In Judaism, rabbis possess one of the most critical roles within their communities. They are scholars, teachers, and leaders. They resolve disputes about religious law and lead prayers at synagogues. Despite having no proper authority over any other member of the community, rabbis are well respected as the people closest to God. Being a rabbi is a full-time profession, and therefore all rabbis must complete degrees at rabbinical universities. For centuries these universities were for men only because women were not encouraged to study religious texts due to their busy role as mothers and caretakers. In the 1 mid-1900s, women in America began studying at rabbinical universities to enhance their religious knowledge. Despite being allowed into universities, many women who graduated were not allowed to be ordained, or officially appointed as rabbi, and instead took on other roles in their communities like becoming teachers or leading prayer groups.
In the 1960s, American Jews struggled to define the role of women in religious life. The burning question of if women could be rabbis was heavily debated. The barrier between possibility and impossibility was broken in 1972 when the Reform movement ordained Sally Preisand as the first female rabbi in American history. Preisand encountered many 2 difficulties in being the first female rabbi. Members of her local congregation were hesitant about her performing funerals, claiming their loved ones were “more traditional” and therefore would oppose a female rabbi. In addition, she says she felt immense pressure to perform well because she was setting the lone example for what a female rabbi would be. When male rabbis would travel from around the world to see her perform a seminary, their impression of female rabbis would be based on how well she did that day. This left no room for mistakes. Since Preisand’s ordination in 1972, more and more women have been pursuing leadership opportunities within their congregations that were previously restricted to them.
The call for the inclusion of women rabbis has been received with mixed reactions amongst the various denominations in Judaism. While many believe that adding women to the rabbinate will only diversify religious perspective, some think that women being ordained is strictly against halacha - Jewish law which governs daily and spiritual life. Within the Orthodox movement, which makes up 10% of American Jews, the Orthodox Union upholds a firm stance against women holding clergy titles. The OU is the governing body of Orthodox Judaism and has the power to issue 4 official statements on halachic issues within the movement. In 2017, they published a 17-page statement on the debate and concluded it breaks halacha to ordain female rabbis. They explain that although women fulfil a significant role within the religious community, it is simply against halacha to allow them to hold clergy, or council, positions.
Despite the direct opposition in Orthodoxy, a small group of women have pursued ordination. Female-led Orthodox synagogues are even being created. 28-year-old Rabbanit Hadas “Desi” Fruchtur has plans to open a synagogue in Philadelphia, where the Orthodox community is growing. She says it will still follow halachic law and be in line with traditional Orthodox practices, like having a segregated sanctuary. She will not lead prayers and will deliver her sermon to the female side of the synagogue. The purpose of this new congregation is not to detach from traditional Orthodoxy, but to normalize female leadership within modern Judaism and inspire women to pursue roles within their communities.
Outside of Orthodoxy, nonprofit groups like the Jewish Women’s Archive strive to inspire young Jewish women to learn about their history and break down barriers that still exist today. The JWA uplifts the unheard voices of Judaism, with one of the most extensive archives of Jewish women’s stories in the world. Their mission is to use the past to understand the issues women have faced, share incredible role 7 models, and inspire people to see they can change the world. The JWA holds conventions, teaches classes and provides resources to those who want to learn more. They work with women in every denomination of Judaism to forge a better future for those who come next.
Though women rabbis have created a path for themselves, they are still greatly impacted by the hardships that weigh against them. The unequal representation of men in power has caused generational oppression towards women. When half of the population is considered invalid, many viewpoints are missed. The women who came before have forged their way to create peace within the religion. Today, more than 350 women have been ordained as rabbis and changes are being made throughout Judaism.
Synagogues are beginning to see a new form of leadership. Many men rabbis have said that their female counterparts have taught them to be more empathetic and make more personal connections with their community members. As time goes on, children growing up with women rabbis will never feel the bias of wanting a man as their leader because it won’t be something that they’ve been taught. Women’s voices are being heard and respected. They now have the power to change the minds of millions of people who may believe that women should not be rabbis. It is an extremely important position that requires suffering through aspects of culture that try to prohibit success and teaching others to unlearn their own personal bias.
- “Bereishit Rabbah 18:2.” Sefaria, https://www.sefaria.org/Bereishit_Rabbah.18.2?lang=bi.
- “Welcome to the Jewish Women's Archive!” Jewish Women's Archive, https://jwa.org/aboutjwa.
- “2019 Annual Report.” Jewish Women’s Archive, https://jwa.org/sites/default/files/2019annualreport.pdf
- Nadell, Pamela S. “Rabbis in the United States.” Jewish Women's Archive, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rabbis-in-united-states.
- A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, 31 Dec. 2019, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/08/26/a-portrait-of-american-orthodox-jews/.
- Mjl. “Overview: Women in Traditional Jewish Sources.” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/overview-women-in-traditional-jewish-sources/.
- “The Trailblazing Legacy of Rabbi Sally Priesand.” NPR, NPR, 7 Jan. 2007, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6638554.
- “Women in Judaism.” A History of Women's Ordination as Rabbis, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/a-history-of-women-s-ordination-as-rabbis.
- Zauzmer, Julie. “In a Break with Tradition, Orthodox Jewish Women Are Leading Synagogues.”
- The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 Apr. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/07/28/in-a-break-with-tradition-orthodox-jewish-women-are-leading-synagogues/.