Kabbalat Shabbat – Parshat D’varim
August 1, 2014
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen
Raise your hand if you know the name of the first female rabbi ever. (pause)
If you answered Sally Priesand, well … good guess, but she’s not it.
Rabbi Sally Priesand was the first woman ordained by the Reform Movement in America, by the school that just ordained me, Hebrew Union College, in 1972. But – she is not the first known woman rabbi of all time.
That title – that honor, belongs to Regina Jonas.
Has anyone ever heard that name – Regina Jonas?
Rabbi Regina Jonas was ordained in Germany in the year … 1935.
She was born in 1902 and perished at Auschwitz in 1944. Regina Jonas left a legacy that stretches all the way to this day – for it is an indisputable fact that my being here with you this evening is in some way connected to this this inspiring woman, this intrepid rabbi. I want to tell you her story … because it is my story. It is your story. And story is at the center of this week’s Torah portion, D’varim.
Many don’t realize that the roots of Reform Judaism stretch all the way back to mid-19th century Germany … when Abraham Geiger and his contemporaries were questioning what it meant to be both a Jew and a modern citizen of the state. No longer citizens of the shtetl relegated to the outskirts of both land and society, the modern Jew was pushed to evolve his or her Jewish practice in order to thrive.
The creation of new, liberal synagogues – places that often mimicked the customs of churches and pushed the boundaries of Jewish practice – coincided with the founding of the Wissenschaft des Judentuums – a progressive branch of education that focused not only on Jewish history and rabbinic literature, but also German culture, science, arts, and European history at large.
The historian Amos Elon wrote, “The purpose [of this modern type of beit midrash], "was to bring ordinary Jews into the orbit of German culture and at the same time reinforce their Jewish identity by bridging the gulf between secular and religious education.”
The Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums – the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies - was ground zero for Reform Judaism’s intellectual and spiritual roots. As a seminary, it served as a training ground for liberal rabbis. And eventually, Regina Jonas became a student there, uplifted by this progressive and accepting atmosphere infused by Torah.
Rabbi Jonas’ thesis was titled, “Can a Woman be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Jonas argued that yes, one could, and her private ordination in 1935 demonstrated that she proved her theorem.
For several years Regina Jonas served God and community, all while Europe hovered on the brink of World War II. In 1938 Berlin, Regina wrote, ““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.”
Jonas was deported to Terezinstaadt in 1942. She and her fellow prisoners Viktor Frankl, the famous psychoanalyst, and Rabbi Leo Baeck, a leader of the German Jewish community, were tasked with greeting incoming trains and providing counseling to frightened and bewildered Jews as they arrived. During her two years at Terezinstaadt, Rabbi Jonas presented dozens of lectures on Judaism and Jewish topics. She functioned as a rabbi – as a scholar and pastoral presence – under the worst imaginable circumstances.
When she perished at Auschwitz in 1944, she had no children. She left no tangible legacy. Few people knew of her, and those that did added little to the history of the Wissenschaft des Judentuums. It was not until the early 1990s when the discovery of papers – including her rabbinic thesis – shed light onto her incredible past … and scholars, lay people, and clergy slowly grasped who this woman was … and found themselves, past and present … in her story.
Regina Jonas was on the mind of many women and men of every denomination of Judaism last Thursday, July 24th, when she was honored with a plaque at Terezinstaadt. In a moving and emotional ceremony, those gathered chanted El Maleh Rachamim in her memory, asking God to grant her eternal peace.
Present for this ceremony were Regina Jonas’ fellow first women, each from their own respective denominations. Rabbi Sally Preisand was there, joined by Rabbi Amy Elberg, ordained in 1985 by JTS, the Conservative seminary; Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick, ordained in 1975 by Leo Baeck College, the liberal seminary of England named for the same rabbi that once served Terezin’s prisoners with Rabbi Jonas, and also involved was Rabbi Sara Hurwitz, the first known woman ordained through an Orthodox seminary.
These names – these individuals – are people on whose shoulders I stand; on whose shoulders we all stand. Indeed, they are trailblazers … pioneers … women who faced backlash resistance, roadblocks, and torment – from peers, family, friends … yet kept pushing forward so that we could tell their stories.
So that we would be inspired by their stories.
Especially today … when the world seems darker, more dangerous, and more hostile each day.
In this week’s parsha, D’varim – words – our text begins to recount our story. Moses, knowing that he will soon part from the people as they move forward without him, engages them in a series of reflections and retellings of their journey.
The book of Deuteronomy seeks to teach us – we who study this text year after year … we who belong to and believe in community – lessons for the future. Through the retelling of our story, the text reinforces our commitment to and Covenant with God.
The text itself reminds us just how essential it is to tell our story. To know on whose shoulders we stand. To remember our past … so that we may look to our future.
Each and every moment of our lives we have an opportunity to tell a story.
Each and every moment of our lives we are able to share words – d’varim – of inspiration, challenge, humor and hope.
May we choose our words wisely.
May we use our words to inspire others.
May we always remember on whose shoulders we stand.
And may we be blessed with the ability to continue telling our stories … and the stories of our people … for generations to come.