Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
Honoring a Forgotten Rabbi: Rabbi Regina Jonas
70 years ago, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi was murdered at Auschwitz. Though Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi by a rabbinical seminary in 1972, by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Regina Jonas has the distinction of being the first woman being granted the title in modern times.
Who was this woman who reached the death camp on Shabbat Bereshit, that year on the 27th of Tishre? (Both dates have passed this year: last Shabbat was Shabbat Bereshit—the beginning of the Torah cycle-; and the 27th was Tuesday of this week.)
Born in 1902 to an Orthodox family, she was nonetheless encouraged by her rabbi Rabbi Max Weil to pursue advanced Jewish studies and so in 1924 she enrolled at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. Although there were other women students at this liberal seminary, they were all studying to be teachers. Indeed after 6 years she, too, earned the degree of “Academic Teacher of Religion.” But, additionally, as was required of rabbinical students, she submitted a dissertation, appropriately enough entitled: “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Her primary supporter, a member of the faculty, Rabbi Eduard Baneth, who had Orthodox ordination, died shortly before she completed her studies. Blocked from ordination by the professor of Talmud, she would in time turn to Rabbi Leo Baeck, a prominent Liberal rabbi, who also declined to ordain her, because he believed that the ordination of a woman as rabbi would have caused massive intra-Jewish communal problems with the Orthodox community in Germany. (The German community was for the most part “an unified community,” embracing nearly all wings of Judaism.) But finally, on December 27, 1935, she obtained semicha, from Rabbi Max Dienemann, who was the head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association. Even done privately, her ordination raised eyebrows. An article in 1936 in Der Israelit spoke of her ordination as a form of “treason and a caricature of Judaism.”
At first, Rabbi Jonas worked in hospitals, homes for the elderly, and schools, but as more rabbis emigrated she began to preach in synagogues around Germany. In November 1942, she and her mother were deported to Terezin, where she worked with the famous psychiatrist Victor Frankl to care for new prisoners. Surprisingly, neither Frankl nor Rabbi Baeck, both of whom survived their incarceration at Terezin, referred to her by name in their post-war writings.
A few of Jonas’ papers remain at Terezin, including a handwritten list of more than 20 lecture topics delivered at the camp, including the role of women in Judaism, women in the Bible, women in the Talmud, and Jewish holidays and beliefs. In 1991, Katerina von Kellenbach, a professor of Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, while doing research in a small archive in Berlin, accidentally discovered a small box of Jonas’ papers. Among them is a note dated November 6, 1942, written by an acquaintance of Jonas’, explaining that these documents were given to him on the day that Jonas and her mother were deported. Her papers included a photo of her in rabbinical robes, a copy of her thesis, and her ordination certificate.
By that point, she had been rediscovered. Several pieces in the 1970’s, including Rabbi Priesand’s book Judaism and the New Woman made mention of her.
Although it appears that she wasn’t gassed immediately, apparently dying 2 months later—the exact date seems to be unknown--, a number of rabbis and Jewish organizations have decided that last Shabbat, the day she reached the death camp, would be an appropriate date to remember her and to say kaddish for her. I learned about the date only after the fact and so consider this as my commemoration of a truly courageous and inspirational religious leader. May her memory ever be a source of blessing.
Chadashot MeYisrael: News From Israel
A Latin Inscription and the Bar Kochba Revolt
In an excavation on the site of a future shopping center in East Jerusalem, north of the Damascus Gate, half of a Latin inscription was recently found in secondary use. Combined with the first half, discovered a century ago, and which is on display at the Franciscan Museum in the city, the inscription now reads:
“To Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, son of the deified Traianus Parthicus, grandson of the deified Nerva, high priest, invested with tribunician power for the 14th time, consul for the third time, father of the country,”
The date would have been either 129 or 130 CE and it speaks of the Emperor Hadrian, who would soon visit the ruined city.
There has long been a debate among scholars as to whether Hadrian ordered the development of Jerusalem as a Roman colony, before or after the Bar Kochba Revolt, which began in 132 CE. The Christian Bishop Eusebius writing in the 4th century asserted that the establishment of Aelia Capitolina was a punitive measure after the failed revolt. However, a century earlier, the Roman historian Dio Cassius had suggested that work on the colony began beforehand and the decision by Hadrian to make it a pagan center, replete with pagan temples, was a contributing factor to the outbreak of the revolt.
The inscription now lends support to those who believe that the preparations for Jerusalem’s transformation by Hadrian was deemed a major provocation and led to the Bar Kochba Rebellion.
Once again ancient stones may have shed light on a crucial moment in Jewish history.
A Comment on the Weekly Torah Portion
The portion of Noach (8:15-10:32) is read this Saturday,
9: 7 Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it….(20) Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. (21) he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. (22) Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. (23) But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backwards, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. (24) When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him (25), he said, “Cursed be Canaan:/the lowest of salves/ Shall he be to his brothers.” (26) And he said, “Blessed by the Lord/The God of Shem; /Let Canaan be a slave to them./ (27) May God enlarge Japheth,/ And let him dwell in the tents of Shem./ And let Canaan be a slave to them.
…we can suggest that Noah’s actions after the Flood mimic God’s actions in Creation—an act of Imitatio Dei. Indeed, the entire section contains many parallels to the Creation story, which we will enumerate. This leads one to conclude, that just as the Flood served as the undoing of the original creation, our story of Noah and the vineyard serves to undo the attempt to start Creation again after the Flood.
- * Both stories begin with the blessing to “be fruitful and multiply.”
2. * God planted a garden; Noah planted a vineyard.
3. * Both stories take a turn for the worse when the protagonist consumes some fruit.
4. * After eating/drinking of the forbidden fruit, the protagonist’s naked state and the efforts to cover it, become prominent details in the story.
5. * Curses (and blessings) are distributed at the finale of the story (creating the parallel between Ham and the snake.)
That Shem and Yafet are forced to walk backwards to cover their father becomes the symbolic theme of the story: any forward progress made by humanity after the Flood has been reversed. Indeed, their act is the pivot of the chiastic structure that frames this story. (Rav Yaakov Beasely, “To Be a Man of the Earth” in Ezra Bick and Yaakov Beasley, eds., Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach: Bereshit, pp.64-5. Rabbi Beasley is a graduate of Yeshiva University, where he also obtained a M.A.. Currently, he is completing work on a doctorate in Bible and Jewish education at Bar Ilan. He has taught in Israeli yeshivot for nearly 2 decades including Darchei Noam and Har Etzion. Since 2006 he has taught at Yeshivat Nachson Amit. In addition to serving as one of the editors of the Torah MiEtzion series, he has written numerous articles in the area of Bible, including for the Virtual Beit Midrash and Tradition magazine. Additionally, a large number of his lectures on various Jewish topics can be found on the Internet.)