Stetl-Mentality and Non-Native Ignorance: David Weiss Halivni and Gerson Cohen on the Ordination of Women

An old letter that has recently surfaced at the National Library of Israel sheds new light on a controversy which rocked the world of Conservative Judaism some 40 years ago…

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R. Prof. David Halivni (left) and R. Prof. Gerson Cohen (right)

By Dr. Zvi Leshem

In 1983, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), which included the rabbinical school of the Conservative Movement, took the momentous decision to admit women to the rabbinic program and to grant them ordination (the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements had ordained women from 1972 and 1974 respectively). This decision, which followed several years of acrimonious debate, was spearheaded by the then Chancellor of JTS, R. Prof. Gerson David Cohen (1924-1991), an esteemed historian of medieval Jewry. The most vociferous opposition had come from the senior faculty of the Talmud Department, headed by the great scholar, R. Prof. Saul Lieberman (1898-1983), who authored a Halakhic responsum in Hebrew, prohibiting the move. An English translation can be seen here.  

After Lieberman’s unexpected death on an airplane to Israel to celebrate Passover in the spring of 1983, Cohen seized the opportunity to move the plan forward. On October 2, 1983, the Faculty Senate voted 34-8 (although other numbers are occasionally quoted) to admit women. As we shall see, several of the opponents chose to boycott the vote. Among them was Lieberman’s student, R. Prof. David Weiss Halivni (1927-2022), who had also authored an opposing (English) responsum. One of the results of Halivni’s vigorous opposition was increased tension with his formerly close friend, Gerson Cohen, and in 1985 Halivni left JTS to become a full professor in the Religion Department of Columbia University, where he had previously served as an adjunct professor.

Halivni devoted much space to this in his autobiography, “The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction” (New York 1996, pp. 103-115). Beginning with the statement, “Leaving the Seminary in 1985 after more than thirty years of association was very painful. It took me some time until I could bring myself to visit it again”, he detailed his formerly positive relationship with Cohen. “The beginning [of Cohen’s tenure as Chancellor] seemed to herald harmonious cooperation between us…we were friends of long standing…. We saw each other often and held scholarly discussions. Dr. Cohen would consult me on textual matters and I him on historical events”.

However, things soon soured between the two. “Soon, however, Dr. Cohen embarked on reforms (the ordination of women was the most conspicuous but not the only one) which I believed negated halakhah…but without antecedent support, I would not tamper with any law or custom”. 

Halivni goes on to delineate how Cohen attempted to silence him at faculty meetings and even criticized him for sermons at the JTS synagogue (when Prof. Lieberman was away, Prof. Halivni filled in as the synagogue rabbi) which he deemed to be “anti-reform”. In response Halivni asked Cohen – “Do you want me to discontinue my divrei Torah?” Cohen’s reply, “No, not yet, for you would then become a martyr”. After Lieberman’s death, Halivni, despite being chairman of the Talmud Department, was not asked to eulogize him, and he was promptly removed from his position as JTS synagogue rabbi, being told by Cohen that, “I want to break the Lieberman syndrome”. In summation Halivni recounts, “The chancellor overestimated my influence…fearing a backlash, he brooked no resistance, real or imagined. But there was no need for that attitude. With the overwhelming majority of the Conservative movement behind him…he could have achieved his goal with gentler tactics”.  

Halivni ends the discussion in his autobiography by quoting in full a lengthy letter that he sent to Faculty Assembly, explaining his decision not to participate in the upcoming vote on ordination for women. He opens by emphasizing his by then well-known position. “My position regarding women’s ordination is by now, I take it, well known to all of you assembled here. I am against it. It is a violation of halakhah which to me is sufficient grounds to reject it”. Halivni waxes eloquently regarding the superiority of Halakhah to supposedly ethical concerns and the impossibility of consciously changing the Halakhah for perceived ethical reasons.

He also writes of the spiritual potency of Halakhic practice:

“A Jew knows no other way of reaching out to God other than through halakhah… He knows no way to penetrate the highest recesses of spirituality other than through a structured pattern of behaviors…he may experience a sense of elevation, a touch of ecstasy, a feeling of being near to God. That is his greatest reward. While it lasts…nothing else exists.”

Additionally, Halivni was deeply troubled by the [in his view] flawed process of decision making. He writes:

“In light of the above, I hope you will understand why I cannot participate in the vote… I am committed to Jewish tradition in all of its various aspects.  I cannot, therefore, participate in a debate on a religious issue of major historical significance where the traditional decision-making process is not sufficiently honored; its specific instructions as to who is qualified to pass judgment [more on this crucial point below] not sufficiently reckoned with. Even to strengthen tradition, one must proceed traditionally. Otherwise it is a mitzvah haba’ah ba’aveirah – a mitzvah performed by means of a transgression”.

Halivni ends his letter with a paraphrase of a statement that he had heard from Prof. Ernst Simon:

“It is my personal tragedy that the people I daven [pray] with, I cannot talk to, and the people I talk to, I cannot daven with. However, when the chips are down, I will always side with the people that I daven with; for I can live without talking. I cannot live without davening“.

In light of this powerful, and yet highly respectful letter, it is fascinating to compare it to another, unsent draft, which I recently discovered in R. Halivni’s as of yet uncatalogued archive at the National Library of Israel. In that letter, which R. Halivni, not only decided not to send, but apparently stopped writing in mid-sentence, the tone is radically different. It would seem, that midway through, R. Halivni thought the better of sending such a strong letter, and hiding it away, saved a copy only for himself. Then, it would seem, he went on to pen the much more appeasing letter quoted in his autobiography. 

Unsent Letter

Halivni opens his letter, “We, the undersigned”, as it was apparently meant to be a group letter, unlike the individual one that he eventually did send. Its main thrust is to explain why the undersigned will be boycotting the upcoming vote, and opens with a strong statement regarding the flawed process of decision making, focusing on the complete lack of qualifications of some of those who would be voting on the highly significant question:

“1) A sizable number of those scheduled to vote are either not versed at all or insufficiently versed in religious law and are therefore unqualified…to mark far-reaching decisions on grave halakhic matters that will affect the future of Judaism for generations to come”.

It wasn’t only the ignorance of some the voters that troubled Halivni. He was deeply concerned by their religious practices as well:

“some of those scheduled to vote do not even comply with the minimum standards of observance now required by the so-called ‘left wing’ faction of the Conservative Movement. People for whom observance is not the primary component of their lifestyle should not be making irrevocable religious decisions affecting those for whom observance is central in their lives”.

This of course is the meaning behind the vaguer language in the second letter:

“where the traditional decision-making process is not sufficiently honored; its specific instructions as to who is qualified to pass judgment not sufficiently reckoned with”.

The second, longer part of the letter, constitutes a head-on attack on Cohen’s tactics and a powerful protest by Halivni, who was left with a sense of delegitimization, following what he saw as incitement on the part of Cohen, who was not mentioned at all in the final letter. Here we are given more detail pertaining to the passage in his autobiography, where Halivni had stated, “fearing a backlash, he [Cohen] brooked no resistance, real or imagined”.

“2) Given the present atmosphere, the tension and fear, generated in part by the Chancellor’s vociferous partisanship…an objective, truly  deliberative vote is [not] possible…pressures are applied against those whose positions at the Seminary…are vulnerable in order to compel them to vote in favor of women’s ordination”.

This is seemingly a very strong accusation, ostensibly that people were pressured to vote in favor, fearing their chances of receiving tenure at the Seminary could be affected if they did not. Halivni then turns to Cohen’s attacks upon the opponents, and his various attempts to delegitimize them:

“An emotional frenzy was whipped up against those who stand firm in their opposition… Such individuals have been branded ‘immoral’…narrow-minded, as possessing a STETL-mentality and non-native ignorance”.

The last point – “non-native ignorance” – is deserving of a bit more analysis. As we have pointed out, the strongest opposition to women’s ordination came from the senior faculty members of the Talmud Department, to whom Prof. Lieberman had addressed his responsa opposing women’s ordination. In addition to Lieberman himself, Professors Halivni, Israel Francus and Dov Zlotnick were European, Professor Chaim Zalman Dimitrovsky was Israeli and Professor Jose Faur was from Argentina. All had been yeshiva trained before turning to academic Talmud study. Thus, they were in fact a soft target for the charge of possessing a “stetl-mentality and non-native ignorance”. Halivni, turning the tables, views these very qualities as positive in the context of the debate:

“We reject with disgust these accusations, proudly proclaiming that we who are clinging to Jewish tradition are the true moralists; that thanks to the stetl and non-native religious and cultural influence the American Jewish scene turned in the last few decades from a spiritual desert into a blooming community”.

Halivni goes on to attack what he refers to as “the use of a few worn out clichés borrowed…from the haskalah literature, debunking the sages of the Mishnah”, and to claim that “sensitive young men and women…reject this cavalier attitude and humbly turn to these sages for guidance”.

In conclusion he writes:

“Under these circumstances, the vote…will be a travesty. The result is a foregone conclusion, carefully orchestrated…by high administrative officials using the enormous resources of the Seminary…to intimidate and maneuver. That may be called ‘success’ in the political arena, but in the religious and moral spheres, such means are repugnant.”

The letter closes in mid-sentence, stating, “Moreover, the Seminary is blatantly ignoring”… What exactly, we can only speculate.



Looking back on this debate some forty years later, it is hard to imagine its intensity, given the fact that for close to twenty years the Conservative Movement has been completely “egalitarian”, and perhaps to some it is difficult to imagine it any other way. It seems obvious that part of the opposition to ordaining women was also concerned about just this very Halakhic “slippery slope”. In 1987, JTS admitted women to its Cantorial School, and the movement officially decided to count women equally in the minyan (prayer quorum) in 2002, after several decades of debate. That same year, women were officially granted the privilege of leading all prayers, equally with men. These decisions, ostensibly much more problematic from a purely Halakhic standpoint than women’s ordination itself, effectively rendered the movement completely egalitarian. While for some this was of course an obvious and necessary course of modernization, for others these innovations were seen as a final break between the movement and Halakhic fidelity. Furthermore, had the Conservative Movement not taken the dramatic step of ordaining women in 1983, it seems unlikely that the “Open Orthodox” Movement would have ordained its first “Maharat” in 2013.

Another direction taken by the Conservative Movement, also no doubt inspired by the ordination of women, was the decision to ordain openly gay clergy in 2006, taken after the retirement of then Chancellor R. Prof. Ismar Schorsch (1935-), who had succeeded Cohen as Chancellor and had been staunchly opposed to the ordination of gays. Ironically, it was R. Prof Joel Roth (1940-), a student of Prof. Halivni, who authored both the 1983 responsa in favor of ordaining women, which was accepted, as well as the responsa in 2006 opposing the ordination of openly gay clergy, which was rejected. Writing at length about the reaction to these responsa within the movement, Roth’s son Ariel, states:

“During the early 1980s Joel [Roth] was widely celebrated for his responsum [to ordain women] and it opened the doors to a multitude of invitations to speak at synagogues around the United States…. The darker side of those days is that in his decision on the ordination of women, Joel took a step which his teachers…did not approve. Finkelstein, Weiss-Halivni, and most likely Liberman as well, felt that Joel was wrong and, if not wrong, presumptuous. To their minds, the decision probably caused permanent damage to the movement that they had entrusted him to protect”.

Roth’s son also details how very rapidly the movement came to ignore the Halakhic safeguards in Roth’s responsum regarding women’s ordination, and rendered much of his analysis completely superficial. Regarding Roth’s later responsum against the ordination of openly gay clergy, the response was expectedly quite different:

“If the decision to ordain women as rabbis cost Joel his teachers, the second decision for which he will be remembered cost him many of his students, eroded some of his stature and very unfairly exposed him to ridicule and calumny…. Joel was vilified by many of his students, for being anti-gay, and his prominence in the movement fell remarkably…. Joel resigned from the Law Committee…. Speaking invitations become fewer and farther between and rabbis more aligned with the social trajectory of the movement found themselves in higher demand”.

 “Hakol Kol Yaakov: The Joel Roth Jubilee Volume”, Robert A. Harris and Jonathan S. Milgram, editors, Leiden and Boston 2021, pp. XXX-XXXIII


As stated above, Professor Lieberman had passed away shortly before the vote. Prof. Halivni resigned from the Seminary and taught at Columbia University until his retirement and Aliyah in 2005. Prof. Dimitrovsky returned to Israel and taught Talmud at the Hebrew University. Prof. Faur sued JTS for breach of contract, alleging that the decision to ordain women effectively forced him to resign.  He taught briefly in Chicago and then made Aliyah, teaching at Bar-Ilan. Professors Francus and Zlotnick chose to remain at JTS, teaching there until retirement. Zlotnick subsequently made Aliyah, living in Jerusalem. Francus recently died in New York and was buried in Israel. Joel Roth currently resides in Jerusalem and davens in an Orthodox synagogue.


Shortly after publishing the original version of this article, I received the following email from Rabbi Ronald D. Price, a former Assistant Dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS. I’ve decided to attach the text of the email here below as I feel it offers further insight:

Dear Zvi,

I appreciate seeing this. I have serious questions about the draft letter. 

I do not believe Rav Halivni wrote this typewritten draft. Four years earlier, as we were organising the “resistance” of the faculty and administration at JTS, I would often circulate drafts of letters to be sent in the name of the opposition, for the approval of faculty members. I have reason to believe that this is such a draft authored by someone else which Rav Halivni had in his file. It is not at all in his style of self expression, even when deeply disturbed about something.

Kol tuv uverakhah,


Rabbi Ronald D. Price
Executive Vice President, emeritus
Union for Traditional Judaism

(Until mid 1980 Rabbi Price served as the Assistant Dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS and the Secretary of the Faculty Senate.)

After receiving Rabbi Price’s email, I also heard from Prof. David C. Kraemer of JTS, who argued that the fact that the letter ends in mid-sentence would seem to mitigate against Rabbi Price’s theory. I agree.

You can read more about David Weiss Halivni and Gerson Cohen in this Hebrew article