Chicago — A few generations ago it was unthinkable that a woman would be ordained as a rabbi, who not only leads a Jewish congregation in prayer but also is learned in Jewish law, lore, and life. Like other Western religions, Judaism traditionally closed its doors to women who dared to dream of a pastoral life and limited their participation in religious ceremonies.
But many Jewish women may now do more than dream. Almost 15 years ago, the first woman rabbi was ordained, initiating a trend that is dramatically changing the role of women in the four movements of modern American Judaism. Women can be ordained in three: the Reformed, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.
Even women within Orthodox Judaism - the most traditional branch, which expressly forbids women from being ordained - have more opportunities than in the past.
Today there are 130 women rabbis, according to a survey by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Of these, 102 are Reformed, two are Conservative, and the remainder are ordained by the British Reformed movement and Reconstructionist movement, says Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfuss, director of the Reformed Rabbinical Placement Commission in New York. Hundreds more are in seminaries and will soon be ordained, he adds.
The path to the pulpit was blazed by Sally Priesand, who was ordained by the Reformed movement, the most liberal branch of Judaism. It does not abide by the Jewish laws that some consider sexist or irrelevant to life.
Women were officially allowed to become Reformed rabbis as early as 1922, but ``prejudice'' delayed their entry into the rabbinate for 50 years, explains Helene Ferris, an associate rabbi at the 900-family Steven Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.
But even within the Reformed movement, no woman has been appointed senior rabbi of a large congregation. These prestigious appointments, meted out on the basis of experience, are the challenge of the next decade, says Rabbi Priesand. ``Only now will we see if women will start getting larger congregations,'' she notes.
It wasn't until 1983 that the more traditional Conservative movement took the controversial step of admitting women to the rabbinate.
Women in the Conservative movement, which abides by the ``halachah,'' or Jewish law, but interprets it somewhat liberally, had a much tougher time winning admittance than their Reformed counterparts.
``The main reason women were not allowed to be rabbis was tradition,'' says rabbinical student Debra Cantor, 30, who will be ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1988.
``Traditionally women were not involved in advanced learning of Jewish texts, like the Talmud. But that is the main thing that has changed in the Jewish world, not just with liberal Jews, but also with Orthodox Jews. And once you open up the world of learning to women, you open up the rabbinate,'' she said.
Even women in Orthodox Judaism, where Jewish law is strictly followed and women are not permitted to sit with men in the synagogue because they might distract men from prayer, are now more often encouraged to study texts.
Some Conservative Jewish legal scholars also objected to women rabbis on the grounds that women, because of their family responsibilities, are not obligated by Jewish law to participate in public prayer at the synagogue three times a day.
``In the Conservative movement there has been a tremendous move toward men and women taking on equal roles in the synagogue,'' says Ms. Cantor, who estimates women now participate in services in the vast majority of Conservative synagogues. ``If they have an equal role, they can be eligible to lead the services.''
According to Rabbi Dreyfuss, women have been well accepted as Reformed rabbis, and those who have wanted congregations have been able to have them.
``On the whole, female rabbis have been pretty well received, but it is not easy,'' says Rabbi Priesand. ``But now that I've been a rabbi so long, I just think of myself as a rabbi and my congregation just thinks of me as a rabbi.''
Conservative women rabbis are likely to have a more difficult time earning acceptance. Even today, with two women - Amy Eilberg and Nina Feinstein - already ordained, some men at the seminary have refused to attend services where women participate or officiate.
Yet Cantor, who has worked for 10 years as an assistant rabbi of a Connecticut synagogue, is optimistic. ``I've learned that the idea of a woman rabbi may seem threatening at first, but people get used to the idea of a woman on the pulpit very quickly,'' she says.
Many women do not want large, demanding congregations. Women rabbis, like other career women, have to juggle children, marriage, and a job that can be extremely time-consuming.
``The hours are flexible. It's not a bad career in terms of child raising,'' says Cantor, who is married and has postponed having children to complete her training.
Others, says Rabbi Ferris, who has three children, simply prefer small or medium-size congregations. In addition, many women rabbis choose jobs in teaching or social work, and one recently became a United States Navy chaplain.
Regardless of their positions, women rabbis believe they have a unique contribution to make to Judaism, says Cantor. They hope to provide role models for women and be more approachable and less easy to stereotype than their male counterparts.
And because women are different, Cantor adds, they hope to find new ways to reenergize religious values and help people find meaning in their lives.