Yet neither social movement should have had any resonance among religious Jews. Despite the persistent claims of Jewish feminists, Judaism has never perceived itself as a “patriarchy.” We have patriarchs and matriarchs, equally venerated. Jewish identity is transmitted through the mother, not the father. Jewish women frequently worked outside the home, were often the breadwinners, and never suffered the legal disabilities that in other societies limited a woman’s capacity to own property or accumulate wealth. And the very essence of Judaism is the surrender to God’s authority, by assuming the yoke of Torah obligations as conveyed to us through the written and oral law. Traditional Jews revere authority even as modern men (and women) revile it.
To be sure, Jewish law assigns different modes of worship to men and women, as it does to Kohanim, Leviim, and Yisraelim. It even distinguishes between men and women when it comes to the observance of certain mitzvot – although, by far, just a small minority of mitzvot.
The toxic brew of feminism and anti-authoritarianism has caused some women to chafe under these designated roles. This discontent is engendered by the egalitarian obsession of feminism – that men and women are equal, therefore identical, and any distinctions inherently invalid, if not also repugnant – and by the rejection of any objective authority, of the “no one can tell me what I can or can’t do” variety. Both are misplaced, to say the least, as any organization or system can only survive if defined roles are allocated and those roles are carried out faithfully by participants. Obviously, the military could not function if every soldier did as he wished on the battlefield. It is the cohesion of disparate elements that allows the machinery of organization to thrive.
The Reform ordination of Sally Priesand was understandable in the sense that the movement never claimed to adhere to Jewish law and, almost by definition, sought to reform it until it conformed to “modern” values. By the late 1960s, the twin rebellions of feminism and anti-authoritarianism had captured the liberal imagination. It is hard to attribute the reason for the almost four-decade hiatus between the ordinations of Rabbis Jonas and Priesand to anything but sexism. Certainly the Torah was no obstacle in Reform circles. However, it remained absolutely clear to the Torah world, and to the Conservative movement that claimed a nominal fidelity to Jewish law, that ordination of women was impossible.
And then in 1985 the Conservative movement ordained Amy Eilberg as its first female rabbi. Conveniently, the Jewish Theological Seminary waited for its primary scholar, Rabbi Saul Lieberman, to die (1983), as he had adamantly opposed women’s ordination and considered it a nullity. Eilberg’s ordination was the culmination of a series of proclamations – all influenced by the twin cultural forces rampant in American life – that had rejected Jewish law and equalized the role of men and women in worship. Thus, beginning in the 1970s and unfolding in short order, women were first counted in a minyan, first allowed to receive aliyot, first allowed to lead the tefillot and finally allowed to function as rabbis. (More recently, in 2004, women were also allowed to serve as legal witnesses, completing the break with Jewish tradition.)
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In the decades since women have begun to serve in the non-Orthodox rabbinate, male attendance at services has declined precipitously and the non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries have become majority female. But at least those presumably faithful to Torah, its values and traditions, stood firm against this onslaught.
That changed as well in the first decade of the 21st century with the ordination of the first woman, followed most recently by three others. Such was possible not only because of the utter conquest of the left wing of Orthodoxy (by now, neo-Conservatism) by its masters, feminism and anti-authoritarianism, but also by the redefinition of the rabbinate.
Without shrinking the rabbinate and the role of the rabbi – without accentuating certain functions of the rabbinate and minimizing others – such a redefinition would be impossible, or at the very least it would not be possible for its champions to claim with a straight face that they were being faithful to Torah.