Celebration: 30 Years Ago, JTS Admitted Women Into The Rabbinical School

For two days this week, at its annual convention, the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis, devoted itself to reflecting on a significant anniversary in the history of the Conservative movement. Thirty years ago, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the storied academic center of that movement, made the momentous decision to admit women to its Rabbinical School, and ultimately ordain them as rabbis.

When I was ordained by JTS in 1981, the battle for women's ordination had been fully engaged. There had been a lengthy process during which the halachic parameters of the issue were researched and Conservative Jews around the country were given the chance to be heard on the subject. Ultimately, then-Chancellor Gerson Cohen, of blessed memory, charged the Seminary's faculty with making the decision, having concluded that there were no halachic barriers per se to women serving in the rabbinate.

Though we're talking here about a process that began more than thirty years ago, the memories of that time are still fresh in my mind. The Seminary faculty was powerfully divided, and the laity of the movement was conflicted as well. All around, there was, simultaneously, the exhilaration that comes with knowing that you're living through a pivotal moment in history, and also the fear that emanates from the awareness that any decision taken or not taken could have potentially disastrous results for the movement, and for American Judaism as a whole.

Thirty years later, it is clear to those of us who had eagerly anticipated and welcomed this change that it was one of our movement’s finest moments. The dialectical line between tradition and change that informs Conservative Judaism is a notoriously difficult one to navigate, and there will always be a voice to express a contrarian point of view no matter the issue that is being debated. But I have long felt that rather than having to defend itself against charges of abandoning tradition and subverting Judaism, the Seminary should be proud of having taken a serious and even critical step in bringing its core ideological raison d’etre into sync with contemporary life. This was a defining moment in American Judaism, and its ripple effects are still being felt. Whatever demographic challenges the Conservative movement faces are in no way a reflection on the fundamental rightness of this decision.

As I sat in the sessions this week devoted to celebrating this anniversary, I came to two realizations, each of which was, in its own way, important to me.

The first has to do with both what these women experienced on their way to this critical decision, and also how they have fared since then.

Woman after woman gave expression to the enormous heartache that was an inevitable part of their struggle to create this change. In many instances they were ridiculed and harassed, at best not taken at all seriously, and their fight to gain the right to become rabbis was not only long but also lonely. As I listened to them, I realized that I hadn’t ever really internalized their truth, because I had had a completely different experience. I couldn’t say, “I know what you mean,” because I didn’t. My road was completely different as a man. I was encouraged and praised from day one of my rabbinic journey, and that in no small way helped to facilitate what has evolved into a very successful rabbinate. They were working to beat the odds; I was working with them.

Additionally, even once the decision was made and these women were accepted into the Rabbinical School and subsequently ordained, their professional journey has been fraught with difficulties and hurdles. It still does not come naturally to many men, and women, to relate easily and/or seriously to women as clergy, and this manifests itself still in everything from job searches to attitudes that one encounters on the job. My female colleagues have a far more difficult path to rabbinic success than I did. If nothing else, this insight made the sessions of the past two days worthwhile for me.

But the second insight is no less significant, and one might fairly say that its implications are not knowable. As I was discussing all of this with a (male) rabbinic colleague and friend, he suggested, and I completely agree, that we don’t even have a clue yet what the long-term implications of the Seminary’s decision will be.

In the length and breadth of Jewish history, thirty years is something akin to the wink of an eye. By excluding women from religious leadership roles, the ancient (and modern, actually) rabbis have kept the proverbial genie in the bottle, along with all of her powers. I have little doubt that the ancient rabbis were well aware of women’s abilities and powers, and that, I’m sure, contributed to their need to control them. The Seminary’s decision (at least for the Conservative movement) let the genie out. Who knows how women will change the face of the religious world, or how their unique spiritual sensitivities and insights into Torah and the great questions of the ages will change the face of the Jewish world?

I surely don’t. I can’t. None of us can. But what I came away with from this week’s conference was the certainty that I very much wanted to find out. Mazal tov to my female colleagues on this milestone anniversary, and my greatest respect is extended to the women of all Jewish denominations who continue to show great courage in their quest for equality. Hizku V’Imtzu! Be strong and resilient; the Jewish world sorely needs your best efforts!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.