Judaism gets in touch with its feminine side

Women are flocking to pulpit, says 1st Reconstructionist ordained woman.

Alysa Stanton 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alysa Stanton 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish leadership is beginning to show a softer, more feminine face, with women flocking to the pulpit and much of the Jewish world becoming more comfortable with the notion of female religious leaders. The recent ordination of Alyssa Stanton as the first black female rabbi was indicative of the growing number and diversity of female rabbis worldwide. According to Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the first woman ordained by the Reconstructionist movement, in the seminaries of the three movements that do ordain women (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative) half of the student body is female. Sasso was ordained in 1974, and she has been a practicing rabbi in Indianapolis, Indiana, since 1977. "I was fortunate to be accepted by a congregation," Sasso said. "At the time, the majority of the Jewish community did not welcome women's ordination." Since then the role of women in Judaism has changed. Sasso said Stanton's ordination was "a wonderful opportunity to open doors and expand the boundaries of Jewish identity in the United States." The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RCC) noted that the numbers of rabbinical graduates in the Reconstructionist school are approximately equal: 170 men, 161 women. In recent entering classes, though, the number of women exceeds the number of men, approximately 2 to 1. Naama Kelman, the newly appointed dean of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, is the first woman to be appointed to this position in Israel. She was also the first woman to be ordained in Israel. The number of women and men entering the reform seminaries in the United States is now equal, but in past years there have been slightly more female students, Kelman said. "In our American program we have 33 entering students, and 50 percent are women. In our Israeli program, we take much fewer students. Now, there are three men and two women, and we may accept another woman," said Kelman. RRC's president, Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz said that "the presence of women in the full range of Jewish leadership positions has a positive effect; it means that we can take advantage of all of the people within our community who have excellent skills to offer." Israel, though largely influenced by the Orthodox, is also beginning to embrace the more feminine side of Jewish leadership. Rabbi Deby Grinberg, known as "Rabina," is the rabbi for Noam, the Masorti national youth movement, and is a recent immigrant from Argentina. Grinberg is generally optimistic about her position, but recognizes the obstacles that remain. "There are two main aspects of the public's reaction. On the one hand, people are generally very interested in a woman rabbi. They ask many questions and seem to accept and respect my position. On the other, it is hard for many people, even those interested, to accept a woman as a spiritual leader." There are challenges to being a woman rabbi in Israel, though, according to Kelman. "Here," she said, it's an equal opportunity for discrimination to be a non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel. That's a huge challenge because of the Israeli culture and religious establishment. They are just recently opening up to religious alternatives." The Orthodox world maintains limits on the leadership roles that women can hold. According to Halacha, a woman cannot perform ceremonial duties such as marriage, divorce, or conversion. She is also not counted as part of a minyan. Nevertheless, programs designed to train Orthodox women to essentially be "rabbis without the title" are increasing. Rabbi Avi Weiss announced in May that Yeshivat Maharat would train women to be spiritual leaders for the Orthodox community, essentially performing the same tasks as a rabbi. The success of the program will potentially gauge what the future of women leaders in all movements of Judaism will look like.