|Regina Jonas |
1902 – 1944
by Elisa Klapheck
“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.” Regina Jonas, C.-V.-Zeitung, June 23, 1938.
Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi, was killed in Auschwitz in October 1944. From 1942–1944 she performed rabbinical functions in Theresienstadt. She would probably have been completely forgotten, had she not left traces both in Theresienstadt and in her native city, Berlin. 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. In 1972, when Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, she was referred to as the “first female rabbi ever”—misinformation which was never corrected by those who knew better. Only when the Berlin Wall came down and the archives in East Germany became accessible was Regina Jonas’s legacy found in the Gesamtarchiv der deutschen Juden.
Regina Jonas was born in Berlin on August 3, 1902, the daughter of Wolf and Sara Jonas. She grew up in the Scheunenviertel, a poor, mostly Jewish, neighborhood. Her father, a merchant who died of tuberculosis in 1913, was probably her first teacher. Early on, Regina Jonas felt her rabbinic vocation. Her passion for Jewish history, Bible and Hebrew was apparent even at high school, where fellow pupils recall her talking about becoming a rabbi.
Many people supported Jonas’s interests, among them the Orthodox rabbis Isidor Bleichrode, Felix Singermann and Max Weyl, the last of whom was known for his open attitude regarding religious education for girls. Max Weyl often officiated in the Rykestrasse Synagogue, which Sara Jonas and her two children, Abraham and Regina, regularly attended. Until his deportation to Theresienstadt, Weyl and Jonas met once a week in order to study rabbinic literature—Talmud, Shulhan Arukh, and texts. In 1923, Jonas passed her Abitur at the Oberlyzeum Weissensee. The following year, she attended a teachers’ seminar, enabling her to teach Jewish religion in girls’ schools in Berlin.
In 1924, she matriculated at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, founded in Berlin in 1872. This liberal institution admitted women as students, as did the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar in Breslau, founded in 1854, but Jonas was the only woman who hoped to be ordained as a rabbi. All her fellow women students were studying for an academic teacher’s degree.
Eduard Baneth (1855–1930), professor of Talmud at the Hochschule and responsible for rabbinic ordination, was the supervisor of Jonas’s final thesis, which dealt with the topic “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” A copy of this document has been preserved and can be found at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. Submitted in June 1930, this paper is the first known attempt to find a halakhic basis for the ordination of women.
Jonas combines a halakhic line of argument with a modern attitude. She did not follow the Reform movement, which was willing to achieve modernization by abandoning halakhah. Rather, she wanted to deduce gender equality from the Jewish legal sources: 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 halakha, and from Reform, which saw itself as the sole advocate of female emancipatory interests.
On the opening page of her thesis, Jonas writes: “I personally love this profession and, if ever possible, I also want to practice it.” On the last page she concludes: “Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”
continues at jwa.org