Berlin: Jüdische Verlagsanstalt, 2002. 175 pp. $19.00.
Because I knew so little about the women who had studied at the Hochschule in Berlin, I was eager to read Esther Seidel's new book. Women Pioneers of Jewish Learning does not really live up to its title, however. Even though it purports to be a biography of one woman student and her female colleagues, it provides only fragmentary information about the lives of Ruth Capell Liebrecht (1911-1998) and her contemporaries and their experiences at the Hochschule during the Weimar era. Most of this slim volume comprises a brief history of the Hochschule für Wissenschaft des Judentums from its founding in 1872 to its demise in 1942, based on published secondary sources and memoirs written by men. From reading this book, one can learn about the philosophy of the Hochschule and the scholars who taught there, including Sigmund Maybaum, Eduard Baneth, Ismar Elbogen, Julius Guttmann, and Leo Baeck. One can also gain insight into the curriculum of the Hochschule's rabbinical program and the attitudes of some of its male students.
Seidel's expertise seems to lie in intellectual history, rather than social or women's history. Thus, when Ruth Liebrecht's husband Heinz commissioned the author to write a book about his wife after her death, Seidel accepted a very difficult task that she was not particularly well equipped to handle. Seidel interviewed both men and women who studied at the Hochschule, but even after talking to and corresponding with many people who had known Ruth Liebrecht, the author managed to learn very little about her family, her early education, her student years, or émigré experiences in Britain. As one of the men Seidel interviewed stated, Ruth Liebrecht seemed "a totally private person...it would be almost impossible to write about her" (p. 133). There seems to be no record of exactly when or what Liebrecht studied at the Hochschule or how she utilized the knowledge that she gained there. It seems odd, therefore, that her Hochschule years should be the focus of this book. Perhaps she did indeed aspire to become a high school teacher of religion like her father, as Seidel implies, but given the fact that she never taught Jewish studies in any form, it seems more likely that she studied at the Hochschule to gain Jewish knowledge for its own sake, rather than in preparation for a teaching career. Although Ruth Liebrecht might have wanted her story told, others do not seem to recall its details and she did not leave any written record. Therefore, Seidel was not able to recreate Liebrecht's student years or put her experiences into historical context very effectively.
Regina Jonas, the first woman ever to receive rabbinical ordination, was the only woman student at the Hochschule I was aware of before reading this book. About the only new insight I gained about Jonas from this study was that not only men but also other women students, including Liebrecht, belittled Jonas and her aspirations to be recognized as a rabbi. Liebrecht, who was very much a Jewish woman of her day, never changed her view that an appropriate career for women was teaching, but not the rabbinate. The Hochschule für Wissenschaft des Judentums was primarily a rabbinical seminary, but it also trained teachers of Jewish religious education. Although some women were allowed to audit courses and others were admitted as part-time students in the teacher-training program after 1907, women were not accepted as full-time students at the Hochschule before 1921. …