This Day in Jewish History / Reform Rabbis Back Plan for Ordination of Women

Although the Central Conference of American Rabbis voted in favor, it would be 50 years before the first female rabbi was ordained.

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Sally Priesand, the first female U.S. rabbi.
Sally Priesand, the first female U.S. rabbi.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On June 30, 1922, the Central Conference of American Rabbis – the professional organization of Reform rabbis in the United States – voted to express its support for a resolution calling for the ordination of women. The vote came in the context of the annual convention of the CCAR, held at a resort in Cape May, New Jersey.

The question of ordination for women had come to the fore a year earlier, when Martha Neumark, a student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, requested permission to fill a congregational pulpit as a rabbi-in-training during the upcoming High Holy Days.

Neumark, the 17-year-old daughter of HUC philosophy professor David Neumark, was born in Germany in 1904, and arrived with her family in the United States in 1907, when her father received his appointment in Cincinnati. She had begun to think about becoming a rabbi after reading the Torah during her religious school confirmation ceremony, and she began studying at Hebrew Union College in 1918.

After discussion by the faculty of HUC, the decision on Neumark’s request was entrusted to the college’s president, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler. Kohler gave his approval to Neumark, contingent on the approval of the synagogue to which she was assigned.

Kohler later rescinded his approval, when Neumark failed a course, but he proposed that a committee composed of faculty and board members of the college consider the larger question of women’s ordination. Such a committee did study the issue, and came to the conclusion that there was no reason not to allow women to become rabbis, while at the same time recommending that women should nonetheless be discouraged from applying to the rabbinical program at HUC. They referred the issue to the faculty, which concluded, in similarly unenthusiastic terms, that “Reform Judaism … cannot logically and consistently refuse the ordination of women.”

Next to consider the proposition was the CCAR. Prior to the body’s convention, Rabbi Jacob Z. Lauterbach prepared a scholarly responsum on the question, in which he reviewed the positions of the sources and the sages. He concluded that women should not be admitted to the rabbinate, because there are certain duties that women cannot carry out in traditional Judaism; because it would not be practical for women to take on the demanding responsibilities of the job; and because it would create a schism between Reform and other denominations. Most of the 15 rabbis who responded to Lauterbach noted that the schism already existed, and argued that most of a modern rabbi’s job is in acting as a teacher, and that women are perfectly suited to that. David Neumark made the point that something that is not expressly prohibited – as was the case with women’s ordination, which was never explicitly discussed by the sages – is permitted.

After sleeping on the question for a night, the rabbis took a ballot on June 30, 1922, and voted 56-11 to affirm the proposition “that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.”

When the subject was finally brought before the board of governors of Hebrew Union College, however, in February 1923, they voted against the motion, with their six laymen opposing ordination, and two rabbi members voting in favor.

For Martha Neumark, who had begun to consider the possibility of becoming a rabbi after reading Torah at her confirmation ceremony, the decision of the board marked the end of her dream. She left HUC after seven and a half years of study (the full course of study for the rabbinate was then nine years) with a certificate that qualified her to serve as principal of a religious school.

She married Henry Montor, later one of the founders of the United Jewish Appeal and Israel Bonds, and remained interested in the subject of female ordination for the rest of her life. Martha Neumark Montor died in 1981.

Only a half-century after the CCAR had voted affirmatively on the question did the Reform movement finally ordain its first woman rabbi, Sally Priesand, who entered the rabbinate on June 3, 1972.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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