The Would-Be Rabbis
This spring, as we prepare for Purim and Passover, we also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by a rabbinical seminary. But had history unfolded a bit differently, we might be marking the 100th anniversary of women in the rabbinate. Like the biblical Esther and Miriam, the women who yearned to be rabbis decades before it was possible acted with courage as they opened the doors for Priesand and the many others who followed.
In 1921, after three years of study at Hebrew Union College, Martha Neumark asked the administration for a High Holiday pulpit assignment. Her request instigated a lengthy debate about whether women could be ordained as rabbis. As historian Pamela Nadell recounts in Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985, HUC’s faculty and alumni eventually concluded that “women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” However, the Reform rabbinical seminary’s board of governors voted to maintain its policy and restrict ordination to men.
While this debate played out at HUC in Cincinnati, the Jewish Institute of Religion opened in New York City in 1922. Irma Levy Lindheim and two other women enrolled in the inaugural class, but they were not admitted as rabbinical students. When Lindheim petitioned the faculty to become a rabbinical student, JIR changed its charter and committed—at least on paper—to “train, in liberal spirit, men and women, for Jewish ministry, research and community service.” However, after completing much of the curriculum, personal circumstances led Lindheim to discontinue her studies before the final year.
Her classmate Dora Askowith—who entered JIR in 1922 with a doctorate from Columbia University—spent several years taking classes alongside male rabbinical students. She was motivated to deepen her Judaic studies knowledge, not to “enter the ministry,” yet she hoped that her presence at JIR would, in her words quoted in Women Who Would Be Rabbis, “open the road for women who might be desirous of being ordained.”
Although neither Lindheim nor Askowith took that path, both ascended to leadership positions in Hadassah: Askowith as an early member of Hadassah’s central decision-making body, and Lindheim as the third Hadassah national president (1926-1928). Lindheim followed Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, who studied at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in the early 1900s, though Szold was required to confirm that she had no rabbinical aspirations when she enrolled.
A virtual event featuring Rabbis Sally Priesand, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Amy Eilberg and Sara Hurwitz, all of whom made history by becoming the first ordained rabbis in their respective denominations.
Helen Levinthal Lyons, president of her local Hadassah chapter in Westchester County, N.Y., merits distinction among the early 20th century Jewish women who sought access to a seminary education. In 1939, she became the first woman to complete the rabbinical curriculum at JIR (which later merged with HUC). In spite of this accomplishment, she was denied the opportunity to extend her family’s rabbinic line to a 13th generation when JIR founder Rabbi Stephen S. Wise refused to ordain her. According to Nadell, he insisted that “while Helen did excellent work, the time was not ripe for the JIR to ordain a woman.”
The time for the first female rabbi 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 and after she was deported to Terezin in 1942. She was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.
Not until 1972 would a rabbinical seminary formally ordain a woman. For her HUC-JIR rabbinical school thesis, Priesand researched the “Historic and Changing Role of the Jewish Woman.” Decades earlier, Lyons had written about “Women Suffrage from the Halachic Aspect.” Aspiring female rabbis often looked to the Bible, Jewish history and Jewish law for inspiration and affirmation.
The stories of Esther and Miriam, the biblical women at the center of the Purim and Passover stories, respectively, highlight characteristics exhibited by these would-be rabbis. Just as women like Neumark and Lyons took initiative in embarking on a sacred calling not yet open to them, Miriam the prophet repeatedly takes initiative. She stations herself by the Nile to see what will become of her baby brother, Moses, and she grabs her hand drum and leads the women in song and dance after the Exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. And like these pioneering women, Esther exhibits wit and courage in her efforts to save the Jewish people from Haman’s decree. She goes before King Ahasuerus uninvited and then enacts a plan that leads to Haman’s undoing. As Mordecai advises Esther, sometimes people are placed in prominent positions to accomplish things that may seem daunting, but ultimately lead to the greater good.
Fifty years after Sally Priesand became Rabbi Priesand on June 3, 1972, I am the one who stands before the ark, hands outstretched to ordain each new rabbi and cantor at HUC-JIR. This momentous 50th anniversary invites us to expand the celebration and recognize the many bold and persistent Jewish women who have stepped up in countless ways, proving just what can happen when women are given the chance to fulfill their God-given potential.
Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss is Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost and an associate professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She served as associate editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and created the American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters campaigns in 2017 and 2021.