When I was in rabbinical school, my friend and mentor, Zach Shapiro, over at Temple Akiba, told a story about a trip to his student pulpit:

“When I got off the plane for my first visit, the president and her four-year-old daughter were there to greet me. 

The daughter whispered something to her mother, who in turn began to laugh.

”What’s so funny?” I asked.”

”My daughter said, ‘I didn’t know boys could be rabbis?!’

His predecessor had been a woman.

The path to a world where rabbis come in all genders and sexualities wound through the desert before reaching the promised land. This year we celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate. Fifty years. To me, that seems all too recent and honestly, a significant departure from the essence of Judaism we read in our Torah this morning. As the Israelites enter into Covenant with God, we see a beautiful, inclusive vision of what could be. We read: “Atem Nitzavim – You stand this day, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God—your tribal heads, elders, and officials; every man, woman, and child of Israel; and the stranger in the midst of your camp; from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water” (Deut 29:9-10).  

It’s a powerful image – one that tells us that every single person has purpose and value in living out the Jewish covenant and upholding our obligations as the Jewish people. As Reform Jews in 2022, it’s easy to read this text and feel good about ourselves. We are part of an inclusive movement, one that doesn’t always succeed, but one that strives to be welcoming, inclusive, and representative of our LGBTQIA+ community, Jews of color, interfaith families, families with special needs, and women. Though this effort towards inclusion is modern – and we know of longstanding practices of gatekeeping and discriminating against these groups within and beyond our movement – we see a vision in our Torah of a different path, a path where we all share an equal part of Judaism, of community, of leadership.   

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination – the first female rabbi ordained in the United States – I want to share with you the all-too-recent story of the struggle for women’s equality in our movement and what we can learn from it going forward. And as I begin, I want to thank some of my dearest rabbis in Philadelphia – Rabbi Stacy Rigler and Rabbi Lance Sussman – who’ve shared similar teachings this year and helped me bring this important story to you today.

In 1890, an educator and journalist named Rachel “Ray” Frank wrote a quippy reply to The Jewish Messenger, a national Jewish publication that was seeking answers to the question, “What would you do if you were a rabbi?” In her response, “What a Jewish girl would not do if she were a rabbi,” she writes: “I would not, if I were a rabbi, endeavor to impress the nature of my calling by loud and shallow words, …I would not say to my fancied inferiors, I am the rabbi, and you must therefore do this and that; but I would reach their actions through their hearts…It is, indeed, difficult nowadays to note the difference between the rabbi and his friend the clothier, or the broker; his dress, his diamonds, his language, his very walk is not bookish but business; is not piety but pence.”

That year, Frank traveled to Spokane, Washington to lead a Kol Nidre service for the local community that didn’t have a permanent synagogue. She was the first Jewish woman known to deliver a formal religious sermon in the United States, and was subsequently dubbed the “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West.” Though she never sought or attained formal ordination, Ray Frank sparked an important conversation on female clergy in America.

In the coming years, the Women’s Suffrage movement gained traction across the United States. Alongside that national push for the right to vote, calls for female ordination grew louder in some Jewish communities. The 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote, propelled women’s groups to go on and fight for educational access and job opportunities as well. 

That same year, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, a local paper in Kansas, announced that Martha Neumark would become the first female rabbi. After three years of study at the Reform Movement’s seminary – Hebrew Union College (or HUC), Neumark petitioned the faculty in 1921 for a High Holy Day pulpit. As HUC faculty debated their path forward, the professional organization of Reform Rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis or CCAR, began discussing the ordination of women at their annual gathering. 

Rabbi Louis Witt, a leading Reform rabbi, raised his voice in support: “We have witnessed the revolution in the status of women. Five years ago, I had to argue in favor of women’s rights when [women’s suffrage] came up in the Arkansas legislature, but I did not feel that there would be need to argue that way in a liberal body of men like this…I believe that this body of men should do nothing that would stand in the way of any forward movement on behalf of the womanhood of America. I cannot believe that a religion that is so splendidly spiritual and forward-looking as our religion will stand in the way of such a movement. I feel that this Conference can only act in one way, and that is to fall in line with what is the destiny of the women of the future.”

However, on June 29th, 1922, the New York Times reported that the conference attendees opposed the resolution. But the all-male-conference did a surprising thing – they then invited the women present – mostly rabbis’ wives – to join the discussion. After hearing the voices of their guests and tabling the conversation overnight, the CCAR voted to affirm, in principle, the right of women to become rabbis. HUC, however, refused.

Earlier that same year, as Rabbi Carole Balin wrote, “Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan introduced bat mitzvah for his daughter, Judith…at his Manhattan synagogue known aptly as the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. He regarded the ceremony as a corrective to girls’ exclusion from Jewish education but not bar mitzvah’s equal. Judith was allowed to read from her Chumash, a book containing the Five Books of Moses, rather than the Torah scroll as the boys did. Rabbi Kaplan reserved that honor for himself.“

“As hundreds followed in Judith’s footsteps,” Balin continues, “girls began to expect — even demand — to do what boys did. Sparks began to fly…when post-bat mitzvah girls petitioned to carry the Torah. They believed they were at least as strong as “those old men” who were allowed to march with the scrolls on the holiday of Simchat Torah. After winning that battle, they set their sights on regular ritual honors. What was the point of all that religious training if the bat mitzvah ceremony was one and done?” The ball was rolling.

While the debate of the religious participation of women and their ability to be ordained continued in America, Rabbi Andrea Weiss writes that, “the time for the first female rabbi finally ripened in Germany in 1935,  when Rabbi Max Dienemann privately awarded a rabbinic diploma to Rabbiner Doktor Regina Jonas. Jonas taught Torah and comforted people in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power. She was deported to [the] Terezin [concentration camp] in 1942 [and] was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.” 

In her rabbinic thesis, Regina Jonas referenced the idea from our Torah portion this morning that all people stood at Sinai and received the Torah together. She writes, “If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender.” 

God certainly planted in the heart of America’s first female rabbi the skills and vocation of a truly special clergy person. Sally Priesand first visited the Cincinnati campus of HUC as a high school student on a NFTY youth group trip. She raised her hand and asked a simple question: Can a woman become a rabbi?  She received an ambiguous response, only saying it hadn’t happened yet. Soon after, she enrolled in the Rabbinic program.

She later wrote, “When I entered Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I did not think very much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi.” Rabbi Priesand persevered through her education at HUC, a verifiable boys’ club, to become the first female rabbi in America in 1972. Her ordination was rightfully received with much fanfare and press, but privately Rabbi Priesand endured many challenges. 

After leaving her first position at the Steven Wise Free Synagogue she could not find another position for several years. Ultimately she landed at a solo pulpit in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey where she stayed for the rest of her career. She speaks publicly about her decision not to marry or have children, and though she doesn’t focus on the sexism and adversity that she experienced, we know that Rabbi Priesand and the first female rabbis that followed her faced numerous, significant obstacles.

A few years after Rabbi Sally’s ordination, an HUC professor wrote about the decision to ordain women rabbis. “Reform Judaism,” he said dismissively in 1975, “tries to be all things to all people, and must, therefore, take up every fad which comes along.” Still ten years after her ordination, Reform congregations across the country said hiring a female rabbi would be a controversial choice. Though it was clear in 1890 and affirmed in 1922 that women could and should be rabbis, and that our religion would greatly benefit from their leadership, fear of change and deeply rooted prejudice kept the leaders of the Reform Seminary and Reform Synagogues from embracing a more inclusive future. We are so lucky to have Rabbi Priesand as a model of determination and perseverance. Though we’ve made many strides in the past 50 years, and many of my own classmates at HUC were women, we have a long way to go. Rabbi Priesand’s model of leadership is one we will need to continue in our journey towards a just, inclusive movement and society. 

Our movement today prides itself on being “audaciously hospitable” and emphasizes the inclusion of Jews of Color, individuals of varying abilities, interfaith families, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+. The problem, as we see in the relatively recent story of women seeking the rabbinate, is that words on paper don’t immediately change the world around us. Words must inspire us to change the world with our hands, our actions, our insistence. As our tradition teaches, “We are not required to complete the work, nor are free to desist from it.” Whether or not we have leadership roles, our voices and our actions are critical to building a better future collectively. We must do the difficult work of ensuring racial equity, gender equity, sexual equity, class equity…in our movement, here in our congregation, and in all of our communities. We might not see the fruits of our labor come to fruition immediately – there’s no Prime shipping on equity – but we have the power to ensure a better future for the generations to come in which all voices will be heard and valued. I always smile when I think of that little girl’s innocent surprise that “boys could be rabbis.” I see that innocence and sense of openness in my kids, too. And I hope for the day when we can approach difference with such open arms, open minds, and open hearts.  

In the 1980s, poet Merle Feld wrote a poem about our Torah portion this morning called, We All Stood Together:

My brother and I were at Sinai

He kept a journal

of what he saw

of what he heard

of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record

of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write

I can’t

I’m always holding a baby

one of my own

or one for a friend

always holding a baby

so my hands are never free

to write things down

And then

As time passes

The particulars

The hard data

The who what when where why

Slip away from me

And all I’m left with is

The feeling

But feelings are just sounds

The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard

After all he’s got a record of it

Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together

We could recreate holy time

Sparks flying  

As we enter a new year and reflect on the challenges we’ve faced personally and as a society in the past few years, may we create – together – a beautifully diverse community in which everyone has a part to write. Then, perhaps we might recreate holy time. We might let sparks fly. We might live up to the dreams in the Torah.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah!

Recommended Posts