By Contributing Writer Rabbi Jacqueline Romm Satlow.
I didn’t know women could be rabbis, are you the first?
Yes, they can and no, I am not.
Rabbis have been leaders in the Jewish community for quite a while. The word actually means “My Teacher”. We call the biblical Moses, famous for ascending Mt. Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses Our Rabbi or Moses our teacher. In Hebrew, rabbinic ordination is “smicha.” In the Talmud, (a later Jewish holy book) we learn of the tradition in which rabbis offer “smicha” to their students. The word indicates that the person is learned in Jewish tradition and law.
For many centuries, the title was only given to men. That does not mean there were no women who learned to the same level. We know of several who were quite knowledgeable. We know much more about the men. Why? They wrote most of the books. Why? They had a higher literacy rate.
Regina Jonas (1902-1944) was the first female rabbi. She was ordained in Germany and if you look at her dates, you would not be surprised to learn that the Nazis who sent her to Auschwitz murdered her. The next female rabbi, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972. When I was ordained in 1996, half of my class at the Reform seminary were women.
Yet, it depends whom you ask. The rabbinical seminaries affiliated with Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism all ordain women.
Orthodox seminaries, including the flagship institution, Yeshiva University, do not ordain women and are adamant that they never will. A modern Orthodox seminary, YCT, has broken away from Yeshiva University. They have established a parallel institution for women. When they finish, they function in similar roles, but have a different title.
What is the controversy? Jewish men and women have different legal rights and responsibilities under ancient Jewish law.
The groups mentioned above who are comfortable with women rabbis generally believe that traditional law (halacha) can and should change as the world changes. The majority of the Jews in the world agree.
On the other hand, the minority of Jews who opposed women’s ordination and are afraid that too much change may destroy the core of the religion, are among the most committed Jews worldwide.
Rabbi Jacqueline Romm Satlow, Director
Center for Religious and Spiritual Life