jump to navigation

Impossible x3 August 3, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
6 comments

“Here there is a role reversal of what was related in bSotah – instead of the woman [Queen Salome Alexandra] being “nameless” now she is named and cunningly tries to get around the rabbinic prohibition, while the male character, her son, is unnamed and plays no role in the matter in dispute.”

 

– commentary on bShabbat (16b – 14b) in doctoral thesis entitled “Queen Alexandra: The Anamoly of a Sovereign Jewish Queen in the Second Temple Period” by Etka Liebowitz, PhD

There was a time when being a female (non-nun) member of the clergy would have been considered impossible. But, imagine for a moment, someone who was not only the first woman to be ordained in their religion, but to receive the highest orders during a time when it was hard to even be a male member of your religion. Allow me to introduce you to (or re-acquaint you with) Rabbi Regina Jonas ([‘re-ghee-na yo-nas]). Born today in 1902, Rabbi Jonas was not only the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi; she was ordained in Berlin in 1935. In other words, she became the first woman to be named as a Jewish teacher during the height of Nazi Germany.

Throughout history, you can find plenty of women who fulfilled rabbinical duties, but they did not hold the title. These women, like Beruryah (Rebbetzin Meir), Yalta, the Hasmonean queen Salome Alexandra (also known as Alexandra of Jerusalem), and the daughters and granddaughters of the great Talmud scholar Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzachaki), are found in the Talmud and would have been studied by Rabbi Jonas and other women who studied at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, the Jūdisch-Theologisches Seminar in Breslau, and other theology schools that admitted women. Unlike her female peers, however, Rabbi Jonas didn’t just want the academic teacher’s degree; she wanted the title and the responsibilities. And this desire was something that she felt and expressed from a very young age.

“If I am to confess what drove me, as a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of my fellow man. God has bestowed on each one of us special skills and vocations without stopping to ask about our gender. This means each one of us, whether man or woman, has a duty to create and work in accordance with those God-given skills.”

 

– quoted from the doctoral thesis entitled May a woman hold rabbinic office?” by Rabbi Regina Jonas

Rabbi Regina Jonas had a passion for Jewish history, the Bible, and the Hebrew language; a passion that was remembered even by her high school friends and supported by Orthodox rabbis like Isidor Bleichrode, Delix Singerman, and Max Weyl (who officiated at the synagogue the Jonas family attended). When she decided to pursue her degree and also the title, Rabbi Jonas wrote and submitted a final theses, which was a requirement for ordination. Her final theses topic, which was based on Biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinical sources, was near and dear to her heart: “May a woman hold rabbinic office?”

While halakhic literature did not specifically with ordination, she combined halakhic theory related to women’s issues with a modern attitude about women’s roles. She did not, however, use a Reform movement argument. Instead, Rabbi Jonas wanted to establish gender equality within the (and as a) continuity of tradition – and, in doing so, established herself as independent of both the reform movement and Orthodoxy. She also included in her argument very specific gender qualities and expectations centered around Zeni’ut (“Modesty”), which she viewed as being essential to someone’s role as a rabbi. Interestingly, some of her thesis is very much consistent with the ideas Hannah Crocker expressed in 1818.

Rabbi Jonas concluded that yes, a woman could be a rabbi according to halachic sources. She went even further by saying that female rabbis were a “cultural necessity, in part because of so-called female qualities like compassion, interpersonal skills, and psychological intuition. Her final thesis, which was supervised by Eduard Baneth, renowned professor of Talmud at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, was submitted in June 1930. Unfortunately, Rabbi Baneth died soon after her submission and his successor was not willing to ordain women. Ironically, a leader in the Reform movement, Rabbi Leo Baeck, also rejected her submission.

“Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”

 

– quoted from the doctoral thesis entitled May a woman hold rabbinic office?” by Rabbi Regina Jonas

Despite the fact that her professors were not willing to ordain her, she received a “good” grade for her thesis and graduated as a religious teacher. She then began teaching religion at several girls’ schools in Berlin. At this same time, however, anti-Semitism created an increased need for Jewish teachers and religious education. Rabbi Max Dienemann, executive director of Liberaler Rabbinerveband (Conference of Liberal Rabbis) agreed to ordain Rabbi Jonas on behalf of the conference and, within two years, she began to serve the official community as “pastoral-rabbinic counselor.” She particularly ministered to those in the Jewish Hospital, those who were considering emigrating, and people economically affected by “Kristallnacht.” As more and more rabbis were imprisoned by the Nazis or fled the persecution, she began to lecture to various groups, preach in liberal synagogues and lead some Havdalah (“weekday”) services in the Neue Synogogue, the flagship of German Jewry. At one point, during the winter of 1940 – 1941, the Germany Jewry organization established by the Nazis actually sent her to cities that no longer had rabbis. Even when she was forced to work in a factory, she continued her ministry.

On November 2, 1942, Rabbi Jonas was compelled to fill out a declaration form where she listed her property, including all of her books. Two days later, all of her property was confiscated by the Nazis. The next day, she and her mother were arrested. They were deported November 6th, to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she continued to preach and counsel. The psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl asked her to help him with crisis intervention, including meeting and assessing new arrivals and helping to prevent suicide attempts. On October 12, 1944, at the age of 42, Rabbi Jonas and her mother were deported to Auschwitz, where they were killed.

“Since I saw that her heart is with God and Israel, and that she dedicates her soul to her goal, and that she fears God, and that she passed the examination in matters of religious law, I herewith certify that she is qualified to answer questions of religious law and entitled to hold the rabbinic office. And may God protect her and guide her on all her ways.”

 

– quoted from the Diploma of Ordination for Rabbi Regina Jonas (approved by Rabbi Max Dienemann)

None of the male religious leaders who survived the Holocaust spoke of Rabbi Regina Jonas. However, a copy of her thesis, her teaching certificate, her rabbinical diploma, personal documents, and two photos have been preserved at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. Included in those personal documents were letters of gratitude from refugees she had counseled (and whose families she continued to counsel in Germany). There is also a list of 24 sermons and lectures she delivered, along with notes for at least one full sermon. In the Footsteps of Regina Jonas is a documentary about her life and legacy, which features rabbis like Gesa Ederberg, who celebrated the 75th anniversary of Rabbi Jonas’s ordination with a Havdalah service – the very type of weekday service Rabbi Jonas led in Berlin.

“God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts without regard to gender. If you look at things this way, one takes woman and man for what they are: human beings.”

 

– quoted from a 1938 news article by Rabbi Regina Jonas

I am cancelling classes on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, but will post as I am able. Thank you to everyone who is keeping my family in your hearts and minds.

 

### SHALOM  שָׁלוֹם ###