“From Christian Science to Jewish Science:
Spiritual Healing and American Jews”
by Ellen M. Umansky
Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies, Fairfield University
ISBN # 978-0-19-504400-3
review by Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW
In the early twentieth century, a noticeable number of Jews were becoming involved in the “Christian Science” of Mary Baker Eddy, as well as other “New Thought” groups. Nothing within the established Jewish organizational structure was in place to respond to this wave of interest. This was long before the Jewish study programs for adults, free 5-week Hebrew reading courses, “mitzvah tanks,” etc., that are so visible and available today. The first attempts at a response came from three Reform rabbis: Rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses, followed by Rabbis Morris Lichtenstein (and his wife, Tehillah Lichtenstein), and Clifton Harby Levy. They adapted “Christian Science” and “New Thought” teachings, using mainly Jewish sources. Their “movement” was called “Jewish Science.” While somewhat more widespread in its heyday, one of its branches still exists – almost 100 years after Rabbi Geiger’s initial literary efforts.
The term “science,” as used in all of these groups, might seem odd. Aren’t “science” and “religion” separate spheres of thought and activity? For the answer, we must remember that, at the turn of the previous century, “science” was thought of as a method by which any problem could be solved. Today, perhaps we’re more aware of the limitations of “science”; we’ve learned that even genocide can be done “scientifically,” and that our “solutions” often create unforeseen, greater problems. But, given the optimism about “science” a century and more ago, many were convinced that prayer, like gravity, had identifiable principles; if the “principles” of prayer were “scientifically” understood, its results would become as dependable as turning on a light-switch in the home. Over time, some groups based on this conviction even incorporated the word “science” into their names: “Christian Science,” “Divine Science,” “Religious Science,” etc.
The main “scientific principle” taught by all such groups – despite their other differences in verbiage – is (put simply): The thought you express in your prayer determines the result of your prayer. For example, if you “think” you are ill, your thought of illness creates your illness; if you “think” you are already well, your thought of wellness creates your wellness – and so on. Choose the “right” thought, and the effect of your prayer, or “treatment,” will follow automatically. Any “negative condition” present in your life – illness, sadness, poverty, etc. – is a result of your own belief in the existence of that condition; to change it, exchange the “old” thought for a “new” thought – of health, happiness, prosperity, and so on.
The impact of this idea on American culture can hardly be overestimated. It pervaded our songs, literature, movies, language, etc., well into the ‘60’s (and, to a lesser degree, still does); Norman Vincent Peale’s “Positive Thinking” was but one branch of this. In the latter part of the 20th century, it even influenced certain branches in the field of Psychology. We can easily understand how at least some of the Jews of that time might have been very drawn to it and its promise – as many Jews, in every generation, struggle with the conflict between tradition and modernity.
Although several histories of the “New Thought” movement have been written, most notably Charles S. Braden’s “Spirits in Rebellion,” “Jewish Science” is barely mentioned. There are only brief entries about “Jewish Science” and/or its main personalities in both “The Encyclopedia Judaica” and “The Jewish Encyclopedia.” Nor has “Jewish Science” been discussed in any of the numerous histories of various aspects of 20th century Judaism.
Prof. Ellen Umansky’s “From Christian Science to Jewish Science” competently fills this void.
Prof. Umansky brings professional skills in historical research to this study, resulting in admirably detailed detective work. Because “Jewish Science” developed independently of any major Jewish organizations (for example, the UAHC or CCAR), identifying the specific individuals whose interest in “spiritual healing” and commitment to Judaism compelled them to initiate this movement, and the sequence of events involved, often had to be done largely without recourse to professionally-maintained organizational archives. Think: “Cold Case Files” without the DNA evidence. It’s an endless series of questions, leads, and searches, leading to another endless series of questions, leads and searches. Any historian knows the value of creating and maintaining a record of events. Over time, even the historian’s work itself can become part of the record of a community or era. Prof. Umansky’s work, for example, satisfies a “scientific” demand for evidence and sources that is greater now than in recent generations of writers of histories.
This book is not necessarily intended for “popular readership,” as was Max Dimont’s “Jews, G-d and History.” Yet, attending to the details reveals both a fascinating story and a host of fascinating characters. The portraits of Rabbi Lichtenstein, Rabbi Levy and Rabbi Moses portray an era in Judaism bubbling with enthusiasm, excitement, optimism, and change. It was the era before the Sho’ah, from which Jewish culture is still reverberating and recovering. It was before the establishment of Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel. Rabbi Lichtenstein, who had received rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College, ardently supported a Jewish state – which, at that time, separated him from the mainstream Reform platform.
He might have been influenced by his father-in-law. Rabbi Lichtenstein’s wife, “Tehillah,” was the daughter of Rabbi Hayim Herschenson – who, years after his passing, is still looked on as a model for a more “open” Orthodoxy (and who, in other sources, is revealed to have been a contemporary and friend of Rav Kuk or Kook). Rabbi Herschenson’s other daughter, “Tamar,” was married to Rabbi David de Sola Poole (of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York). After Rabbi Lichtenstein’s passing in 1939, Tehillah became the first Jewish woman to have a pulpit in America, although she never sought ordination. These were not “fringe” personalities; they were people whose lives were inextricably bound to the major historical events occurring around them.
As a history book, then, Prof. Umansky’s work is a genuine contribution to the record of our times as Jews. Scholars will certainly consult this work. But the main appeal of the literature of “Jewish Science” has always been its inspirational quality. “Jewish Science” literature was written specifically for the popular reader, not the scholar. Prof. Umansky gives some examples of it in her book, as is appropriate. However, those who want what “Jewish Science” itself might offer them, will have to look for it in the literature itself (mainly available by mail, from the New York office of the single existing organization; see http://thecenterforappliedjudaism.org/).
Prof. Umansky’s book can be looked on as a welcome introduction to that literature, or an important footnote to it.