Last Shabbat we had an excellent talk at Beth Abraham about the role of women in the rabbinate, from Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein. The occasion was Sisterhood Shabbat.
Margaret mentioned the program she attended in December with the four women who were the first female ordainees in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox movements. The audio of that program is available now through the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, which organized the historic event.
I thought I'd clarify something I asked about. As a "Rabba" ordained by Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss, Sara Hurwitz does not lead men in prayer nor does she serve as a witness for legal documents or on a beit din (religious court) with men. Otherwise, she performs most of the functions that we have come to associate with rabbis, including teaching Torah, giving sermons, and pastoral counseling. In many modern Orthodox communities there are women-only prayer groups where women read Torah.
When women first became Conservative rabbis, the issues debated were mostly about leading prayer. Serving as a witness was set to the side in the early responsa or left up in the air. Rabbis serve as witnesses most importantly for conversions and for divorces. Who is a fit witness is a major area of dispute in Jewish law, because some rabbis will not recognize a conversion or a Jewish divorce if they doubt the qualifications of a witness on those documents.
In Jewish law, prayer and edut (witnessing) are separate topics. For prayer, it was determined that Talmudic rulings could be interpreted or reinterpreted so that women and men have equal obligations and opportunities. In the area of edut, there weren't those Talmudic precedents. Changing the law would be a takkanah (rabbinic legislation) and many felt that a faction of modern rabbis is not august or numerous enough to change Jewish law on their own authority in such an important way. The majority of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards now supports women as witnesses, though each rabbi is free to decide his/her own approach.
So in the Conservative movement today, all these permutations exist:
- Female rabbis who serve as witnesses
- Female rabbis who because of their own understanding of Jewish law do not serve as witnesses (there are also some female Conservative rabbis who do not lead prayer or read Torah)
- Male rabbis who will only convene a beit din with male colleagues
- Male rabbis who include both male and female colleagues on a beit din
I'm in the last category.
There is much to add on these topics, and I'm happy to explain further to anyone or to post links to the writings and experiences of others.