Friday, October 1, 2021/25 Tishrei, 5782
Parashat B’reishit Genesis 1:1−6:8
This week we began the Torah cycle over again. Each year I am amazed to find new teachings and details I hadn’t previously noticed. “Turn it, turn it,” taught Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, “for everything is in it!” (Pirkei Avot 5:24) The Torah doesn’t change, but we do, both individually and as a community.
I celebrate another new beginning as we reach this Torah portion each year: the birth of a more inclusive rabbinate. This Shabbat marks the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Regina Jonas, who was ordained in Berlin in 1935. As you might imagine, Rabbi Jonas’s journey was not easy. It was acceptable for women to take classes to become teachers, but it was unthinkable for her to become a rabbi. Rabbi Jonas didn’t allow that to dissuade her. Despite being the only female in her classes and the discrimination she faced, she wouldn’t allow anything to get in the way of her goal.
Rabbi Jonas took inspiration from this week’s Torah portion, which states:
“And God created man in God’s image, in the image of God, God created him; male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
Every person of any gender, is a reflection of God. Why then couldn’t she be called to this sacred role? In the German newspaper Central-Verein-Zeitung on June 23, 1938, Rabbi Jonas explained, “I hope a time will come for all of us in which there will be no more questions on the subjects of “woman” – for as long as there are questions, something is wrong. But if I must say what drove me as a woman to become a rabbi, two elements come to mind, my belief in the godly calling and my love for people. God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts without regard to gender. Thus each of us has the duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts God has given. If you look at things this way, one takes woman and man for what they are, human beings.”
Rabbi Jonas wrote a rabbinic thesis entitled, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” The Rabbi who accepted her thesis died before she could be ordained, and no one else would agree to ordain her despite her incredible abilities and commitment. She worked as a teacher for years until Rabbi Max Dienneman put his career on the line to ordain her in 1935. Even after her ordination, Berlin’s Jewish community did not wish to hire her. She eventually found work as a chaplain, and when rabbis were in short supply during the Holocaust, she would be called into communities to offer rabbinic inspiration. She continued her Rabbinic work even after she was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942. She knew Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl, who never even mentioned her as a rabbi. Her name was largely kept secret until Dr. Katerina vol Kellenbach discovered an archive in east Berlin with Rabbi Jonas’ papers in 1991. Nonetheless, her impact was substantial.
This week we honor Rabbi Jonas for her ability to find new inspiration in the Torah and her willingness to do so much to create a more inclusive Judaism. May her memory continue to be a blessing.
Rabbi Cassi Kail