Judaism and Social Change

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Judaism. Read other perspectives here.

In the past four decades two converging currents of social change, both in the realm of gender and sexuality, have transformed the American political and religious landscape. One is the remarkable though as yet unfulfilled march toward gender equality in the workplace as most broadly defined — the home, the office, the boardroom — and in the house of worship.

The other is the broad acceptance of same-sex relationships, an acceptance affirmed and accentuated by the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. This social change, like that of gender equality, has generated considerable opposition, opposition that will take forms we can't yet envision.

American religious movements and their respective institutions have long been dynamic participants in these struggles over gender and sexuality. Conservative groups have opposed change; more liberal groups have advanced it. Jewish denominations, like their Christian counterparts, have participated in these struggles, and will continue to do so in the future.

Perhaps half of the American Jewish population is affiliated with a religious denomination — either Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. And again like their counterparts in other religions the denominations, led by clergy (though change is often initiated by the laity), have come to decisions on issues of gender and sexuality, decisions that are enforced (or might we say "lived" or "enacted") on the congregational level.

Reform Judaism, with roots in the European Enlightenment and the 19th-century German - Jewish symbiosis, was a pioneer both in women's participation in the clergy and in gay rights. In 1972, Sally Priesand was the first woman ordained as a rabbi by the movement, and within five years fifty other women joined the Reform rabbinate. In the next decade Reform was also the first movement to ordain gay rabbis.

After a decade-long period of deliberation and Talmudic argument, the rabbis of Conservative Judaism, an American-born denomination, voted to ordain women, and since 1983 hundreds of women rabbis have transformed the character and style of Conservative congregations.

As might be expected, it is among Orthodox Jews that there is the greatest resistance to social change. On the same-sex relationship question there is a quite vocal community of dissidents within Orthodoxy. (The 2001 film Trembling Before G-d was both a record of gay Orthodox life and a catalyst for change.) But these dissidents have had no real influence in the Orthodox rabbinate.

On the issue of women's ordination, Orthodoxy — at least in its "Modern Orthodox" form — seems more open to change. Over the past thirty or so years many young women have undergone the thorough Talmudic training that was for centuries the exclusive preserve of men. While the heads of the somewhat fragmented Orthodox world are reluctant to call these highly educated and erudite women "rabbis," they are being granted limited recognition in some of the more progressive schools and congregations. Whether they will be called rabbis, "rabbinic facilitators," or honored by another title, the changing status of these female scholars is yet another indication that Orthodox Judaism, like Catholicism, does change, but that change is very slow and often very quiet.