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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
AVI SHAFRAN, an Orthodox rabbi, is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
I 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.
SANDY SASSO was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism (1974). She is the director of the Religion...