Female Rabbis

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



The Rabbi Has No Beard


     When Sally Priesand was ordained as the first American female rabbi in June 3, 1972, she became the first of 829 women ordained in three American Jewish denominations during the 35 years since that revolutionary event.

      Priesand is not the first woman to be ordained a rabbi worldwide. That honor belongs to Regina Jonas of Berlin, Germany.  She was ordained privately by a rabbi in Offenbach,  a town on the Rhein, on December 27, 1935. Although she had graduated from the “Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums” or Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, she was not accepted at any seminary and her status was in question during her short life. She was murdered by the German government in December of 1944 at age forty-two.

       Sally Priesand was more fortunate. Since 1981 until her retirement in 2006, she has been the rabbi of the Monmouth Reform Temple of Tinton Falls, N.J., with a congregation of 365 families. It took nine years of working as a part time assistant rabbi before Sally Priesand became the full time rabbi at the Monmouth Reform Temple. There she was highly successful, having relinquished marriage and children because she felt she could not do “everything”.

       Evidently, Priesand’s ordination revolutionized Judaism, as a feminist theology emerged which justified the ordination of women contrary to the age-old traditions which prohibited women from functioning in that status-role. The 829 women rabbis in 2007 represent about 16% of the 5,000 rabbis functioning in the United States. Since orthodox seminaries will not ordain women, the proportion of women rabbis for the three branches of Judaism that do so is a good deal higher. There are about 1,800 orthodox rabbis in the U.S. in 2007; another 1,800 rabbis serve Reform congregations, 1,175 belong to the Conservative movement, and 250 are members of  Reconstructionist  Judaism. Therefore, women are around 25% of non-orthodox rabbis in America in 2007.

   A woman who seeks to become a rabbi must study in a theological seminary for at least 5 years. It is usually required that the candidate spend one year in Jerusalem, thereby becoming fluent in the Hebrew language. A comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, i.e. the Torah, is required by all denominations, as is a knowledge of rabbinic literature, Jewish history, Hebrew, theology, pastoral psychology and public speaking. Furthermore, an understanding of community service and education is stressed. Some seminaries also provide advanced degrees in Talmudic research and Bible study. Evidently, a great deal is demanded of a woman seeking this profession.

   Rabbis earn between $50,000 and $100,000 annually, although some who are employed by very large Reform or Conservative congregations earn more. Rabbis earn additional income from performing ceremonies such as funerals, confirmations (Bat or Bar Mitzvah) and weddings.

   There are four major Jewish seminaries in the United States. These are The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative), Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform),  Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Seminary of Yeshiva University (Orthodox), and Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary.

    The conservative seminary had 120 applicants in 2006, of whom 67 were women.  The seminary accepted 48 female and 33 male applicants, so that 60% of all graduates of the class of 2010 will be women, thereby guaranteeing that women will become the majority of conservative rabbis within another generation.

    Women who have chosen to become rabbis or have already attained that status seek to fulfill several roles. One of these is teacher. That is of course understandable, since the very word “rabbi”, derived from “rav” or “more”, refers to one who knows more about Jewish law than other Jews and is therefore a teacher of Jewish law, history, theology and customs. Women rabbis also seek the role of “community spokeswoman” with reference to the non-Jewish community. Other interests of women rabbis are “resource person”, “moral voice”, or “the moral conscience of the Jewish community”.  

    Although by 2007 the Jewish community has accepted the existence of female rabbis, whether in agreement with that position or not, women who entered that calling in the 1970’s were almost always rejected by all but a few. At first, women rabbis could hardly find a congregation willing to appoint them. Therefore, the early “pioneer” female rabbis generally became teachers or associate or assistant rabbis in small congregations.

    It has also been observed that the sermons of female rabbis generally differ from those of male rabbis in that women resort to a good deal of storytelling while men seek to “hold forth”, “exhort” the congregation or “pontificate” dramatically. While these public appearances seem to be most satisfactory to men, who often gain access to larger “pulpits” in highly paid positions among big city congregations, women seem to gain more satisfaction from counseling and teaching.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Fraud (2007).

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