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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(from Sh'ma 13/250, March 18, 1983)
Will Egalitarianism Compel the R.A.?
By Fishel A. Pearlmutter
The Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, will soon confront a report from its membership committee recommending the election to membership of a candidate ordained by the Reform movement. This rabbi is a woman who the membership committee certifies meets all the criteria required for admission to the Assembly. The Executive Council of the Assembly endorsed the recommendation and now, following the normal procedures, her name will be presented to the convention, where 75% of the members present and voting must approve in order for the candidate to be admitted. Some wags believe a resolution to express "gesundheit" to a sneezing colleague would find 75% in favor hard to attain. Nonetheless, the Rabbinical Assembly rules require this sizable majority and the rule will not be waived in this instance.
What are the arguments that will make the convention an historic one? On the one hand, advocates of egalitarianism will contend that the time for recognition of women as rabbis is long overdue. They contend that Jewish tradition is one that calls for the continual expansion of justice. As at one time Jews excluded mamzerim (persons of tainted parentage) from worship, and at one time permitted slavery, over the centuries more embracing attitudes became the norm. So now the broader understanding we are able to achieve should help us sense the image of God in our sisters as in our brothers. The full equality of women is simply a logical continuation of Jewish tradition.
Opponents of her admission will probably stipulate that the membership committee did its work well and that she meets all the criteria required of male candidates. The only issue is that of sex. Halakha, or Jewish law, will be invoked, even though a commission appointed by the Seminary's chancellor did not find direct difficulty with Jewish law and recommended admission of women to the Rabbinical School. The chancellor endorsed that report.
A number of faculty members at the Seminary are vehemently opposed. Perhaps they worry about what their Orthodox friends might say. The faculty chose to table the question of admitting women to the Rabbinical School. Insiders claim the decision was taken to avoid internal dissension and that a majority were in favor but were held back by the fear that the minority, which included several very eminent professors, might actually resign. The fear of faculty disapproval will be one of the arguments of the opposition.
They are also likely to contend that the Orthodox community will be further alienated from Conservative groups and their disapprobation should be considered. Another argument will be that the admission of a woman to membership in the Rabbinical Assembly will place great pressure on those rabbis who resist including women in a minyan (the quorum for public worship) and do not permit women to be called to the reading of the Torah. How will they be able to resist the pressure from the egalitarians in their synagogues if the national organization admits a woman rabbi?
Prudential arguments will also be voiced. Dire predictions of fall-off in membership, loss of committed Jews and ultimate rupture of the Conservative movement are likely to be heard. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to assess the likelihood of these prognostications, and they are balanced by the fear expressed by advocates of women rabbis that defection and fall-off is inevitable unless egalitarianism is accepted.
No "halakhic" arguments have been noted here because there are none that are beyond the "it's always been that way" argument.
The arguments reduce to prudential and principle, with the former occasionally masking itself as the latter. The prudential ask to assess the gains in numbers and loyalty as against the losses. That kind of argument is highly speculative. A commission (alluded to above) held meetings around the country to afford laity the opportunity for input and found the overwhelming sentiment favored accepting women into the rabbinical school.
The principles involved are less amenable to clarification with social research tools. On the one side is a deeply committed group who sense that justice demands the extension of the rabbinate to all who qualify, regardless of sex. The depth of religious commitment of these protagonists must not be underestimated. They are religious leaders who wrestle with their conscience and find it immoral to exclude on the basis of sex.
Equally passionate in their commitment are those who believe the tradition requires separate roles for the sexes and the rabbinate must remain exclusively male. Their sincerity is not to be doubted.
Among the issues to be decided at the Dallas convention is whether civil debate can be maintained and the genius of the Conservative coalition kept alive. The arguments for admission are, to me, overwhelming. Justice requires fair treatment, and prohibits using past discrimination as pretext to practice present discrimination. My vote will be for election of Rabbi Magidson to membership.
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