A movement initiated more than 50 years ago to give adolescent Jewish girls the same education in their faith as their brothers is expected to culminate soon with the ordination of women rabbis in Conservative Judaism.
When the 1,100 Conservative rabbis gather Sunday in Los Angeles for their annual Rabbinical Assembly, they are expected to take final action on whether women should be ordained to the rabbinate of the largest branch of Judaism in this country. It is widely expected that they will say yes.
Said Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz of Adas Israel, the largest local Conservative synagouge, and immediate past president of the Assembly: "In my two years as president I encountered an overwhelming demand to accept females as rabbis."
He acknowledged that some rabbis are adamantly opposed, but characterized the opposition overall as "noisier than it is strong."
Rabbi Wolf Kelman of New York, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, is convinced that the Los Angeles meeting will back ordination of women. "It's an irreversible process that began 50 years ago," he siad. "Once you have equality of education (the bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah), you have started an almost irreversible process."
He conceded that "there may be 100 [rabbis] who feel very very strongly" opposed to women rabbis.
While the emotionally freighted wuestion will undoubtedly cause some upheaval, it is not likely to produce the kind of trauma experienced in the Episcopal Church in recent years over the question of women priests.
For one thing, the role of the rabbi is primarily spiritual leader and teacher; it does not carry the sacramental elements involved in the priesthood.
Furthermore, the highly decentralized structure of Conservative Judaism gives individual congregations a great deal of autonomy and allows for considerable variation in practices and interpretation of Jewish law.
However, Rabbi I. Usher Kirshblum of Queens, N.Y., the focus of much of the opposition, said, "If there is anything that is going to split our movement, this is it." Nevertheless, he gloomily predicted that the Los Angeles Assembly would endorse women's ordination.
If this happens, Kirshblum -- saying "I will be very, very pleasantly surprised if I'm wrong" -- has pledged that in mid-February or early March, "traditionalists who feel as I do" will meet to consider "organizing a separate wing in the Conservative camp."
The stage for the forthcoming debate over women rabbis was set when the 1977 Assembly called for a commission to studey "all aspects of the role of women as spiritual leaders."
For 18 months, a multi-disciplinary group of 12 -- including three women -- has been working on that assignment. Specifically, the commission was directed to recommend whether the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York should admit women to its course of studies leading to the rabbinate, the major gateway to ordination as a Conservative rabbi in this country.
The question of ordaining women turns on how the ancient law known as the halakha is interpreted. One of the foremost scholars of the law in Conservative Judaism is Rabbi Seymour Siegel of the theological seminary.
"You have to distinguish," he said, "between the function of a rabbi per se and some of the functions some rabbis are called on to perform -- for example, being a witness to a marriage."
Under Jewish law, after the rabbi conducts the marriage ceremony, two persons who are not related to the bride or groom must sign the marriage contract in Hebrew, as witnesses. "When you get out of the metropolitan areas -- in Oshkosh, say -- there are not all that many people who know Hebrew who can sign as witnesses. So the rabbi sometimes acts as a witness," Siegel explained.
"According to the old tradition, which I don't agree with," Siegel went on, "a women is not permitted to be a witness."
Even if one accepts this traditional interpretation, Siegel feels it does not preclude ordination of women as rabbis. Even though "a rabbi sometimes witnesses, we don't ordain people to be a witness," he said.
For more than half a century Conservative Judaism, whch today counts more than a million members in 823 American congregations, has sought interpretations of the halakha that would give women equal status with men, beginning with the substitution of family pews for the strict separation of women from men in the more traditional synagouges.
The two more liberal branches of Judaism in this country, Reform and Reconstructionist, have already or dained women. A dozen women rabbis are serving congregations or in special posts such as campus ministries. An estimated 65 or 70 more women are currently in seminaries preparing to be rabbis.