First female rabbi lived and died for her faith

Elisa Klapheck believes that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — which helped open the Central Archive of German Jewry — bridged the chasm in Jewish history left by the Holocaust. For her, the most remarkable discovery to emerge from the archive was evidence of the work of Rabbi Regina Jonas, the world’s first female rabbi.

“To be a rabbi also meant to take a stand, backed by an enduring moral standard, against the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ that the Nazis had proclaimed,” writes Klapheck, in “Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi.”

A thorough journalist, Klapheck traces Jonas’ unique story from her birth in 1902 in a “shabby, grungy quarter” of Berlin, where she grew up in a strictly religious house, to her death at Auschwitz.

Essential to the story is the impact of her father’s death in 1913 on her later relationships with father figures; Jonas struggles with the patriarchal system of Judaism in order to become a rabbi. All the while, the rise of Nazism seeps into her story like a darkening stain.

The book includes a copy of Jonas’ Halachic dissertation “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” written in 1930. It bears a conspicuous stamp in purple ink: “Rabbiner Regina Sara Jonas.” Sara was the middle name imposed on all German Jewish women as of 1939.

The treatise concludes that for a woman to serve as a rabbi is quite consistent with Halachic law. She points out that most of the Halachic restrictions on women are in the name of zniut, or modesty, to prevent inappropriate contact with men, and that such contact became so common that it aroused no one.

She was ordained in 1935. Such a break with tradition was partly because there was a shortage of male rabbis, many of whom had either fled the country or been imprisoned.

Rabbi Jonas herself remained in Germany despite many opportunities to emigrate. She refused to abandon the thousands of Jews — destitute, terrified, and mostly aging — still in Berlin; neither would she burden her elderly mother with the stress of resettlement. Privately, she was also reluctant to abandon the man she loved, Rabbi Joseph Norden.

It appears that she did not encourage the Jews either to emigrate or to oppose or evade the laws that were systematically destroying them, but rather to return to the roots and practice their religion faithfully, “carrying on the work of our ancestors from Sinai,” up to the end.

Regina Jonas and her mother were murdered at Auschwitz. Her brother, Abraham, never returned from the Lodz camp. Norden perished in the one at Theresienstadt.

While the reader may be ambivalent about the rabbi’s course of self-sacrifice, “Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas” has been both interesting and influential to the Jewish community. It has become a best seller, and its formerly ignored subject, a national heroine. And the author, who has written for major German media, identified with Jonas to the point of becoming a rabbi herself.

“Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi,” by Elisa Klapheck (220 pages, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, $24.95).