Of course, it’s good that women work, are successful in public life and study parts of the Torah, but there is a special feminine way for that, and it is not as rabbis.

The new movement of female rabbis is attempting to do the complete opposite of what our Jewish sages taught. Some of them are trying to imitate men’s obligations and in doing so, they miss the point. Of course women are capable of learning and leading in religious issues, but it’s a fact that the creator gave different goals in Jewish law for men and women.

Conversely, women who follow our sages and who continue to build Israel according to the view of the Torah are on a sacred path and show real leadership.

Rabbi Soloveitchik said that we do not need to apologize for saying that women should not do certain things. We should boast about the traditional status of women in Judaism and the role they play as internal leaders. The trend of women to focus on studying Torah only after they have filled their important roles at home and care for their children is very good. It helps women and men love Torah. But the radical feminist attempt to influence women to be like men as rabbis is upsetting. It is a mistake that causes pain and sorrow. It creates a shameful confusion between masculine and feminine identities and is an attempt to change the nature of women. It is a blatant effort to introduce radical feminism to Judaism and to violate tradition. Ultimately, it will not succeed. The Torah will not be replaced, and the Torah roles of men and women will not change. I support and understand the desire of women to take part in the Jewish community. Women will get this satisfaction by building the nation by fulfilling the laws of the Torah.

Baruch Efrati is an Orthodox rabbi in Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. He is the head of Derech Emunah or “The Path of Faith,” a religious Zionist organization of Orthodox rabbis.


Susannah Heschel


Susannah HeschelWomen clergy are inspiring. Seeing a woman lead services and knowing that women have moved from the margins to the center has revitalized Jewish communities. Women ask different kinds of questions of texts and of history. We think about issues in a different way. Women rabbis have changed the way we understand Judaism, ourselves and the way we view women in leadership.

Most Jews experience women rabbis at some point in their lives, and the experience is transformative. Yet as someone involved in interfaith work, I am always surprised that interfaith conferences are still primarily conferences of men. Photographs of these conferences highlight the differences between the reality of American religious life and of Jewish life—both of which have many women clergy—and formal leadership, which tends to be men only. In terms of contemporary Judaism, this shows that there is a gap between official Jewish leadership and the Jewish life most of us experience. There is a holdover of an almost superstitious way of thinking that says only men can officially represent Jews and Judaism when we meet with other religions. In general, the irrational can be overcome only by the rational. The rational approach would be for people to stand up and say that this is inappropriate, wrong and does not appropriately represent Jewish life. Men who are invited to men-only conferences should decline to participate, or they should say that they will participate only if there is full gender parity.

Susannah Heschel is a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College and the author of numerous publications, including On Being a Jewish Feminist.


Sara Hurwitz


Sara HurwitzIn Orthodox communities, women have been in clergy positions for only the past decade or so. When I was ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, my title was maharat (which is an acronym for the description of the job of a rabbi). At first, there was actually very little pushback for the position. But we decided to change the title to “rabba,” to better reflect the job—so that when I walked into a funeral home or a hospital, people would understand who I was and what I was doing. That’s when the controversy broke out. One man called and said, “You’re destroying the Orthodox community,” and hung up. That really shook me. There were a lot of vitriolic comments and blog posts, and many times when I wanted to quit. I didn’t want to be a cause of controversy, but I was committed to the Orthodox community, to making it better. And there were also young girls who wrote and said that they could now see themselves on this trajectory, and that kept me going.

I realized it was important for other Orthodox women to have a clear route towards this career path. So Rabbi Weiss and I opened Yeshivat Maharat to train and ordain Orthodox women to be part of Jewish communal leadership. We now have 26 women in the field and 30 women coming through the pipeline. It’s very exciting—but I think that the organized Orthodox Jewish community looks at that with fear. On one hand, there’s an acceptance for greater roles for women, but there’s also been an attempt to put boundaries around what those roles can be.

Allowing women to serve in clergy roles helps 100 percent of the population. Girls and boys look toward role models, and girls see themselves as future leaders and as relevant participants in religious life. As more women who are trained scholars are given the opportunity to hold leadership positions, our community will be better off, and issues that were being ignored for so long will be at the forefront of the Jewish community’s mind, such as talking about sexual harassment, infertility and miscarriage. We will also normalize conversations around mental illness. All of the topics that were swept under the rug are now being revealed.

A decade ago, the question of women in any sort of clergy roles wasn’t even discussed. Now, even communities that don’t necessarily accept women in leadership positions acknowledge that women have a lot of Torah scholarship and wisdom to offer. In addition, if women are not included in leadership roles, they will leave the Orthodox world in droves. Research has shown that one of the reasons people have left Orthodoxy is because of the gender question: Women don’t feel like they are seen or can participate in public religious life. The normalization of women in positions of leadership will continue. Young women are already seeing that this is a natural part of organized religious life. The community is waking up to the reality of how much better we are with highly trained female leaders who understand what 21st-century Jewish communities are thirsting for.

Sara Hurwitz was ordained in 2009. She is on the rabbinic staff of
the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and cofounder and president of Yeshivat
Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women as clergy. 


Avis D. Miller


Avis D. MillerWhen measuring the impact of women in the rabbinate on Jewish life, it is difficult to determine how much change is due to having women rabbis and how much is the result of wider trends in the surrounding culture. As the 19th-century writer Heinrich Heine quipped: “Wie es sich christelt, so jüdelt es sich.” “What the Christians are doing, so do the Jews.” Recent years have witnessed the general movement toward inclusion, not only of women but of people of color, LGBTQ and the differently abled. But women rabbis have certainly been responsible for crafting a trove of creative, participatory and gender-inclusive rituals. Having taught more than 400 women for their adult bat mitzvahs, I have also witnessed the empowerment of women who chose to acquire and use Jewish skills from which they had been excluded.

Immediately upon graduation from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I became the full-time assistant rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, which then had about 1,200 member families. To my knowledge, no one left the congregation in protest, undoubtedly due to the specific culture of the DC area, with its substantial cohort of professional women. During my years at the congregation, I was unaware of anyone requesting a male rabbi to replace me for officiation in a congregational life-cycle event—brit milah/baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding or funeral. However, my initial full-time salary was less than half of that of my male predecessor. A congregational leader was reported to have said at a personnel committee meeting setting my low salary: “She has a husband.” Pay discrimination against women in the Conservative rabbinate has been documented as a persistent phenomenon.

Attempts at creative programming were often stifled by the male-dominated, hierarchical professional and lay leadership. I had to fly under the radar to create programming, including a symposium on visiting the sick, which produced the first contemporary Jewish guide to bikkur cholim and the first DC-area Jewish healing services; programs for engaged couples and first-time pregnant couples. Many of these initiatives, especially those related to family, reflected what might be called a woman’s perspective.

Avis D. Miller, a Reconstructionist rabbi, served as a rabbi of Adas Israel in Washington, DC from 1984 to 2008, the longest pulpit tenure of any woman in the Conservative movement.


Tova Mirvis


Tova MirvisFor me, growing up in the Orthodox world, rabbis were by definition men. Rabbis were in charge of religious life, which meant that men were in charge of religious life—of my religious life. That was the way the world looked; those were the roles that were assigned and unchangeable. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I didn’t imagine that the world might look any different.

When I spent a year in Israel, at Midreshet Lindenbaum, I was introduced to the world of Orthodox feminism and came into contact with many women who were extraordinary Torah scholars—women who, of course, were more than qualified and could have been rabbis had they been men. They changed my worldview and made me realize that I had grown up within one part of the Orthodox world, but that there was a vibrant learning community of women who, in that part of the Orthodox world, were changing the boundaries and were revolutionizing the notion of what it meant to be a Torah scholar.

And yet, the term “rabbi” still remained an impenetrable boundary. Some said, “What difference does a title make? What is the value of an institutional role? How far could the envelope be pushed? What did it mean to educate women to this level, yet still deny the title of rabbi?” These were the debates that I came of age with in the Orthodox feminist world.

My decision to leave Orthodoxy was not about the role of female clergy per se but about the constant need to hold conflicting and contradictory values and ideas at the same time and have to tell myself that I was not bothered by what in fact I was bothered by. Even with the changes, even with the opening of so much new ground on the Orthodox feminist frontier, I still believed that this was not a system in which women were equal to men. This became something I could no longer tell myself I could live with. This, along with the fact that I did not believe in the theological assertions on which these inequalities were supposedly based, was among the reasons I left.

Tova Mirvis is the author of the memoir The Book of Separation and three novels, including the bestseller The Ladies Auxiliary.


Marc D. Angel


Marc D. AngelWhile some Orthodox leaders have welcomed the participation of women as clergy, the “establishment” has been opposed. Not only has Agudath Israel issued prohibitions against women being ordained and serving as rabbis, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)—both historically viewed as mainstream Modern Orthodox—have strongly opposed the ordination of women as rabbis. Although they do not object to women serving as teachers or administrators, they object to conferring “ordination” on women and giving women titles that imply rabbinic credentials. Their basic argument is that ordaining women is a violation of tradition and halachic precedent. Orthodox supporters of engaging women as religious leaders obviously realize that this represents a change in historic patterns. But they also realize that we live in a new era when women receive unprecedented religious education, including not only sacred texts but also pastoral and communal training. Rabbinic leaders have written extensive papers demonstrating the halachic permissibility of women serving in positions of religious leadership. It seems that the real issue is not halachic, but psychological and sociological. It is emotionally difficult to overcome past patterns and attitudes.

The participation of women in our conferences, discussions and online conversations has been a boon to all of us. The women—using various titles such as rabbah, maharat, rabbanit—have expanded our range of concerns and our knowledge base. Surely, female clergy serve as inspirations to women congregants. But of equal importance, they break stereotypes about the “role of women”; they demonstrate to male and female congregants that women can lead communities wisely and sensitively.

Orthodox communities that wish to employ qualified women in rabbinical positions should be free to do so and should have our blessing. If some communities and rabbis do not wish to employ these women, that is their decision. The Modern Orthodox community should not fear positive change, but should welcome it. There are those who raise the fear of “the slippery slope.” Once one change is made, it will lead to others, and yet to others…and we will end up abandoning halacha altogether. While we do need to think carefully about the potential dangers of “slippery slopes,” we have another potential danger to consider: becoming a frozen fossil. With the inclusion of Orthodox female clergy, our community moves toward increased creativity, inclusivity—and vitality.

Marc D. Angel, an Orthodox rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.


Nadine Epstein


Nadine EpsteinBesides the new energy and the fresh perspectives on theology, scholarship, pastoral care and leadership, the entry of women into the ranks of Jewish clergy has ensured that much-sought-after holy grail: continuity. If not for an egalitarian clergy, most non-Orthodox American Jews would feel less connected to Judaism. This includes women and men, Jews from a range of denominations, post-denominational Jews, less affiliated Jews, cultural Jews, and oh yes, most young Jews, too. Even some modern Orthodox Jews would back off from their practice of Judaism.

Perhaps a more to-the-point question is: What might Judaism be like today if a few brave male rabbis and a few brave women who wanted to be rabbis had not fought for change? If we could take a break from navel gazing, we might learn a lesson from one of the religions in which a patriarchy continues to exercise complete control and forbids women from serving as clergy. The 2015 Pew Research Forum report “America’s Changing Landscape” found that the total number of Roman Catholics in the United States decreased by 3 million between 2007 and 2014. Of the nearly one-third of American adults who say they were raised Catholic, 41 percent no longer identify with the religion. That means that for every convert, more than six Catholics left the fold. Given the recent scandals that have rocked the church, the number of Catholics in the U.S. is continuing to plummet.

The exclusion of women from the priesthood—and even as deacons—is only one reason why so many Catholics now declare themselves “ex-Catholics,” but it is at the heart of this sad state of affairs. Liberal Catholics have fought for years for the inclusion of women without success. I once interviewed Mary Ramerman, who in 2001 took over the spiritual leadership of Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, New York, and was excommunicated along with her thriving congregation by the Roman Catholic diocese. “Excluding women as spiritual leaders,” she told me, “sends the message that not all people are created in the image of God,” a message that is internalized by women—and men—and “goes into everything we are doing in the world.”

Another woman who has dared to stand up to the Roman Catholic patriarchy is Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. Chittister tells a story of a churchgoing family she once stayed with who had a quick-minded four-year-old daughter. One Sunday morning after Mass, the child said, “Mama, why don’t we have any girl priests at our church?” The parents looked at one another, dumbstruck, unprepared. “Because, darling,” the mother said honestly, “our church doesn’t allow girl priests.” The little girl pursed her lips and frowned. “Then why do we go there?” she demanded.

Fortunately, Jewish four-year-old girls have role models today that I didn’t have as a child. That’s because Judaism has no pope and no central power structure, and although there are those who claim otherwise, no one way to interpret texts. Judaism has always grown through its encounters with the evolution of external thought, and we should be proud of this. It’s the sign of a healthy religion that it can remain relevant and meaningful. Lucky for us, the inclusion of women in the clergy, correcting a long-standing power imbalance based on outdated traditions, has strengthened Judaism for the future.

Nadine Epstein is the editor-in-chief and CEO of Moment Magazine.


Naamah Kelman-Ezrachi


Naamah Kelman-EzrachiIIsrael, we have the double hurdle of sexism and discrimination due to the overall dismissal of liberal Judaism here. Many of our male allies suffer from the same institutional discrimination as women. Really, we’re outside the Orthodox movement, so none of us are recognized by the official state rabbinate. Even so, in some cases, my male colleagues are still seen as more acceptable than women. For example, Israeli couples might prefer a male rabbi to officiate at a wedding that is not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate because he “looks the part.” This too is changing. Because of the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel, many secular Israelis see Judaism as antithetical to equality, feminism, inclusion and pluralism. Here too, we need to win the hearts and minds of these Israelis so they can reclaim a Judaism that is consonant with their worldview.

Women clergy have to fight the stereotype that we are supposed to bring the more emotional and softer side of Judaism and leave the intellectual heavy lifting to men. I call this the Jewish emphasis on “text-tosterone,” which men excel at. Women clergy have reshaped ritual, prayer, scholarship and community in ways that even my Reform rabbi grandfather would find startling and, I hope, remarkable. I would like to think that my daughter, who was ordained 25 years after I was, will not have the same battles to fight.

Naamah Kelman-Ezrachi, a Reform rabbi, is the dean of
the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. In 1992,
she was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in Israel.


April Baskin


April BaskinDiversity in the clergy is one of the most essential ways to convey a sense of belonging. When the tradition is entrusted to a group that wasn’t historically included, it’s a fundamentally deep statement that that group is worthy and trusted—not only with our tradition, but with our people and our community. When these groups are supported in key leadership roles, people begin to see that they’re needed—that it’s not just a luxury or an added bonus, but that their presence fundamentally enhances the quality and meaning of our collective Jewish experience. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois talks about how black people have a double consciousness. Jews of color—let alone women rabbis of color—have a multi-dimensional consciousness. Women rabbis of color understand what it’s like to be a woman in the context of patriarchy. They understand what it’s like to be a Jew in the context of a Christian society or Christian hegemony. They understand what it’s like to be a person of color in a broader white cultural context. There’s something truly powerful about someone with multiple identities—someone who is empowered to access the wisdom, insight and strength of all of those different identities and traditions simultaneously—serving in a clergy position.

April Baskin is the vice president of Audacious Hospitality for the Union for Reform Judaism.


Steven Pruzansky


Steven PruzanskyNot to rain on the parade, but female clergy in the Orthodox world are almost a non-factor. Its perceived public pervasiveness is primarily media-generated and agenda-driven, with repetitive stories telling the same tale in an attempt to normalize it in the Orthodox milieu. That has not succeeded. In my synagogue of more than 500 families, I have never been asked about it. The reasons against female ordination are rooted in Jewish law, custom, tradition and practicality. If the late Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary could term the notion of female clergy “laughable” from a Torah perspective (a chucha v’itlulah, in the Aramaic expression he used) then it is clear we are not discussing something that naturally emerges from Jewish sources but is rather an idea imported from a non-Jewish worldview and is entirely driven by foreign cultural norms and the embrace of the deity known as “modernity.”

Activists are engaged in an ongoing effort to blur and eliminate any distinction between men and women. The Torah abhors that sentiment and sees the division of roles between men and women as critical in sustaining the Jewish family, community and polity. There are things that men do that women cannot do, and there are things that women do that men cannot do. We tamper with that arrangement at our peril. The consequences of that tampering are already apparent in terms of declining Jewish commitment and observance among devotees of these changes.

Obviously, women have always made a vital and equal contribution to the preservation of Jewish life and the Torah world. But “equal” does not mean identical to that of men, and the assertion that women can achieve their maximum potential only by mimicking or duplicating the roles of men does not strike me as very “feminist.” It is self-defeating for women to judge the worth or merit of their activities by the standard of what men can or can’t do, and vice versa.

I don’t see female clergy as having any foundation or staying power in the Orthodox world. What is most likely to happen is that proponents of this endeavor will drift away from the fringes of Orthodoxy that they now inhabit and, sadly, tragically, sever their connection with traditional observance in the process.

Steven Pruzansky, an Orthodox rabbi, is the former vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America.


Adina Shmidman


Adina ShmidmanWhile the Torah values men and women equally, they are ascribed different responsibilities, a practice accepted, and expected, by the vast majority of Orthodox Jews. According to this standard, in our communities, men fill clergy roles and women do not. But the notion that women cannot lead and be represented fully in Orthodox Jewish life is untrue. To the contrary, our women hold important leadership positions in shuls, schools and many other Jewish communal institutions, where female perspective and decision-making influence all elements of Jewish life. Orthodox women serve as highly respected Torah educators and religious role models, offering spiritual guidance, delivering insightful shiurim and providing personal and pastoral counsel.

Perhaps most significant, however, is the Jewish woman’s less-public but extraordinarily powerful responsibility: the transmission of Jewish identity and heritage; the fulfillment of mitzvot uniquely designated for them; and the establishment of the spiritual tempo of the home. Jewish women create an atmosphere of religious growth through the “surround sound” of life experiences. Professional success and contemporary life have not stopped Orthodox women from nourishing their families physically, spiritually and intellectually and from bringing G-d and Torah into their homes. Our challenge is to further enable and ennoble women to value and appreciate the exceptional contributions they make to their own lives, and those of their families and communities, and for those contributions to be appreciated and respected in turn. Women’s voices have always existed as a force in Orthodox Judaism, and they continue to shape the Jewish world within the guidelines that Torah values dictate.

Adina Shmidman is the founding director of the Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative. She is an Orthodox rebbetzin, educational psychologist and educator.


Stephanie Ruskay


Stephanie RuskayHaving a diverse group of people able to interpret law, teach tradition and facilitate ritual and practice means that the diverse people they are leading will see themselves reflected in their leadership. Female clergy know what their own life experiences and struggles have been and are able to put these experiences to use in order to best serve their communities. As an example, female rabbis who have experienced issues related to fertility understand what it’s like for women in their community.

Female clergy still face challenges in the hiring process, salary negotiations and how their families are perceived in their communities. Some women opt out of large congregational leadership roles because it seems incompatible with being available to a partner and raising a family. Oftentimes, men negotiate more lucrative contracts, and parental leave is frequently a negotiating challenge for women rather than something congregations automatically include in contracts. In the hiring process, female candidates are frequently asked about their dating life, whether they are married and if/when they plan to have children. It is understandable that communities would want to know this information, but it is usually obtained in an invasive way.

Stephanie Ruskay, a Conservative rabbi, is the associate dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary.


Deborah Waxman


Deborah WaxmanFemale clergy add insights, leadership and new voices to Jewish communal conversations. This is true in the religious realm, but also in the organizational and cultural ones. It’s transformative for everyone in contact with the Jewish community, because they see that an ancient culture and tradition that has deep patriarchal roots can be changed while maintaining core commitments and values, such as ethical spiritual leadership, and embracing new ones, such as gender equality.

I believe that feminist Judaism offers a redemptive vision for all Jews. But I’m saddened and perplexed that with the rise of women in religious leadership, many men have stepped back from the clergy and from religious participation. This is far from unique to Jews. The feminization of religion and the retreat of men is characteristic of modernity and has been going on for several hundred years. Sometimes this retreat is expressed through ambivalence, sometimes it’s open hostility to or discrimination against women who have broken into leadership, and sometimes the barriers are so fiercely policed that qualified and effective women cannot rise up.

Even when women are in the room, it doesn’t mean that anything necessarily changes. When women ask for or agitate for change, we are still too often chided as partisan or shrill or irritating. This has to be a communal project and a communal commitment. I am heartened by those who agree not to participate in “manels,” that is, all-male panels, but this is not yet common practice, and when women are included it is often as tokens. I had a deeply moving experience recently at a national leadership gathering. The group of 30 people was fairly evenly divided between men and women. When my friend and colleague Robert Bank, the CEO of American Jewish World Service, was called on, he said, “I can’t possibly speak after three men in a row have just spoken. I cede my place to the next woman in the queue.” His attentiveness to the overall dynamic and willingness to step back took my breath away. We need to work together toward a moment when this dynamic is natural and easily practiced rather than breathtaking when it happens.

Deborah Waxman, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the president of Reconstructing Judaism. She is the first woman to head a Jewish seminary and congregational union.


Eric Alterman


Eric AltermanMainstream Judaism has become profoundly feminized and increasingly, most of the lay positions in professional Jewish organizations are held by women. This should not be surprising, as women have always done much of the work of Judaism. In previous times, they cleaned the house, fed the kids and earned the money so that men could study. Now they are taking over the institutions. I admire many of these female leaders. At the same time, even if we don’t deserve them, men have gotten used to our prerogatives. It is not always easy for men to work for women because they have different ways of being. There will be significant areas of discomfort for the men who are used to running things. On the balance, that is all to the good.

Orthodox Jews, however, simply are not going to accept women as clergy because they believe the Torah forbids it. So this issue is causing a further schism between Orthodox and more secular Jews. We all decide which parts of the laws of the Torah are relevant to our lives, and that is also true in terms of women’s equality. Women contributing their energy, empathy and imagination to Judaism is good for everyone. However, female clergy will probably precipitate a further crowding out of secular Jews by Orthodox Jews in the coming decades. I believe that is a reasonable price to pay in order to come closer to realizing the ideals of “liberal” Judaism. And if that means the “unity” of the Jewish people is reduced, that doesn’t bother me. We are not “one” and never were.

Eric Alterman, a CUNY distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, is a media columnist for The Nation and the author of ten books


David Wolpe


David WolpeFemale clergy have changed Jewish life in innumerable ways. They have brought a sensibility and an experience of half the Jewish population to a leadership that had not included their voices. They have given greater comfort to female congregants, who felt uneasy bringing certain problems to a man. The number of new teachers, bringing a different sensitivity to the text, has increased tremendously. The distance between laypeople and clergy has also been diminished.

That said, all changes are difficult. It is a new model, and people still have to get used to the identification of rabbi with women. Some people, even while intellectually approving, find themselves emotionally unable to make the transition away from the experience of their youth. There is also the vexing question of things like tefillin—do you make it mandatory and suggest those women who don’t wear tefillin are somehow in the wrong? And if it is not mandatory, then are women essentially different from men, for whom it is mandatory, even if not always observed?

I don’t believe the rise of female clergy has erased the very real distinction in the way women and men perceive and react to the world. But it has erased the idea that there are certain tasks of leadership that are more suited to men. It has also expanded our idea of spiritual leadership in a way that is healthy for women and men alike. I have read that men tend to shy away from professions where women predominate. That may be happening in the clergy. But I suspect this will be short-lived and a phenomenon of shift rather than permanence. In the end, spiritual yearnings are universal, and so should the reflection of that in our clergy—gay, straight, men, women, on and on—the variety of humanity helping humanity.

David Wolpe is a Conservative rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.


Stacy Offner


Stacy OffnerI1987, I was fired from my position as associate rabbi, soon after coming out to my congregation. It was overt and it was very public, there was a headline in the newspaper that read, “Lesbian rabbi fired.” I myself had not put the two words “lesbian” and “rabbi” together in such a public way before that. I was a rabbi. I was a lesbian. Combining them publicly was groundbreaking for me and the Jewish world.

When I was in rabbinical school in the early 1980s, I was out to myself, to my close friends and to my personal world. I was not out to the school because the policy was such that I would not have been ordained. So every day I made decisions about how to balance my integrity and my sense of who I authentically was with not allowing hatred, misconceptions, homophobia and sexism to dictate my future opportunities.

It is important to have Jewish people of all sorts become Jewish clergy. We must be open to all Jewish people who are inspired to serve in this way. All Jews with a commitment to living a life of Jewish ethics, values, learning and community must have access to these roles. It is a matter of fundamental human equality. Neither female rabbis nor LGBTQ rabbis are representative of the dominant culture, but both intersect with being Jewish. Women are the Jews of gender, and LGBTQ Jews are the Jews of sexuality. As minorities, we bring a special perspective and a different approach to the rabbinate. The rabbinate becomes richer by having individuals with a larger variety of backgrounds and experiences—that is equally true regardless of whether we are talking about gender, sexuality, race or nationality.

Stacy Offner, the first openly lesbian rabbi, was also the first rabbi elected
chaplain of the Minnesota Senate, the first female vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism and the first woman to serve on the U.S. National Rabbinical Pension Board.


Blu Greenberg


Blu GreenbergThe inflow of female clergy has had a very powerful effect on Jewish life, across all denominations. First is the excellence quotient—doubling the pool of rabbinic talent yields more cream at the top. As in any service profession where human interaction is of the essence, a more talented pool from which to choose a rabbi means all of the following: a better-educated laity; more spiritual inspiration and activism; increased observance, prayer and ritual; greater commitment to Jewish continuity—and hopefully to Israel; more tzedakah, more song, more religious fire…All this, not because one gender brings different talents but because two genders bring more talent to the selection process. But I must admit this is conjecture; it is too soon to really know whether gender makes a profound and lasting difference in rabbinic style and content.

Another effect has been the modeling of collegiality in leadership roles, again across all denominations. Credit goes to a male rabbinate that made room for female leadership at the top so seamlessly in one short generation; credit also goes to female clergy who arrived more recently at the top and showed gender collegiality.

Traditional roles such as that of the rebbetzin have also changed greatly. Rebbetzins are surely among the most generous-spirited women to walk this earth. They fall largely into the class of two-career-one-salary jobs that also characterized wives of Christian clergy. Today, however, the roles of rebbetzins and their pride of place have been taken over by women rabbis who often become the darlings of their communities. It is my experience that the class of rebbetzins have been supportive and non-competitive, showing amazing, unwavering grace. Perhaps some of this is because they mostly now have their own satisfying careers. Still, that is not the whole story, and rebbetzins deserve to be recognized for all that they have done, past and present.

There is still resistance to women rabbis because they are so new; it’s the blink of an eye as Jews count time. The role of rabbi, exclusively filled by men for generations, is confirmed by layer upon layer of halachic texts; no amount of novel interpretation can change that fact. Moreover, gender issues are more visceral than intellectual. What people are used to is even harder to change than what they recall as exclusively legitimate. That is why the front-runners in every denomination are so important. A model is worth a thousand debates on the subject.

Blu Greenberg chaired the first and second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy and founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Her books include On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition.

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3 thoughts on “How Have Female Clergy Transformed Jewish Life, Ritual and Practice?

  1. Please include women Cantors as transformers and transmitters of spirit and music, culture education and pastoral love- we are on the front lines and deserve a place in this article- please remember in the future!
    For 36 years the Women Cantors’ Network has supported women Cantors and those interested – we would love to be part of this discussion!

  2. I would like to add a few more names to the list of groundbreaking Jewish scholars and teachers mentioned in the historical overview above. These are Jewish women from the Middle East, who deserve to be recognized and praised for their extraordinary achievements in learning and spreading Jewish knowledge and leadership.
    Asenath Barazani (1590–1670), was a renowned Jewish woman who lived in Iraq. Her writings demonstrate her mastery of Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah. Barzani was given the title Tanna’it. She served as head of a yeshiva, and is considered the first female rabbi of Jewish history by some scholars.
    Flora Sassoon (1859–1936) was an Indian businesswoman, scholar, Hebraist and philanthropist. She studied Mishna and Talmud, published scholarly articles and was highly respected by leading rabbinic figures of her time.
    Frecha bat Yosef (1730?-1756) was born in Morocco and moved to Tunisia where she also died during the Ottoman war on Tunis. A rabbi’s daughter, she was an educated woman who wrote poetry in beautiful Biblical Hebrew.
    Sarah Elezra Haliwah (1910-2004), born in Morocco and moved to Israel later in her life. She was born to a family of scholars and also married one, and was famous for her own vast knowledge of Jewish sources. In Morocco, she studied Torah in a heder with the boys and later in a yeshiva, where she also learned Talmud, Halacha and kabbalah from the luminaries of the time.

  3. Eva Robbins says:

    When I was13, growing up in a post-Holocaust community in Toronto, I wasn’t allowed to sing in the ‘all-male’ choir or become Bat Mitzvah. Some of us had to overcome the boundaries and obstacles of our tradition and culture. My husband, Steve Robbins, who was ordained with Sally in 1972, supported and encouraged my ongoing search and transformation and I became a Cantor at age 57 and Rabbi at age 68. Don’t forget about us late-bloomers who have struggled internally to overcome our own in-bread prejudice and comfort with male dominated leadership only to discover our own strength and talent and bring it to the table much later in our lives.

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