On this page, we present essays, profound or timelyculled from the CLAL
literary archive. CLAL faculty members wrote many of the articles that appear here, past
and present. Many were written by others and originally appeared in the pages of
Sh'ma journal of Jewish responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970
and published by CLAL (and edited by Nina Cardin) from 1994-1998.
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these articles raise. We also encourage you to post your reflections on how your own take
on the issue under discussion has shifted (or not, as the case may be) over the years.
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(from Sh'ma 13/250, March 18, 1983)
Male or Female, Are They "Rabbis"?
By Judith Bleich
The celebrated Geiger-Tiktin controversy constituted one of the earliest clashes
between proponents of the nascent Reform movement and the traditional establishment. With
the election of Abraham Geiger in 1838 as a rabbinical colleague of the aged Solomon
Tiktin, the Breslau Kehillah became embroiled in a protracted and acrimonious dispute over
rabbinic leadership. Although the conflict eventually culminated in an uneasy truce, by no
means were its reverberations stilled. Over one hundred and forty years later, the issues
raised in that controversy still divide the Jewish community and are the basis of
dissension and discord among the various factions and segments of our people in the
Diaspora as well as in the State of Israel.
While champions of Geiger have portrayed the struggle as a battle on behalf of the
principle of freedom of thought, the crucial issue at stake was the question, "Who is
a rabbi?" Under dispute was neither Geiger's scholarship, talents, abilities, nor
sex, but whether or not he could properly claim the right to exercise rabbinic authority.
Or, more accurately, whether the incumbent rabbi, Solomon Tiktin, was acting correctly in
refusing to serve with Geiger lest he thereby legitimate Geiger's position as a
"rabbi and teacher in Israel."
Observance: A Sine Qua Non For The Rabbi
At the time, in defense of Geiger, David Einhorn wrote that departure from observance of
ceremonial laws when prompted by sincere conviction does not render an individual unfit to
hold rabbinic office. Not surprisingly, a diametrically opposite view had been enunciated
by Rabbi Akiva Eger in a letter to residents of Eisenach in which he declared
categorically that the mantle of rabbinic authority may not be donned by all. There are
clear limitations upon who may be recognized as a rabbinic decisor. Responding to a
detailed query, Rabbi Akiva Eger stated unequivocally that the halakhic decisions of an
individual who does not himself abide by the strictures of both biblical and rabbinic law
have no binding force whatsoever. Quite simply, Rabbi Akiva Eger argues, such an
individual's conduct is governed by one of two motives, and in either instance he is unfit
for rabbinic office. Either he lacks the requisite knowledge or he is knowledgeable, but
does not accept talmudic law as normative. If he is ignorant, how can he presume to issue
legal rulings? If he is knowledgeable but knowingly repudiates talmudic law, how can he be
regarded as a rabbinic decisor? The view articulated by Rabbi Eger reflects the attitude
of the Orthodox vis-a-vis sectarian clergy which prevails to this very day.
At the height of the raging debate over the ordination of female rabbis by the Jewish
Theological Seminary, an Orthodox rabbi visiting our home was asked: "Are you
distressed at the prospect of the ordination of women by the Jewish Theological
Seminary?" He responded: "I am distressed about the ordination of men by the
Jewish Theological Seminary."
The issue of ordination of women which has agitated the Conservative and Reform movements
during the past years is to the Orthodox solely a subject of sociological interest and
import. When Sally Priesand assumed her post at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, my own
children were sufficiently intrigued to seek her out for an interview. She graciously
acceded to their telephone request for an appointment but was, I daresay, somewhat taken
aback when three would?be interviewers marched in aged ten, eight and six. They have kept
a tape of the conversation.
The only response which elicited their astonishment was the description of the program of
studies leading to rabbinic ordination. They would have been equally bewildered at the
reply of any of her male colleagues. Their reaction mirrors the incredulity expressed by
traditional rabbis with regard to the attenuated program of talmudic studies offered in
most "rabbinical seminaries" regardless of their sectarian auspices. It is such
a program of study which is the subject of the apocryphal tale of Rabbi Akiva Eger's visit
to the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary and his pithy remark: "If their program is so
minimal, it must be regarded as merely preparatory; perhaps the graduates should be termed
However, apart from sociological ramifications -- and these are considerable -- to the
Orthodox the question of the ordination of women on the part of the Conservative and
Reform movements does not really raise any significant new questions. A female Reform
rabbi, or a female Conservative rabbi, is viewed as no more (although no less!) a rabbi
than her male counterpart.
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