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Rabbinical work

13 February 2015


THE struggles of the Church of England to achieve the ordination of women were placed in sobering perspective by Regina: The first woman rabbi (BBC4, Monday of last week). Regina Jonas was born in Berlin, in 1902, of an itinerant pedlar, who was determined that his daughter should study as well as his son, and considered this entirely congruent with his strictly observant orthodoxy.

From her earliest years, she displayed precocious spiritual depth - and formed her ambition to become a rabbi. The programme traced a complex person who transcended what might seem irreconcilable opposites: she was Orthodox in the practice and understanding of her faith, and, although what she longed for was revolutionary, she did not see herself as a reformer; and yet she was a key member of the suffragist movement, her vocation was taken up by Liberal Jewry, and she united traditional religious observance with modernist aspirations.

Eventually, a Liberal rabbi ordained her, causing outrage from the Orthodox and Traditional. But this story played out against the Nazis' growing persecution of all Jews. As more and more were transported to the camps, the diminishing congregations came to appreciate and value her ministry.

We heard testimony to the luminous quality of her teaching, her example, her compassion, and her encouragement to all, in the face of unimaginable suffering, to find hope in the unshakeable faithfulness of God to his people. In other words, she displayed what we unthinkingly like to claim as Christian values. Her ministry, especially to children, flourished even in the concentration camps. She was murdered at Auschwitz.

This was a remarkable film. It had none of the usual interviews and reconstructions. Far more powerfully and effectively, every visual image was archive film or photographs, vividly conjuring up Jones's world of Berlin, its Jewish communities, and the gathering darkness of the Holocaust.

Inside the Commons (BBC2, Tuesdays), the new fly-on-the-wall series about the Lower House of Parliament, opened last week. For us, in the Church of England, there is a particular frisson: are not we, too, an ancient institution, half in love with our ceremonial and archaic tradition, yet half eager to embrace the latest engagement with the contemporary world, beset with the struggle to maintain a historic building that is at once our greatest icon and our crushing millstone?

I had hoped for something a bit sharper than this first episode; but it was good to follow the fortunes of two new MPs, both women, as they struggled to assimilate the rituals of what still seems like a 19th-century gentlemen's club, while at the same time promoting the better governance of our nation - the very thing that impelled them to seek election.

It was followed immediately by Rory Bremner's Coalition Report (BBC2), a satirical skewing of the politicos we had just seen preening themselves on their home territory. Bremner's edge seemed blunter than I recall; but perhaps today's politicians make such a good job of self-parody as to leave neither space nor necessity for comedians to reveal their feet of clay - they are on show for all to see.

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