Shabbat Bereishit: the yahrzeit of Rabbiner Regina Jonas

Fraulein Rabbinerin Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained Rabbi in modern times, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 and her name and story submerged until the fall of the Berlin Wall meant that some of her papers were retrieved and studied.

Jonas-Regina

Her story is a complex one. We know tantalisingly little about her; there are some basic facts about her birth and parentage. She grew up in a poor part of Berlin, and after the early death of her father when she was only eleven years old, she, her older brother and her mother became ever poorer. She lived amongst Jews from Eastern Europe, whose religious practise was orthodox (as was hers). In her teens she found the comfort of the synagogue, and never really left. The rabbi helped her to take her Jewish studies to a level where she could make a living teaching, and so she supported her widowed mother and herself as best she could, and she continued to study, and she dreamed of rabbinic ordination, writing her thesis on the subject “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” and proving to her own satisfaction that according to Halachah the answer was ‘yes’

While her thesis was sound, academic scholarship was no match for centuries of misogyny and custom. Her teachers would not ordain her as a Rabbi. She was the victim of a collision of circumstances- her teachers did not want to cause a problem in the wider Jewish community by going outside of orthodox tradition and ordaining a woman. The conditions in Germany in 1933 were preoccupying the German Jewish world as they cast about looking for a rational response to an insane situation. More than that, she was an orthodox woman studying at a Liberal institution. She was widely perceived as being ‘strange’, a woman who did not care about her looks, an academic whose mind did not deal with frivolity, a radical and transgressive figure who yet wore the clothes of convention and tradition. She challenged many social and religious norms, demanding her right and coping with what was clearly some hostility towards her. She was said to be a good teacher, a good pastoral worker, yet even with the dwindling number of rabbis in Germany she could not find a community willing to take her. Her work took place in the old age homes and the hospitals – the traditionally gendered “caring” roles.

Regina Jonas comes across as an isolated and lonely figure, a trailblazer and pioneer who did not however achieve a following in her lifetime. Yet she did not give up. She worked wherever she could, and before deportation to Theresienstadt she ensured that her papers would be lodged in the archive from where some fifty years later they would emerge. She deposited photos of her in her rabbinical gown, her ordination certificate and some press cuttings. She held on to a hope that she would be remembered, not go nameless and forgotten into the future.

She worked in Theresienstadt for two years, teaching, giving a series of lectures, acting pastorally and rabbinically and working in the team of the famous psychoanalyst Viktor Frankel – her job was to meet the trainloads of shocked and frightened Jews transported to the ghetto and to try to comfort them. She worked hard and with great dedication for two years until she too was sent to Auschwitz where she was later murdered.

Her date of deportation was 12th October 1944. It was Shabbat Bereishit, the first Sabbath after Simchat Torah, when we finish the book of Deuteronomy with the death of Moses and the transition in leadership to Joshua and we immediately begin to read the book of Genesis with its universal story of the creation of the world.

On Shabbat Bereishit we learn that leaders die but leadership goes on. That ideas are stronger than individuals. That out of endings come new beginnings.

We don’t really know very much about Regina Jonas except what we can try to piece together from scant evidence and tiny remnants of memory. Having been officially forgotten from 1942 until the early 90’s she has re-emerged, as ambiguous and as perplexing as she seems to have been in life.

We progressive women rabbis have taken her for a standard. She has become “the first woman rabbi”. Her story reads as a cautionary tale for the rest of us – will we too disappear after working so hard to achieve, after caring so much, after labouring at the coal face of the community rabbinate?

Anger has been expressed at her ‘disappearance’ from the narrative when so many who knew her or knew of her never bothered to pass the information on to the next generation of women studying rabbinics who felt so lonely, so trailblazing, so exposed. There is the sense that if only we had known about her when studying ourselves, we would have been able to speak of her and so be comforted by her earlier initiatives. She would have stood between us and the void of women rabbis in history.

We have taken her for a standard, and now we have adopted Shabbat Bereishit for her yahrzeit, the probable date of her death. In Bereishit we read the two stories of creation – the first where women are created equal to men and at the same time as them; the second where woman is created from the side of the first man to become ezer k’negdo, a help and an opposition to him.   Regina Jonas’ life expresses so many ideas in this Torah reading, read both on Simchat Torah and the following Shabbat – it is almost as if it were bashert. The way she lived her life demands of us that we take seriously the questions she posed to the conventions and community of her time as we look at how those questions are asked and answered in our time and communities.    But maybe we should also be more honest and say that Regina Jonas is not the forerunner of women in the non-orthodox rabbinate – she is really the forerunner of women in the orthodox rabbinate. That now there are women with orthodox semicha is exciting, though there is still a long way to go for them to be much more accepted than Regina Jonas was when she finally received her semicha eighty years ago.

Eighty years – twice times 40, the signifier of “a long time”. Eighty years, the biblical length of a long life. And so much has happened since her ordination. The number 80 is signified by the letter Peh. It is an explosive sound. It means an opening or a mouth. The Torah is both written text (bich’tav) and oral (she’b’al peh). It give me some satisfaction that at 80 years since ordination there are women rabbis in every stream of Judaism. Regina Jonas’ mouth continues to open and to teach, and each of us embroiders what we hear.

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