Women were first counted in prayer quorums in liberal Judaism by the early 1800s. But it took until 1935 for the first female rabbi’s ordination — Regina Jonas in Germany — and another 37 years until the second.
Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained through the Reform movement in the United States in 1972, followed by Reconstructionist Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso in 1974. By 1985, the Conservative movement followed suit, and there was an international domino effect of first female graduates from each denomination’s rabbinical schools.
For the young graduates, finding a receptive congregation and being hired for a pulpit position was the next hurdle. Even today this proves sometimes insurmountable in more conservative Jewish communities, often, ironically, in the Europe where the first female rabbi was ordained 80 years ago.
But now that women are the majority in seminary classes and lead hundreds of communities around the globe (albeit usually at lower salaries than their male counterparts), what about their sister suffragettes from Modern Orthodoxy who are just getting started on their feminist leadership journeys?
The fact is, if the Grand Central Station for feminism in religious Judaism is complete egalitarianism, none of the denominations has yet reached the terminal.
“I think that you have to look at these things as a progression. All the women from the different denominations are in the same dialogue. They’re all grappling with the same sets of issues. It’s just happening at a different pace and with a different focus in the different denominations. Also, with different solutions in some cases,” says feminism scholar Dr. Elana Sztokman, the former head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).
In a conversation with The Times of Israel ahead of International Women’s Day, Sztokman says men and women are still not perceived and treated equally by mainstream society.
“We have not completed the feminist revolution by any stretch of the imagination… Women are still looked at as girls, as mothers, as sex objects. The Jewish community and America in general has a hard time seeing women without that extra baggage,” says Sztokman.
To a synagogue board screening candidates, part of the “baggage” includes the tendency to take time off for childrearing.
“Women still make the career compromises and take more time off for childrearing… synagogues and other Jewish employers are not as flexible as they could be with work sharing or child care or accommodations for nursing,” says Montreal transplant to Israel, Conservative Rabbi Miriam C. Berkowitz.
And that’s at the synagogues that are interested in hiring a woman to begin with.
“Some shuls still consider a ‘real rabbi’ or cantor a man… It still bothers me when Conservative listserves post job offerings, for example, for shuls in Europe, and say ‘only men need apply,'” says Berkowitz.
This sexism is hardly limited to hiring practices. As a doctoral student at Brandeis University, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Prof. Renée Levine Melammed “suffered from a tremendous amount of discrimination,” she says.
“Women’s studies was belittled; I was asked if I expected to get an A on the basis of my ‘pretty face,'” says Melammed.
Lest it be thought that this sexism is a thing of the past, Conservative Rabbi Elana Zelony, 37, says that while meeting with a hiring board for a position, “I was even slapped on the behind by the president of the congregation during the interview.”
But for Rabbi Debra Cantor, who graduated with the first cohort of Conservative women rabbis in 1985, embracing her female “baggage” has made her the successful rabbi she is today.
“I now understand that so much of the way we function in the world is gendered; my rabbinate is definitely shaped by my being in the world as a woman, as a spouse, a mother, etc. All of that is essential to who I am. And I no longer struggle with the question of authenticity… at all,” says Cantor.
The new frontier: Female Orthodox clergy
As late as the 1990s in some Orthodox communities, questions that today seem almost ridiculously passe were widely discussed. Rachel Friedman, a longtime Orthodox Jewish educator, grappled with them. She recently founded Lamdeinu, a new center for religious co-ed learning in Teaneck, New Jersey.
“Many of the issues that I encountered or observed as a woman teaching Torah in public fora in the 1990s will sound to some like yesterday’s news: Can a woman scholar in residence in a synagogue teach Torah to both men and women? Can a woman scholar speak from the pulpit to the entire congregation after tefillah [prayer] is over on Shabbat morning? To what audiences in schools and shuls can women teach Talmudic and rabbinic texts?” says Friedman.
Rabbanit Malka Bina, the founder and chancellor of Matan Institute for Jewish Studies, has been on the forefront of this evolutionary path of religious women’s scholarship and leadership for the past 40 years. Although they become legal experts in some halachic areas in ways comparable to Orthodox rabbis, Matan, like Yeshivat Maharat, does not bestow upon its students the title “rabbi.”
“I think the progress in the area of Jewish women’s leadership has been incredible. It has been a steady process that has taken place in an evolutionary way. Because women in ever greater numbers now have expertise in Jewish texts and Jewish law, they have the tools to teach others, lead communities and to shape future generations. I look forward with great excitement to witnessing the ever expanding influence of women in Jewish society and take pride in having been part of this odyssey,” Bina says.
Some women in the Modern Orthodox world who are just beginning their paths toward religious leadership have observed their pioneering peer’s challenges in liberal Judaism and, in many cases, adopted solutions from traditional lifestyles.
In transit to perform a wedding in Australia, Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat student Melanie Landau says, “Even liberal movements who may give women space to take on more ritual acts suffer from blights of sexism and structural challenges of being in mixed environments.” She adds, “Despite this, of course, we are also enjoying the fruits of their pioneering work.”
Landau says that for her, Yeshivat Maharat’s female environment “presents a powerful counterforce against sexism and potentially internalized sexism too.”
“The strength accrued in an all-women student environment prepares the ground for us to work in community with men,” says Landau.
For these Orthodox women on the seam — those who feel friction between Jewish tradition and a modern egalitarian sensibility — as well as for many Liberal women rabbis in far-flung parts of the Jewish Diaspora, the key to change is evolution, not American-style revolution. They are working within their readings of tradition to keep themselves within the community, while charting slow and steady progress.
But some feel progress needs a little prodding.
“Recently, I have started studying halacha for private ordination. My studies are not intended to be revolutionary or even a major ideological step. Rather, they are a natural evolution for me personally and the progressive Orthodox world as a whole,” says Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, a Talmud teacher at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
‘My studies are not intended to be revolutionary or even a major ideological step. Rather, they are a natural evolution for me personally and the progressive Orthodox world as a whole’
“All of my male colleagues are rabbis, and my students and community have long looked to me to for halachic guidance. Now I am just preparing for and passing tests to back that up,” says Hammer-Kossoy.
The Pardes community, which was the frontier of the first Orthodox, yet halachically egalitarian partnership minyan services at the beginning of the 2000s, may well be ripe for a female Orthodox rabbi. Hammer-Kossoy certainly wouldn’t be the first to receive private ordination there.
The non-denominational institution is known for progressive coed learning which draws participants of all backgrounds. Many of its graduates continue to rabbinical schools across the spectrum and serve communities around the world.
“My observation is that history moves slowly, communities move at their own paces based on many considerations and try to reach consensus,” says Friedman, a former educator at New York’s progressive Drisha Institute who founded her own learning center in 2014 in Teaneck that also aims to draw Jews from all denominations.
“Each community is different and for some it is easier and more smooth than for others,” says Sydney, Australia, Liberal Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio.
What feminist scholar Sztokman hopes to see in the future is more interdenominational collaboration between women Jewish leaders.
“I’d like to see more of a coalition of Jewish feminist groups so we can all see ourselves as working together,” Sztokman says. “We have cases where women are struggling so hard for their own piece of the pie that it’s hard to collaborate, hard to share. But sometimes it’s creating unnecessary competition.”
Sztokman says in many mainstream male-dominated forums, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis won’t sit next to each other. It’s almost as if they think the other rabbis have “cooties,” she says.
“Women don’t have to buy into that. We don’t have anything to lose,” she says and laughs.
“What? They’re not going to count us in a minyan?” she asks.