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Women Who Would be Rabbis by Pamela Nadell

It's an academic historical survey of the American history of the movement to ordain female Rabbis, mostly covering the conversation in the Reform (and reforming) communities, with a late detour into the Conservative Movement's parallel debates and a small appendix asking about Orthodoxy.

As a work of scholarship, it is thorough and well researched, with some sixty pages of endnotes testifying to the depth of Nadell's search for relevant documentation. Her research takes her as far back as the 1830s and 40s all the way up to the ordination of Amy Eilberg by JTS in the mid '80s. And as a work of reconstructed historiography it is an important work, pointing to the repeated pattern in the history of the struggle for women's ordination to forget its forbears, whom Nadell labels with the term 'proto-Rabbis'. Because the thing that emerges as Nadell takes you through the history is that nobody the media ever labeled as 'first' was ever in any true sense 'first', at least without qualifications. Before Priesand and Eilberg became the first women ordained, respectively, by the Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries (and Hurwitz by an at least putatively Orthodox rabbinic seminary), there were a number of women, both among those who attended those seminaries on a non-Rabbinic track and those who did not attend the seminary but were possessed of considerable Jewish education for other reasons, who received some or all of the education of a Rabbi and performed some or all of the roles associated with the Rabbinic profession and may have at least informally been assigned the title of Rabbi or at least spiritual leader.

I did feel that Nadell, though she develops this point extremely effectively from a purely historical point of view, does not delve deeply enough into the theological reasons underpinning some of this confusion, which she seems to assert as mainly the result of sexism (I don't mean to say that she is simplistic in this regard. Nadell's discussion of sexism as a complex social force in American life is quite thorough and historically attenuated.). But Nadell's term 'proto-Rabbi' is ultimately confused, I think, and it may lead to confuse the reader to a certain degree.

What Nadell's excellent book is missing is any thought to the primary question "What is a Rabbi?" I think this is especially important because the answer to this question evolved significantly over the course of the time period Nadell surveys.

The first 'proto-Rabbi' Nadell uncovers is Ray Frank, dubbed in the Jewish media 'the girl Rabbi of the West'. A gifted preacher with minimal formal Jewish education, she spoke compellingly from the pulpit of a number of Jewish congregations in the Western US in the late 19th century, but made no claim to ordination. Frank herself looked back to Rashi's daughters and Miriam and Devorah and the Maid of Ludmir for examples of female leaders of the Jewish people. And I think that exactly points to the problem with the idea of reading Frank as the first proto-Rabbi. Women have always been Jewish leaders, though never with the title of Rabbi. But what is a Rabbi?

The reality that Nadell butts up against is that the responsibilities and training of a Reform Rabbi are very different than the responsibilities and training of an Orthodox Rabbi, and the responsibilities of a Reform Rabbi a hundred years ago were very different than the responsibilities of a contemporary Reform Rabbi, so asking whether women should be Rabbis is not asking a single question, it's really asking a few dozen circumstantially different questions about how and in what conditions a woman can be called a Rabbi. I think generally when people and the media labeled a particular 'proto-Rabbi' as a Rabbinical or pseudo-Rabbinical figure, what they were actually identifying was that the person in question was performing some or all of the tasks that a comparable male Rabbi- of that era and denomination!- would be expected to perform. But this is not necessarily the same thing as being a 'proto-Rabbi' because that seems to require that the male Rabbinate was not a moving target, that gradually the roles women served were more and more 'Rabbi-like' over time, which I do not think is precisely the case.

My own post on the most recent RCA resolution against female ordination speaks to further theological difficulties in the question. Are people really fighting over the function, or the title, or both? Sometimes Nadell engages with these questions, but too often she takes a step back and looks at other societal factors that she seems to think the theological questions the authorities are discussing are proxies for, resulting in fairly sparse and unsatisfying discussion of the actual responsa literature. The theological questions sometimes are proxies for these societal questions, to be sure. She is convincing when she can point to responsas in which rabbinical figures worry about pregnancy and marriage prompting students the seminaries have invested time and effort in to leave the rabbinate, and discussions where people worried about the general capabilities of women to perform rabbinical functions- evidence that sexist societal attitudes about women were (and still are) inflecting the debate about the place of women in the Rabbinate.

But sometimes that's not enough of an answer. One of the 1920s students at Hebrew Union College who sought a Rabbinical ordination if she completed the curriculum, Dora Askowith, ultimately was rejected for failure to complete the second year Hebrew examination, despite otherwise exemplary coursework and research. Nadell assesses this as a sexist failure of the system, noting that other male students might have similarly struggled with the Hebrew curriculum, but they at least knew that if they managed to complete the examination, they would likely receive ordination, whereas Askowith ultimately used it as the reason for dropping out of HUC. And this is no doubt true, but by focusing on the societal issues Nadell obscures the subtle but important practical religious problem, which is that the Hebrew curriculum was probably a more important part of the HUC curriculum in 1920 than it probably is today, because to a greater degree than today graduates of HUC were being sent out to effectively be the only Hebrew-speaking Jew in communities with far less Jewish learning than most practicing Jews have today. HUC required the Hebrew examination because in order to send out its students into the field as it was currently constituted, HUC needed to make sure they were prepared in this area. We can criticize the structural sexism that made it more difficult for students like Askowith (who went on to have a long, successful but undistinguished career as a Jewish history teacher at Hunter College and a more distinguished career as a leader of Reform Jewish institutions) to pursue the Rabbinate, but it's less clear to me that we can criticize the sexism of demanding that women achieve the same requirements as the men.

On the other hand, Helen Levinthal succeeded Askowith a few years later at HUC, fully completed the academic coursework the same as any Rabbinical student, but was unable to receive ordination because of the refusal of the faculty, so it's certainly possible to argue that since even had Askowith completed her coursework she would probably not have been ordained, the roadblock posed by the Hebrew examination was of a fundamentally different character than the challenges imposed on male students.

Nadell shows that again and again, from men who 'in principle' had no objection to female Rabbis, the demand was placed on the first women who would become Rabbis that they be exceptional women, capable of by their visible capability and competence proving any criticism of them unfair. She tries to show that this represented a double standard that kept otherwise deserving women out of the Rabbinate by making the criteria to ordain women impossibly high. Sometimes this is convincing; other times it is less clear to me that the 'double standard' isn't actually a single standard that the female student failed to attain, for a variety of reasons including family obligations, financial difficulty, a sense of isolation engendered by being the only women in school, other competing academic demands, and others. You can make the argument that in recognition of these barriers, someone seeking to bring about true equality should make allowances for women by easing the requirements, but this is not always a wholly satisfying argument.

Likewise, Nadell mentions but doesn't really engage with the distinction between the 'private ordination' received by Regina Jonas and the seminary ordinations received by Priesand, Eilberg, et al. From her position as a contemporary Reform Jew, Nadell wants to read seminary ordination as the real, legitimate ordination that nobody can argue with, since Reform Judaism currently is a movement with a pretty strongly centralized ordination authority. But I think this stands in contrast not only to the more diffuse ordination authority of contemporary Orthodox Judaism, but also to the more diffuse ordination authority of early Reform Judaism, which had multiple streams providing its corps of Rabbis- multiple affiliated and partially affiliated seminaries, as well as defections from Orthodox- and Conservative- seminary trained Rabbis, as well as Rabbis who received private training and private ordination in an era where that sort of direct teacher-to-student ordination was more commonly accepted, though not always without controversy. I think it likely that the merger of the different Reform seminaries and the greater central guidance over the Rabbinical institution made it more likely for an eventual female ordination to happen, and more likely, when it did, for it to be globally accepted by the Reform community without the kind of schism that greeted previous significant evolutions in the Reform practice. But Nadell is so interested in situating the struggle within women's history that she doesn't pay enough attention to situating the struggle with Jewish history.

All that said, this was a fascinating book that I'm glad to have read. And obviously relevant to the interests of some of my readers, if they haven't already read it.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-10 02:33 pm (UTC)
brainwane: The last page of the zine (zine)
From: [personal profile] brainwane
Thanks for writing this review! I am a Hindu whose father was a Hindu priest and who only saw male Hindu priests growing up, so I'm always interested in the history of gender and clergy/priesthood. In particular it's interesting to hear about diffuse versus centralized ordination authority and how that intersects with sexism or gender inclusivity.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-10 04:24 pm (UTC)
kass: "Judaism is my other fandom." (judaism)
From: [personal profile] kass
Relevant to my interests indeed,so thank you for alerting me to it.

The reality that Nadell butts up against is that the responsibilities and training of a Reform Rabbi are very different than the responsibilities and training of an Orthodox Rabbi, and the responsibilities of a Reform Rabbi a hundred years ago were very different than the responsibilities of a contemporary Reform Rabbi, so asking whether women should be Rabbis is not asking a single question, it's really asking a few dozen circumstantially different questions about how and in what conditions a woman can be called a Rabbi.

Indeed. The question of what a rabbi is and does -- that's not a question with a singular answer: not across the denominations now (the responsibilities of an Orthodox rabbi or Mahara"t are in some ways different from the responsibilities of a contemporary Reform rabbi), and not through history (as you note, the Reform rabbinate has changed over the last century; I doubt the Reform rabbis of 100 years ago could have imagined that their counterparts in the 21st century would be laying tefillin, men and women alike -- or perhaps women with more frequency than men!)

L'havdil, looking forward to Shabbes with you in a few days. :-)

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