Women Who Would Be Rabbis:
A History of Women's Ordination 1889-1985
By Pamela S. Nadell
Boston: Beacon Press, 1998, $30.

reviewed by Sheila Bender

May/June 1999

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In 1889, journalist and Jewish community activist Mary M. Cohen published a short story in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent that raised the question “Could not—our women—be—ministers?”  The question had been around since perhaps as early as the Civil War, as Jewish women in America were increasingly recognized for promoting Jewish learning not only in their families but also in their congregations, where they taught Jewish studies and Talmud, and in their communities, where they organized Jewish schools. Several American rabbis’ widows would even take over their late husbands’ duties without rabbinical ordination, following the model for women leaders established by the biblical Deborah.

Even so, for decades official ordination for Jewish women as rabbis remained merely a question to be raised and debated, closed, and raised again.  Women had, according to both male and female Jewish scholars, lower status in the Bible. In the words of one male scholar, their place was as “high priestesses in the sanctuary of their home,” commanded to be “good wives and good mothers in Israel.”

However, in the chaos of immigration and resettlement in the United States, it had most often been women who maintained a family’s connection to synagogues and temples. The charge that they must work in the sanctuary of their homes expanded to include the sanctuary of their Jewish communities and congregations, where they promoted, organized, and taught in religious schools and founded youth groups.  By the 1960s and 1970s with women’s roles in society changing and more and more women seeking higher education, the distinguished rabbinical schools and committees were finally ready to listen.  More and more they were pressured by women wanting not only to study at the seminaries but to have the option of becoming rabbis, as well as teachers and administrators in religious education programs.

In Women Who Would Be Rabbis, Pamela S. Nadell, director of Jewish Studies at American University, writes that it took nearly a century to “negotiate the path from the rising expectations for women in the rabbinate to the first of the women who became Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative rabbis.”  But finally, in 1972, Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi, was ordained by Hebrew Union College, a Reform Jewish school in Cincinnati.  In 1974, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, ordained at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, associated with Temple University, became the first woman rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation. In 1985, after women had organized and reorganized in the Conservative Jewish community, Amy Eilberg was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.  In the 1990s, according to Nadell, even learned Orthodox Jewish women are asking to lead their congregations.
 Nadell draws detailed portraits of the first women rabbis, as well as the women on whose shoulders they are standing—women who led their communities, thought and wrote about the question of women rabbis, and knocked again and again at the doors of training institutions and influential committees. And Nadell’s book documents not only the lives and desires of particular Jewish women but, more generally, the way change happens in and among cultures and communities. 

Now that more and more women are becoming rabbis, Nadell predicts that they will start to investigate the unique gifts they offer.  So after years of arguing that being created equal in the eyes of God meant being equally able to lead, they now may very well begin to document the ways in which their being equal but different affects their congregations.  One possibility for what they may find: Jewish women are now seen as able to carry out the biblical mission of high priestesses of their families and at the same time to lead their congregations.  Might not these congregations, then, more and more come to resemble families?  Twenty years from now, Nadell might well be able to write a book on this and other ways in which a leader’s gender can shape a congregation.

Sheila Bender has written several books on creative writing.  Her newest is Writing Personal Poetry:  Creating Poems from Life Experiences (Writer's Digest). Her poetry collection Sustenance will be out from Daniel and Daniel Press in June.

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