Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today – and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).
The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”
How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).
It strikes me as amazing that this midrash ascribes conversion, particularly of women, to a woman. After all, by the time of Genesis Rabbah, conversion had become a legal ritual. Further, the conversion of women was – and remains – more important than the conversion of men because Judaism is passed on through the maternal line. A woman’s flawed conversion could result in generations of Jews whose Jewishness was suspect.
The participants in the discussion that is summarized in this midrashic selection must have known that they were not reflecting the plain meaning of the text. As Rashi comments in the eleventh century, after first repeating the midrash, the simple meaning of the text is the slaves whom they had acquired. But Rashi does not say that women had no right to be involved in “making” converts, a task associated with rabbis.
How fitting it is to mark the yahrzeit of Rabbi Regina Jonas (1902-1944), the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi, the week before we read this verse. Rabbi Jonas looks out at us from the surviving photos, this one probably taken after 1938 because the identification on the back reads Rabbi Regina Sarah Jonas, reflecting the 1938 Nazi decree that all Jewish women take the name Sarah. How ironic that she was linked forcibly to her biblical predecessor. She looks straight at us, unsmiling, serious, with appropriately regal bearing, cloaked in black, book in hand.
For decades after her murder in Auschwitz 70 years ago, Regina Jonas was forgotten. The survivors who knew her, including Rabbi Leo Baeck and Viktor Frankl, did not mention her. She nearly became one of the many Jewish women lost to history. When the archives in East Berlin and the materials in Theresienstadt became available, however, her story began to come alive.
Born in Berlin, she probably embarked on her Jewish studies under the tutelage of her father, who died in 1913. Her interest in the rabbinate dates at least to her adolescence. A number of Orthodox rabbis in Berlin supported her interest. One of them, Rabbi Max Weyl, studied rabbinic texts with her weekly until he was deported to Theresienstadt. By 1924 she had learned enough to be certified to teach Jewish religion at schools for girls in Berlin. That year she also entered the Hochschule fÃ¼r die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, the great center of modern Orthodoxy, where there were other women students. Unlike the others, however, who studied to become teachers, she wanted to be a rabbi.
Regina Jonas’s pre-ordination thesis, called “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” may be the first attempt to engage that question from a halachic point of view. Taking a position that is neither Orthodox nor Reform, Jonas cites Jewish women who had performed rabbinic tasks, including Beruriah and Rashi’s daughters. She challenges the assumption that women could not serve as rabbis by examining the reasons for the ban. Taking an approach that today we would characterize as “essentialist,” she argues that women are well suited to the rabbinate as they are, by nature, caring and psychologically astute. She, does, however, resolve what we would call the “life/work balance” by saying that women should be free to choose to become rabbis, but should they do so, they should not marry.
Although Jonas’s thesis was deemed “Good,” she was refused ordination, graduating not as a rabbi but as a religious teacher. This was due in part to the unfortunate death in 1930 of Rabbi Eduard Baneth, who been in charge of ordination at the Hochshule. His successor, Professor Hanokh Albeck, refused to ordain her. Other members of the faculty did not challenge Albeck’s decision publicly.
Jonas went on to teach in Jewish schools, which were becoming overcrowded because Jewish students no longer were allowed into state schools, but at the same time she continued to fight for ordination. In 1935 Rabbi Max Dienemann, executive director of the Liberaler Rabbinerverband (Conference of Liberal Rabbis) ordained her on behalf of the conference. Her diploma of ordination cites her devotion to God and the people Israel and her knowledge of religious law. It permits her “to hold the rabbinic office.”
In a newspaper article published in June 1938, Jonas explains:
“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 worked as a rabbi, specializing in pastoral care but also serving various communities in Germany as a congregational rabbi. As other rabbis emigrated or were imprisoned, Jonas became ever busier, trying to support and care for Jews in communities spread across Germany. She was known as a caring, inspiring, and helpful rabbi in times that were unspeakably tragic. She also had a sense of the significance of her contribution to Jewish history. Before she was deported to Theresienstadt in November 1942, she gave her documents to the Berlin Jewish community for safekeeping. In Theresienstadt she continued her work as a rabbi until October 1944, when she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
Last summer, a group that included the four first women to be ordained as rabbis by their respective American denominations and was co-sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the American Jewish Archives took a trip through Prague and Berlin, following Regina Jonas’s footsteps. They also placed a memorial in her memory at Theresienstadt.
As we reflect on the beginning of the journey of what was to become the Jewish people and the role of Sarah in that journey let us take strength and blessing from these words of Rabbi Regina Jonas, found in the Theresienstadt archives:
“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, sustain 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) â€¦ 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 â€¦ The reward of a mitzvah is the recognition of the great deed by God.