I started rabbinical school in the 1981-82 academic year. One of our professors was Rabbi Ben Hollander z’l. Ben was a Conservative rabbi who taught in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox institutions. At the time, the question of whether the Jewish Theological Seminary would ordain women as Conservative rabbis was being hotly debated (JTS decided in favor of ordaining women in 1983 and ordained its first woman in 1985). One of my classmates asked Ben for his take on the issue and he responded “I have an opinion but I don’t agree with it.”
At the time this struck me as odd but over the years there have been a number of debates within Conservative Judaism where “I have an opinion but I don’t agree with it” makes sense.
For a long time subsequent to the Conservative movement acknowledging the full religious equality of women, there was one area where women were still not treated equally. That area was edut, serving as a witness for certain rituals, particularly in the areas of marriage, divorce, and conversion. Torah law requires two witnesses to validate certain religious realities, and since the Hebrew word is eidim and not eidot, it is understood that Torah law specifically requires male witnesses. This was the normative position in Conservative Judaism until 2001, when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards decided that women could serve as witnesses for all areas except for gittin, Jewish religious divorces. Nevertheless, when officiating at a conversion or a marriage, I have generally required the use of male witnesses, not necessarily because I personally believe they are necessary (“I have an opinion but I don’t agree with it”) but because I want the ritual actions I perform to be as broadly acceptable as possible. I don’t want a person I converted or a wedding I performed to be rejected by more traditional Jews on the basis of ineligible witnesses.
While Conservative rabbis have a degree of autonomy when it comes to marriage and conversion, matters of gittin are under the authority of the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative Movement. This is because the laws around gittin are complex and also because an invalid get has catastrophic implications. If a person is thought to be divorced but it in fact not, subsequent relations constitute adultery and children born of such relationships are mamzerim and ineligible to marry most other Jews. Until June of this year the Joint Bet Din required that witnesses in matters of gittin be male, precisely because of the implications of an invalid get. But recently the Joint Bet Din changed its position and now allows women to serve as witnesses.
For a debate on this question see these two articles:
After reading both articles, what are your thoughts?
As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at email@example.com or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian