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Parashat Miketz -Chanukah 5776

This is a very symbolic Shabbat. First is Rosh Hodesh Tevet and every Rosh Hodesh is understood as a new beginning and possibility to improve our lives and to enjoy the rhythm of the Jewish Calendar and the Sanctuaries in time that it creates. It is Chanukah, so we celebrate light and heroism, we celebrate this festival on the time of the year when we star going for darkness to light, from shorter to longer days. And not less important, is Parashat Miketz and we again have the same idea. Joseph starts in a place of darkness, in the hole when he was put in prison, without hope, forgotten by everyone. As the Parashah progresses he also moves from darkness to light, as his situation improves to the point he becomes second to Pharaoh and is able to bring light to others as well. Today I want to speak to you about one of these lights in the darkness. A shining candle in the most terrible darkness of all. This week we marked the yartzeit of Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman in history to be ordained as a rabbi in 1935, in Berlin, a few weeks after the Nuremberg laws were promulgated. If you didn’t hear about her don’t feel bad, many people didn’t as her story was lost for decades, until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the discovery of documents about her in the archives of East Germany in the nineties. When Rabbi Sally Priesand became a reform rabbi in the US in 1972, she was considered the first woman ever to be ordained as a rabbi. When she discovered about the existence of Rabbi Regina Jonas, she decided to honour her as the foremother of all female rabbis in our time. Regina Jonas was born in Berlin in 1902 to an Orthodox family. Her father was her first teacher, but he passed when Regina was only 11. In High School she had a passion for Jewish History, Bible and Hebrew, and some fellow pupils remember her talking already about becoming a rabbi. Even some Orthodox rabbis supported Regina’s ambitions and one of them, Max Weyl, the rabbi of her parents, would meet with her weekly to study together Talmud and Halakhah. They continued with these meetings until both were deported to Theresiendstadt. In 1924 Regina Jonas matriculated at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Seminary for the Study of Judaism, identified with the more liberal side of German Jewry. She was not the only woman studying there, but when all other women were happy to become teachers of Jewish Studies, only Regina had the ambition of becoming a fully ordained rabbi. Regina’s final paper has the title “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” and was submitted in 1930. This document, one copy preserved today, holds the title of the first article seeking an halakhic base for the ordination of women, decades before the ones written by the Conservative movement in the eighties and nineties. She wrote: “I believe that the question of whether a woman may make halachic decisions as a Rabbinerin may very clearly be seen as permitted, and it is not necessary to continue to linger over this matter . . . Just as both female doctors and teachers in time have become a necessity from a psychological standpoint, so has the female rabbi. There are even some things that women can say to youth, which cannot be said by the man in the pulpit. Her experiences, her psychological observations a profoundly different from those of a man, therefore she has a different style . . . If Jewish culture is to be maintained, the woman must contribute particularly in this way and both sexes must deliver their great service”. Regina Jonas did not follow the Reform movement approach of achieving modernization by rejecting Halakhah, rather she wanted to deduce gender equality from the Jewish legal sources, for her the female rabbinate should be understood as a continuity of tradition. This proves Jonas’ independence both from Orthodoxy, which held and holds equality as incompatible with Halakhah, and from Reform because of their rejection of tradition. I think she was a Masorti rabbi, even if she didn’t know at the time. Her paper was granted a good mark but she was not ordained, as her professor, Hanoch Albeck, was unwilling to ordain a woman and the other professors were afraid of causing a scandal. Regina graduated only as a religious teacher and it took 5 more years, until 1935, that Rabbi Max Dienemann, executive director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis agreed to the ordination. Rabbi Dienemann wrote on her letter of ordination: “Since I saw that her heart is with God and Israel, and that she dedicates her soul to her goal, and that she fears God, and that she passed the examination in matters of religious law, I herewith certify that she is qualified to answer questions of religious law and entitled to hold the rabbinic office. And may God protect her and guide her on all her ways”. For the next years she worked as a “pastoral-rabbinic counsellor” for the Jewish Community of Berlin, the official institution representing the local Jews. Later on, when many rabbis were being deported, she started to preach as well in many synagogues, including the famous Neue Synagoge, the flagship of German Jewry, where she would give a weekly lesson after Havdalah. When I visited the Neue Synagoge a couple of years ago I saw the posters inviting the community to the lessons in Havdalah with Rabbiner Regina Jonas. Today, the only Masorti Shul in Berlin, leaded by a female rabbi, functions in the same building. In 1940 and 1941 she was sent by the Jewish Community to visit small communities all around Germany whose rabbis had been deported. In 1941, most Jews still in Berlin were sent to force labour, so they had to change services times in order to be able to daven. Rabbi Jonas was forced to work in a factory, but she still continued to preach, teach and counsel on her free time. Survivors report that her sermons and her pastoral work were especially uplifting and encouraging. On November 1942 Rabbi Regina Jonas and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, but this was not the end for her. She continued working as a rabbi there, preaching and counselling. She worked with the famous psychoanalyst Victor Frankl, giving support to the residents. Rabbi Jonas would stand in the train station to receive the new deportees arriving to the camp and try to calm them and give them strength and support. On October 12th 1942, Rabbi Regina Jonas and her mother were deported to Auschwitz and probably killed the same day. Nobody survived to tell her story and those who knew her, like Victor Frankl and Rabbi Leo Beck never spoke about her. This week we commemorated the yartzeit of Rabbi Regina Jonas, who perished in the Holocaust and was forgotten for decades, made invisible, before she was restored to a place of honour in Jewish history. She was a shining light for many people during terrible darkness, but when her own fire was extinguished her candle was forgotten. During the 45-year period when her story was lost, women fought for the right to be ordained, but without access to Jonas’s story, they had no models for how this could work within Jewish law. When we forget our history, our stories, every person seeking inclusion is perceived as an exception: the woman who wants to layn from the Torah, the deaf person who wants to participate fully, the autistic child who desires a bar mitzvah, the gay couple who wants to be welcomed into the community. It’s hard to make broad and lasting change through a series of “special cases.” It’s only when we know our full history, when we make the invisible visible, that we as a community can work together and build on each other’s efforts to make sure we’re all standing together at Sinai. I want to finish with a text she wrote in Theresienstadt, probably part of her last sermon, that tells us about her religious outlook: “Our Jewish people was planted by God into history as a blessed nation. ‘Blessed by God’ means to offer blessings, lovingkindness and loyalty, regardless of place and situation. Humility before God, selfless love for His creatures, sustainment for the world. It is Israel’s task to build these pillars of the world— man and woman, woman and man alike have taken this upon themselves in Jewish loyalty. Our work in Theresienstadt, serious and full of trials as it is, also serves this end: to be God’s servants and as such to move from earthly spheres to eternal ones. May all our work be a blessing for Israel’s future (and the future of humanity) … Upright ‘Jewish men’ and ‘brave, noble women’ were always the sustainers of our people. May we be found worthy by God to be numbered in the circle of these women and men … The reward of a mitzvah is the recognition of the great deed by God. Rabbi Regina Jonas, formerly of Berlin.” May her memory be a blessing. Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chanukah Sameach!

Regina Jonas
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