Thursday, 31 March 2011


To mark Women's History Month PULTA has asked women who are faith inspired activists or leaders to share a stories of women who have inspired them as a person of faith. In the final reflection in our series Amra Bone (pictured left) who is Chair of Coventry City Circle and an Executive member of West Midlands Faiths Forum, and sits on the Birmingham Shariah Council reflects on the inspiration she recieves from the Qur'anic model of women's leadership expressed in the story of the Queen of Sheba

In the name of God the most merciful, the most compassionate……

I am inspired by the Queen of Sheba (known as Bilqis in the Arabic literature) in the Quran. I hear every now and then women cannot be leaders, as men are more suitable for the position of leadership. Those who support this opinion cite some Hadiths to back up their view. The Quran holds the uppermost authority as well as being the most authentic source of knowledge and the hadiths cannot and must not contradict its message. Hadiths come in various forms of categories-authentic, correct, good, weak and forged etc.

I am particularly inspired by Bilqis's wisdom in dealing with the Prophet Solomon. She shows her leadership qualities by not making a hasty decision. When she receives the letter from the Prophet Solomon,

[When the Queen had read Solomon's letter,] she said: "O you nobles! A truly distinguished letter has been conveyed unto me. (27:30) Behold, it is from Solomon, and it says, 'In the name of God, The Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace: (27:31) [God says:] Exalt not yourselves against Me, but come unto Me in willing surrender!'"23

Quran chapter 27: verse 29-31( Muhammad Asad-The message of the Quran)

and consults her courtiers for advice before she proceeds to make a decision,

She added: "O you nobles! Give me your opinion on the problem with which I am now faced; 24 I would never make a [weighty] decision unless you are present with me." (26:33) They answered: "We are endowed with power and with mighty prowess in war - but the command is thine; consider, then, what thou wouldst command."

Said she: "Verily, whenever kings enter a country they corrupt it,25 and turn the noblest of its people into the most abject. And this is the way they (always] behave.26 (27:35) Hence, behold, I am going to send a gift to those (people], and await whatever [answer] the envoys bring back."

Quran chapter 27: verse 32-35( Muhammad Asad-The message of the Quran)

She contemplates and reasons that should she take an action showing her strength that may lead to a disastrous consequences. She buys time by sending Prophet Solomon a gift and waits to see how he reacts. Besides her wisdom she is also honest and sincere in her actions as shown later in the story and when shown the truth she submits herself to God.

Above are some of the qualities of a leader, which is not an exclusive right one sex over another, clearly displayed in the story of the queen of Sheba. She is an example of a good leader who acts with patience, wisdom and seeks advice before making a decision.

The more I have contemplated on the example of Biliqis the more I treasure it. Her example gives me strength and confidence in the leadership of women. Should a woman choose to be a leader displaying such qualities no one should stand in her way. There are plenty of male leaders who lack her wisdom, strength and spirituality and I hope they can show humility and learn from the leadership of a woman from the Quranic story of the Queen of Sheba.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Last week saw the end of the teaching term at Queen's and the end of the first of a new venture - a seminar course that had our students studying alongside Muslim students recruited through our friends The Al Mahdi Institute. The inspiration for the course came from Richard Sudworth who did an extended placement at Al Mahdi as part of his ordination training in 2009 and we have been working to bring it to fruition since then.

It was small beginnings with 4 students from Queens being joined by 3 students recruited from Al Mahdi. The course' The Common Good in Christianity and Islam' looked at how both traditions have engaged with notions of the 'Common Good' and looking at the diversity of approaches in each tradition to contemporary issues that relate to 'The Common Good' such as Economics, Reconciliation & Conflict, Human Rights and Governance etc. Richard and myself were joined in facilitating the course by Dr Ian Williams who works for the Markfield Institute.

Much of the course involved exploring Qur'anic and Biblical texts together, drawing upon but not limited by, the methodology of Scriptural Reasoning.

We hope to expand the course next year and are developing our links with both established and developing Islamic educational institutions in the Birmingham and Midlands area.

We are also in discussions with the Council of Christians & Jews about building into our first year Inter Faith Studies theme week a day long Encounter Workshop where our students and Biblical Studies tutors will be joined with recently ordained Rabbis and Rabbinical students and a Jewish scholar to explore together the Tanakh/Old Testament/Hebrew Bible


To mark Women's History Month PULTA has asked women who are faith inspired activists or leaders to share a stories of women who have inspired them as a person of faith. In the seventh of the series Deb Buckley (pictured left) who is an ordained Anglican Minister serving in Balsall Heath Birmingham tells us about the 14th Century contemplative Julian of Norwich

When I reflected on which women from history have had an influence on my faith journey one woman, in particular, came to the fore; Julian of Norwich the 14th century English mystic. For the past 30 years, the Anglican Church is a place I have felt ‘called’ to be. However, much of what I heard about the nature and purposes of God, the language used and the ideas explored, was predominantly expressed in masculine terms. Traditional male roles were employed to describe God’s activity in the world, for example judge, king, ruler, master and army commander. Much of this served to reinforce a patriarchal culture. As a consequence I struggled to locate myself as a woman within the church. That is, until I was introduced to writings of Julian of Norwich. Julian’s writings include accounts of the visions of Jesus Christ she experienced when she was severely ill and her subsequent theological reflections. Her visions embodied feminine and masculine characteristics, with specific emphasis being placed upon the feminine. She explicitly and vividly depicts Christ as a feminine and maternal divine figure who shares in our full humanity; women are seen has holding a sacred place, sharing the creative and the life sustaining power of the Godhead. Reading, and digesting, Julian’s work enabled me to begin to locate myself as a woman and to embody my faith for the first time. It loosened the grip of patriarchy which enabled me to break into what had previously seemed impenetrable, within my church experience. This opened a very important door for me; it began a process of liberation. Overtime, I have grown to appreciate the egalitarian nature of Julian’s imagery; that is a feminine and masculine balance and fluidity. Although there is much debate about whether Julian can be described as a feminist, for me, it was this thinking that led me to pursue, and develop, my feminist Christian identity. Through this, I have increasingly embraced a God in whose image I am truly created; the one whose very life blood I share. I was ordained Deacon in 2010 and am due to be ordained Priest in July of this year. This journey of discovery and liberation has had, and I know will continue to have, a profound influence on my understanding of ministry within the church. It affects the way I hear, and tell, the stories of women whether historical or current and whether ordinary or exceptional. It affects the ways I relate to others, the ways I challenge oppression and it affects the way I preach and the way I pray.

PULTA adds Thanks to Deb for that lovely reflection. Below is one of my favourite canticles based on words from Julian's Revelations of Divine Love and found in the Franciscan Daily Office book Celebrating Common Prayer

From Celebrating Common Prayer

Refrain:Christ came in our poor flesh*
to share a mother’s care.
1God chose to be our mother in all things*
and so made the foundation of his work,
most humbly and most pure,
in the Virgin’s womb.
2God, the perfect wisdom of all,*
arrayed himself in this humble place.
3Christ came in our poor flesh*
to share a mother’s care.
4Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;*
our true mother, Jesus,
bears us for joy and endless life.
5Christ carried us within him in love and travail,*
until the full time of his passion.
6And when all was completed
and he had carried us so for joy,*
still all this could not satisfy
the power of his wonderful love.
7All that we owe is redeemed in truly loving God,*
for the love of Christ works in us;
Christ is the one whom we love.
Glory . . .Julian of Norwich
Christ came in our poor flesh*
to share a mother’s care.

Sunday, 27 March 2011


To mark Women's History Month PULTA has asked women who are faith inspired activists or leaders to share a stories of women who have inspired them as a person of faith. In the sixth of our series Ramona Kauth (pictured left) speaks out 'In praise of Buddhist women'. Ramona, a Buddhist practitioner for 35 years is a meditation teacher, counsellor, art therapist and inter faith activist she is the Chair of Birmingham Council of Faiths and is involved in the womens interfaith group Sacred Space, the Ladywood Interfaith Education Project and Faith Encounter Programme

In praise of some significant Buddhist women

This is just a brief introduction to several women important in the history of Buddhism and its establishment.

In the Therigatha, the oldest book of Buddhist scripture, the enlightenment of some of the women followers of the Buddha is narrated. From the beginning there were ordained women amongst the Buddha’s earliest followers. They were enlightened and teachers in their own right during the Buddha’s lifetime (around 5th century BCE). Patacara was such a woman, her tragic life and her encounter with the Buddha is very moving. She had a very large following of women disciples. In a very Zen-like episode, the moment of her awakening was told: The breaking of a jug, spilling the water, then putting out the light marked the moment of her realisation. In time-honoured tradition, she recites a poem of realisation:

I’ve done everything right and followed the rule of my teacher.
I’m not lazy or proud, why haven’t I found peace?i

Bathing my feet

I watched the bathwater

Spill down the slope.

I concentrated my mind

The way you train a good horse.

Then I took my lamp

And went into my cell,

Checked the bed,

And sat down on it.

I took a needle

And put the lamp wick down.

When the lamp went out

My mind was freed.”

Much later, in eighth century Tibet, a young woman rejected the offers of her many suitors and fled her parents’ home to seek a teacher in the wilderness of the Himalaya. She found the heroic, charismatic teacher called Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, “the Lotus Born”, the teacher that firmly established Buddhism in Tibet. She became his chief disciple and a powerful Guru in her own right. She carried on his mission after him to spread and maintain the teaching of the Buddha. Her name was Yeshe Tsogyal. Her story is contained in Lady of the Lotus Born.ii

Today, in the wilderness of Wales, Lama Shenpen Hookham works to communicate the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. In India in the 1960’s she became a Buddhist nun in the Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, the first English woman to do so. Having completed all the very challenging preliminary practices required she is recognised as a Lama. She has written Buddha Withiniii, an introduction to the philosophy of mind in Buddhism (the book of her Oxford PhD). Recently has written There is more to dying than deathiv as well as contributing to Meeting Buddhists vamong other publications. She has established a community called the Awakened Heart Sanghavi and between teaching and advising her students, spends a good part of her time in retreat

i The First Buddhist Women, translations and commentary on the Therigatha by Susan Murcott, Parallax Press, California, 1991

ii Lady of the Lotus-Born, The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal by Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, Shambala, Boston and London, 1999

iii Buddha Within, Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong
Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga By: Hookham S.K.

see also:

iv There is more to dying than death, a Buddhist perspective, Lama Shenpen Hookham, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, 2006

v Meeting Buddhists. Ed by Elizabeth Harris and Ramona Kauth, Leicester: Christians Aware. 2004


Friday, 25 March 2011


Last night I attended a celebration evening for the Faith Encounter Programme (FEP) - of which I have recently become the Chair - at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue. Over the last 3/4 years the FEP has trained over 40 faith guides for places of worship in Birmingham. Last nights' gathering included guides, tutors and steering committee members from Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish and Christian traditions. We ate some lovely food , shared memories about the programme and looked forward to the next stage of development - seeking funding to produce training materials that can help export the course further afield. The highlight of the evening was at the end when Beant Singh Sidhu, a Faith Guide from the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwara in Handsworth, played the Dilruba, a beautiful stringed instrument whose name means 'heart stealer' - you can get a sense of the beauty of the instrument from the recording I made of Beant's performance on my iphone, which I have posted below...

You can read an earlier posting on PULTA about FEP and the Faith Guides training here

Thursday, 24 March 2011


To mark Women's History Month PULTA has asked women who are faith inspired activists or leaders to share a story of one women from history who has inspired them as a person of faith. In the fifth of our series Kerry Smith refuses to select one women 's story and shares with us instead some unacknowledged 'imprints on history', Kerry is a Deacon in The Methodist Church whose role includes helping churches to respond to issues related to human trafficking and she acts as Secretary for West Midlands Regional Anti Trafficking Network she is also a member of a multi faith workplace chaplaincy team.

I’ve struggled with how to choose just one woman of history from my own faith tradition who has inspired my own faith.

I’m sorry if this seems like a cop out, but it just seems impossible.

It’s not from want of choice: there are so many women within my own tradition that I could choose; but their stories have often been told for them, and I find myself longing to be able to meet them and ask; what was it really like, for you? Did you have days when you were tired or frustrated or just not sure? Tell me about the good times, when you knew that you were growing to be more of the woman God created you to be?

So, I find myself looking to women I have met.

Women like my Nan, a tiny little woman from West Belfast, whose most loved Bible passage was Matthew 6, and who wasn’t afraid to speak up if she felt something was wrong. Family used to recount how she once confronted some men making abusive, racist comments, reminding them that ‘we are all God’s children, you should be ashamed’...and they were.

My own mum struggled with cancer for many years, but in that time lived out the struggle and the joy of finding God’s healing and reconciliation in the midst of pain, and suffering, and uncertainty.

There are others who probably don’t even remember meeting me, but they have fundamentally challenged the way that I live out my faith.

Like Sister Noreen, a Catholic nun, who lived on the Protestant side of the peace wall in Belfast, just round the corner from us. Who commanded respect from her neighbours and all she met because of her courage. Who would deliberately go out through the gate in the wall and walk up and down the road on the summer nights when things would grow tense and the young people from either side gathered to throw missiles at each other.

‘Well’, she would say, ‘they won’t throw things at an old woman’. ...she was right. Her presence often had a calming effect. Young people would pause; sometimes order would briefly be restored.

And there are other women who I’ve met only very briefly, but will never forget. When I was on placement in North Carolina, I spent a day at Calvary United Methodist Church, where Laurie Hays Coffman is Pastor. It is a Reconciling UMC congregation, where ‘God’s love and justice are offered to all’. It’s one of those places where you feel the presence of God so strongly it almost overwhelms you. Here, because all really know they are welcome, all come, and out of this amazing diverse church community, amazing things happen. But it hasn’t been, and I’m sure still isn’t, easy.

There are many more I could write about. Women who I am glad to call colleagues, friends, tutors, mentors. No-one has written books about any of them (yet!), but their faith journeys have influenced mine, and leave imprints on history all the same.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


To mark Women's History Month PULTA has asked women who are faith inspired activists or leaders to share a story of one women from history who has inspired them as a person of faith. In the fourth of the series Shabana Bibi (pictured left) who is a Faith Guide at the Mehfil-e-Abbas Mosque and is on the Steering Commitee of The Faith Encounter Programme shares the Story of Fatima daughter of the Prophet Muhammed.

When thinking of Role models one of the many Muslim women who spring to mind is none other than the great personality that is Lady Fatima az-Zahra (PBUH), the Lady of light and the beloved daughter of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). For Muslims, Lady Fatima has a tremendous status in Islam not just for the fact of her relation to the Prophet but because of her own merits, hence she is given the honour of being the leader of all women not just in this world but in Paradise.

At a time when society viewed women as objects which were to be abused rather than respected and treasured, Fatima showed women were true intellectuals who were equals with men. She demonstrated how it is possible to carry out the roles of being a supportive and loving wife and mother but at the same time she spend her time educating both women and men on not just the fundamentals of Islam but many other academic fields. Fatima in her own right was not just the first female Islamic scholar but one of the very first scholars in Islam, who inherited the knowledge of her father. She made sure that women had firmly established themselves as having a pivotal role in Islamic society.

A homeless person came to the house, so she gave away one third of the food they had to eat, then a captive came to the door for which she gave away another third finally an orphan came to her door and she gave away the remaining food away. It was her overwhelming faith and devotion to God and His creation which made Fatima the truly inspirational woman that she is. A woman who always gave when she had nothing for herself, knowing that what is hers is there to share. Through her character Fatima demonstrates to us the true mercy and generosity of the creator and what it is to be a godly human being.

The true strength of this tremendous lady is best demonstrated by the incident of Fadak, where Fatima defended her right of ownership of her land which was taken away from her and the leadership of her husband which were both usurped by the leader at the time. It was here that Fatima broke all the taboos of society to stand up for the truth. At a time when women were hardly seen and never heard Fatima went into the mosque of her father and confronted all those males who had wronged her, defending her rights and the rights of her husband in such a powerful speech, that till this day scholars are astounded to the sheer power of her words. She stood up against all those who were deemed to have the power and status in society, who were her senior in age and were all males, proving that standing up for your rights and the truth is something which should be a embedded in the hearts and minds of every human regardless of barriers which are placed in our way, as it is our principles and beliefs that define us. It was characteristics like these which allowed this Lady of light to raise children like Imam Husayn who sacrificed everything in this world to fight tyranny and oppression and the likes of Lady Zaynab, who after watching the greatest tragedy this world will ever see in Karbala, had the strength to rise against her oppressor and became the torch bearer of the message of not just her brother but her mother before him. It is woman like Lady Fatima who truly empower all woman of this world and show us how liberating religion is, giving all women a platform and the strength to change this world and impact it for eternity.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


To mark Women's History Month PULTA has asked women who are faith inspired activists or leaders to share a story of one women from history who has inspired them as a person of faith. In the third of our series Gale Richards (pictured left) shares the impact upon her faith of the simple and faithful witness to the love of God of her own Jamaican grandma - 'Miss Jane'. Gale grew up in inner city Birmingham, has a background in youth & community work in South London and now works as Project Development Officer & Regional Tutor for Heart of England Baptist Association and the Northern Baptist Learning Community and is a member of the organising team for the Faith Hope & Love - Christian Witness in a Multi Faith Society Conference in April.

Jamaica is one of the most beautiful islands you could ever hope to visit. Blue sky, sandy beaches, juicy mangoes, I could go on and on…Yet for me, the thing I looked forward to seeing each time I visited the beautiful island, more than anything else was my beloved grandma.

My grandma affectionately known as ‘Miss Jane,’ to date remains the most inspirational Christian woman I have ever met. She was a Christian for longer than I’d been alive. Miss Jane was a very slim, softly spoken lady, without any impressive qualifications, who blessed so many with her simple ability to quote bible-based proverbs to young and old, just when and how it was needed. Two of her favourite proverbs; ‘you will reap what you sow’ and ‘the Lord will never give you more than you can bear.’

I used to lose count of just how many locals, from the very young to the very old, popped around to her house each night, to hear her words of wisdom or for food and shelter, when falling on hard times. It was captivating stuff. The irony being that she was by no means financially well off herself, in fact quite the opposite. Yet what little she had, she shared. As fast as she accumulated material possessions she distributed them to those in need. Buy her two new dresses, she’d give one away, buy her three new pairs of shoes, she’d give two pairs away. After all she’d say; ‘you can only wear one at a time!’

I was fortunate to be by her bedside when she passed away just a few days before her 90th birthday in 2008. She went just as she would have liked, in her own bed on her own terms, with her family around her. Having the very hymns and bible verses she had used over the years to inspire and comfort so many, being sung and read back to her, which she visibly drew comfort from, in her last days.

Fittingly, she had the most joyful funeral I’ve ever attended in my life. The hundreds of people (including me) both young and old whose lives had been transformed by the wisdom she shared and her acts of kindness, paid their tributes to her and the amazing God she served…

Saturday, 19 March 2011


With a flurry of media interest the Fear & Hope Report was published by The Searchlight Educational Trust a few weeks ago. SET who are part of the alliance that forms the Hope not Hate campaign are a longstanding anti fascist organisation with a long history of exposing racists and fascists since the 1970s. The Hope not Hate campaign with its networked forms of organising, its ability to mobilise hundreds of young volunteers in constituencies where the BNP has taken a hold has been instrumental in defeating the BNP electorally and building a broad coalition in the process. It has also played a significant role in exposing the EDL and developing tactics on the ground that attempt to build a local consensus of opposition to the EDL and organising events that attempt to draw in the widest possible participation over and against direct confrontation. However, I read the report with considerable unease and felt that it appeared to be giving far too much ground to the agenda of the far right particularly in it's espousal of a 'plague on both your houses' referring to an apparent equal disdain amongst those polled for 'Muslim extremists' and 'extreme nationalists'; this form of questioning it appeared to me, was seriously in danger of feeding rather than challenging the continuing rise of Islamophobia in our society and the media that fuel it, it's pandering to a nationalist agenda with it's emphasis on a 'crisis of English identity' also appeared to me mistaken and giving ground to the right on the argument about Multiculturalism.

Unite Against Fascism are an organisation that tend to conflict with HnH in attitudes to how to confront the BNP electorally and how to organise against the EDL on the ground in the local communities the EDL invades. Sometimes their tactics in relation to the EDL have been frankly disastrous - as in the first EDL invasion of Birmingham in August 2009 and in Bolton in March 2010. However at other times when they have been willing to genuinely cooperate with a lead taken by local faith communities as in Dudley and to a certain extent in Leeds and Bradford they have played a more positive role. I wasn't well received when I spoke at the West Midlands UAF conference last year and outlined some of my concerns with what I saw as mistaken and outdated modes of organising.

However, I have to admit that UAF have come out with an excellent critique of the Fear and Hope report. Sabby Dhalu, who I understand was instrumental in changing the tactics of the UAF in Dudley following the debacle of Bolton, has written a thorough and well argued defence of the necessity of holding fast to an argument for a genuine Multiculturalism and to making sure responsibility for the economic crisis that gives rise to people's fears and concerns is firmly placed on the shoulders of those responsible and not deflected onto Multiculturalism, Islam or immigration. Below is her conclusion but the article 'Celebrate & Defend Our Multi Cultural Society' is well worth reading in its entirety:

The assault on multiculturalism launched by Cameron, and praised by this report for addressing real concerns, in fact feeds these misconceptions and undermines the understanding of the reality of England and Britain today. There is a real danger of rising racism in Britain today, but not because of a crisis of English identity or a failure to confront ‘Islamic extremism’.

The real danger comes from attempts by mainstream politicians to deflect public anger about the impact of the economic crisis, falling living standards and cuts in services, on to innocent scapegoats – immigrants, Muslims, multiculturalism.

Many sections of the population most definitely do feel under attack. This is not because they are ‘English’ or suffering a national identity crisis, but because their living standards really are suffering as a result of austerity, inflation and cuts. It is all too easy to direct people towards a soft target on the basis of racism and an alleged discrimination against the English, when economic and political alternatives seem unavailable.

The launch of this report now, and the participation of key figures on the right of the Labour Party, clearly indicates that one aim is to apply pressure to the Labour Party to adopt this approach.

Much of the discussion around why Labour lost the last election has drifted on to this ground. But this is simply avoiding a more fundamental discussion on how the impact of the previous Labour government’s economic policies and military interventions undermined its support. It is to be hoped that the present Labour leadership rejects this pressure and continues to make the case for diversity and multiculturalism.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

WOMEN OF FAITH PART TWO "God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender"

To mark Women's History Month PULTA has asked women who are faith inspired activists or leaders to share a story of one women from history who has inspired them as a person of faith. In the second of the series Rabbi Debbie Young Somers (pictured left) who is Associate Rabbi at West London Synagogue and an activist in the Inter Faith movement introduces to us the remarkable story of Rabbi Regina Jonas 1902 -1944

“God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus each of us has the duty, whether man or woman, to realise those gifts God has given.” Regina Jonas, C.-V.-Zeitung, June 23, 1938[1]

It is often a surprise to people to discover that women can be Rabbis at all, let alone that there was one in the first half of the twentieth century: Regina Jonas. Even as a child Regina talked about becoming a Rabbi, and it seems from reflections of her classmates that it didn’t even occur to them that this would be difficult for a woman. . She began her career teaching in a Jewish continuing to teach even through her studies at Der Wissenschaft Des Judentum – the Academy for the Science of Judaism, one of only two institutes (the other in Breslau) that trained Rabbis and would admit women to studies (but not rabbinic ordination). She submitted her thesis there in 1930, a halachic (Jewish legal) treatise entitled “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?”

“[…] because I personally love this profession and would love to practice it if it were ever possible,”[2]

Perhaps surprisingly, Jonas’s thesis reveals that she was personally, theologically and ritually rather orthodox. I wonder how many of my colleagues would today argue the case in the way Jonas does.

These tensions meant that Jonas’s vision of a female rabbinate didn’t necessarily look like ours today. For example she didn’t wear a tallit (prayer shawl), although she showed in her thesis that women could, and she believed in the separation of genders in services, but showed this was no obstacle as the Rabbi tended to have their own entrance via the vestry. She also argues that women Rabbis must make a choice between being a wife and mother or a Rabbi.

Eduard Baneth (1855-1930), her Talmud professor, was responsible for ordaining candidates at the Academy. He awarded her a grade of good on her thesis. He sadly died shortly after Jonas’s thesis was marked, and his successor, Chanoch Albeck, was not prepared to ordain her. But Jonas didn’t give up the fight for ordination. On December the twenty sixth 1935, Rabbi Dr Max Dienemann (1898-1948), the manager of Liberaler Rabbiner-Verband (the Liberal Rabbis Association) invited her to his home in Offenbach to be interviewed for ordination. He ordained her the next day.

The fact that she had been ordained by one individual Rabbi, and not a Rabbinic institution, meant that there was no official support behind her. Today this is the case for a small number of Orthodox women who have been granted s’michah, (ordination) by individual Rabbis, but who have generally not found employment with a community as a Rabbi, and have no movement or institutions to support and endorse their roles. It is a sad twist of history that Jonas was only able to take up Rabbinic roles when her male colleagues began to leave Germany in fear for their safety, and then began to be deported, leaving beleaguered communities with no Rabbis.
On November the 6th, 1942, Jonas was herself deported to Theresienstadt. She continued her rabbinic work there, both pastorally and intellectually. She was a part of Victor Frankl’s team offering support to people as they first arrived at the camp, and she also delivered twenty four lectures on biblical, Talmudic and religious themes which demonstrated the diverse topics she could turn her hand to. A list of these lectures can be found in the Theresienstadt archives entitled “Lectures by the Only Female Rabbi: Regina Jonas”[3]

On October twelfth 1944 one of the last transfers from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz left with Regina Jonas and her mum on board. It seems likely that they were murdered upon their arrival there. This was the tragic ending of the story of the first woman Rabbi, and it remained the end until 1991, when Jonas’s documents, which had lain undisturbed for over 45 years in Coswig, east of Berlin, were discovered by Katharina von Kellerman who was researching Protestant and Jewish women seeking ordination in 1930’s Germany. The packet she discovered included newspaper clippings, lecture cards, 2 photographs, and many letters.

Why wasn’t her story told before 1991? This has remained a mystery that we can only speculate about. Leo Baeck who was her teacher, supporter and co-prisoner in Theresienstadt did not perish in the Holocaust and came to London where he helped found a Rabbinic College after the war. Viktor Frankl whose team of carers in Theresienstadt Jonas worked in, wrote about his experiences in the camps and never mentioned her as far as we know. Considering the controversy that Jonas must have ignited in the German Jewish community makes it even more surprising that her story was not told. Today, much continues in honour of Jonas, and what she stands for in our imaginations as a pioneer in Jewish women’s rights and rabbinic ordination. She won’t be forgotten or ignored again.

[1] Cited by Klapheck, Elisa. "Regina Jonas." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. July 14, 2010 .
[2] Thesis translated by Toby Axelrod from the German and found in Klapheck, Elisa “Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas”, Jossey-Bass, 2004
[3] Memorial Archive of Theresienstadt, Památekník Terezín, Ustredni Jartoteka, collection of Karl Hermann, cited in ibid. p.79

Friday, 11 March 2011


To mark Women's History Month PULTA has asked Women who are faith inspired activists or leaders to share a story of one women from history who has inspired them as a person of faith. Our first offering is from Afshaan Henna (pictured left) a Human Rights Activist with REPRIEVE and Caseworker with the Citizen's Advice Bureau. Afshaan tells us "When asked to write about how a woman in my faith has influenced me, as a Muslim I knew I was spoilt for choice." From that choice she offers us the inspiring story of Zainab granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

When working in cosmopolitan London I remember talking to a colleague socially about significant women in Islam. He looked at me with surprise and said he did not realise there were any significant women in Islam! This is far from the reality. When asked to write about how a woman in my faith has influenced me, as a Muslim I knew I was spoilt for choice. After all there is Maryam mother of Jesus who has a chapter in the Qur’an named after her, Khadija the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) a renowned business woman, the only daughter of the Prophet, Fatima whose status was such that the Prophet would always stand when she entered a room and give up his seat for her. These are but a few examples. But one woman in particular who always evokes tears when I think of her courage and dedication to justice is Zainab daughter of Imam Ali (as) and the granddaughter of the Prophet. When the city of Kerbala in Iraq is mentioned instantly it is synonymous with Imam Hussain (as) who was killed by the armies of Ummayad ruler Yazid. But he himself said that of all those in Kerbala no-one suffered more than Zainab. She witnessed the death of not only of her own two young children but almost all of her family. As a captive she was put in chains and her hijab ripped off her, despite the assaults she defended all the remaining children and women, who looked to her as their leader. As a prisoner she was bought before those men in power responsible for the deaths of her family, she remained resolute and addressed the Ummayad Court with such resolution and courage. Despite the abuse and torture she experienced she did not falter once when addressing the Court:"What you consider today as spoils of war will become ruins for you tomorrow and on that day you will find what you have sent from before. Allah (SWT) does not oppress his servants. I express my complaint only to Allah (SWT) and have trust in Him. You may therefore do any treachery that you have, make all your attempts, and try all you can. By Allah (SWT), you cannot remove us from the minds (of people), and you cannot fade our message. You will never reach our glory and can never wash the stain of this crime from your hands. Your decisions will not be stable, your period of ruling will be short, and your population will scatter.”

It is the lessons learnt from Kerbala and my absolute love and admiration of Zainab that I work in the field of Human Rights and became wholeheartedly committed to Reprieve’s Pakistan Police Torture Project. Without her strength, faith and sacrifice I would not have followed this path and would not have experienced the privilege of helping some of the most vulnerable people of society. Whenever I’m faced with addressing an audience my prayer is always to be as strong and eloquent as Zainab. My work at Reprieve is largely influenced by her life.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011


We had our second meeting the other week between representatives of the Birmingham Methodist District and the local Jewish Representative Council, on The Methodist Report to last year's Methodist Conference on 'Justice for Palestine & Israel'. Both meetings have been useful and a further meeting has been arranged. We are one of a number of such ongoing dialogues in different parts of the country. Plans are also afoot for separate meetings between the local Methodist reps in Birmingham and representatives of the local Muslim community to discuss the report. Meanwhile at a national level discussions have been taking place between representatives of the Methodist Church and The Board of Deputies on the report. Some who were involved in the drafting of the report have argued that this engagement is a diversionary tactic taking us away from the thrust of the report which was to campaign for Christian solidarity with the Palestinian cause. I strongly disagree. As someone who publically supported the report against calls for its withdrawl before conference, I see these activities are an integral part of the resolutions passed by conference that included calling on the Methodist people to dialogue with Jews and Muslims on this issue.

Despite doom laden prophecies heralding an end to Jewish - Methodist relations immediately following conference - the report has actually been a catalyst for what could be the beginning of a renaissance in Methodist inter faith engagement and Methodist - Jewish relations in particular. The fact that this is centred around some honest talking on one of the most divisive issues in the inter faith world - the traditional 'elephant in the room' - is even more encouraging.

Below I've suggested some resources to help folk engage positively (mostly available on the internet). Alongside the obvious reading material such as the report & Kairos Palestine - I've added some 'dialogue partners' particularly from the Jewish community and those involved in Christian - Jewish dialogue about both Zionism ( a topic we were encouraged to explore by conference resolutions ) and material that highlights the necessity to be aware of long standing European Christian anti Judaism when engaging with this issue. The latter of these two is not in order that Christian voices critical of the actions of the state of Israel will feel silenced from speaking out against injustice and oppression, but to help us develop a truly liberative theology and spirituality of engagement & hope.

The Kairos Document - 'A Moment of Truth'

You can download a copy of the Kairos document and other materials including study guides from the Kairos Palestine website. The writers - a group Palestinian Christian activists and theologians state:

As Palestinian Christians we hope that this document will provide the turning point to focus the efforts of all peace-loving peoples in the world, especially our Christian sisters and brothers. We hope also that it will be welcomed positively and will receive strong support, as was the South Africa Kairos document launched in 1985, which, at that time proved to be a tool in the struggle against oppression and occupation. We believe that liberation from occupation is in the interest of all peoples in the region because the problem is not just a political one, but one in which human beings are destroyed .

The International Council for Christians and Jews has responded to Kairos with a document called "Let Us Have Mercy upon Words" following a presentation on Kairos at their conference last year from one of the authors Fr Jamal Khader. Kairos Palestine has since responded to ICCJ The Board of Deputies of British Jews published a pamphlet in response to Kairos called 'Zionism - A Communal Response'. The BOD on their website describe the pamphlet as follows

(It) comprises essays from Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield, the Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, the Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, Rabbi Danny Rich, the Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism and leading Orthodox thinker, Dan Rickman, as well as a foreword by the President of the Board of Deputies, Vivian Wineman. In it, they argue that both Jews and Christians – including Palestinian Christians – need to acknowledge the depth of each others’ historic and religious connections with the land of Israel if progress is to be made towards peace.

Jewish - Christian Relations Scholar Peter Pettit joined with Biblical Scholar Bruce Chilton to write a critical Christian reponse to Kairos called 'Assessing A Moment of Truth' 

On 1st September 2011 ICCJ added a detailed critique of Kairos to their website from German Theologian Klaus Wengst entitled  Land of Israel and Universal Salvation in the New Testament -A theological discussion of the "Kairos Palestine Document”

The British Methodist Report Justice for Palestine and Israel
Although the theological section of this report is weak the historical narrative is very strong on presenting the Palestinian case articulately and passionately with the section on the occupation being particularly good at presenting the Palestinian experience to a wider audience. It is inspired and informed by the thinking of Palestinian Liberation Theology especially that of the Sabeel Ecumenical Centre in Jerusalem and the Kairos Palestine document in particular. A more detailed exploration of Sabeel's theology in relation to inter faith exploration can be found in their Autumn 2010 Newsletter.

To compliment the historical sections of the British Methodist report it might be worth looking at the UK centre of the supporters of the coexistence project in Israel called Neve Shalom ~ Wahat al- Salam or Oasis of Peace in English. They have a downloadable resource that includes a historical survey of Palestine with a commentary presenting both 'Palestinian' and 'Israeli' perspectives on particular events, see also the website of the PRIME project in Israel & Palestine for another initiativve that develops this approach. This is known as the dual narratives approach popular with some peace & reconciliation groups but critiqued by others from both left and right of the political spectrum. In Two Stories No "Truth" Svi Shapiro reflects upon his own personal engagement with the 'two narratives'.

The newly relaunched web version of the Jewish and Inter Faith Magazine Tikkun has an interesting section of archives on Israel/Palestine - it's 'Healing Israel/Palestine' approach is interesting in it's exploration of a critical valuing of the two narratives approach but with an emphasis on resistance to injustice in the present and a recognition of the necessity to engage with the healing of the traumas of the past.

This report came out around the same time as The Methodist Report and is influenced again by engagement with Palestinian Christian liberation theology, but is considerably more theologically literate than its British Methodist sister. Some, however, have argued that there exists a subtle anti-Judaism in it's theological approach (see below). The above version was eventually amended by The General Assembly of PCUSA 2010 Amy Jill Levine an Orthodox Jewish Feminist and Biblical scholar has written a general critique of Western Christian approaches to Palestine & Israel including the British Methodist report and with a Presbyterian colleague Ted A Smith a detailed critique of what they see as the subtle anti -Judaism in the theology of the original PCUSA report in particular. Levine is also an active member of the liberal Zionist Americans for Peace Now Movement and wonders why there is so little engagement between the Churches and the Israeli Peace movement. She and her colleague conclude their article

We do not wish to muzzle Christian critics of Israeli policy. We have criticisms of our own. We rather seek to foster conversations that can consider Middle East politics without being overwhelmed by old habits of anti-Judaism.

Check out this posting on a recent paper (May 2011) that Levine gave at Woolf Institute of Abrahamic faiths

An earlier document from the same Church's Office of Inter Faith Relations raises similar questions about a previous debate in 2008 see Vigilance against anti-Jewish ideas and bias

For the history of development of Christian - Jewish relations see the ICCJ document A Time for Recommitment and the commentary on the document by Jesper Swartvik Why is this Light Different from all Other Lights? For an excellent resource that explores issues in relation to Christianity and anti-Judaism see Bearing Faithful Witness from the United Church of Canada.

On the differences between Christian Zionism as a Fundamentalist trend in Christianity and Jewish Zionism as a diverse political and religious movement in Judaism and amongst the Jewish people as a whole, have a listen to Israeli Orthodox Jewish Commentator and writer Gershom Gorenberg who describes himself as a "left-wing, skeptical Orthodox Zionist Jew" Similarly on the differences between Christian Zionism and genuine Christian respect for Judaism and indeed for Israel see Peter Pettit's Christian Zionism from a Perspective of Jewish - Christian Relations

For a positive approach to Jewish Zionism that takes a Christian theological perspective that is not 'Christian Zionist' see biblical scholar Gary Anderson's How to Think about Zionism a shorter version of this article with responses from critics and a reply from Anderson is available on the Christian Century archive January 13th 2009 but you need a subscription, Queen's folk can access through Online Journals in the library.

For a Jewish Critique of Zionism from a Progressive Jewish perspective see the blog of the former co-ordinator of the US support group for the Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights Rabbi Brian Wait's Beyond Liberal Zionism. Rabbi Wait now co-ordinates Ta'anit Tzedek - Jewish Fast For Gaza.

Finally an interesting developing resource is the Oxford based Forum for The Discussion of Israel & Palestine they have published TEN PRINCIPLES OF DIALOGUE ON ISRAEL/PALESTINE they are also bringing out a discussion paper on Christian theological approaches to Israel/Palestine called Talking of Conflict: Christian Reflections on Israel and Palestine. Watch this space for details.

Debating Boycotts

The Methodist Conference voted to Boycott Israeli Settlement produce. There is a growing debate about what has been termed the Global BDS - Boycott Disinvestment & Sanctions. A Minority of the report committee wanted this to be part of the original resolution to conference but settled for the very different strategy of boycotting settlements. I include some articles below principally from Jewish voices in Israel and the diaspora that support two state solution on 67 borders - the position of the Israeli Peace Movement -debating the tactic of boycott and also analysing from their own perspectives the differences within the movement for total boycott of Israel.

Naomi Chazen of the New Israel Fund argues against Boycotts in The Quest for a Two State Solution
Meretz USA part of the liberal Zionist J Street movement in USA argues for a Boycott of Settlements around the slogan 'Buy Israeli Products - Don't Buy Settlement Products (They're not the Same)' Sarah Strnad reflects on To BDS or not to BDS. Phillip Mendes critiques the Left's anti Zionism that he sees straying into anti - semitism in some BDS campaigns. Whilst Jewish Voice for Peace in USA - a similar group to the UK Jews for Justice for Palestinians - support settlement boycotts and in this statement say they  "have vigorously defended the right of others to engage in full BDS campaigns. We reject the claim that these are inherently anti-Semitic. We see them as a non-violent response to the daily violence of the Israeli occupation"

Check out debate between long term Israeli Peace activist Uri Avnery and Israeli 'revisionist' historian Ilan Pappe on Boycotts and one and two state solutions


This video has caused quite a stir in the BDS movement. As Norman Finkelstein a renowned pro Palestinian activist and writer questions the basis of BDS and what he sees as it's 'dishonesty' in relation to its position  on the existence of the State of Israel.

Arguing the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign with Norman Finkelstein from HuffPoMonitor on Vimeo.