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Prayer Fare: A Look Back at ‘Jewish Science’

‘The Jew of today needs, more than ever, a spiritual influence as a bulwark against worry, fear and anxiety. He needs that source of inspiration that will bring peace to his restless soul, free his heart from forebodings and cares… and replenish the springs of his happiness.” Although these passages strike a decidedly New Age-y tone, they date back nearly 80 years to the Jazz Age and were written by a proponent of Jewish Science, then in its infancy.

Founded in the early 1900s by Alfred G. Moses, rabbi of Sha’arai Shomayim U-Maskil El Dol (aka “The Temple”) in Mobile, Ala., as an alternative, a counterweight to Christian Science, then one of America’s fastest-growing faiths, Jewish Science came to be associated with Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein and his wife, Tehilla Hirschenson Lichtenstein. Together, in the early 1920s, they established the Society of Jewish Science, then located on West 85th Street, in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The Lichtensteins institutionalized its presence on the American Jewish landscape as the “home center” of the movement.

Much like Christian Science, Jewish Science holds that prayer is the key to inner happiness and to physical well-being. Minimizing the role of both ritual and social action, it emphasizes the power of “auto-suggestion” and the efficacy of devotional activity. Unlike Christian Scientists, though, Jewish Scientists are not averse to seeking medical help, when necessary.

According to Moses, who published his views in 1916 in a slender book, titled “Jewish Science: Divine Healing in Judaism,” Judaism had a great deal to offer the growing number of American Jews — many of them women — who had left the synagogue and the preachings of Judaism for the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and for the wisdom of Mary Baker Eddy, its creator. “Divine healing” was not only compatible with Judaism but intrinsic to it, as well, he argued, marshaling evidence from the Bible to demonstrate that “belief in Faith Cure” was a fundamental Jewish principle. The Alabama rabbi went further still by claiming the Hasidim to be the modern-day progenitors of Jewish Science, hoping to make the Baal Shem Tov, its founder, as familiar to the devotees of faith cure as Eddy.

In the years that followed, the Lichtensteins, among others, built on Moses’ ideas. They distributed pamphlets, held “healing hours” daily between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., and offered prayer services Sunday morning so as not to conflict with Sabbath services. The Lichtensteins also lectured on the “Seven Rules for Happy Living” and “The Sin of Worry,” seeking to attract American Jews to their way of thinking. Jewish Science, they maintained, was not a dissident sect or denomination, but a way to revitalize Judaism from within, to render it a “living force, a source of hope and delight, an instrument of practical help, a stream of boundless joy.” Nor was it a watered-down version of Christian Science. Jewish Science was the real thing: “applied Judaism.”

The leaders of Jewish Science faced an uphill battle. For starters, they had to convince American Jews that Christian Science was not for them. Despite its seeming openness, Christian Science, they charged, was as much bound up with Jesus and rooted in the teachings of Christianity as Catholicism. What’s more, Eddy was given to antisemitic views about the Jews. You can eat a “matzo ham sandwich” on Yom Kippur and still be a Jew, Rabbi Louis Gross of the Jewish Science Center of Union Temple of Brooklyn insisted in 1928. “But you cannot be a Christian Scientist and a Jew at the same time — it simply can’t be done.”

You could, however, be a Jewish Scientist and remain within the Jewish fold.

“Jewish Science is thoroughly, completely and uncompromisingly Jewish. Nor is it a cult. It has only one textbook and only one, and that is the Bible, the Holy Scriptures of the Jew,” Rabbi Gross allowed. Rabbi Lichtenstein, in turn, made a point of explaining that Jewish Science “pursues no foreign Gods, nor is it antagonistic to any branch of Jewry. It calls to all the Jewish people, to all of them, who, in the stress of modern life, have felt the lack of spiritual blessings.”

Despite criticism from within and without — the leaders of Reform Judaism, which had the most to lose from competition with faith cure, called it “twaddle” and “quackery” — Jewish Science held its ground. Although the number of actual members probably never amounted to much, numbering fewer than 1,000 even at the movement’s height during the interwar years, thousands more responded to the movement’s teachings, sought out its rabbis and practitioners, and listened to its radio broadcasts on WMCA.

After Morris Lichtenstein’s untimely death in 1938, his widow led the movement. Well before the Reform movement ordained its first class of women rabbis, here was an American Jewish religious community at whose helm stood a female “spiritual leader,” as she preferred to call herself. Picking up where her husband had left off, Tehilla H. Lichtenstein guided the fortunes of Jewish Science for close to 40 years until her own demise, in 1973.

Since then, Jewish Science continues to publish a magazine, Jewish Science Interpreter. It also continues to hold Sunday services and, in its emphasis on healing the self, to inspire the members of the Jewish Renewal movement, the latest in a long line of attempts to “replenish the springs” of American Judaism. Characteristically American in its optimism and belief in the power of the individual, Jewish Science holds out the possibility that if people only had the right attitude, they could solve their problems. Amen to that.

For more on the history of Jewish Science, please read Ellen Umansky’s recently published book, “From Christian Science to Jewish Science: Spiritual Healing and American Jews” (Oxford University Press, 2004).

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