The first female rabbi and how she was almost forgotten.
In 1924, she matriculated at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, founded in Berlin in 1872. This liberal institution admitted women as students, as did the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar in Breslau, founded in 1854, but Jonas was the only woman who hoped to be ordained as a rabbi. All her fellow women students were studying for an academic teacher's degree.
Halakhic Foundations for Women Rabbis
Eduard Baneth (1855-1930), professor of Talmud at the Hochschule and responsible for rabbinic ordination, was the supervisor of Jonas's final thesis, which dealt with the topic "May a woman hold rabbinic office?" A copy of this document has been preserved and can be found at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. Submitted in June 1930, this paper is the first known attempt to find a halakhic basis for the ordination of women.
Jonas combines a halakhic line of argument with a modern attitude. She did not follow the Reform movement, which was willing to achieve modernization by abandoning halakhah. Rather, she wanted to deduce gender equality from the Jewish legal sources: the female rabbinate should be understood as a continuity of tradition. This proves Jonas's independence both from Orthodoxy, which held equality as incompatible with halakhah, and from Reform, which saw itself as the sole advocate of female emancipatory interests.
On the opening page of her thesis, Jonas writes: "I personally love this profession and, if ever possible, I also want to practice it." On the last page she concludes: "Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office."
Since rabbinic literature did not deal with ordination per se, Jonas embraces the halakhic literature which relates more generally to women's issues. She names important women who, though not holding the title "rabbi," fulfilled rabbinical functions, most specifically as decisors of halakhah. In addition to biblical protagonists, she mentions Talmudic personalities such as Beruryah, Yalta, the Hasmonean queen Salome Alexandra, and also Rashi's daughters and granddaughters, who were involved in halakhic decision making. She quotes negative Talmudic statements about women, not only countering them with positive statements, but also contextualizing them by quoting equally negative statements about great sages.
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