Last week, I watched a rather fascinating documentary about Regina Jonas, who is considered to have been the first ever female Rabbi (it will remain on iPlayer until 26th February, found here).
For those who lack the time to watch the documentary, Jonas was brought up in an impoverished Orthodox family in Berlin, and fell in love with Torah at a very early age, declaring an ambition to be a Rabbi from childhood. After overcoming several obstacles, and reluctantly leaving Orthodox Judaism, she was given smicha by Max Dienemann, then head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association in Offenbach, Germany. She then made a career out of visiting tiny outlying Jewish communities all over Germany and teaching. Tragically, just a few short years later, she was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz.
I was left conflicted by the film. I was unsure whether to admire Jonas as a pioneer, a trailblazer of the advancement of women within Judaism, or to react to her story with reluctant condemnation. That she was a person of immense bravery, wisdom and intellect is beyond doubt – one could argue she would make a better teacher, pastor and community leader than many Rabbis today. Her commitment to the idea of Torah and the Jewish people as a symbiotic whole that ought to dedicate itself to the service of G-d and the betterment of the world is certainly one we should all strive to replicate in everything we do. However, do I really feel comfortable waxing lyrical when push came to shove, she chose to leave the boundaries of Orthodoxy? While I feel that the antagonism between Orthodox and (broadly speaking) Reform Judasim can be unnecessarily strong – far more unites than divides us – I cannot escape the fact that she allied herself with those that promoted, for example, non-halakhic Judaism. I cannot truly say that I revere Orthodox and non-Orthodox Rabbis equally, and nor should I.
I do, though, believe that we should see this story as a failure of Orthodox Judaism. If any person of such clear passion, dedication and knowledge of Judaism does not feel as though it is possible to remain within Orthodoxy and fulfill their ambitions of service to the Jewish people, we cannot view the Orthodox Judaism that existed at that time as truly functional. We must see this story as the sort of thing Orthodox Judaism needs to put behind itself.
It is good to see progress in this direction. Shlomo Carlebach granted smicha to Mimi Feigelsohn in 1994. Avi Weiss, in 2009, created the title Maharat, a mnemonic of halakhic, spiritual and Torah leader, and granted it to Sara Hurwitz. It is worth noting that, out of sensitivity to the Rabbi’s historic role as a community, shul leader who would stand at the pulpit during and as part of formal services, neither called themselves Rabbi. Without being an expert, I think that this is a fair compromise and one that we can get behind. In stating that women can obtain a broadly equivalent status to men – at least outside the bounds of the formal, ritualistic segments of Judaism (that we generally consider to be less important than the familial, scholarly and communal values and relationships that are the true underpinnings of Judaism), we recognise that we are valuing Torah, as well as prospects of leadership within Judaism, as unaffected by gender.
I am not calling for a revolution. I am not immediately advocating that we need to cast aside all possible differences between men and women in halakhah, or in access to ceremonial positions within Judaism. I lack both the halakhic knowledge and the experience to justify saying anything like that. However, we must surely see the story of Regina Jonas as inspiration to strive to live a Judaism open to and accepting of the Torah of both men and women. Bearing in mind that the main thrust of the Rav Shaliach’s job is a primarily pastoral, scholarly and pedagogical one, if the next one was actually a Maharat Shaliach, with a reputable smicha and as much passion as the incumbent about assisting Bnei Akiva in the UK, I would be absolutely delighted.