A special commission of the conservative branch of American Judaism endorsed the ordination of women as rabbis at the group's annual rabbinical assembly meeting here this week.The commission's recommendations were made over the strenuous objections of some traditional rabbis who claim the ordination of women violates Jewish law.
The commission, made up of 14 prominent Jewish leaders, issued its report following a two-year study that included public hearings held in various cities, including Washington, in the United States and Canada.
Dr. Gerson Cohen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the commission's chairman, said that the "vast majority" of conservative Jewish rabbis, teachers and laymen appeared to favor the ordination of women.
The report urged the seminary's faculty, which trains the rabbis for the conservative branch's one million members, to open rabbinical studies for women this September. Close to half of the 500 students at the seminary are women, but none are enrolled in the rabbinical studies department.
Cohen said that ordaining women rabbis is in accordance with the spirit of Jewish law and brings the conservative movement, the largest group within American Judaism, in line with changes taking place in society.
"We are facing the whole problem of modernity," Cohen said. "This is the flowering of the characteristically conservative phenomenon of giving the classical Hebrew education to men and women on the same level. The whole question of that education made this decision inevitable."
Three members of the commission, however, differed sharply with Cohen's conclusion. They cited specific sections from Jewish law which ban women from leading a congregation in prayer and performing the traditionally rabbinic role of witness at marriages and divorces. The traditionalists also fear women rabbis will alienate many conservative members and result in their leaving the group for more tradition-bound Jewish sects.
"This will create a lot of discomfiture in the conservative community," said Rabbi Eliza Schochet of Canoga Park, Calif. "There are a lot of people who think conservative Jews should 'conserve,' not metamorphosize Judaism."
The commission's decision was greeted with enthusiasm by several female students who have already expressed interest in serving as rabbis.
"After years of waiting for this to happen, this is the culmination of everything," said Leslie Alexander, 23, a graduate student at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "After all the waiting, the being in limbo, I can finally look forward to becoming a rabbi."
If the commission's recommendations are endorsed by the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the conservative branch will become the third major Jewish group to open the rabbinate to women. Both the reform and reconstructionist branches of the faith have been training women rabbis for several years. The fourth major group, the orthodox, has not as yet begun a serious consideration of the topic.