First Woman Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Rabbinical Assembly, the governing body of Conservative Judaism, decided after years of debate to admit women as rabbis and to ordain the first female Conservative rabbi, Amy Eilberg.

Summary of Event

In the middle of the nineteenth century, European nations became more democratic and began to separate the affairs of church and state. Consequently, Jews, who historically had been confined to living in ghettos, found themselves increasingly emancipated. Many newly freed European Jews wished to rebel against tradition completely and create a new religious authority. They founded the Reform movement and exported their ideas to the New World. They were so successful that by 1880, 91 percent of American synagogues considered themselves Reform. Conservative Judaism Women;as clergy[clergy] Judaism;clergy [kw]First Woman Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained (May 12, 1985) [kw]Woman Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained, First (May 12, 1985) [kw]Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained, First Woman (May 12, 1985) [kw]Rabbi Is Ordained, First Woman Conservative (May 12, 1985) [kw]Ordained, First Woman Conservative Rabbi Is (May 12, 1985) Conservative Judaism Women;as clergy[clergy] Judaism;clergy [g]North America;May 12, 1985: First Woman Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained[05740] [g]United States;May 12, 1985: First Woman Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained[05740] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;May 12, 1985: First Woman Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained[05740] [c]Women’s issues;May 12, 1985: First Woman Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained[05740] Eilberg, Amy Cohen, Gerson D. Novak, David

Many Jews, however, reacted against this radical movement. These were not Orthodox Jews, who hailed mainly from Eastern Europe; rather, these Jews were from Western Europe and the United States. They wanted to retain most of their traditional practices and beliefs but also to maintain some flexibility in adapting to modern life. They remained devoted to the use of Hebrew in the liturgy, the observance of dietary laws, and the observance of the Sabbath. In the United States, this movement became known as Conservative Judaism, in reference to its efforts to conserve the essence of traditional Judaism. In Europe, it is called the Historical movement, because it considers itself the heir of the entire history of Judaism, which has changed over time and therefore can continue to do so.

In 1886, Conservatives formed the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Jewish Theological Seminary of America The articles of incorporation of this school say that it is dedicated to “the preservation in America of the knowledge and practice of historical Judaism as ordained in the law of Moses expounded by the prophets and sages in Israel in Biblical and Talmudic writings.” In 1898, the Conservatives tried to merge with the Orthodox movement, but the effort failed. Two years later, the Orthodox movement barred the graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary from becoming Orthodox rabbis.

Seminary advocates reorganized their school to define themselves as traditionalists, yet separate from the Orthodox community. The alumni of the new Jewish Theological Seminary formed the Rabbinical Assembly of America. Rabbinical Assembly of America This organization became the worldwide governing body of Conservative Judaism.

In 1913, Conservatives founded the United Synagogue of America United Synagogue of America as an umbrella body for all congregations that were not Orthodox yet maintained the essential elements of traditional Judaism. This covered a wide spectrum of independent congregations that remained free to define their practices within the framework of Jewish law. This plurality became an inherent source of conflict in the Conservative movement.

Through the years, Conservative Judaism made several amendments to its laws to accommodate modern life. In 1936, the Rabbinical Assembly voted to make it possible for a woman whose husband had abandoned her to get a legitimate religious divorce; further liberalizations of divorce laws were made in 1952 and 1968. In 1960, the Rabbinical Assembly permitted the use of electricity on the Sabbath and Sabbath travel to the synagogue to attend services. From the 1920’s to the 1960’s, Conservative Judaism answered the needs of second-generation European Americans who wished to follow the religious traditions of their youth yet maintain fully American lifestyles. Their children, the third generation, tended either to drift away from tradition or to demand it in a purer form.

An example of the latter phenomenon occurred in the Eilberg family of Philadelphia in 1969. Joshua Eilberg, a Democratic U.S. congressman, and his wife, Gladys, were Conservative Jews who were religious but did not observe kosher dietary laws. Gladys’s mother was a Russian Jew, matriarch of a traditional Jewish family that had suffered attacks from Cossacks in the Ukraine. During the summer of 1969, the Eilbergs’ fourteen-year-old daughter, Amy, became enamored of the strict practices of traditional Judaism when she participated in a program given by the United Synagogue Youth, the national Conservative youth organization. When Amy returned home, she declared that she would eat only food that was prepared according to kosher dietary laws. Her family soon followed her example and began to keep kosher. Eilberg maintained her passion for traditional Judaism in high school. When she was a senior, she attempted to have the date for her class’s prom moved from Friday night because it conflicted with the Sabbath.

When Eilberg was a freshman at Brandeis University in 1972, she and other students protested rules that forbade the participation of women in synagogue services and that required women to sit apart from men. Because of the students’ lobbying efforts, the Brandeis Jewish chapel made its Sabbath service fully egalitarian, welcoming participation and leadership from both men and women. It was then that Eilberg realized that she could try to find equality for women within the structure of the halakah, the traditional Jewish legal system.

In 1973, at the First National Jewish Women’s Conference, First National Jewish Women’s Conference (1973) Rachel Adler, Adler, Rachel a pioneering Jewish feminist, prayed wearing a prayer shawl and phylacteries, leather boxes that contain Scripture. Previously, this form of prayer had been practiced only by men, in accord with Jewish tradition. Eilberg followed Adler’s example to protest the idea that her gender excluded her from the central activities of her religion. She began to lead services and read from the Torah, and she taught other women how to do the same.

This experience made Eilberg decide to try to become a Conservative rabbi, although this was a seemingly impossible goal for a woman at that time. She entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1976, and by 1978 she had earned a master’s degree in the study of the Talmud, a source book of discussions about Jewish law. She continued her study of the Talmud until she had met all the requirements for a doctoral degree except for her dissertation. She chose not to finish her degree then, preferring to work with people and not solely as an academic. Women were not yet allowed in the rabbinic training program at the seminary.

Eilberg decided to pursue her own course of study to prepare herself for the possibility that she might someday be ordained. She earned a second master’s degree in 1984, this time from Smith College, in social work. Gerson D. Cohen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, finally won his fight to have women accepted into the school’s rabbinic training program in October, 1983. Eilberg enrolled in September, 1984, and was able to complete the requirements for ordination in one school year.

Meanwhile, the Conservative movement was in great turmoil over the ordination of women. In 1979, the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary voted to table the issue because it was too divisive. In April, 1983, two female Reform rabbis, Beverly Magidson Magidson, Beverly and Jan Kaufman, Kaufman, Jan attempted to gain entrance to the Rabbinical Assembly. The Reform movement had begun ordaining women in 1972. To become Conservative rabbis, Magidson and Kaufman would have to submit themselves to a vote at the annual convention of the more than eleven hundred Conservative rabbis from around the world. Their acceptance into the assembly would require a 75 percent majority approval vote. Their bid for admittance into the Rabbinical Assembly was rejected, but a Conservative congregation in New York State hired Rabbi Magidson anyway. In May, 1984, the Rabbinical Assembly again barred Magidson and Kaufman from their organization by failing to give either of them a three-quarters majority vote.

Early in 1985, supporters of the ordination of women tried a different tack. They submitted their resolution to the Rabbinical Assembly as a constitutional amendment. The assembly votes on amendments through the mail, and these require only a two-thirds majority for passage. The resolution did not ask directly for the ordination of women; rather, it requested that all graduates of the rabbinic training program of the Jewish Theological Seminary be automatically admitted into the Rabbinical Assembly. This would eliminate the need for a three-quarters vote of approval for each rabbinical candidate at the annual convention. As a secondary result, any woman who graduated from the training program would also become a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and, hence, a fully recognized Conservative rabbi.

The tactic worked. The amendment to the Rabbinical Assembly’s constitution passed by a 70 percent majority. The assembly announced the result of its vote on February 14, 1985, at a news conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. There, representatives of the assembly introduced the organization’s first female rabbinical candidate, Amy Eilberg, who would graduate in May. On that occasion, Eilberg commented gratefully, “The long vigil is over.” Then she stated, “As of today, Jewish women need never again feel that their gender is a barrier to their full participation in Jewish life.”

Significance

In 1991, six years after her ordination, Rabbi Eilberg noted that the thirty to fifty women who had become Conservative rabbis since 1985 “are not a homogeneous group. There are profound ideological differences between us.” She observed that some did not consider themselves “feminists,” although they were among the first women to achieve the rabbinate. Some of the women struggled to raise families even while they worked in the pulpits of synagogues and fought to have their religious authority recognized.

Eilberg spent only one year as a rabbi with a congregation. In that position she had to work constantly, and this left her little time to spend with her husband, Dr. Howard Schwartz, a scholar of religion, and their infant daughter. Eilberg decided to abandon the pulpit when she heard her daughter’s first words: “Bye-bye, Ima-schul,” which means, “Bye-bye, Mommy synagogue.”

Eilberg spent the next five years as a hospital chaplain, a position that she described as “wonderful.” She noted: “In all those years I was struggling [in school], I didn’t have a specific picture of what I was called to do. I didn’t know I was meant to be a pastoral care giver.” As a chaplain, she could approach people as a helping figure, rather than as an authority. Consequently, Eilberg explained, “I experience less face-to-face resistance [than I would in a synagogue], although I do occasionally get thrown out of a room. My identity as a woman is an issue in a positive sense. I’m grateful that I’m not fighting all the time.”

Not that there was not more fighting to do. In 1991, Eilberg observed that the experience of female rabbis was “not dissimilar to what happens to women in law, medicine, and business.” She claimed that sexism persisted in the Conservative movement, although in a subtler form than in the past. Women rabbis still found their religious authority questioned by traditional groups. They continued to be forced off political committees for espousing points of view different from those of the male majority. Women rabbis often failed to get preferred jobs and had their applications dismissed with vague excuses, such as “You don’t quite fit into our congregation.”

Still, there were signs of hope. In 1991, the Rabbinical Assembly prepared a new manual for its members with instructions on how to perform various religious ceremonies. The section on childbirth was expanded to take women more into account. The female rabbi assigned to write this section shared the task and the credit with other women so that the discussion would be more comprehensive. Rabbi Eilberg commented on this action, “It’s women’s way it mutually empowers. We have our foot in the door. We are speaking in a different voice. Our authority is just beginning to emerge.” By the early twenty-first century, of the more than 1,000 women who were ordained rabbis in the Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative Jewish traditions, about 150 were Conservative rabbis. Conservative Judaism Women;as clergy[clergy] Judaism;clergy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Amy Eilberg Will Be Conservative Judaism’s First Woman Rabbi.” People Weekly, April 29, 1985, 50. Accessible article on Eilberg’s background and outlook. She describes working for ten years to achieve her goal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cantor, Aviva. “Rabbi Eilberg.” Ms., December, 1985, 45-46. Inspirational and informative article focuses on Eilberg’s background and philosophy. Stresses how long Eilberg struggled, completing many more years of study than an average male rabbinical candidate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“End of a Vigil: A First for Jewish Women.” Time, February 25, 1985, 61. Brief article outlines the Rabbinical Assembly’s decision to accept women and notes the tension caused in the Conservative movement by the question of female rabbis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordis, Robert. Understanding Conservative Judaism. New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1978. Presents explanations of all aspects of Conservative Judaism, providing context for the debate that surrounded the idea of female rabbis. Chapter titled “On the Ordination of Women” cites passages from the Torah concerning women’s role in religious life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenberg, Simon, ed. The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Responsa. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1988. Scholarly work presents the opinions of eleven faculty members of the Jewish Theological Seminary on the ordination of women based on interpretations of the halakah, the traditional Judaic legal system. Provides the history of the reasoning behind the acceptance of women as rabbis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nadell, Pamela S. Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. Traces the history of women’s struggles within all Jewish traditions to gain the right to be ordained as rabbis. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zola, Gary P., ed. Women Rabbis: Exploration and Celebration Papers Delivered at an Academic Conference Honoring Twenty Years of Women in the Rabbinate, 1972-1992. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1996. Collection of essays by Jewish scholars covers a variety of issues related to the acceptance of women as rabbis. Includes bibliographic references and index.

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