Ostensibly, the Chancellor’s Commission on the Ordination of Women as Rabbis in the Conservative movement was intended to end the contentious debate, but the opposite was the case. Following the release of the report in 1979, years of disputatiousness dominated all arms of the movement. The question was no longer whether women could be teachers – essentially what rabbis are – but whether women could be cantors, judges, and witnesses. Feelings were set aboil on all sides of the issue.
In reaction to the claim that women cannot justly be denied equal opportunities and status in an egalitarian world, the argument put forward by traditionalists who wished to retain distinctions between men and women in Judaism was that men and woman should not be competitors but complements. It is legitimate and even beneficial to require separate roles, each important in its own way. Arguments to support this view were drawn from the fields of music and sports. Symphony orchestras require different instruments with different roles in order to create a harmonious masterpiece. Teams require players with different skills in order to win a championship. Six goalies – no matter how accomplished – will not provide for a winning hockey team.
Uncited at the time is the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who describes why each son of Jacob received a separate and distinct blessing. “The nation that will descend from you is to be one single unit outwardly oriented, and a multiplicity of elements united into one – inwardly oriented. Each tribe is to represent a special national quality; is to be, as it were, a nation in miniature. The people of Ya’akov is to become “Yisrael,” is to reveal to the nations God’s power, which controls and masters all earthly human affairs, shaping everything in accordance with His Will. Hence, this people should not present a one-sided image. As a model nation, it should reflect diverse national characteristics. Through its tribes, it should represent the warrior nation, the merchant nation, the agricultural nation, the nation of scholars, and so forth. In this manner it will become clear to all that the sanctification of human life in the Divine covenant of the Torah does not depend on a particular way of life or national characteristic. Rather, all of mankind, with all its diversity, is called upon to accept the uniform spirit of the God of Israel. From the diversity of human and national characteristics will emerge one united kingdom of God” (R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, trans. Daniel Haberman, vol. 1, p. 693).
The diversity advocated by Rabbi Hirsch refers to division of labor. Judaism thrives when its component groups excel in its defined area and not when one group tries to become another.