50 years ago this month, the first female rabbi was ordained in Cincinnati
For many American Jews, seeing a female rabbi is a pretty regular part of life. But it's a fairly recent development. Sally Priesand — the first American female rabbi — was ordained just 50 years ago, on June 3, 1972.
This groundbreaking ordination changed women's roles, and the course of Judaism itself.
Although Priesand had strong support from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where she was enrolled in seminary, a lot of people still didn't want to see her in the role.
"There would always come a time where some person would come up to me and tell me why women shouldn't be rabbis," says Priesand. "And I would say, 'Thank you for sharing your opinion.' And I would walk away."
Priesand even reports a faculty member asking her boyfriend at the time when he would marry her, and "get rid of her."
Priesand sees herself as a relatively private person, but she became hugely public when she was ordained in 1972. She traveled around the country on speaking engagements to prepare the American Jewish community for the event.
"I became a rabbi because I wanted to be a rabbi," Priesand says. "And I discovered that when you're the first of something, there are extra responsibilities that come along with that."
While Priesand was the first American woman to become a rabbi, she was not the first to try. Pamela Nadell directs the Jewish studies program at American University, and wrote Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination 1889-1985.
Nadell says that the early campaigners for ordination made two main arguments. First, they looked to the holy texts.
"There is nothing in Jewish law that prohibits women from becoming a rabbi. So their argument is it's only custom," says Nadell.
Secondly, she says, women would point to strong female figures as well, prophets like Deborah and leaders like Miriam. And they'd also point out the fact that Judaism, like all traditions, has adapted over time.
"They're saying Judaism has made other accommodations to the modern world, why not make this accommodation as well."
Nadell says campaigns for female clergy have gone hand in hand with political and social changes.
"When women get the right to vote in the 1920s, this is a transitional moment for women's rights in American Judaism." she said. "We have the first bat mitzvah in the United States coming on the heels of that decision. And as a result of that, it's not surprising that there's an argument at the reform seminary and Cincinnati Hebrew Union College, there's a discussion — can women be ordained?"
Nadell points to another transitional moment in 1930s Germany – in the lead-up to World War II – when Regina Jonas was ordained as a rabbi in a private ceremony. She died in the Holocaust, and her story was not widely known for many years.
But the biggest sea change, leading up to and continuing with Priesand, came in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of second-wave feminism.
"It was impossible in a sense to be questioning everything about women's roles in society and not also be looking at one's religious tradition," explains Judith Plaskow, a Jewish feminist theologian and professor emerita of religious studies at Manhattan College.
Plaskin says this was the time of consciousness-raising groups, of national marches, of women demanding entry to all parts of life. This examination of the ways in which women's lives had been restricted did not ignore religion. The National Organization for Women formed a task force on religious life, issuing a statement opposing discrimination based on sex and the religious teachings and laws that cause or reinforce it. Women crashed rabbinic assemblies demanding equality, met in large conferences, prayed together.
"It was totally amazing. I mean, it felt like everything was breaking open," says Plaskow.
In the space of just a few years, centuries of tradition transformed across religions. And those that didn't, started to seem out of step. Historian Pamela Nadell says these women changed Jewish life.
"They invented a host of ceremonies and rituals to mark the events of women's lives that the male rabbis had never considered essential," Nadell said. " The first baby girl naming ceremonies, ceremonies to mark events like miscarriage."
In 1972, Sally Priesand was not looking to transform Jewish life. She had a hard enough time just getting hired to do the job she loved — she was the last in her graduating class to be hired. And while her first job was at New York City's prestigious Stephen Wise Free Synagogue as assistant and then associate rabbi, she was not given the opportunity to become the main rabbi.
She eventually found a home as rabbi at New Jersey's Monmouth Reform Temple, after some temporary assignments. While Priesand served happily the rest of her career, she was always aware of the weight and constraints of being the first, and worked her job in awareness of those who would come after her.
"I did open doors," Priesand acknowledges Priesand, who is now 75. "But I also held the doors open for those who came after me."
When you open a door, you never quite know who'll walk through, and what new worlds they'll bring. People are still walking through. Some, like Priesand, are pushing the fight for equal pay and opportunities. Others are grappling with the sexism of the sacred texts. Others are working on how to expand the role of rabbi further, and what comes beyond access — and how to set the path for generations to come.
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