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Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas

The Story Of The First Woman Rabbi

by Elisa Klapheck and Toby Axelrod

Hardcover, 220 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, List Price: $24.95 |


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The Story Of The First Woman Rabbi
Elisa Klapheck and Toby Axelrod

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The Trailblazing Legacy of Rabbi Sally Priesand

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas

Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas

The Story of the First Woman Rabbi

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-6987-7

Chapter One


I WILL NEVER FORGET my ambivalent feelings at the closing scene of the film Yentl. For most of the film, I was transported back to the eastern European shtetl where Yentl is portrayed famously as a young girl struggling to have the education and opportunities that were only permitted in those days to boys. But suddenly, in the final moments, I watched Barbra Streisand seated in the hold of a ship, together with other Jewish immigrants, heading for America. The actress begins to sing the song that by now is so well known: "Papa, can you hear me?" She rises and goes to the ship's deck, where she stands by the railing and brings the song to its ecstatic conclusion. The camera slowly draws back until the expanse of ocean fills the screen. The boat traverses the horizon. The end.

Was that the right thing to do? To leave? To retreat? To start life again somewhere else? Did Yentl have no chance in Europe? Did a young woman who had just conquered the world of the Talmud on her own turf, and who had triumphantly stood her ground with men, inevitably have to leave the scene?

The filming of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story took place almost four decades after the Shoah, the murder of European Jewry by the Nazis. As a Jew who had grown up in Germany, I had conflicting feelings as I sat in the Hamburg movie theater that day, but my knowledge of recent history would not permit me to find words to express my ambivalence. Naturally, as a Jewish member of the audience, I had to be grateful.

Thank God Yentl got out of Europe on time! Thank God she and her descendants were spared from the tragedies looming on the European horizon: pogroms, anti-Semitism, persecution, culminating finally in the Nazi death camps.

But something in me resisted this message. I knew the answer contained in the film's conclusion could not be the right one for a woman like me, a Jewish feminist in Germany in 1983.

The Shoah, which almost completely extinguished Jewish life in Europe, resonated wordlessly in the film's final scenes, adding to the sense of relief at Yentl's emigration. But the story contained a second, subtler message. Long before "gender" had become a term used in feminist discourse, Yentl had traversed gender's traditional, accepted boundaries. As a girl dressed in a man's clothing-as a "yeshiva bocher"-she immersed herself in a male world of learning, thus reclaiming a spiritual inheritance that had been passed down exclusively among men for centuries. And this all happened in "old Europe," supposedly a forbidden zone for such pursuits. Following the logic of the film's conclusion, Yentl the troublemaker, Yentl the rebellious woman, ultimately must leave Europe, thereby also leaving the old ways undisturbed.

But was this the only and unavoidable response to the challenge? Was Europe so hardened by convention that Judaism, too, would be unable to open new doors in Europe? And what was the situation now, for me?

In fact, back in the 1980s, when I saw the film, it was unimaginable for a Jewish woman in Germany to conquer the world of the Talmud-because fathers were no longer handing down Jewish tradition to their sons, let alone to their daughters. It never even occurred to most of us younger women that a female Jewish scholar could become a rabbi, because hardly any men would take on such a task either. Not only had the Shoah almost completely destroyed European Jewry in the physical sense; spiritually, too, Jewry was devastated to its core.

The few survivors who rebuilt their lives after 1945 on the ruined foundations of German Jewry came not only from Germany but from all across central and eastern Europe. Most ended up staying by chance, not by choice, in the land of the murderers, and most were too deeply wounded in their souls to develop an active, positive Judaism ready to take on contemporary challenges. In addition, these survivors carried with them memories and traditions from their destroyed homes. These memories gave them stability, but did not provide a vision for the future. Postwar Jewry arose against the backdrop of these many, varied memories.

We children of survivors grew up with the attitude that at best we were an "epilogue." Our "Jewish upbringing" often fostered an inferiority complex, according to which we no longer really existed. Relatives from Israel or America helped confirm this complex, so that we developed neither self-confidence in our Jewishness nor an appreciation of the fact that what once had existed could still be meaningful for us. The answer, for those who wanted a real Jewish life, was-just like Yentl-to set out for America, or better yet, Israel. The very idea of promoting equality for women in the Jewish tradition in postwar Germany seemed laughable, particularly because tradition as such lay shattered, and few could picture creating Jewish life from these broken shards.

Thank God, Yentl left Europe just in time, so that the seedlings she and other Jewish women planted at least could thrive in the United States!

But this was not the entire answer.

Wouldn't Yentl encounter similar reservations among men in America as in Europe? Were not female rabbis in the United States-at least until the 1970s-just as little accepted as in Europe? In Yentl's day, was not the struggle for equality between the sexes in Judaism only starting on both sides of the ocean?

Between Yentl's generation and mine lay the abyss of the Shoah. But between the film Yentl and the publishing of this book today, an event occurred that changed our outlook: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Before, few thought European Jewry would ever thrive again, to pick up where it left off in 1933. But unlike Yentl, who had to leave at the end of the story, European Jews in my generation have reasons to stay.

Some of those reasons were revealed like long-hidden treasures when, after the end of the communist dictatorship in the East, the archives of the former East Germany were opened. In 1989 the remaining Gesamtarchiv der deutschen Juden (Central Archive of German Jewry) was located in Potsdam. Seven years later, in 1996, this archive was given to the Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin-Centrum Judaicum. The archive contained sensational material. And the most remarkable rediscovery was-in my view-the first female rabbi in the world: Regina Jonas.

* * *

In 1989 the name Regina Jonas was barely known anymore. She was born on August 3, 1902, in Berlin and murdered in Auschwitz, most likely on October 15, 1944. Jonas had given her documents presumably to the Berlin Jewish Community for safekeeping in 1942 shortly before her deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Most probably, these fourteen files were transferred from the Berlin Jewish Community to the archive, where they lay for five decades without awaking anyone's interest.

In particular, there were two outstanding documents. First, there was Jonas's eighty-eight-page halachic treatise, "Can Women Serve as Rabbis?" Jonas had written this in 1930 as her final paper for the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums [Academy for the Science of Judaism]. There, Jonas made the historical first attempt to argue, on the basis of Halacha, or Jewish religious law, for the emancipation of women up to and including admission to the rabbinate. The second groundbreaking document in this collection was a certificate of ordination, written in Hebrew. According to this document, Regina Jonas became the first female rabbi in the world on December 27, 1935. A leading liberal rabbi of that day, Max Dienemann, had signed the document.

In addition, Jonas's files contained letters from most of the renowned contemporary German rabbis. Some letters were from Jonas's teachers, including her professors at the Academy for the Science of Judaism, including Leo Baeck, Eduard Baneth, and Harry Torczyner (Tur Sinai); others were from colleagues with whom Jonas had worked closely: rabbis Max Weyl, Isidor Bleichrode, Felix Singermann, and Joseph Norden; and many letters were from people who had supported Jonas's courage and persistence during years of struggle for recognition as a rabbi.

As sensational as the discovery was, it also evoked a sense of deep disappointment. Why had no survivor of the Nazi regime spoken about Regina Jonas? Why was her story suppressed for decades? When Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati ordained Sally Priesand in 1972, the press celebrated her as "the first woman rabbi of the world." Why did hardly any of those who knew better not correct this information? Why should it have taken more than a half-century before Regina Jonas could be restored to her proper place in Jewish history?

Wasn't Regina Jonas someone of whom surviving German Jews could be proud? Why did Leo Baeck, who survived Theresienstadt and spoke out for liberal Judaism, never mention his former student who suffered with him at the concentration camp? Jonas had worked closely in Theresienstadt with the Viennese psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, whose postwar publication and autobiography Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager [A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp], published in English as Man's Search for Meaning, revolved around his experiences in the concentration camp, from which Frankl developed his own approach to therapy. Why is there not a single reference to Regina Jonas in this book? Frankl certainly had not forgotten her. In an interview in 1991 with the German-American theologian Katharina von Kellenbach after the rediscovery of Jonas's works, not only did Frankl remember very well the female rabbi in Theresienstadt, but one of her sermons had moved him so much that he could even repeat it in detail.

Why was Regina Jonas kept from us? And who else have we younger women been denied? In the early 1990s, several Jewish women-including myself-organized within the Berlin Jewish Community to press for equality for women in the synagogues and services. Why did none of Regina Jonas's former students, of whom quite a few still lived in Berlin, inform us that we were following in her tradition, that we in fact were only picking up a debate that had begun decades ago?

* * *

I have two answers to these questions. The first is shame. The survivor generation had cut itself off emotionally from German Jewry and suppressed its memory. Its members were ashamed to have believed in a country that had abused their trust so terribly, inflicting the most horrible trauma on Jewry. To remember Regina Jonas would be to recall a time when hope for the future had been transformed into murderous self-betrayal. For many, this was too painful.

The second answer is also shame. Even today, a woman who steps out of line and succeeds in a male domain quickly becomes an embarrassment-particularly if she calls attention to controversial subjects. During my research, I sensed that some eyewitnesses-both men and women-had felt threatened by Jonas's public breaking of taboos. Instead of taking her seriously, they portrayed her as a negative exception, one of those unconventional, high-achieving women with unpleasant attributes, such as "hysterical," "odd-looking," "eccentric," and so on.

Perhaps only a new generation of Jews who choose to live in Germany-a generation that no longer struggles with the inferiority complex of "still" living in Germany, but rather that deliberately connects with its spiritual heritage on the very ground where it was generated-can appreciate the message of Regina Jonas's life.

As time passes and the pain begins to fade, the messages left to us by victims of the Shoah become more complex. Some of these messages-such as "staying"-can be reevaluated and seen in a new light only in my generation. Regina Jonas did not leave-unlike Yentl. She stayed at the cost of her own life. Jonas always refused to flee. She, like many other rabbis in Nazi Germany, could have left; perhaps she could even have made a career in the United States. But she did not leave. She saw her life's work as staying with those of her people who were in need, and she took the same path of suffering that cost the lives of more than fifty-five thousand Berlin Jews who were murdered in German concentration and extermination camps.

For many Jews, it certainly took courage to leave Nazi Germany. But Jonas's decision to stay displayed a courage of its own, which is meaningful for me and the generation of younger German Jews. Her commitment to Jewish life in Germany contains seeds that can regenerate in us, contradicting decades of insistence that there can be no more Jewish life in the land of the Nazi perpetrators.

To stay as an act of resistance.

To stay as a way of holding on to a greater past, a past that must not be sacrificed due to current circumstances-the epitome of the Jewish leitmotif.

To stay as an antiheroic act, an act that contradicts the dramatic, almost kitschy film and fantasy scenes of persecution, decline, flight, and death, and instead focuses on the daily ups and downs of life.

To stay as a radical constructive approach.

My generation would stay, hold on, rebuild, perhaps even take new directions. And Regina Jonas bequeathed to my peers and me exactly the right bridge.

* * *

In 1998, while I was helping prepare the first Bet Debora conference in Berlin for female rabbis, cantors, scholars, and spiritually interested Jews, Dr. Hermann Simon, director of the Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin-Centrum Judaicum, asked me to examine the unpublished work of Regina Jonas that had been revealed by our new access to the East German archives. He wanted me to write a biography about her, and then to edit and write a commentary on her halachic treatise, "Can Women Serve as Rabbis?"

As great as the silence of remaining eyewitnesses, colleagues, students, and friends of Regina Jonas had been, so was their excitement now over the fact that a book about Jonas would be published. It was crazy. Suddenly, dozens of voices were raised-for or against Regina Jonas. These aging opponents or supporters of the first female rabbi in the world argued so vehemently that I began to feel that, even after more than half a century, the provocation of a woman entering the rabbinate was as stirring as if it had occurred yesterday.