Serach bat Asher:the woman who authenticated Moses and went alive to paradise. Parashat Vayigash

Last week’s torah portion ended on a cliff hanger. A missing cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah begs Joseph to allow him to take Benjamin’s place as Jacob will not survive Benjamin’s loss. At this point Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They are – understandably – astonished that the young frightened boy they left in the pit so many years ago has become this most powerful Egyptian official.  Meanwhile Pharaoh learns that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt and tells Joseph to invite Jacob and the entire household to come live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. So Jacob and Joseph have an emotional reunion. The family work as shepherds, the famine continues, and Joseph manages the country, selling grain for land until by the end of the famine Pharaoh owns all of the land in the country, except for that owned by the priests. Once the famine ends, Joseph gives seed to all the people telling them that they must repay Pharaoh with one fifth of their harvest.

Joseph is at the centre of the complex threads of the narrative, but look around the stage and other figures come into view. Those who caught my attention this year are the ones who are barely sketched out, yet who are noted in the genealogical lists, and this always bears further examination. There is the Canaanite woman, unnamed, who bears a son – Saul – to Shimon, apparently a different mother than that of his other five sons. She reappears again in the list in Exodus (Ch. 6) as the mother of Shimon’s son Saul, and yet other Canaanite women who bore sons to the family are not singled out like this – we already met the unnamed wife of Judah, introduced only as the daughter of the Canaanite Shua, whose children Er and Onan so dishonoured Tamar in Gen 38, yet she is not mentioned here.

Then there are the other unnamed wives we find in verse 5:  “And Jacob rose up from Beer-Sheva; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.” And there is the somewhat ambiguous language of verse 7 where we are told of “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.”

Only two ‘daughters’ are mentioned here by name – Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah whose sad story has already been told, and Serach, the daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Zilpah, the maid of Leah. Yet the word ‘daughters’ is in the plural – there were clearly other women who were born into the household, even though they remain unnamed and indeed uncounted in the famous statement that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob.  Is the number seventy to be understood literally here, in which case there has to be some creativity with the arithmetic in the names listed here? Or is it the symbolic number it is often used as elsewhere. Seventy is the multiplication of two perfect numbers (seven and ten), it is the number of elders appointed to help Moses (Num 11:16), the number of nations and languages after the flood. Seventy symbolises a whole world, and we know that Jacob brings a whole world of his wives, his children and of his grandchildren – both sons and daughters, yet the listed names show only two female descendants – Dina, and Serach bat Asher.

So who is Serach bat Asher and why is her name remembered? No story remains extant in the narrative, but there are some tantalising intimations.

She appears here in the list of those who left Canaan to go to Egypt, and she appears also in the census at the end of the Israelites sojourn in the desert (in Numbers 26:46).  That is it as far as bible is concerned, but the aggadic literature is intrigued by this woman who apparently lives for over four hundred years and whose name bookends both the leaving of Canaan and the return to the Land.

The first function of Serach bat Asher is to hold memory. She links the generation of the ancestors to the generation of the exodus, from the “family” of Israel to the post-Sinai “people” of Israel.  She is the original “oral tradition”, and the midrash (Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer) has her validating Moses as the man who will redeem the Israelites from Egypt, as she knew the secret sign given by Joseph to his brothers to signify that divine deliverance was imminent.

So not only does she link the generations and hold the memory of the divinity, she also provides the authority and authenticity of the leadership. The man from whom rabbinic tradition derives its whole substance is essentially given his legitimacy by the woman, Serach bat Asher. Something to think about as we hear the howls of outrage in some quarters when women scholars are finally given the respectful title that recognise their abilities.

According to the midrash Serach was a musician and a singer. When the sons of Jacob wanted to tell him that Joseph was still alive, they feared that the shock of the news might kill him, so they enlisted the talents of Serach who revealed the information to him gently. In response he blessed her, and said “the mouth that told the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death” (see Midrash hagadol on Gen 46 and Targum pseudo Yonatan)  This blessing gave Serach immortality, and like the prophet Elijah some traditions tell of her going to heaven while still living.

Serach was not only the link between the patriarchal generations and the post Sinai people. She was also the possessor of all kinds of hidden or lost knowledge that she would reveal when appropriate. So, for example, she knew the place where Joseph’s body was kept in Egypt, and when the time came for Moses to take the bones out with the people of Israel in accordance with the promise made to Joseph on his deathbed (Exodus 13) it was Serach who could lead him to the coffin. She explains biblical text, in one midrash she corrects a rabbi’s teaching about the splitting of the reed sea, saying that the waves looked like a wall rather than a lattice work. And in the story in the book of Samuel when a wise woman averts a crisis that Yoav, the captain of the army of King David, is not dealing with well – the midrash assumes that this is Serach bat Asher, and gives her the words “I am the one who completed the number of Israel; I am the one who linked the faithful to the faithful, Joseph to Moses” (Bereishit Rabbah)

Serach bat Asher is never married in the midrashic literature. Yet this does not stop Nachmanides suggesting she is named in the census because her descendants would inherit land. The aggadic tradition creates a life filled with miracles and wisdom, with courage and scholarship, a woman whose life extends for hundreds of years and who teaches about redemption. And yet at the same time she barely registers on the awareness of many students of Jewish tradition, and it is Elijah who catches our imagination, who visits every brit milah and pesach seder, whose chariot drives our stories of messianic redemption.

Serach bat Asher does not wander our world, unlike Elijah. And while there is a Sephardic tradition that she died in the twelfth century – there was even a grave site in Isfahan – she disappeared long before she was so conveniently laid to rest.  This confining of her seems to be almost deliberate – she is just too much for the medieval Jewish world to accept, she has been veiled and contained and controlled. Her name – which may well be a cognate of the verb samech reish chet – would mean to be abundant, to be excessive, to go free, to loosen the hair, to roam; yet more often dictionaries suggest that her name is just a variant of Sarah – to be a princess. And we know what happens to princesses in most fairy stories – they end up locked in the tower and hidden.

So may Serach bat Asher find her way back to her freedom to walk in the world, correcting rabbinic teachings which close things down and reminding us of the signs that show who truly speaks the words of God. Her job was to remember, to reveal, to connect us to our foundational stories, to open the world for us. We need her to cut through the thickets that have grown up since those stories were recorded. Serach bat Asher, another woman’s voice in our tradition that was quieted over time, calls to us once more.





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.


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.

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)

not remaining silent

So, why a blog, and why now? Well a blog because it seems to be the best format to create a mosaic of the different interests in my life – Judaism, liturgy and ritual,  Ethics, the balancing of different but competing goods, food, modernity and its challenges – and because seems more bite sized and manageble than a full web page. Maybe that will come later.

Why now? as a follower of Hillel, I would have to reply, “if not now, when?”.As the eighth woman to received semichah at Leo Baeck College in 1987 I was one of the early cohort of women becoming rabbis, and each of my colleagues were faced with the same issues- how do we earn our place in the world as rabbis, as rabbis who are modern and progressive for whom tradition has a place but not a veto? And add to that the extra question – how do we function as women in this historically male role?  We learned about Regina Jonas, rumoured to be the first woman to be ordained in modern times, who died in Auschwitz, and  only when the Berlin Wall fell and the archives became more available did we see proof of her semicha (ordination) and of the work she did. Within less than a generation her voice had been hushed to the merest whisper. That was a lesson for us all – the voices of women must be both in the public domain and recorded as such, or the forces that try to diminish their power and their contributions will slowly but surely cover them over and ultimately stifle them. One of our responses as a group was to write two anthologies – “Hear our Voice”, and “Taking up the Timbrel” – references to the rabbinic statement that the sound of the voice of women leads to licentiousness, and the other to Miriam, prophetess and leader with Moses and Aaron through the years of wandering in the wildnerness in the bible, who took up her timbrel and sang a song of joy at the parting of the reed sea.

Another response is this blog and others like it. As I add my voice to the chorus of women’s voices out there in the world,  I project it further from my normal spheres of Home and Family, Synagogue and Movement, Committees and Boards. Bible tells us the world was founded on words as God spoke and things happened. We are created in the image of God, surely we too can use words to create a better world.