Monday, October 6, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 5: Rabbinical Perspectives on Women and the Franchise

Rabbis’ opinions on suffrage were just as varied as their congregants’. As early as 1892, rabbis within the Reform movement were agitating to allow for women to become synagogue members with voting rights and the ability to hold office, as the world had progressed past the idea of women as secondary in Jewish congregations. Although the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a resolution in agreement with this sentiment, it was largely ignored for two decades due to members’ disputes over this highly controversial topic.

In 1913, Rabbi Moses P. Jacobson reintroduced the resolution, arguing that CCAR should support women’s political suffrage because Judaism has always aligned itself with advancing the cause of liberty and CCAR was the most representative organization of progressive Judaism at the time. Two years later, Rabbi Horace J. Wolf simply said that Reform women should be given suffrage because numerous states were expected to extend suffrage to their women that year. Both years, CCAR responded that individual rabbis may allow the women of their congregations to vote, but would not make an overarching policy requiring it. Wolf reintroduced the resolution in 1917 and lobbied strongly for it, going so far as to describe the exclusion of women from the franchise as “unethical and unjust,” particularly due to Jews’ history of political marginalization, and that women deserve the vote because they had demonstrated “loyalty, patriotism, and eagerness to serve their country.” Finally, CCAR adopted the resolution, giving Reform Jewish women the vote within the religious sphere before most American women could cast a ballot for president.

Throughout this back and forth in CCAR, other rabbis made their opinions on the matter of suffrage clear. Reform Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch’s 1895 prophecy that women would be enfranchised soon was about twenty years too early, but he was correct that women would eventually obtain suffrage, both within Reform congregations and national elections. The 1915 essay “Woman and Democracy” by progressive Rabbi Stephen S. Wise levies numerous arguments on behalf of enfranchising women, calling for Americans to face the reality of women’s departure from the home and the imperative to recognize women’s autonomy from men. In the wake of CCAR’s passage of the suffrage resolution, Reform Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf published an address supporting women’s suffrage on the grounds of the equalizing status of women in society. Rabbis from other Jewish denominations also came out in support of suffrage: Jewish Theological Seminary alum Rabbi Aaron G. Robison invited Maud Nathan to speak at his synagogue, and Orthodox rabbi Jacob Levinson concluded that it is permissible and even desirable to support suffrage from a religious perspective in The Equality of Women from the Viewpoint of Halakhah.

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