Ask the Rabbis | How Is Judaism Different After Half a Century of Female Clergy?

Fifty years ago, Sally Priesand was ordained as a Reform rabbi, the first female clergy member in American Jewish history. To mark this anniversary, we asked rabbis, male and female, to reflect.
a woman centered in the image of Hebrew texts

HUMANIST

In 1969, I asked a rabbinical school to send me an application and quickly discovered that women were not eligible to be rabbis. Who knew? My innocence, ignorance and timing delayed my goal to become a rabbi, but I was not dissuaded. With gratitude to Sally Priesand for being a pioneer, I could be—and was—ordained 20 years ago as a Secular Humanistic rabbi.

Ordaining women rabbis opened a many-thousands-year-old closed door in Judaism, helping to clear the way for others who had been denied leadership roles. Making Jewish leadership available to women made it more accessible to LGBTQ+ individuals, Jews of color, Jews of patrilineal descent, Jews by choice and, in time, secular and Humanistic Jews and ultimately intermarried Jews. I fall into three of those groups.

From the moment women were accepted into the rabbinate, Judaism became more inclusive and welcoming in every way. When Jewish clergy are diverse, those who have been marginalized feel represented by Jewish leadership. Jews who saw no place for themselves in the Jewish community can now look around and recognize that they are home.
Rabbi Miriam Jerris
Society for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI

INDEPENDENT

In the past 50 years, women began to count—literally. From the inception of rabbinic Judaism centuries ago, men became obligated to engage in tefillah, prayer. Replacing the sacrificial system, it became the way of coming close to God, but also of communing with fellow Jews. Women could sometimes opt into this system in varying ways, but they never became obligated as men were.

More recently, opt-in for women has shifted to a culture of opt-in for all. For most liberal Jews, men or women, religious obligation is not a substantial or actualized piece of one’s relationship with Judaism. As in the rest of our society, we rely less on community and conform less. This presents both a danger and an opportunity for the future of Judaism. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (z’’l) wrote: “When it comes to making a contribution, numbers do not count.” He understood that immense contributions can be made by few people.

Though it took a monumental change for women to count—and then lead—in a minyan, counting in a minyan may no longer be how we measure religious fulfillment. Instead, each of us can connect a personalized Judaism and a personal faith and practice to a greater whole.
Rabbi Elyssa Joy Austerklein
Ivrim—Jews Without Borders
Akron, OH

RENEWAL

Can anyone doubt that Judaism is a profoundly different and more just institution now that half of our people are represented in public worship and leadership? We owe so much to our female clergy and male allies, to our pioneers and those who came after, to the rabbis and cantors who fought to secure a place on the bimah, garner respect in the community and lift up their voices to God.

When you look at our sacred texts, it is clear that part of their richness comes from the multiple modalities they employ—stories, spiritual encounters, laws and legal analysis, speeches, poetry and more. And yet, in our rabbinic discourse of the last 1,500 years, one modality came to dominate—halacha, or Jewish law. Female Jewish clergy have helped bring about a great rebalancing of religious energies, making Judaism more relational, more inclusive, more attuned to the wisdom of personal narratives and more likely to view the divine not as the hierarchical, gendered King of Kings but—in Rabbi Stephanie Crawley’s words—“the God who sits beside me and weeps with me.”

Some markers of progress are in danger of getting rolled back even after 50 years. Thankfully, not this one.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA

RECONSTRUCTIONIST 

Women’s leadership, including as rabbis, has changed and enriched Judaism enormously. In fact, I think it has contributed significantly to a renewal of Judaism in North American Jewish communities. It has changed the way we read Torah, transforming, for example, the way we understand the biblical stories of Miriam, Sarah, Tamar, Dinah and so many others. It has enriched the cultural life of the Jewish community, reviving attention to the work of Yiddish poets such as Kadia Molodowsky, Celia Dropkin and Anna Margolin. It has inspired a new generation of women writers, filmmakers and musicians.
In the congregation, women rabbis have challenged the conventional styles of leadership, making room for a range of leadership styles that root authority in caring, compassion and accessibility. Having women rabbis has meant so much to women in the congregation seeking pastoral counseling on issues unique to women, and it has created new role models for young Jewish girls. It has brought more Jewish women to Jewish learning and text study and broadened and deepened Jewish engagement.
The success of this virtual revolution in Jewish life has made clear the imperative to work for full inclusion of all Jews who have historically experienced marginalization in Jewish communities. There is still so much to do. But the past 50 years of transformation can be a source of hope and strength for the journey.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Congregation
Vineyard Haven, MA

REFORM

Thirty years ago, in a Back to the Future-type moment, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, in an essay entitled “A Visit to the Future,” imagined how women in the rabbinate would impact our Jewish community. In several ways, her predictions have been realized. Judaism and our world are better for it.

“In the future,” she wrote, “the Jewish past will look different.” While we cannot change the past, the stories we tell about the past and the perspectives we bring to thinking and learning about the past have surely changed. In the future, she thought, we would have more inclusive communities, spaces of belonging for Jews of all orientations, genders, abilities, racial and cultural backgrounds. There is much work still to be done in this regard, but indeed progress has been made.

In the future, she imagined, women rabbis will have “helped the Jewish community see its history of pain as a window into the pain of others.” Women’s empathy will have “cracked open Jewish particularism… and turned [the community] outward to the world” to help heal the injustices we see around us each and every day. In this regard, our world may be that much more just and whole because women are teaching, leading and inspiring.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

Since women first entered the American rabbinate, Jewish communities have benefited from an enlarged and diversified talent pool. Women clergy have made their mark on the Jewish world in their scholarship, teaching and preaching.

By definition, women and men are different. Our life experiences and understandings have yielded different lessons and caused us to ask different questions. These differences add texture and depth to the Jewish world, with new interpretations of sacred texts, traditional ceremonies, customs and rituals.

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Women lead differently from men. Research has shown that women tend to have a more cooperative, participatory leadership style. They are more likely to ask for advice and be thought of as good listeners. The lives that women bring to the liberal (meaning non-Orthodox) rabbinate have also helped change the shape of rabbinic careers and the career expectations of both men and women.

Many women clergy had to balance the demands of career advancement and motherhood. This new balancing act has both introduced a new kind of role model to the rabbinate and changed its trajectory. A successful rabbinate is no longer defined by the size of a congregation. Women have introduced, or worked to find, many different career choices within the rabbinate and have used relationships cultivated and lives touched as a meaningful metric of their career.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

OPEN ORTHODOX

Women represent 50 percent of the population, so their religious leadership helps connect the community to its spiritual leaders.

Women have certainly added our perspective on interpreting Torah and bringing our female voice and perspective into Jewish law. But women are also continuing the evolution of the rabbinate in general. In 1900, the rabbi was male, and the emphasis was on his intellect and Jewish knowledge. Then with the Reform movement, the ideal rabbi had to have a PhD and engage with the secular world. More recently, a rabbi had to be a CEO, a fundraiser and a program director who could manage the organization.

Having more women is helping to expand what it means to have a pulpit. A pulpit can impact people through hospitals, schools or university campuses. I’m hoping to see the profession look a little more family-centric, so the rabbi doesn’t have to be available 24/7 to the community. Within the Orthodox movement the emphasis has been on rabbis’ halachic knowledge, but even Orthodox rabbis are now directors of pastoral care and of schools and are available all the time. Even though personally my rabbinate has been one of complete availability, I think it’s OK to have some separation, and it would use the skills of women who desperately want to serve.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Yeshivat Maharat
Bronx, NY

MODERN ORTHODOX

The admission of women into the rabbinate and religious leadership was a historic achievement of the 20th century. But if people expected it to resolve the crisis of the synagogue in American life, they were disappointed. Women are only human. They were invited in as full partners in a time when the synagogue was losing its centrality. As in any human cohort, some women are extraordinary spiritual leaders and community builders, and their communities have become religious powerhouses and nuclei of religious and ethical vitality. Others are idealistic, devoted and doing their best with a shrinking synagogue base.

Still, the inclusion of women is a major step toward realizing Judaism’s prophetic/messianic vision, in which all women attain equality and full dignity. “On that [messianic] day,” says Hosea, “you [= women] will call me ishi [=my husband/man/God] and not anymore baali [=my husband/master]” (Hosea 2:18). The Torah’s core vision is that God created the human being in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), endowing each one with three intrinsic dignities: infinite value, equality and uniqueness (Sanhedrin 37A). Women clergy and leaders are an important aspect of the ethical/social upgrade of society.

How can I, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, write the above knowing that the Haredi Orthodox totally reject, and the Modern Orthodox religious establishment oppose and indeed prohibit, women clergy? In the words of Blu Greenberg, “Fifty years is like the blink of an eye in the 4,000 years of Jewish tradition.” During this half-century, Orthodox women have been admitted to full learning of rabbinic and halachic literature. They have developed spiritually through women’s prayer groups and partnership minyanim. Hundreds have received ordination or the title of Maharat [manhigah hilchatit ruhanit toranit = halachic spiritual Torah leader]. I believe that this feminine flowering is the wave of the future for Orthodoxy as well. Full equality may not happen in my lifetime, but remember: You heard it here first.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the
Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY

ORTHODOX

The entrance of women into the non-Orthodox rabbinate posed a challenge to the Orthodox community. It reacted in two ways. Watching from the sidelines, the Orthodox community found greater confidence in what it had: a rabbinate focused on the spiritual leader’s erudition in Torah texts. Traditionally, a rabbi was first and foremost a Torah teacher. Although the pastoral role of rabbis has grown even in the Orthodox world, pastoral duties—counseling, administration, running schools and projects—had for long been an accepted province of women. What women weren’t doing was deciding halachic issues, which requires, in our belief, many years of immersive training in Torah. Given a chance to reflect, the Orthodox community reasserted its confidence in the traditional roles and rejected the model of the non-Orthodox rabbinate for both men and women.

Women’s expanded role as spiritual leaders outside of Orthodoxy also prompted Orthodox communities to ask: “Are there new roles for women that we can and should consider? How far are we going to go? Where are the boundaries?” The resounding vote of the mainstream Orthodox community, both clergy and lay people, has been not to change our attitude toward granting women smicha, rabbinic ordination, but to see expanded roles in other ways. There are now very well-formulated programs of deeper and higher learning for women on both sides of the Atlantic, owed partly to the challenge posed by the opening up of the non-Orthodox rabbinate to women.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

NEO-SEPHARDIC

The National Geographic documentary Women of Impact: Changing the World tells the story of female pioneers in science and exploration. One of its most memorable and recurring themes is visibility. Many of the trailblazing women who started their work in the 1950s and 1960s said that, when they were growing up, the explorers they saw on TV and even the narrators of nature and science shows were always white men. It was courageous women such as Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle who made women part of the picture. They inspired the next generation of women explorers and scientists, and their numbers and influence keep growing.

Similarly, in the world of Jewish clergy, each new generation sees more amazing and inspiring women in the role of rabbis, cantors and chaplains. Female clergy are now a reality, and women are visible, but we still have a long way ahead of us. This revolution must reach all corners of the Jewish world.

My grandfather used to proudly tell me how his sister defied their father, Hakaham Yehudah Fetaya of Baghdad, who told her in the 1930s that Talmud was not for women to study. That teenage girl, my great-aunt Lulu, made a deal with one of her father’s students.

She taught him the Book of Daniel, and he introduced her to Talmud. It is painful to think of all the wisdom lost in thousands of years of exclusion. How much better could we have been, as a nation, without it? I have the deepest appreciation and gratitude for the female clergy of today, and I hope that their numbers will increase rapidly.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah veAhava
Potomac, MD

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One thought on “Ask the Rabbis | How Is Judaism Different After Half a Century of Female Clergy?

  1. Brad Feig says:

    The future for Women Rabbis looks dismal. They are finding positions mainly in Reform and some Conservative congregations. However with the large intermarriage rate in the US the non-Orthodox population is declining and more and more Reform Temples are merging or going under with the consequence of less opportunities for female clergy.

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