This week marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Sally Priesand as the first woman to be ordained at a Jewish seminary. We pause to consider the role of women in the rabbinate for the past half-century as well as trailblazers in other areas and fields.
50 Years of Women in the Rabbinate
It was fifty years ago today that the first woman rabbi was ordained by a Jewish seminary. On June 3, 1972, the Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school, ordained Sally Priesand as its first female ordinee.
But of course, Sally Priesand wasn’t the first woman who wanted to be ordained at HUC. As the feminist scholar Judith Plaskow said in her address as the keynote speaker at this year’s ordination ceremony in New York:
While Rabbi [Priesand] was the first to make it through, there were other women aspiring to become rabbis decades earlier. [The Hebrew Union College] might have committed to ordaining women in 1922 when the case of Martha Neumark prodded the [Reform rabbinic association] to proclaim that “Women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” [Another Reform seminary, that would later merge with HUC] might have taken this step in 1923 when Irma Lindheim persuaded the faculty [of the Jewish Institute of Religion] to admit women on the same basis as men. It certainly should have happened in 1939 when Helen Levinthal became the first American Jewish woman to complete the rabbinical school curriculum at JIR but — unlike all her classmates--was awarded only a [a Master’s degree in Hebrew letters] and was not ordained. In other words, had the Reform movement honored its rhetoric, we would now be marking a hundredth anniversary rather than a fiftieth.
It’s never easy to be the first. Earlier today, in his letter marking this historic anniversary, the current president of the Hebrew Union College, Andrew Rehfeld, acknowledged the challenges and obstacles faced by hundreds of women rabbis, including 861 ordained by HUC over the past fifty years. He wrote:
The path to this moment has not been easy for our trailblazers. Both in the field and at HUC-JIR, our graduates have faced sexism, exclusion, discrimination, and worse. … This jubilee anniversary remains a moment for celebration, as well as reflection, and a call to action to ensure all those who seek fulfillment in Judaism find their home within our walls.
Much has changed—and much for the better—in HUC’s training of rabbis over the past fifty years. The seminary, like many honest institutions in today’s world, is also confronting its difficult and shameful history of toleration of misconduct and abuse, particularly against female students and faculty. As I said, I do believe HUC is a better place now than it has been, and it is actively engaged in a process of research and repair to pave the way for a new generation of Jewish professional leadership.
I feel confident and optimistic about the future of the Hebrew Union College. I’m proud to be the newly-installed chair of HUC’s alumni leadership council, and this morning we concluded a three-day alumni summit right here in Chicago. Alumni leaders from all of HUC’s major programs joined HUC’s top leaders to vision and to dream about the growth of Jewish professional education in the decades to come. Rabbis, cantors, scholars, educators, and non-profit professionals whose careers are shaped by studying at HUC have many exciting opportunities to look forward to, and synagogues like ours as well as other diverse communities and organizations will benefit from the training that the next generation of leaders will encounter.
The changes ahead—like those that are behind us—will accumulate slowly and one at a time. But this isn’t news for our people. This week’s Torah portion begins with a census, a list of tribes and tribal leaders who are entrusted with the authority to make an accounting of Israel’s fighting force.
God instructs Moses in the wilderness of Sinai:
שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כׇּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
Take a census of the entire community of the people of Israel (Num. 1:2).
Moses and Aaron organize the leadership of the tribes וְאֵ֨ת כׇּל־הָעֵדָ֜ה הִקְהִ֗ילוּ, “And they gathered together the entire community” (Num. 1:18).
But, what is כׇּל־הָעֵדָה, the “entire community”? כׇּל־זָכָר, “Every male … from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Num. 1:2-3). For the purposes of this census, it is only the men—and the hale and hearty ones at that—who literally count. As Rachel Havrelock, Professor of English right here at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes in her commentary on this parashah in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “The representation of the people Israel as an army renders women invisible” (p. 793 at Num. 1:18). This is because, as she writes, “Who does the recording and who is recorded are not incidental issues; rather, the answers provide a form of centralizing authority and of creating a definitive hierarchy” (p. 791 at Num. 1:2). In other words, the Torah counts arms-bearing men because the Torah cares about arms-bearing men. Everyone else is just an add-on.
It doesn’t have to stay this way, of course. Feminist rereadings of Jewish tradition excavate the significant influence of women in the biblical era. As my teacher and the provost of the Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, pointed out at her keynote teaching at the annual meeting of the Chicago Board of Rabbis just this week, the early aspirants to female Jewish leadership in the twentieth century often turned to foremothers in the biblical text such as Abigail and Deborah as models for their own power and authority. We can find more than one history when exploring our texts deeply, and they can inspire more than one path to the future.
We find such a path of renewal and hope at the end of the book of Ruth, which we will read in the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. The book’s eponymous hero, the Moabite Ruth, charts her own course to security and success by bravely navigating an unfamiliar social landscape. In finally arranging a marriage with the kind and supportive Boaz, Ruth secures a name for herself and her dynasty for all time.
Her megillah concludes with a genealogy (Ruth 4:18-22):
This is the line of Perez, it begins, continuing:
Perez (פֶּרֶץ) begot Hezron (חֶצְרוֹן),
Hezron begot Ram
and Ram begot Amminadav.
Amminadav begot Nahshon--
Which, I will add, we already know from this week’s Torah portion--
Nahshon begot Salmon.
and Salmon begot Boaz--
remember, that’s Ruth’s husband--
Boaz begot Oved,
Oved begot Jesse,
and Jesse begot David.
The outsider, Ruth, a foreign woman in a strange land, becomes a trailblazer, clearing the way for generations of great leaders to follow her.
And so it is, too, with the foremothers of our own tradition, the Women Who Would be Rabbis, as they are called by the scholar Pamela Nadell—and so many other courageous leaders who took the first difficult steps toward making our communities more expansive and welcoming for all.
I invite you to join me in dedicating this year’s Shavuot, our annual commemoration of the giving of Torah at Sinai, to the celebration of 50 years of women in the rabbinate. I invite you as well to join me and all who work to make our Reform seminary a better institution in continuing to improve our movement and its organizations for everyone who seeks counsel and support in them. And may we all join one another in celebrating many hallmarks of new achievement, and, in time, anniversary of those occasions, in our shared Jewish journey as one part of כׇּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל, the entire community of the People of Israel.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”