A True Jewish Womanhood
c. November 15-19, 1897 — First Convention of the National Council of Jewish Women — New York City
Our Sabbath School work has but begun. In this field we should be most potent, leading and guarding the men and women of the future, for therein lies our greatest power. Through the school and home must women wield their greatest influence, counteracting the disadvantages of wealth and leisure as well as those of poverty, preventing moral deterioration. In all our efforts in the widest fields we must aim at the elevation of the home, that bulwark of society, remembering the standard established by our fore-fathers. We must train the children to love the higher things of life — the treasures that cannot be bought and sold — thus securing for them the consolations of thought-life that never fail.
A field in which there is much room for our efforts is in the music of the Synagogue. A friend of mine told me not long since that her brother was visiting a certain city on a Sunday morning, and, wishing to go to church, visited the nearest one. He heard the prayers and the songs, but not until an old Hebrew melody was sung just before the sermon, did he know that he was in a Jewish temple. Now, I fancy, if he had been a Jew, it would not have taken him so long: he would have known that he was in a Jewish synagogue the moment he heard the tones of “Ave Maria” or “Cantique de Noël”!
Objections have been made because we are a women’s organization. We had not intended to exclude men. Whenever a Section has desired to have men and women, we have endeavored to assist it to the fullest extent; but no objections have been made by the men themselves. We expect to admit them whenever they clamor for admission. Up to the present time they have not clamored.
Our Program provides for the study of Jewish History and Literature and the best Methods of Philanthropy to be pursued in small circles. We insisted upon the study of both branches of our work in order to widen the field for those who have been pursuing one or the other. We encourage our Sections to undertake such practical work as their cities seem to require. We also provide that quarterly meetings be held at such time when wage-workers can attend, thus ministering to the needs of our minorities.
We realized from the first that a Jewish national organization had but two purposes for existence — religion and philanthropy — in this land of liberty where the most sacred day in the life of a man should be the day on which he receives his right of citizenship. For the laws of the Jews were civic laws. Jewish virtue was inseparable from civic virtue. All the laws binding upon citizens were religious laws. Would that we Jewish women might ring the pæan of religious liberty to all wherever they dwell — the right of citizenship to all who observe the laws! At our Congress a minor tone resounded for the affliction of our co-religionists in Russia. The only answer to our prayers was a mournful echo of our own helplessness, and to-night our hearts go out to our fellow-beings in Armenia. Would we know the details of their suffering, let us read our own History, where torture, famine, and cold track with dead bodies our pilgrimage through the centuries. Let us hope for a time when the pure robe of Religion will no more be trailed in the dust to cover national sins, greed, and ambition.
And we, drops of blood from one great artery, who have come from distant homes, leaving the best of what the world holds for us, why have we come? What is our purpose? What can we hope to accomplish? We are here to pledge our faith in the old tradition that women, the mothers of Israel, must light the Sabbath lamp, symbolic of the perpetual light of the Torah; to keep that light burning brightly, for when it is extinguished, darkness must fall. We are here to affirm that for us there is no sign spelling the fate of our Faith in assimilation or absorption. It was during the Parliament of Religions that one of the noble leaders, under the inspiration of the time, exclaimed to one of his flock: “In the light of this glorious achievement, I see the day of a universal religion close at hand.” And she, in her enthusiasm, replied: “Yes, and when it comes, it will all be Baptist!” This scarcely agrees with the vision of our forefathers.
Our ancestors, praying through the ages for the “time of Messiah, when all nations shall be one, and God’s name shall be one,” could see in their days no signs of realization of their glorious vision — scarcely more than a faint glimmer of universal tolerance. And we, living not in the past, but obedient to the obligations which it imposes, not withered stems from decaying roots, but glowing with health and the life-blood of the present, trusting in the Absolute Wisdom and Absolute Justice, believe that there is yet a mission and purpose for Judaism. We do not admit that any religion has abrogated the necessity for Judaism in the world, nor has any taught greater love, truer justice, fuller mercy.
We ask ourselves, What do we know of our religion? Very little. But we are no exceptions to the rule in point of ignorance. If Christianity were more carefully studied, we might hope for a Brotherhood of Man practised outside of the Cannibal Islands or among converts in India. If it were generally understood that Christianity and Mohammedanism were genuine daughters of Israel, we might hope for less unfilial treatment.
Let us see to it that our Literature, living with its heart in the remote past and guarded as the most sacred possession in days of trial, is not neglected and forgotten by us. It is true, our lives are crowded with the fullness of all things, and all sorts of homoeopathic methods have been introduced to make study easy to be taken. We get our knowledge by balloon ascensions into the spiritual clouds for a few moments, and we are provided with parachutes to let us down easily again into the material world. It is that sort of study which destroys historic consciousness, and gives rise to all sorts of fads of the hour. Let us take as our example the Jew of the Ghetto, with whom study is a serious matter; who from his earliest years until his eyes close in death, holds to his heart his Jewish books. In recent years Semitic studies have been introduced into some of our colleges. Let us attempt to have our brothers and sons enter classes in Semitics as they do the Latin and
Greek, inciting them to the study of the language that has ministered to the spirit, as has none other.
We shall not attempt to accomplish all that other organizations have attempted and failed in. We have not come to criticise our Rabbis, but we are aiming to become intelligent pupils, for sixteen to one is a small ratio when applied to women and men visiting our synagogues. We will not pose as “Literati” to discuss the value of the Rubrics. Our papers are exponents of our needs. We are not here to create sentiment or compose a new melody for marching to Jerusalem; nor are we here to destroy faith in any dream or hope. Opinions expressed from this platform will be those of the individual, and let us be tolerant, courteous, and just to each other. Let us realize what power is in our hands, because of the national and international character of our work, to extend which is the duty of each individual member. Let us be entirely free from personalities, and yet have freest discussions. We are not here to advance the cause of Orthodoxy or Reform, but for the truths of both, a sisterhood to study and discover the God-idea as it is revealed to us in our History and Religion.
And we are here to proclaim our conviction that Judaism is needed in the world. For religion is the expression and evolution of the most divine thought that has ever burst into consciousness in the mind of man, revealing the soul, at one with the Soul of the Universe, and in our Judaism are concentrated the greatest ethical and religious thoughts of a greater number of God-intoxicated souls than have given birth to any other creed. In the grand symphony of Faiths rising from the hearts of men, with its tones of trust in the power of star and stone, swelled by the sounds of helplessness without Mediatorship, must be heard, “in perfect diapason,” the fearless note that face to face may we know the Creator — the God whose Oneness is the theme for the swan-song of the Jew.
Religion is needed in the world. Whatever may be said against its methods in the past, to-day with the light of science removing all superstition, it is capable of producing the very best. Religion is needed to strengthen and reinforce our moral and ethical leanings. Not all are born with a holy passion for the right. Genius for righteousness is quite as rare as genius in other lines, and religious thought and instruction must generate the laws that prevail among men, and should be the potent element in their environment. It is a Jewish thought that, “knowing, we shall do.” A fuller knowledge of our History and Literature will bring to many faith and trust in the good of the world, the joy of living, content in attaining all the possibilities of our present existence — all fundamental principles of our religion. Let us realize the power of individuals, joined for good purposes.
A true Jewish womanhood, a Jewish life and home, true to our spiritual inheritance, true to the flag under which we live, faith in God’s providence — these are the ties that bind us — this the Jewish thought that shall belt the globe, bringing its message of higher life, of spiritual aims and purposes, “practising justice, loving mercy, and walking in modesty and humility before God” in His light. For this have we come together.
Source: Proceedings of the First Convention of the National Council of Jewish Women, Held at New York, Nov. 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19, 1896 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1897), pp. 67-77.