The Changing Face of the Rabbinate

Exclusively the territory of young men for so long, rabbinical schools today in the non-Orthodox movements are welcoming women and gay students.

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As the debate continues in the Orthodox world, women's presence in non-Orthodox seminaries has quickly grown. Only eight years after Eilberg became the first female Conservative rabbi, women comprised more than half of the Jewish Theological Seminary's 1993 graduating class of rabbis, though those numbers did not hold up in the same way in subsequent years. In the Reform movement, women became a majority of rabbinical students around 2000, and the percentage has continued to grow--to more than two-thirds of the 2007 graduating class.

As more women become ordained, the influence of women in the rabbinate is only beginning to show. Women have now held key leadership posts in both the Conservative and Reform movements. And while there have been complaints that few women have become senior rabbis at large synagogues, it's hard to imagine that fact remaining true for long, as women rabbis grow more accepted, more experienced, and more numerous.

Gay Rabbis

Just as women's ordination followed on the heels of the widespread growth of feminism, the debate over ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis followed the trajectory of the gay rights movement itself. As gay, lesbian, and transgender people gained more recognition, rights, and prominence in American society, the various non-Orthodox denominations began re-examining the exclusion of homosexuals from the rabbinate and began revising their policies accordingly.

Raised at first tentatively in the 1970s, the issue gained steam in the 1980s and 1990s, and continued to be controversial into the early years of the 21st century. As with the ordination of women, the Reconstructionist movement was the first to change its policy, deciding in 1984 to admit gay and lesbians to the rabbinate. The Reform movement followed in 1990.

In the Conservative movement, the issue proved at least as (and possibly more) controversial as ordaining women rabbis. After years of rancorous debate, the denomination's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in late 2006 passed three different measures, one allowing gay rabbis and the other two forbidding it.

The split decisions essentially left it up to individual seminaries and synagogues to decide whether to accept gay rabbis. All eyes shifted to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the largest and most influential Conservative seminary, where the debate had raged for years. The school announced in March 2007 that it would begin accepting gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and cantorial programs.

It's difficult to know how many gay and lesbian students are at these seminaries--or how many have studied and been ordained at them in the past while remaining quiet about their sexual orientation. In the Orthodox movement, there are few voices advocating the acceptance of gays and lesbians into communal life, let alone the rabbinate. But, as with the question of women, it's not an entirely verboten conversation in some parts of the Orthodox world.

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Michael Kress

Michael Kress is the executive editor of Parents.com. He was also the the VP of Editorial and Managing Editor at Beliefnet and the founding editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.com.