Miketz: the strange case of the disappearing women

Dr Ruchama Weiss points out that sidra Miketz is the first in Torah that is devoid of any stories of women : – she identifies it as the point at which bible begins to actively exclude women from the focus of the narrative. Over the fourteen years that the sidra spans in three and a half chapters of the book of Genesis, women are indeed conspicuous by their absence. The matriarchs have died, the only daughter of Jacob that we know of, the unfortunate Dina, has disappeared following her experiences with Shechem, no other daughters or indeed wives of the sons of Jacob are recorded here. They must have existed, but the biblical author does not see fit to document their presence.

There is in fact one woman who briefly makes an appearance – Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera a priest of On. Our introduction to her is laconic and almost imperceptible, she rates less than a third of the verse in which she appears, coming after the renaming of Joseph and before his status is recorded: “And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.—“(41:5). She reappears five verses later as mother to Joseph’s two sons: “ And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On bore unto him.” (41:50). She doesn’t get to name her sons, up till now the privilege of the mother, nor do we see her relationship with them – all we see is Joseph naming Manasseh and Ephraim in order to make statements about himself: “And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second he called Ephraim: ‘for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ (51,52)

Asenath

Her lonely presence in the sidra, useful only as a wife for Joseph and mother to his children, is picked up in the 6th century pseudepigraphical work “Joseph and Asenath” , though to be honest there too she is still the plaything and chattel of men. A pagan woman, she falls in love with Joseph and gives up her idolatry in a painful and protracted process in order to marry him and have his sons. Later the son of the Pharaoh tries to take her for himself but the plot is foiled, and Joseph takes the crown of Egypt. So there is not much more to her there either. She may be the daughter of a powerful priest of the Egyptian cult, the wife of the most powerful man in the country bar Pharaoh himself, the mother of the founders of the tribes of Ephraim and Menasse, but she is unknowable, mysterious and all but erased from history. Her fleeting presence in the sidra that is filled with the powerful men who control all the resources of the country only really serves to highlight the poignancy of her disappearance. And to complicate matters further, there are those who say that her presence in the sidra at all, inserted quite clumsily into the text as daughter, wife and mother, is only tolerated because she acts as a counterbalance to the physical beauty of Joseph which drives women into a sexual frenzy while he himself remains emotionally detached and essentially sexless. She is there as an answer to the questions about his sexuality, to put paid to any idea that he may not conform to the heteronormative ideal of the Hebrew bible.

This year – 2015 – is the eightieth anniversary of the private ordination of the first woman rabbi of modern times, Rabbiner Regina Jonas; and the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of the first woman to be given semicha by a European rabbinic institution (Leo Baeck College) Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick.

One of the most shocking things about the life and times of Rabbiner Regina Jonas was how quickly she was forgotten after her death in Auschwitz in 1944. When I was studying at the Leo Baeck College in the 1980’s we knew only of rumours that there had been a woman who may or may not have been ordained Rabbi in Germany – even though some of the teachers and founders of the college had known her well. It was only with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of some of her papers and photographs from an archive that she once again became real. And now her life and name are being researched and reclaimed, yet there is so much that is lost beyond recall. She disappeared even while there were people alive to remember her. Her story is an object lesson, a cautionary tale, how quickly can the stories of people disappear if there is no interest, no will to record them and to keep them alive.

In the forty years that Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick has been working as a rabbi the world has moved on. There is less anxiety (at least in the progressive Jewish world) about women working as rabbis, but still there are those individuals who ask for a male rabbi for a life cycle event, or synagogue search committees who worry what will happen to their community if a woman is appointed as rabbi, or as the senior rabbi.

So we should not be complacent and believe that the battle has been won. The erasing of the inconvenient from history goes on everywhere, and it is a truism history is written by the winners. If the narrator of the biblical text is not interested in the women then the stories of the women will not appear. If we don’t have a multiplicity of voices recording history as they see it, then we will have a thin and diminished version of history, seen through the narrowest of lenses. And this too has knock on effects. Because there are so few women fully described and fully voiced in our foundational texts, it is a short leap for some to believe that this must not be a function of the (lack of )interest of the narrator but a function of the divinely inspired status of women in society.

As the societal norms are impacting on Judaism, as the eightieth anniversary of the ordination of Regina Jonas and the fortieth of Jackie Tabick begin to filter into the consciousness of orthodox feminism, and as more Jewish women demand that their voice be heard, there is a corresponding kick back from some in the orthodox world. Only this week A senior haredi rabbi suggested at a conference for high school principals held in Bnei Brak that higher education for women constitutes a more severe blow to the haredi world than the Holocaust and a responsa was given to a man about letting his daughter go to university that “ to do so would be worse than stealing money since material goods may be recovered but the “spiritual damage” of permitting the young woman to achieve higher education could not be undone.”

The spiritual damage envisaged when a woman is allowed to study at a high level, to learn to think and question and understand the world around her is not to the woman herself – it is damage to the structure of a community which relies on unquestioning following of self-appointed sages. When people think for themselves, the artificial consensus breaks, and a real consensus, based on challenge and debate, logical argument and building of agreement is allowed to emerge. In sidra miketz the women are submerged in the narrative with just the flash of one woman’s presence that serves to point up all the absences. We should be warned, there is nothing new under the sun, and women are being ‘disappeared’ from public space in the Jewish world with increasing determination, just as they are in this sidra. In the book of Exodus the presence of women will reassert itself, but their silence as the book of Genesis begins to move towards its close is a telling one. And a nudge to us to take responsibility not to allow it to happen again.

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)