A Forgotten Voice

Rabbi Regina Jonas

In 1972, when Sally Priesand was ordained at the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, she was mistakenly referred to as the “first female rabbi ever.” She was indeed the first woman ordained in America, but not “ever” — this misinformation was never corrected by those who knew better. Only when the Berlin Wall came down and the archives in East Germany became accessible was the legacy of Rabbi Regina Jonas rediscovered.

There were indeed female rabbinic forerunners to Rabbi Jonas, including the “Chassidic Rebbe” Chanah Rachel Verbermacher in the 19th century, known as the Maiden of Ludmir, and in 17th Century Kurdistan, Osnat Barazani, a rosh yeshiva and Torah scholar who was referred to in a letter as “rabbanit.” However, Regina Jonas was the first woman to be formally ordained and recognized as a rabbi in 1935, and was killed in Auschwitz in October 1944. She would probably have been completely forgotten had she not left traces both in Theresienstadt and in her native city of Berlin. For unknown reasons, none of her male colleagues, among them Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873–1956) and the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl (1905–1997), ever mentioned her after the Shoah.

From an early age, Rabbi Jonas felt drawn to the rabbinate. When once asked why she, as a woman, would ever consider the rabbinate as a profession, she wrote:

“If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.” C.-V.-Zeitung, June 23, 1938.

Regina Jonas was devoted to Jewish education.  Not content with simply being a teacher, she went on to study at the prestigious Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (College for the Science of Judaism) in Berlin. She devoted her thesis to exploring the Talmudic sources regarding women’s ordination. A copy of her thesis has been preserved and can be found at the Centrum Judaicumin Berlin. Submitted in June 1930, this paper is the first known attempt to find a halachic basis for the ordination of women.

Jonas combined a halachic line of argument with a modern attitude. However, she did not follow the Reform movement, which was willing to achieve modernization by abandoning halacha altogether. Rather, Rabbi Jonas wanted to explore smicha for women from the Jewish legal sources. For her, the female rabbinate should be understood as a continuity of tradition. This proves Jonas’s independence both from Orthodoxy, which held equality as incompatible with halacha, and from Reform, which abandoned halachic reasoning in pursuit of female emancipatory interests.

She was supposed to have been granted smicha with the full support of the majority of her teachers.  However, one Talmudic professor who declined to sign her rabbinic diploma kept her from fulfilling her ambition.  At the request of the Union of Liberal Rabbis in Germany, in 1935, Regina Jonas became the first woman to be ordained in a private ceremony conducted by a progressive thinking rabbi.  Rabbi Jonas served as a rabbi, preacher, and teacher in the Berlin Jewish community. She later worked in the Terezin ghetto, and then later in Theresienstadt. Even in a concentration camp she worked as rabbi, preaching and counseling. She was officially part of the Referat für psychische Hygiene, which was led by the famous psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl.  In 1941 she was sent to Auschwitz where she was killed. The memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas quickly faded from memory.

Because I know someone will ask or misunderstand my reason for blogging about her, let me make clear that Rabbi Jonas was NOT a Messianic Jew, nor to my knowledge did she ever believe in Yeshua. Yet, she opened the door to future generations of women rabbis, including the possibility of women rabbis within Messianic Judaism.

For more about Rabbi Jonas, click HERE.

 

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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16 Responses to A Forgotten Voice

  1. James says:

    Beat you to it. I posted a blog about Rabbi Jonas almost a year ago. Sometimes history forgets some of its more outstanding pioneers.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    James,

    LOL … you sure did!

    I actually first made mention of Rabbi Jonas in June of 2007 in a paper I presented advocating for the ordination of women within Messianic Judaism.

    In the above post I also mention two earlier women rabbinic leaders, the Maiden of Ludmir and Osnat Barazani. I think they’ll definitely be future posts as well.

    Be well, my friend.

  3. James says:

    Thanks. One of the things my daughter criticizes me about is that I sometimes have “issues” with women as ordained clergy. My mental template for a “religious leader” is male, probably because of how I’m wired to respond to male authority, but I can hardly ignore the contribution of Rabbi Jonas and women like her. I may have to convince my daughter that I’m not quite the barbarian she thinks I am. 😉

  4. Rabbi Joshua says:

    James,

    LOL!

  5. Thank G-d for our Jewish women, of whatever religious persuasion or no persuasion at all!

  6. Thank you!

    Sometimes i wonder if some women don’t leave (or could be tempted to do so) MJ because of “lack of possibilities”. Believing in having a vocation, and not being able to fulfill it –is frustrating. It would be sad to see leave some gifted women because they feel like there is no room for them within MJ.

    As for me, for some things i’d rather have a woman Rabbi than a man… so let’s see what happens in the future!

    ****i’m always impressed by the courage, strength and willpower of pioneers such as her…!

  7. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Chaya,

    Thank you for sharing.

    There actually have been a number of women who have left Messianic Judaism to pursue other careers where their talents and giftings would be more welcome. It is very sad.

    However, there are also brave individuals – both men and women – working for women to be more fully recognized with Messianic Judaism as well. In fact, the MJRC (Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council) will be discussing and voting on a proposal on this next week. The MJRC already voices support for women’s ordination on its website (www.ourrabbis.org) and will be be solidifying its position at our annual meetings, beginning on Sunday.

  8. “Sometimes i wonder if some women don’t leave (or could be tempted to do so) MJ because of “lack of possibilities”.

    My family are members of an Orthodox non-MJ synagogue. Women have plenty of responsibilities and are more involved than men in various activities pertaining to the life of the congregation. The rabbetzin runs the school, the summer camps, organizing events and membership drives. The women in the synagogue go to her for all sorts of halachic advice for their unique needs where consulting a man would be highly inappropriate in an environment where modesty is cherished value. By all accounts she’s a veritable “rabbi”, indispensable to the women (and by extension, to their husbands), and respected by men and women alike. And yet, the traditional roles are maintained, without the gender warfare, without strife and without thinning of the male numbers that has exemplified much of the liberal Judaism over the last 100+ years. This suggests to me that there are other, more pressing issues that must be addressed first, beyond male/female roles.

  9. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene,

    That is all well and nice (and something I am obviously aware of). However, many women are not at all interested in being limited to (or gifted in) only roles pertaining to cooking, cleaning, or teaching the kids. And I love how people always default to the Orthodox community as though they are not also wrestling with these issues (for example, see: http://xrl.us/bkn3no).

    My wife can give you her own experience growing up in the Messianic Jewish movement as an intelligent young Jewish woman where she was clearly told her whole life that there was no place for her unless she fit into everyone else’s box.

    Therefore, I also disagree with your comment that, “This suggests to me that there are other, more pressing issues that must be addressed first, beyond male/female roles.” IMHO, this is just as pressing an issue. However, it is not the ONLY issue. As I have always advocated in every issue on this blog – BALANCE is key. That is why I also disagree with your jumping to then citing some forms of progressive Judaism that are lacking male involvement. That is a different issue. We should be aware to not counterbalance one particular issue over others. We must be cautious as we move forward but, but we should not be afraid to ever do the right thing.

  10. “we should not be afraid to ever do the right thing.”

    Joshua, I agree that we must use caution, but many committed Jews, and I especially want to include Jewish women among those, view the type of egalitarianism promoted within Liberal Judaisms not as the “right thing”, but as the “wrong thing”, and not just for Judaism, but for women themselves.

    This issue comes down to the divide between different competing ideologies within the greater Jewish world today – what’s perfectly right, progressive and fair to one, is wrong, unnecessary and damaging to the other. With that in mind and fully understanding that these ideologies may never meet in the middle but that we must still pursue love and understanding among all fellow Jews, I wish that groups like MJRC remained neutral on certain divisive issues by being cognizant of the fact that they may want to represent and seek to unite various groups within Jewry.

  11. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene,

    The issue of women within Messianic Judaism is something I vehemently disagree with you on. It is not an issue of being progressive, it is an issue of doing what is right – within proper exegesis and context. That is also the position of the MJRC.

  12. me says:

    “Jonas combined a halachic line of argument with a modern attitude…Rather, Rabbi Jonas wanted to explore smicha for women from the Jewish legal sources.”

    Exactly, the right approach in my opinion. I was equally inspired by passages in Empowered Judaism and a great article on women reading Torah by Mendel Shapiro. We can be flexible in the halacha. The sources may show more grey areas than standard practice has always displayed. So, let’s explore that. However, to accept that model, the sources may also compell us to make rulings that push our comfort level in other areas. Let’s get studying.

  13. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Thanks for commenting!

  14. zayin says:

    For those interested in learning about the several hundred year old, but often unknown, tradition of common language (non-hebrew) prayer in Ashenazic women circles of both traditional Orthodoxy and Hasidism called “Tkhines”, they should check out Chava Weissler’s “Voices of the Matriarchs”.

    I originally bought it for my wife, but quickly took it over for the first read. Very interesting look at this often forgotten and unstudied topic. Here is the synopsis:

    “Most studies of Judaism focus on sources produced by and for learned men – the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, legal codes, and works of medieval philosophy, mysticism, and Hasidism. All these texts were written in Hebrew – a language seventeenth- through nineteenth-century Jewish women were not given the opportunity to learn. With Voices of the Matriarchs, Chava Weissler restores balance to our knowledge of Judaism by providing the first look at non-Hebrew Jewish source materials: the vernacular women’s devotional prayers called tkhines. In Weissler’s hands, these Yiddish prayers open a window into early modern Ashkenazic women’s lives, beliefs, devotion, and relationships with God. In the last section of Voices of the Matriarchs Weissler looks at the changes the twentieth century wrought in the practice of writing and reciting tkhines.”

  15. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Zayin,

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting indeed.

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