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European Conference of Women Rabbis, Cantors, Scholars and all Spiritually Interested Jewish Women and Men
Tagung europäischer Rabbinerinnen, Kantorinnen, rabbinisch gelehrter und interessierter Jüdinnen und Juden

Berlin // 13.-16. Mai 1999 // 27.Ijar-1.Sivan 5759


History of Women in the Rabbinate:
A Case of Communal Amnesia

by Rabbi Dr. Sybil Sheridan
Leo-Baeck-College London

It seems strange to be offering as history something that has in the main occurred in my lifetime. Part of this makes me feel very old, - like my son who once asked me ‘mummy was it the first world war or the second world war when you were a little girl?’ And part of this makes me feel very honoured. I am well aware of the historicity of this occasion - the first conference of women Rabbis, Cantors and religious leaders to have taken place in Europe.

I believe the importance of this occasion will extend well beyond the numbers of people attending here today because after this moment , with all its attendant media interest, its publications, and the network it will undoubtedly establish, it will be impossible to forget again the presence of women religious leaders in our midst. Up to this moment, the history of women in the Rabbinate can be summed up quite neatly as a history of forgetting - a case of communal amnesia.

And to explain, I must apologise, for beginning with a very personal moment in my own life - the day in October 1993 when Dr Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum Foundation here in Berlin, came to the Leo Baeck College in London and presented a gift: a photograph and the ordination certificate of Rabbi Regina Jonas, ordained in Germany in 1935.

I learnt three things that day that arose from the events themselves, so let me explain what happened. We gathered, around forty people, in a conference room at the Sternberg Centre where Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet the principle of the Leo Baeck College gave a speech. Then the artifacts were presented and passed around the room. When I saw the picture of Rabbi Jonas standing in her formal robes I had the strangest sensation. I saw myself. You see, my parents came to England from Germany as refugees. Had there been no Shoah, my life, my upbringing, my education would have been here, in Germany. Had there been no Shoah, Rabbi Jonas would probably have still been alive when I was born and in the nearly forty years that separated her ordination and mine, there would undoubtedly have been other women in the Rabbinate. Instead of finding myself a reluctant pioneer, one of only a few, an outsider to mainstream Judaism and to the mainstream Rabbinate - I could have taken my place in what would have by now, become the most natural thing - to have women as Rabbis. And reflect. Had there been no Shoah, and had there been women Rabbis in the Progressive Jewish movements of Europe for the last sixty years - how different would Judaism be today?

I had been asked as a lecturer at the Leo Baeck College and as one of the first women to be ordained there, to accept the presentation by Dr. Simon and give a speech of thanks. I worked very hard on that speech because, I sensed that this was indeed a momentous occasion. Dr. Simon said a few words, turned to Rabbi Professor Magonet and gave him the ordination certificate. Rabbi Professor Magonet thanked him and they both sat down.............what about me? There was one further speech and then the meeting broke up. There was no way I could say anything without it looking completely absurd, but as it was, the whole thing was pretty absurd. Here we were, in an audience primarily made up of women, celebrating the almost if you like discovery of the first woman Rabbi, with speeches and a presentation by men.

But that’s not the end of it.

After the ceremony I confronted Rabbi Magonet who explained he had simply forgotten. He told me he was far too busy to think of it because that evening was also going to be the presentation of the first honorary doctorate by the Leo Baeck College and he had so much to arrange. Now think of this. The Rabbi Regina Jonas presentation took place in a modern seminar room, we sat simply in a circle in a very informal atmosphere. Half an hour later, the presentation of the doctorate took place in a large elaborate hall. The lecturers of the college walked solemnly in, in full academic dress, to the sounds of a string quartet who played periodically through the evening.

Speeches by the gentleman who received the doctorate had been published in a booklet and were given to each person in the packed audience present. It was a grand occasion. What I don’t understand is why the two ceremonies were not combined? Without detracting from the honorary Doctor’ s undoubted merits it does seem to me that the presentation by Dr. Simon was of far greater significance. So what I learned was this. Despite the many ordained women: despite the alleged championing of egalitarian causes by the Leo Baeck College, women had not yet broken through into the mainstream.

Third lesson. After the presentation, Hans Hirschberg, a London resident who had discovered that the ordination certificate of Rabbi Regina Jonas still existed in Berlin gave a very hard hitting speech addressed specifically to the women rabbis present. Why were they not interested? Why had no one bothered to follow up the leads regarding Regina Jonas’ life and death? A stunned audience replied with one voice: ‘We did not know about her’.1 Fifty years is no great amount of time How is it possible that a figure so close to us, so significant in Judaism’s modern development, be forgotten? Questions must be asked.

First, what of her contemporaries? Though Rabbi Regina Jonas died in Auschwitz, her teacher Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck and many other colleagues escaped or survived Nazi oppression and found homes in England, the United States, Australia. Why did they never mention her? Or if they did, why was no note taken?2

Possibly one reason is that her ordination was not recognised. Her private semicha in Offenbach by Rabbi Max Dieneman, himself on the very liberal end of the Reform movement, would invite rejection not only by those opposed to women rabbis, but also those opposed to him and his views. Another is simply circumstances. Why should the survivors talk about her? So many great teachers and leaders were lost in the Shoah. Those making sense of a new life in a new country in a new world order can be forgiven if their former colleagues did not loom largely in their minds.

But there were others, involved in the issues surrounding the ordination of women as rabbis in England and in the United Sates, who must have known about her. Opposing women’s ordination, it looks like these people kept silent - for to mention a precedent would inevitably have meant losing their case.

But these are not the only guilty ones in forgetting Rabbi Regina Jonas. I had heard about her. greeted the information, as did other women in the students of the time with monumental indifference. In the plea today for suitable role models for women in the Rabbinate it seems extraordinary that we showed not the slightest interest in finding out more about ‘that woman in Germany who studied to be a rabbi.’3

Nor were we alone in forgetting her. Rabbi Sally Priesand the first woman Rabbi in the United States wrote about her in her rabbinic thesis and in her book "Judaism and the New Woman" 4 Remarking on her discovery of Regina Jonas’ life she admitted that she - Priesand - ‘was not the first woman Rabbi’.

"I was actually the second woman rabbi, then, although I was the first to be ordained by a theological seminary."5

Yet, when in 1994 she celebrated twenty years in the Rabbinate, all tributes to her claimed her as the first . No one contradicted that statement, not one reference was made to Rabbi Jonas. In the States, as in England she had been forgotten.How could this be? I can only think that our indifference in the 1970s grew out of an attempt to be like men.6 As we struggled to gain recognition and respect in the Jewish world, we thought that to reclaim the inheritance of another woman - a woman who was not universally recognised as a Rabbi - would only serve to marginalise us and emphasise our differences from our male colleagues.

And so I learnt that one cannot trust history - that what is forgotten may be more significant than what is remembered and I only hope that our recent ‘discovery’ of Rabbi Regina Jonas will indeed be the last.

But she was not alone.

Pamela Nadell an American academic has recently written a book about women’s semicha. It is entitled ‘Women who would be Rabbis: A history of Women’s Ordination, 1889 -1985’7 .

The earliest chapters are the most fascinating. In 1889 this issue was raised by a journalist, Mary M. Cohen in Philadelphia. She wrote a short story published in the Jewish Exponent entitled ‘A Problem for Purim.’ The story’s protagonist is a young man Lionel Martinez who is preparing for the ministry. Some days before Purim he invites a group of friends together to discuss Jewish affairs. The topic for discussion is ‘Ministers and their work’ and initially the talk revolves around sermons and the possibility of exchanging pulpits in the hopes that this might offer ‘some vitalising influence’. Then a young woman one Dora Ulman, the superintendent for a local sewing school, speaks out warning that her words "will shock you considerably’. She asks:

"Could not--------- our women----------be---------ministers?" All but Lionel were struck dumb. Even Jack’s boasted calmness had taken flight; he sate in open eyed surprise. Martinez said quickly: "Will you explain your idea or plan, Miss Dora?" He was, however, secretly a little astonished: he had not expected anything from her until later on, and then, "views" on sewing schools8 The story then lays out all the arguments. The discussion reveals all the prejudices and fears that are still being used against women in the pulpit. Women are not capable of the job, women may out-do men in their performance, women will neglect their allotted duties in life. It will invite ridicule of the office, the congregations aren’t ready for it, and so on. To all this, Dora replies calmly: ‘If women have a gift for the ministry, they are more in their place in the pulpit than if they were doing plain sewing, teaching music, or attempting any other work than the one to which their nature and their conscience call them.’9

She concludes by citing an anonymous Christian Clergyman who wrote:‘the pulpit will never reach its sublimest power until Woman takes her place in it as a free and equal interpreter of God.’ 10

While the story gives the male students the last word on the subject, the fact that it was raised at all should not have been so shocking as the story suggests. American Jewry had introduced sweeping changes for women in the early decades of the nineteenth century. They were encouraged to attend synagogue with their brothers and husbands. They were invited down from the gallery to join their families in worship. They were given the same education as boys and invited to participate alongside them in the ceremony of confirmation. Female teachers were influential in synagogue religion schools, women became more and more active in the life of their community. In the years that followed the American civil war, Reform Judaism was in the ascendancy and communities experimented in every way. The abolition of talliyot and aliyot11 were justified on the grounds that they heightened the inequality between the sexes. In Europe, though Reform was never quite so radical, the concern for women that had let to the abolition of the institution of aguna and of halitsa12 led to a recognition of her essential
equality with men.

In 1837 Abraham Geiger at the rabbinic conference in Wiesbaden said, ''let there be from now on no distinction between duties for man and woman, unless flowing from the natural laws governing the sexes; no assumptions of the spiritual minority of woman, as though she were incapable of grasping the deep things in religion; no institution of the public service, either in form or content, which shuts the doors of the temple in the face of women; no degradation of woman in the form of our marriage service, and no application of fetters which may destroy woman’s happiness''. Then will the Jewish girl and the Jewish woman, conscious of the significance of our faith, become fervently attached to it, and our whole religious life will profit form the beneficial influence which feminine hearts will bestow upon it.13

In England in 1842 at his consecration at the West London Synagogue the Reverend D.W. Marks proclaimed: "Woman, created by God as a ‘help meet for man’ and in every way his equal; woman, endowed by the same parental care, as man, with wondrous perceptions, that she might participate (as it may be inferred from Holy Writ that she was intended to participate) in the full discharge of every moral and religious obligation, has been degraded below her proper station. That power of exercising those exalted virtues that appertain to her sex has been withheld from her; and since equality has been denied to her in other things, as a natural consequence it has not been permitted to her in the duties and delights of religion. It is true that education has done much to remedy this injustice in other respects; yet does memory live in the indifference manifested for the religious instruction of females.14

The surprise then, is not that the issue of women in the Rabbinate was raised in the 1880s, but rather, why it took nearly another century to achieve.In 1893, Hannah Solomon organised the first Congress of Jewish Women in Chicago. An argument with the rabbinic authorities over Jewish women’s representation at the World Parliament of Religions resulted in the Congress going it alone. For the first time Jewish women attending the conference prayed, studied, and discussed, formed resolutions and engaged in a very real way in shaping the future of Judaism without the guiding hand of a male religious authority. The women involved in the conference were no strangers to podium or pulpit. Hannah Solomon, Louise Mannheimer, Henrietta Frank, Mary Cohen were all experienced speakers, some of whom on subsequent occasions appeared before large congregations in major synagogues.

But the the most famous example of the time was Ray Frank the ‘girl rabbi of the golden west.’ Born in San Fransciso in 1861 her career as a journalist, took her to Spokane, Washington where on the Yom Kippur of 1890, she set about arranging services for the community. There being no Rabbi, Frank was invited to preach. The result was so electric that from then on, until her marriage in 1901 she toured all over the country as a popular and charismatic preacher. She was in such demand that she employed an agent to arrange her appearances and manage her travelling. Ray Frank studied at the Hebrew Union College, receiving a Bachelor of Hebrew Letters. Of her, Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, president of H.U.C. said: ‘We glory in her zeal and moral courage to break down the last remains of the barriers erected in the synagogue against woman......In the laws governing the Hebrew Union College the question of sex of race of confession is not touched upon at all.....we can only encourage Miss Ray Frank or any other gifted lady who takes the theological course, to assist the cause of emancipating woman in the synagogue and congregation. 15

Yet she herself was more cautious: ‘I entered the theological college in Cincinnati’, she wrote,‘in order to learn more of the philosophy of Judaism and was the first woman to take that special work at the college ......it never having been my intention to take the regular theological course,having long prior concluded that while theologies are many, religion is one; and that ordination is not essential to preachers, or, better yet, to teachers.’16, and she turned down several invitations to lead a congregation full time.

There were a number of Rabbis at the time who advocated women’s role in the synagogue most notably, Isaac Meyer Wise, Emil G. Hirsch and Kaufman Kohler - the former at least, would probably have ordained a woman had a candidate presented herself. It seems that it was the women of the time who were more circumspect.

'Let woman be as she ever has been, content to let men preach while she practices.’ said Katherine de Sola17

While Henrietta Szold, who was to become one of the first women to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote: 'I believe that woman can best serve the interests of the synagogue by devoting herself to her home ....and by occupying the pulpit only when her knowledge of the law, history, and literature of Judaism is masterful, and her natural gift so extraordinary as to forbid hesitation, though even then it were the part of wisdom not to make a profession of public preaching and teaching ....In other words, the Deborahs and Miriams need not hide their light under a bushel, but they and the world must be pretty sure that they are Deborahs and Miriams, not equally admirable Hannahs and Ruths.’18

Throughout the 1890s and 1900s the arguments continued. But with the First World War, a hiatus occurred and when in the twenties a new generation of women arrived at the rabbinical colleges they appear to have had no knowledge of the earlier debate. Martha Neumark, Irma Levy Lindheim, Dora Askowith, and Helen Hadassah Levinthal all entered seminaries with the intention of becoming Rabbis. All were refused ordination on the rather flimsy ground that the first woman would have to be someone quite extraordinary. While with the first wave of women it seemed the men and the seminaries were keen and it was the women who modestly held back, with the second wave it was the reverse.

Rabbi Regina Jonas knew of at least one of them. In her essay on Rabbi Jonas, Rabbi Elizabeth Tikva Sarah describes a former student of hers, one Inge Kallman who was told by Rabbi Jonas that ‘apart from a woman rabbi in America, she was the only woman rabbi.’.19 Rabbi Sarah suggests that the woman was Martha Neumark (1904 -1981) who requested ordination in 1922. The faculty of Hebrew Union College were unanimous in their support for this, but her request was turned down by a majority of the College’s Board of Governors.20 yet the reference could equally have been to Helen Levinthal (1910 -1989) who in 1939 became the first woman to complete the rabbinical course at Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise’s Jewish Institute of Religion. She was hailed in the press at the time as the ‘The first woman Rabbi (even if unordained)’21 and worked for a period as a Rabbi in her father’s congregation.

And again history repeats itself. The second world war brought the debate to a close to be started again from scratch in the ‘50s. Indeed when the first women were finally ordained some of this second generation of would-be rabbis were still alive, yet no public acknowledgment of their role seems to have been made, no ‘honorary’ semicha granted in retrospect.

The historian Gerda Lerner writes, Men created written history and benefited from the transmittal of knowledge from one generation to the other, so that each great thinker could stand "on the shoulders of giants," thereby advancing thought over that of previous generations with maximum efficiency. Women were denied knowledge of their history, and thus each woman had to argue as though no woman before her had ever thought or written. Women had to use their energy to reinvent the wheel over and over again, generation after generation.22

While she refers to an earlier period of our history, the above demonstrates that it is still true and though we are no longer ‘denied knowledge of our history’, we have been pretty slow in taking it up.

So what of Europe? When Fraulein Rabbi Regina Jonas was studying at the Hochschule, there were twenty six other women there. Did any of them also have aspirations to the Rabbinate? Were there others inspired by Rabbi Jonas’ teaching who were thinking of such a path before the Shoah destroyed them? And - were there any before who would have wished to walk the same path?

The social setting in Europe was very different from that of the United States. Women did not have the same freedoms and emancipation for women took longer overall. Moreover, politics was always a more burning issue amongst German Jewry than religion. Yet I cannot believe that there were not women, who, having achieved a Jewish education and motivated by their love for
Judaism, were not moved to practice it as more than passive recipients.

When Lily Montagu (1873 -1963 ) wrote the article for the Jewish Quarterly that was to launch Liberal Judaism in England no one queried her right as a woman to engage in a critique of religion. She had already preached and led services and prepared a children’s prayerbook under the encouragement of the Reverend Simeon Singer, the august author of Britain’s Orthodox prayer book. She went on to start her own synagogue, to found the World Union of Progressive Jews and indeed she preached here in Berlin in 1926 at its inaugural conference. Lily Montagu went on to try and found a Liberal Jewish Movement in Poland, but the war intervened. 23 The story I heard when growing up - which may be apocryphal - was that Lily Montagu was invited to the Hebrew Union College to prepare for ordination, but she refused on the grounds that she could not leave her congregation.

And of the generation before? Jewish women in England were well educated and took prominent roles in the world of the arts and literature. Few had an equivalent Jewish education, but there were some. And of Germany and the rest of Europe? Who knows? Examples of great women teachers are if not plentiful, certainly present from Beruriah in the Talmud to Hannah Rachel Werbemacher (c1815-1892) the Hasidic ‘maid of Ludomir’. Women ‘fitsnogerin’ led women in prayer in the ezrat nashim -the women’s section - of mediaeval synagogues. Women composed prayers - ’techines’ - in eastern Europe,24 Rabbi’s wives made halachic decisions in the area of taharat mishpacha - of family purity and others were enabled in the matter of shechita - the slaughter of meat .25

Now picture this scene. Somewhere in Europe a community is devastated by a Crusade, by Chmielnitski’s Cossacks, by a Pogrom. Who were the survivors? Who buried the dead? Who would have said Kaddish? Who would have kept up the rituals of Judaism in order to teach the men of the next generation? The women. And who knows, but that some Rabbi, like Rashi, when faced with only daughters, taught them like sons, but who, unlike Rashi, had no sons’-in-law and grandsons to continue the transmission? Who knows, but that in some isolated community a Rabbi ordained his daughter to fulfil his task until such time as a suitable man appeared?

Fanciful? With our record of communal amnesia I would hesitate to pass judgment on such a scenario.

But what of today? Leo Baeck College has ordained 25 female students in 24 years. Particularly exciting in my opinion is the presence of Rabbis Elena Bykova, Katalin Kelemen, and soon to be ordained Nelly Kogan, who as pioneers for Progressive Judaism in the Ukraine, Hungary and Russia are at the very heart of the movement , shaping it in an image that will reflect their capabilities and qualities as women as well as as Rabbis.Women have changed in the Rabbinate, and women have changed the Rabbinate. I do not know what character was Rabbi Jonas’, I do know that Lily Montagu was in some senses no different from other women of her period and class. A single woman devoting her life to the improvement of others, motivated by a strong faith and implacable belief in the goodness of others. Rabbi Tabick ‘never wanted to be first’26 She quietly followed the college curriculum, unsure to the very end whether she really wanted to become a Rabbi. From what I have read of Rabbi Priesand, she too, was a quite unassuming person, who conformed to the expectation of what a good Jewish girl was like. The first rabbis were, as Rabbi Sheila Shulman puts it, ‘assimilationists’.27 content to follow a male curriculum, follow a male pattern of rabbinical duties, and probably deferring to them a little more than was healthy.But as time went on the students stopped being ‘grateful’ for being there and became prepared to question, to criticise and to shape both the rabbinical college and the progressive movements.

A superficial example is in the case of clothing. Rabbi Tabick was ordained wearing a smart suit and very fetching hat. Subsequent generations saw the introduction of the tallit, and then the tallit itself become more and more colourful demonstrating an increased confidence. While we hesitated to draw attention to our appearance, current rabbinic students have no such hang-ups.

A more profound example is in our studies. We first generation rabbis just took what we were told. Yes we argued, we challenged, but within the age old limits and assumptions of male rabbinic argument. Later generations were far more on the ball. As Rabbi Shulman puts it: "It is profoundly difficult and paradoxical to study, intensively, the texts of a tradition which you love, but in which you apparently do not exist., a history which is yours, but in which you nowhere appear, a legal system in which your status is that of a chattel or a minor, and a theology in which how you are part of the covenant is a moot point".28

The challenges to traditional learning by women has been wide ranging. I would say with confidence that the greatest contributions to scholarship today in the fields of Bible, of Theology and of history come from women. It is a very exciting time to be a woman engaged in study. There is sense of undiscovered country the chance to find some really new meat on the old bones.

Finally in the congregational Rabbinate, women have undoubtedly left their mark. When I asked for maternity leave to be put into my contract, my chairman looked horrified. ‘Can’t you take sick leave?’ he asked, and that is what I did. Now men are having paternity leave written in to their contracts and no one raises an eyebrow. There used to be an unspoken rivalry between colleagues as to who could work the hardest, stay up the longest, skip their days off and miss their holidays. Women put a stop to that. Family, recreation and relationships outside of the community are now valued highly, and while some congregations may grumble, the majority recognise that Rabbis too need a life.

The relationship between the Rabbi and the congregant has also changed with the coming of women to a relationship of greater closeness and greater informality. Janet Marder, who conducted a survey of women rabbis in the United States claims that women tend to stay in smaller communities, not because of restricted job opportunities, but because size does not matter to them. They are less interested in climbing the ladder from small to bigger congregations than in forming close relationships with the congregants they have.29 Moreover, the woman rabbi does not see herself as the top of a hierarchical structure within her community, rather she acts as the enabler, empowering others to take on tasks. This perceived ‘feminist’ model has been taken on by some male rabbis. Hear this one: 'My goal is to form a congregation with the lay leaders in which we worked as a team. I’d like to form a community in which God and Torah - not the rabbi - are at the centre, one in which the members feel challenged and empowered to become knowledgeable Jews'.30

As Janet Marder, puts it, the three areas crucial to most women rabbis are balance, intimacy and empowerment. 31 Further explorations spear-headed by women rabbis are going on into changing the whole model of congregations. There is talk of group rabbinates, where two rabbis may apply together for a position formerly held by one - or of three rabbis sharing the responsibility of several small communities between them.

So much is happening in Progressive Judaism that is new, challenging and exciting and I make no apology in saying it is because of us.

And what of Rabbi Jonas? What would she have made of we Rabbis, Cantors and lay -leaders gathering here in her honour? Well, she would have been delighted. Her dream of what was possible has now become a reality.

In her rabbinic thesis Rabbi Regina Jonas concluded: "In all love and trust to our writings and their holy ordinances, it should not be forgotten that the spirit of freedom speaks from them. May it be this spirit which speaks for woman and illuminates this question.......Apart from prejudice and being accustomed to it, practically nothing halachically opposes the occupation of the Rabbinic office by a woman. Thus may she in this activity advance Jewish life and Jewish religiosity for future generations.32

We are her future. May we live up to her ideals and prove ourselves worthy of the aspirations she did not live to fulfil.

This lecture was held by Rabbi Sybil Sheridan on BET DEBORA - European Conference of Women Rabbis, Cantors, Scholars and all Spiritually Interested Jewish Women and Men

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