Date of Award
Colby College. Jewish Studies Dept.
David M. Freidenreich
The ordination of women as rabbis is seen as one of the most important steps in bringing American Judaism in line with contemporary American values. However, the road to women’s ordination was a long and contentious one that is still being debated in Orthodox circles. The most problematic challenges to changing the role of women in Orthodox Judaism are certain exemptions and prohibitions outlined in the halakhah (Jewish law) that pertain to women. The halakhah exempts women from positive, time-bound commandments and for the purpose of ordination, the most important are those relating to public worship. However, many sources agree that the halakhah is meant to be a flexible law code that changes as the circumstances of the Jewish community change. Further, the preconceived notion of women’s social status in Orthodoxy also serves as an obstacle to ordaining Orthodox women as rabbis. However, as modernity and feminism have allowed women to take on greater roles in secular society, Jewish women have advocated for greater roles within Judaism, including their inclusion into the rabbinate.
This paper explores the factors that lead to the ordination of women as rabbis, specifically feminism, halakhah, and social status and how those factors are negotiated differently by the different denominations of American Judaism. The first chapter establishes the historical context of the debate, outlining the Rabbinic assumptions regarding women and classical texts that are central to the debate on the ordination of women as rabbis. The second chapter surveys the debate on the ordination of women in the Reform movement and finds that feminism was the driving force behind the ordination of women and that classical halakhic texts posed no obstacle because the Reform movement was not committed to halakhah. Further, the second chapter finds that the change in the social status of women in American society that resulted from the feminist movement, played an important role in Reform’s decision to ordain women rabbis. The third chapter elaborates on the Conservative movement’s debate on the ordination of women as rabbis and discusses the intersection of the Conservative conception of feminism, halakhah, and social status. Chapter three finds that the Conservative experience with the change in women’s social status in America, which provided Conservative women with the opportunity to fill any role they wished in secular society, led Conservative women to argue for equality under halakhah. Additionally, the third chapter discusses the halakhic debates that occurred among the Conservative rabbis of the time and finds that their embrace of feminism led the Conservative movement to transform the halakhah to match feminism. The fourth chapter focuses on the current debate happening in Orthodoxy and finds that the Orthodox have both a fundamentally different conception of feminism, halakhah, and the roles of a rabbi, which leads to a very different development. This last chapter explains why the Modern Orthodox woman rabbi is a major transformation that is still in line with the Orthodox conception of halakhah and the social “red lines” that separate the Modern Orthodox from Conservative. This paper concludes that as a result of the growth of feminism and the recent developments within the Modern Orthodox movement that Orthodox women rabbis are inevitable.
rabbis, reform, orthodoxy
Recommended CitationSeares, Michelle, "Bringing Feminism, Halakhah, and Social Status Together: Women's Ordination in American Judaism" (2013). Student Scholarship in Jewish Studies. Paper 1.