On December 4, 1938, Tehilla Lichtenstein gave her inaugural sermon as the new leader of Jewish Science, a non-denominational spiritual movement founded a decade and a half earlier by her husband, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein. When Morris died, on November 6, 1938, he left instructions that one of his sons should follow him as the head of Jewish Science, but that if neither of them was interested, he wanted Tehilla to take the helm.
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Jewish Science was envisioned as a response to Christian Science, which was drawing large numbers of converts from among American Jews around the turn of the 20th century — tens of thousands, according to Ellen Umansky, author of the 2005 book “From Christian Science to Jewish Science: Spiritual Healing and American Jews.” They were attracted by the positive thinking of Christian Science, and the belief that true faith could bring relief from not only spiritual suffering, but also from serious physical illness.
The spiritual message of Judaism
Morris Lichtensteinwas born in Lithuania in 1889 and underwent training there as an Orthodox rabbi. He came to the U.S. in 1907, where he earned ordination a second time as a Reform rabbi at the Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati. At the same time he earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Cincinnati.
In the fall of 1920, now married to Tehilla, Lichtenstein accepted the leadership of a Reform temple in Athens, Georgia. Little more than a year later, he resigned that position and returned to New York to organize the Society of Jewish Science, having become convinced, in his words, that “the spiritual message of Judaism was insufficiently stressed in the modern world.”
At least one other individual, Alfred Geiger Moses, a Reform rabbi from Mobile, Alabama, is identified with founding Jewish Science. But Moses and Lichtenstein do not seem to have met, and Ellen Umansky writes that while it was unlikely that Lichtenstein was unfamiliar with Moses’ work, he never referred to it or acknowledged it. Apparently, a philosophy that took the appealing aspects of Christian Science and made them compatible with traditional Judaism was an idea whose time had come.
Jewish scientists believe in medicine
One of the tenets of Christian Science is that conviction that faith alone can cure one's physical ills, and therefore proscribes turning to conventional medical science. Jewish Science recognized the usefulness of modern medicine.
Tehilla was Morris' partner in blazing the path for Jewish Science. She had been born Tehilla Hirshenson in Jerusalem, on May 16, 1893, the daughter of Rabbi Haim Hirshenson and the former Hava Cohen. When she was 11, the family emigrated to the United States, where her father served as an Orthodox rabbi in Hoboken, New Jersey. Tehilla earned a B.A. in literature and had begun working on her doctorate when she left school to marry Morris Lichtenstein, moving with him to Georgia.
If Morris, as a rabbi, was the public face of Jewish Science, delivering a sermon each Sunday at the society's meetings, Tehilla was its education officer, running a religious school and editing a monthly journal, The Jewish Science Interpreter. Hence, it was more than natural that she step in to replace Morris, at his death at age 48.
On the Sunday Tehilla Lichtenstein delivered her first of more than 500 sermons, before an audience of some 500, according to a report in The New York Times.
Being a teacher and a mother, Lichtenstein infused her sermons with attention to personal relationships. According to Ellen Umansky, they often dealt with how-tos — "How to achieve inner poise; how to pray and when to pray" — while also demonstrating the relevance of Jewish teachings to national and international issues.
"She gave sermons focusing on such issues as Nazi aggression, Soviet foreign policy, and anti-Semitism in postwar America," wrote Umansky in a biographical essay for the Jewish Women's Archive.
Tehilla Lichtenstein died on February 23, 1973, at the age of 79. To this day, the movement she and her husband founded continues to function, modestly, as the Society of Jewish Science - The Center for Applied Judaism, based in New York.