I heard my voice crack with unexpected emotion last week when I participated in a panel discussion at a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the ordination of women as rabbis in the Conservative movement. It was a fine panel with Blu Greenberg, the force behind Orthodox feminism; Alisa Doctoroff, president of the board of UJA-Federation of New York; and Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, as moderator. Our topic was how the ordination of women by the seminary had impacted the Conservative movement and the larger American Jewish community.
The emotion in my voice crept in at the very end of our discussion, when Chancellor Eisen asked each of us for a final word. I looked out at the audience of women and men, and was suddenly overwhelmed by how much this cause of ordaining women had meant to me when it began three decades ago. I saw the faces of women I had known back then, women who pioneered as the first to enter the rabbinate, with all the struggles and stresses that implied, and I felt tears beginning to well up. I hadn’t seen some of the women in years, but I knew that each in her own way had enriched the Jewish community. And all I could think to sputter out was how privileged I felt to have been part of the journey the women and the movement as a whole took.
My role in that journey resulted from being appointed in 1977 by then-JTS Chancellor Gerson Cohen to a commission created to study the issue of ordaining women in Conservative Judaism. A group of women, calling themselves Ezrat Nashim, had raised the issue at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in 1972. Our commission heard testimony from scholars, who proved that no halachic barriers prevented women from being rabbis, and from many lay people who felt the time had come for equality in the Conservative rabbinate. I talked about that history early in our panel discussion, and about what it was like back then when plenty of Conservative synagogues still barred women even from having aliyot to say the blessings over the Torah.
But our panel focused mostly on the here and now. Blu Greenberg spoke of the inspiration the Conservative community offered her and others within Orthodoxy as it painstakingly found its way — “two steps forward and one step backward” — toward ordaining women. Today there are numbers of Orthodox women serving in congregational positions, carrying various titles, even if not “rabbi.” Blu also pointed to the “two-way street” through which Orthodox women’s devotion to Torah study has influenced women in the more liberal movements. And she raised the problems both male and female rabbis in all denominations face as so many Jews pull away from synagogue life altogether — an issue that requires a conference of its own.
Alisa Doctoroff, too young then to have been involved in the ordination battle, spoke about the effects of its success all around us today: in the expansion of women’s participation in ritual, such as reading Torah or holding baby-naming ceremonies; in women serving as presidents of synagogues and chairs of boards of major institutions, such as Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary; and, I thought as I listened to her, in her own role as head of New York’s UJA-Federation. Who ever heard of women having such power and prestige in Jewish life 30 years ago?
In a second panel discussion, we were treated to a mother-daughter dialogue between feminist activist and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Abigail Pogrebin, who, among other things, has been writing a widely read column in the Jewish Daily Forward on observing every holiday on the Jewish calendar during this year. Letty told of the rich Jewish background her childhood provided, and her complete break from Judaism in rebellion against her father, who would not allow her to say Kaddish for the mother she lost when only 15. As she has found her way back, Jewishly, she has greatly regretted not having given her children any Jewish learning. But Abigail has followed her own route deep into the tradition, and the conversation between the two on women and Judaism sparkled with humor and intelligence — and love.
In the evening, the women rabbi pioneers of 30 years ago were honored, and we all stood up and applauded them. Yes, I got a little choked up again. And I thought about Chancellor Eisen’s closing remarks on our panel. As a man, he said, he has been influenced in at least three ways by women’s entering the rabbinate: in his experience of the synagogue itself, in the women’s insights into texts, and in his thinking about the nature and meaning of God.
There are now 300 female members in the Rabbinical Assembly. They enhance all our lives.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day,” is now an e-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.