Forty Years of Women Rabbis in Britain: From Regina Jonas to Jackie Tabick

In bible, the number ‘forty’ is code for ‘a very long time’. The years marked in tranches of ‘forty’ are also usually times of trial or probation. Forty years ago Jackie Tabick was ordained by the Leo Baeck College as the first woman Rabbi in the UK. Forty years before that, in 1935, Regina Jonas was ordained privately in Germany. Before Jonas there had been other women who had achieved the scholarship required to function as a rabbi, and there were a number who had sought to be ordained as rabbis and failed. The question about women’s ordination was asked yet somehow never answered, responded to instead with ridicule or outrage or dissembling. Even where there appeared to be a rabbinic will to ensure religious equality, somehow this never got past the ideological stage. The father of German Reform Judaism Abraham Geiger called for equality for women as long as it did not transgress “the natural laws governing the sexes”, while those who left Germany to develop Reform Judaism in the USA also called for full religious emancipation for women but failed to either discuss the measures needed, or vote upon the call at the 1846 Breslau Conference due, they said, “to lack of time”, and had anyway moderated their call for women’s religious equality “so far as it is possible”.

Until Regina Jonas, many women studied but none took away more than a certificate that qualified them to teach Judaic studies. Jonas was different. Clearly formidably determined, with no status to lose either within the Jewish world or the rapidly disintegrating secular environment, she pushed and pushed, writing her thesis on the question “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” and having examined the rabbinic literature concluding “Almost nothing halachically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office” .

Jonas studied at the Berlin Hochshule, where a number of teachers at both Leo Baeck College in London and Hebrew Union College in the USA had trained. They must have been aware of her and her struggle to overcome the prevailing culture that mitigated against the early ideology of Reform Judaism, and yet they never spoke of her. They didn’t tell us of her semicha, or her work as rabbi and teacher in Berlin albeit not in the synagogue setting. After her death in Theresienstadt she vanished into history until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of archives, ironically to be rescued by Dr Katerina von Kellenbach, a Christian researcher who had written on anti-Jewish themes in feminist theology.

In the daughter seminaries of the Hochshule women came to study, but fell by the wayside before reaching ordination. It is noticeable that Sally Priesand and Jackie Tabick, the two women first ordained in the States and in the UK, were women who entered their respective seminaries unsure that they would be seeking semicha, women who were by nature private and introspective people, who chose ordination after beginning their studies. Somehow it seemed they flew under the radar, not challenging the rabbinic faculty, not interested in what Priesand called “the unbelievable and almost unbearable pressures of being the first woman rabbi”, and possibly because of their unconfrontational natures they found themselves at the end of their studies with the majority of their teachers willing to give them ordination – though this was not unanimous.

Both became associate rabbis in large synagogues and both left after serving well and faithfully when it became clear that they would not become the Senior Rabbi. As Sally Priesand said she believed that “ability, sincerity, and dedication would outweigh gender” but she learned that “competence and commitment are enough for a man, but not for a woman.” There was certainly a view among the pioneering women rabbis in this country that we had to work extra hard and extra well to justify our desire to enter the rabbinate, though this fear has weakened over time.

Biblically forty years describes a long time characterised by trial and probation. In the forty plus years women have been ordained by seminaries, have we passed the test? And has the Jewish world come to terms with women rabbis? In the non-Orthodox world women rabbis are a fact of life. Leo Baeck College has ordained 52 women for progressive movements around the world, HUC many more. In the UK women are the Senior Rabbis of both the flagship mother synagogues for Reform and Liberal Judaism, both Rabbinic bodies are chaired by women Rabbis, the Leo Baeck College Principal is a woman as is the Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism. And Rabbi Jackie Tabick is the Convenor of the Reform Beit Din. So it looks good for women – but….

Comments are still made about the bodies of women on the bimah, as are derogatory remarks about the feminisation of the Rabbinate, about women not having the authority or gravitas of men. More worryingly there is still a view that there can be ‘too many women’, and here the fact that women have risen to prominent roles is seen as a negative rather than a positive phenomenon. More than one person suggested to me that celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman rabbi in the UK might not be a good idea as it would ‘draw attention to the number of women in senior roles”.

Colleagues tell anecdotes showing that for those who are familiar with women rabbis, the phenomenon is unremarkable, but for those who have not been so exposed it remains alien and ‘not quite right’. People still ask if for a male rabbi for their life cycle events, or comment if there is more than one woman rabbi at a service, or tell male rabbis that they are pleased to have a ‘real’ rabbi. The voices, bodies and family choices of women rabbis are still seen as fair game for comment, whereas for male rabbis appearance is unremarked, and children seen as a positive asset. Some women rabbis speak their gratitude for the generation that came before them having opened the doors, and others speak irritation in encountering patronising comments about gender and people who cheerfully transgress personal boundaries. Often difficulties are coded, people will say they want a ‘more traditional’ rabbi when they mean male, and certainly there is a pay differential that is closely tied to the gender of the rabbi.

Forty years is just over one generation. It has certainly been a testing time for the women blazing this trail. Clearly women have brought new energy and perspectives to the rabbinate, have shaped it and helped it understand and reflect women’s experience. Now many more life cycle events have rituals and liturgies to help us navigate them. Now more women take a full part in the religious life of the community they pray in, are engaging with texts and bringing their views to enrich our understanding. The orthodox world has taken note and is now creating women rabbis in all but title, recognising the value of women to this role.

It took forty years in the wilderness for the Jewish people to transition from Egypt to Israel. After twice forty years it’s time to step into the new world and see role of rabbi as fit for both women and men of ability, sincerity, and dedication.

(this is a longer version of an article written for Jewish Chronicle. Photo of Regina Jonas found in the archive in East Germany)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s