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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 171-174

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Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889-1985. By Pamela S. Nadell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. xiii + 300pp.

The idea of women rabbis is not a late twentieth century innovation. As Pamela S. Nadell demonstrates in her excellent analysis of this central transformation in American Jewish life, the question of female rabbis, a [End Page 171] natural if uncomfortable consequence of Reform Judaism's insistence on the equality of men and women, was seriously pondered in the nineteenth century in both Germany and the United States. While arguments for female ordination were always grounded in traditional sources, Nadell contends that the issue must be seen primarily as a consequence of Judaism's encounter with modernity and the ensuing reconfigurations of women's accustomed roles. Nor did Jewish women's rabbinic aspirations develop in a vaccuum; among the strengths of Nadell's well-researched study are comparative perspectives on American women's struggles to enter medicine, law, and the clergy of various Protestant denominations. This book is also about the determined individuals who insisted that women were capable of becoming rabbis, teachers, and preachers, even when the spirit of the times was against them. Thus, this important history aims not only to instruct but to inspire, since, as Nadell writes, "Women need to know that others preceding them have wrestled with the same questions and ideas" (p. xiii).

Nadell's five chapters encapsulate specific moments in the long journey to female ordination. Her first chapter reviews the arguments raised for and against ordination in 1889 and shows how they were continually reiterated in the century that followed. Nadell also analyzes the enduring ambivalence of Reform Jewish leaders, who struggled to balance their long stated commitment to the religious emancipation of Jewish women with their own engrained prejudices about women's proper sphere and their perceptions of the receptivity of the times to female rabbis.

Nadell's second chapter highlights the rising expectations for women's ordination in the 1890s and early 1900s, a period which saw a strong woman's presence in the synagogue. She credits women like Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, Ray Frank, Rosa Sonneschein, and Henrietta Szold, all publicly recognized as Jewish teachers, preachers, and leaders, with changing attitudes about women's potential for the rabbinate. However, many agreed with Reform leader Kaufmann Kohler that "The time has not come for woman to take issue with the rabbis or occupy their place" (p. 50).

In her third chapter, Nadell details the careers of five women in the 1920s and 1930s who undertook seminary studies with the goal of ordination. These include Martha Neumark (1904-81), whose request for a High Holiday pulpit, following three years of intensive study at Hebrew Union College, ultimately led to a 1923 vote by the lay Board of Governors against changing the policy of only ordaining men. The aspirations of other able women of this era were also disappointed, including those of Helen Hadassah Levinthal who was not ordained with [End Page 172] her male classmates at the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1939, despite becoming the first woman in American Jewry to complete a rabbinic curriculum. By this time, as Nadell relates, although it was not widely known in the United States, there already was one woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, who had received private ordination in Germany.

Rabbi Sally Jane Priesand, the talented and tenacious young woman who, "propitiously aspiring to the rabbinate at a time of 'enormous possibility' for American women" (p. 118), became the first woman rabbi in North America, is at the center of the fourth chapter. However, Nadell also details the careers of Priesand's American predecessors such as Paula Herskovitz Ackerman, Tehilla Hirschenson Lichtenstein, Beatrice Sanders, and Libbie Levin Braverman, whose competent assumption of many rabbinic roles in the middle decades of the twentieth century played an important part in changing public attitudes. As Nadell points out, publicity about the growing success of women in the Protestant ministry also prompted...


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