Baker Academic

Monday, October 20, 2014

Regina Jonas and Social Memory - Le Donne

A couple days ago I was alerted to this short article by Rabbi Laura Geller. Geller showcases Regina Jonas (1902–1944). Jonas studied at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin until 1930 in prelude to her ordination (conducted in a private ceremony). Until very recently Regina Jonas was all but unknown to historians. She is now commemorated as the first female rabbi. While her story began to surface in the 1970s, Katharina von Kellenbach (author of this amazing and devastating book) discovered documents that confirmed Jonas' ordination in 1991. For more on Regina Jonas, see here. But Rabbi Geller's article should be read in full too for a unique window into social memory.

Here are just a few aspects of this story that interest me:

1. Social Memory theorists tell us that memory is constructed and reconstructed within social frames. Certainly gender and gender privilege operate as social frames. The vast majority of history is framed socially by masculine remembrancers. Or as Rachel Adler told me earlier this year, "Those with the 'members' get to do the remembering." Do we witness in the story of Regina Jonas a case of repressed memory due to mnemonic power dynamics?

2. Rabbi Geller writes: "in my years as a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, from 1971 to 1976, not once did I hear her name. It would have been helpful to me, the only woman in my class, to have known her story." Could it be that the memory of Regina Jonas has found a more advantageous mnemonic frame? I.e. are the social conditions now more conducive for her commemoration?

3. If the answer to 1 is yes and the answer to 2 is yes, are we not in a better position to remember her now than we were 80 years ago? Sometimes our memories improve over the course of two generations and with the help of new social constructs.

4. Regina Jonas' story is swallowed up by the Shoah. There are times when a significant historical event eclipses all other stories that orbit it. One would be hard pressed to find a more significant event within Jewish social memory. Geller writes, "Though her thesis—“Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?”—received praise from her teachers, none of them agreed to ordain her, including Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of the Jews in Germany, who wasn’t willing to jeopardize the unity of the Jewish community as the Nazi threat was intensifying." Perhaps then, Jonas' story was in the process of eclipse even before the Shoah but already within its force of gravity.

5. Finally, it would be counterproductive to create an either/or with the mnemonic frameworks discussed above. We should not think that the framework of gendered commemorative practice will entirely explain the form and function of Jonas' story. Nor should we think that the framework of Shoah commemoration tells the whole story. Mnemonic frames overlap. Indeed whenever a historical figure occupies a monolithic frame in collective memory, you can almost always be sure that the memory of that figure has been unhelpfully reduced.

I am grateful to Rabbi Geller for her short but impressive article. I will be considering this fascinating story for a long while.



  1. Wonderful story, and a great write-up about it, Anthony. Thanks for drawing our attention to this interesting story. I think all your observations are spot on, but I am uncomfortable with one small thing. You wrote, "Sometimes our memories improve over the course of two generations and with the help of new social constructs."

    It feels to me like you slip from a discussion about social memory to individual memories ("our memories improve"). I think I know why you're saying this: because no one remembered Jonas for decades, and now people are. Therefore, our memory of that time is improved, since we know more.

    But (and I'm sure you agree) this is not evidence that "our [individual] memories" can improve over generations. It is evidence that social frameworks can make some kinds of social remembering possible, and rule out others. But nobody's powers of memory were improved in the process. I know, I always get hung up on semantics, but I think it's important not to let individual memory and social memory as systems of remembering overlap.

    1. Thanks for this, Zeb. I'm grateful to have the chance to clarify an important point.

      Maurice Halbwachs held that *all memory* is socially framed. Even memories that are idiosyncratic are constructed within social frameworks. So to speak of an individual (or autobiographical) memory as something distinct from social memory doesn't work from a Social Memory perspective. I think that there can be a better distinction made between "collective memory" and autobiographical memory. We often use memory as a metaphor in such discussions (perhaps in confusing ways as you've pointed out). So your point is well taken. There is a difference between autobiographical memory (a kind of social memory) and group commemoration (also a kind of social memory). In fact, I've argued for this distinction elsewhere. When I wrote "over the course of two generations" I meant something other than autobiographical memory.

      But I would disagree with you when you say "t's important not to let individual memory and social memory as systems of remembering overlap." Not only is it important that we demonstrate that (and how) these systems overlap, it crucial that we do. Otherwise, we've misunderstood one of the keystones of social memory theory: all memory is socially framed.


    2. Zeb, let me try to make Anthony's point more concrete. Rabbi Geller is MY rabbi! (I am proud to say that.) My memory of her is, first and foremost, individual memory; for example, at my daughter's Bat Mitzvah, and at the funerals of my parents. After reading her article and learning about Rabbi Jonas, I now understand Rabbi Geller's personal story differently. My individual memory of her has changed. And before you point out that not all readers of Rabbi Geller's article will know her personally, consider that nearly all non-Orthodox American Jews who are active in Jewish life have a personal relationship with numbers of women Rabbis and other women in powerful leadership positions.

      I mean, isn't this the function of social memory?

  2. Anthony, terrific post. You're right -- Rabbi Geller's article is an example of how social memory can improve over time. This runs against the grain of much that I read about memory and social memory, where we assume that the quality and accuracy of memory tends to deteriorate over time.

    Are we in a better position now than 80 years ago to remember Rabbi Jonas? Well, obviously, we're in a better position to appreciate her importance. This is not merely a product of the Shoah and gender privilege/bias. There are lots of "firsts" whose significance are lost on us when they take place, because they seem anomalous, or insignificant. There's a sense where Jonas' story became significant as a result of Rabbi Geller's story, and the later story of how the majority of non-Orthodox rabbinical students (and I understand, the vast majority of non-Orthodox cantorial students) today are women. I am part of a generation of Jewish men who can remember seriously entertaining the question, can women really be Rabbis? In my lifetime, that question has been replaced by others, such as: could Judaism survive today without women Rabbis, and women in other positions of Jewish leadership?

    When it comes to social memory, I have no business trying to nuance the thinking of an expert like you. But when did that ever stop me? In addition to thinking about the memory issues in the terms you’ve used, I think the memory of Rabbi Jonas can be understood as counter-memory. I’m no expert in the thinking of Michel Foucault, but Foucault wrote about counter-memory in terms of social power and “subjugated knowledges.” Foucault used the term “power-knowledge” to describe as an inseparable whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth.” But for Foucault, power is never monolithic. He saw power as a dynamic, where different knowledge framework do battle, with some coming to the fore and others being displaced, or subjugated.

    I think we can say that the memory of Rabbi Jonas was once a subjugated counter-memory, and that it has now come to the fore as a result of a power struggle over gender in the modern Jewish world. Yes, I think it’s equally valid to see this story as a struggle to improve our social memory. Are these two struggles related? Does one or the other of these struggles deserve primary importance? I don’t know how to answer these questions, but I am tempted to respond “yes” to the first and “no” to the second.

  3. Good point: collective and autobiographical are better ways of putting it. But I was also referring to a difference in system, by which I meant that when discussing individual or autobiographical memory, we are in cognitive science territory, and when discussing collective memory we are in cultural studies territory. I know that's not perfect, since as you say even individual memory is social and since individuals are the ones doing the collective remembering! I still haven't figured out how to make these distinctions in a meaningful/helpful AND accurate way.