First parashah, first woman, first woman rabbi. Remembering Rabbi Regina Jonas on her yortzeit.
The story of Adam and Eve might be the most well-known in all of Torah.
We all know how it goes: Eve is created from Adam’s rib, the snake convinces her to eat the forbidden fruit, and her punishment ultimately is to bear children in pain and to be ruled by her husband. Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden of Eden, and they, like every human being after them, must live and die as mortals.
It’s all there in Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis – but as the story of the first man and woman, it is slightly misrepresented. Because earlier, in Chapter 1, we find a different story about the origin of our species:
God created the human being in God’s image, creating it in the image of God. Male and female God created them.
And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill up the earth” (vs. 27-28).
In this account of the first couple, male and female are created at the same time. There’s no rib, no forbidden fruit, no sin, and no curse.
If this woman is the same Eve of the Garden of Eden, we must ask: why do we have such divergent accounts of her birth? Or perhaps she is a different person, betrothed to Adam before Eve: the “real” first woman.
That’s the interpretation put forward by one anonymous author of the 8th century CE. In his story, although male and female are created side by side and at the same time, Adam commands his wife—called Lilith—to be subservient to him. She resists, insisting, “The two of us are equal since we are both from the same earth.” Adam refuses to listen, so Lilith leaves him. Eventually, she transforms into a demon and watches Adam find a new, more submissive wife: Eve. Lilith declares Adam and Eve her enemies, attacking newborn children throughout the ages. In this medieval midrash, the ancient legend of Lilith, known to Jews and non-Jews alike for thousands of years, finds new life in the story of the first woman.
For the next twelve hundred years, this version of the story gains popularity. We find it in the Zohar, in Goethe’s Faust (1831), in a poem (1882?) by Robert Browning, and even in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). Only in recent decades has the figure of Lilith, originally guilty only of asserting her equality to Adam, been reclaimed and redeemed as a feminist symbol and icon. We hope today that the suggestion that “The two of us are equal since we are both from the same earth” no longer seems quite so scandalous.
This Shabbat also commemorates another first woman who demanded equality, the world’s first female rabbi. No, I’m not talking about Sally Priesand, ordained by the American Reform movement in 1972 and thought by many to be the world’s first female rabbi. Rather,
[Slide of Regina Jonas]
Meet Fräulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas. The first woman to earn rabbinic ordination.
Born in Berlin, Germany in 1902, Regina Jonas was raised in a poor Orthodox Jewish family. At age 21 she enrolled as a student in the Higher Institute for Jewish Learning in Berlin. At that time, every other young woman at the Higher Institute was enrolled in a teaching degree; but Jonas declared early that she intended to receive rabbinic ordination.
During the next six years, Jonas distinguished herself as an outstanding student. Though the Higher Institute was itself a liberal institution, Jonas had never strayed from her Orthodox practices and beliefs, and she devoted careful and diligent attention to the traditional sources. In her thesis, entitled “Can a Woman Hold Rabbinical Office?”, Jonas demonstrated that the ancient rabbis held a variety of attitudes toward women, both positive and negative. Despite this range of views, however, “[disparaging] opinions of the sages … penetrated the people who, unfortunately, often-times remembered only the negative and doubting assertions.” In other words, it is only because some damning opinions were remembered in the long term that women were prevented from achieving roles of Jewish leadership.
This argument was persuasive enough to satisfy her thesis adviser “that according to [Jewish law] … a woman can be appointed to rabbinical office.” However, the head of Talmud at the time was not convinced. It took an additional four years after her graduation for the liberal movement in Germany to authorize a private ordination for Jonas, and seven years after that, the world-renowned Rabbi Leo Baeck certified her ordination during his tenure as the head of all German Jewry.
The early years of Jonas’ rabbinate were spent as a teacher. In 1937, she became officially employed by the Jewish Community of Berlin and began serving as a chaplain in hospitals and homes for the elderly. The following years under Nazi rule saw arrests, deportations, and emigrations of German rabbis, and Regina Jonas often filled in at local synagogues as Jewish leadership became more scarce. And then, on November 6, 1942, she was deported to Theresienstadt.
If anything, Jonas’ efforts redoubled in the concentration camp. She saw to the spiritual and emotional needs of her neighbors, and she sought to teach and preach whenever she could. She gave a number of lectures on topics such as Jewish history, prayer, and women in the Talmud, seeking to bring some meaning and hope into the bleak life of a concentration camp.
On October 12, 1944, Rabbi Jonas was transported to Auschwitz, where she was promptly killed. Three months later, Auschwitz was liberated.
For over fifty years, this story remained lost to history. Like the elusive first woman of Genesis Chapter One, it has been far too easy to overlook Regina Jonas in light of a more familiar story. Last year, a delegation of women rabbis convened in Germany to unearth the forgotten footsteps of their pioneer colleague. This group, which included the first female rabbis of each major American denomination, concluded that Shabbat Bereshit, the anniversary of Jonas’ deportation to Auschwitz, would serve as her yortzeit. Today we join Jews around the world in honoring her memory.
In her memory and her honor, therefore, I conclude with words from a sermon that Rabbi Jonas delivered to her fellow inmates at the Theresienstadt concentration camp:
Our Jewish people is sent from God into history as “blessed.” To be blessed by God means—wherever one steps in every life situation—to give blessing, kindness, [and] faithfulness. … Men and women, women and men have undertaken this duty with the same Jewish faithfulness. Towards this ideal our grave, trying work in Theresienstadt caters. … May all our work which we have tried to perform as God’s servants be a blessing for Israel’s future and humanity.
And so may it be for all of us.
 Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b. Translation and Hebrew text found here: http://jwa.org/media/alphabet-of-ben-sira-78-lilith.
כשברא הקב״ה אדם הראשון יחיד, אמר לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, ברא לו אשה מן האדמה כמהו וקראה לילית. מיד התחילו מתגרין זה בזה, אמרה היא איני שוכבת למטה, והוא אומר איני שוכב למטה אלא למעלה שאת ראויה למטה ואני למעלה, אמרה לו שנינו שוין לפי ששנינו מאדמה, ולא היו שומעין זה לזה, כיון שראתה לילית אמרה שם המפורש ופרחה באויר העולם. עמד אדם הראשון בתפילה לפני קונו ואמר: רבונו של עולם, הרי האשה שנתת לי ברחה כבר.
When God created the first man Adam alone, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” [So] God created a woman for him, from the earth like him, and called her Lilith. They [Adam and Lilith] promptly began to argue with each other: She said, “I will not lie below,” and he said, “I will not lie below, but above, since you are fit for being below and I for being above.” She said to him, “The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth.” And they would not listen to each other. Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God's ineffable name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Maker and said, “Master of the Universe, the woman you gave me fled from me!”
 “The original Lilith, who was with him [Adam] and who conceived from him” (Zohar I 34b.) Translation from http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/lilith/.
זוהר כרך א (בראשית) פרשת בראשית דף לד עמוד ב
דא לילית קדמית' דהות עמיה ואתעברת מניה
 “Adam, Lilith, and Eve.” Available: http://classiclit.about.com/od/Lilith-also-Lilit-Or-Lilith/a/Adam-Lilith-And-Eve.htm
 “[The White Witch is] no Daughter of Eve. She comes of your father Adam’s … first wife, her they called Lilith” (p. 81).
 Quoted in Katharina Von Kellenbach’s “‘God Does Not Oppress Any Human Being’ The Life and Thought of Rabbi Regina Jonas.” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook (1994) 39 (1): 213-225. Page 216.
 Ibid. note 11 on p. 214.
 Cf. Elizabeth Sarah’s “The Discovery of Fräulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas: Making Sense of Our Inheritance.” European Judaism (1995) 28 (2):91-98.
 Von Kellenbach 221-224.
 Ibid. 224.
 Constructed from different translations found in Sarah 97 and Von Kellenbach 225.
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