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Essay by Gertrude Weil

Essay by Gertrude Weil
In these pages, Weil expands upon her conception of religion, which in her opinion "includes the whole of life." As usual, she places strong emphasis on the ethical aspects of Judaism and the Jewish ideal of righteousness, but she also points to the importance of a spiritual sense of exaltation and of the feeling of "kinship with all other Jews."


This is a statement of my personal experience, which may be egotistical. I make no apologies: it will be personal.

Our early ancestors, in their search for a god, moved from what they knew into the unknown - from the fruits finite of their experience to the fascinating region of speculation. Their conception of God was a god made in their own image, with human emotions: love, hate, jealousy, etc. We call it anthropomorphism. Finally, we come to see God as the impersonal creative power, the universal cause. Thus God may be called the Cosmic Cause, the Cosmic Law, or the Cosmic Force. I personally can conceive of God only in this universal cosmic sense.

What is religion? In many people's code religion is limited to the area of theology: their idea of God, God's will, obedience or disobedience to His laws, etc. I recall reading recently a criticism of the Rev. W.W. Finletter, of Raleigh, for concerning himself with social conditions. The writer thought a minister should confine himself to matters of "religion", that is theology, church creed, church attendance, the prospect of heaven or hell. In my definition, religion includes the whole of life: one's beliefs, one's attitudes to society, one's behavior. It is significant that our leaders - or our prophets and priests - enjoined on their people not only a belief (faith) in God, but an ethical code of behavior: strict honesty in commerce, fair treatment of employees, kind consideration of the dependent (the widow,

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Essay by Gertrude Weil

the orphan, and slaves). It even takes care of animals and their humane treatment. One's religious duty included - and includes - the whole range of life and its activities. They made us make the no distinction between the things that are God's and the things that are Caesar's - the "sacred and the profane" - all things are God's. There is a modern tendency to divide life into compartments and to impose different codes of morals in our various relationships. There is a business code, a political code, a family code, a religious code, etc. I am all against such departmentalisation. Life is one and whole. My religion demands the same honesty, fairness, reliability, in all one's relations.

In the long history of the Jewish people we find a gradual evolution in their ideas. The record tells us that their early god - or gods - were pleased, and appeased, with human sacrifices. We are told of the custom of sacrificing infants in fire, (in Judges 11:29-35) of Jephtha's vow to sacrifice as a thanks offering the first person to appear after his victory in battle. (Unhappily, as we know, it was his own beloved daughter.) (A parallel story is found in Greek legend involving the sacrifice of Iphigenia.) Human sacrifice was evidently a form of worship among many, or all, primitive peoples, including our own forbears.

Through the centuries of Jewish experience there was a moral evolution, leading up to the prophets, whose teaching represents the highest conception of spiritual and moral attainment. They no longer believed in the efficacy of sacrifice as a road to divine favor. Their stress was on moral conduct. Thus Isaiah (in chapter 1:13-17): Bring no more vain oblations: it is an offering of

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Essay by Gertrude Weil

abomination unto me; new moon and Sabbath, the holding of convocations - I cannot endure iniquity along with your solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons my soul hateth; they are a burden unto me. I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you; I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes, cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Our prophets and teachers are absorbed in the idea of righteousness as the ideal. And only through righteous behavior can they obtain blessedness. This is not a mere highflown ideal, but a practical program of behavior, specific in the enumeration of duties - in business dealings (honest weights and measures), in relation to slaves, the widow, the orphan, the stranger among them, even the far off alien (as in Jonah's responsibility for the Ninevites). Hear the familiar words of Micah (Ch. 6:6-8): Wherewith shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?? It hath been told thee. O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God".

The most extreme example of formal and institutional emphasis on moral behavior is probably found in the Society of Ethical Culture, founded in this country and long led by Rabbi Felix Adler. Here the emphasis is entirely on ethical behavior.

But is ethics the whole of religion? Acting uprightly and generously? Is there not another element, something that raises our spirit above the level of duty? The psalmist felt this when he

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Essay by Gertrude Weil

exclaimed "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork" and (Pslam 107:8) "Let them give thanks to the Lord for His mercy, for His wonderful works to the children of men". And in Psalm 119:105, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path". Each of us in our own personal experience must have felt certain moments of exaltation, a sense of wonder. Sometimes it may be a light in the psalmist's heavens. It may be inspired by a sudden and unexpected burst of bloom. We feel something beyond the physical phenomenon. The English poet of nature, Wordsworth, has expressed it: "And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns and the round ocean and the living air and the blue sky and in the mind of man, a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things."

There is a third element in my conception of Judaism and that is my relation to the Jewish people. Much time has been wasted in discussing whether Jews are a race or an ethnic group or a tribe. Traditionally, according to our recorded history in the Bible, we are descended from one family. Abraham, with his nephew Lot, came from Ur of the Chaldees and finally settled in Canaan. According to Biblical tradition, the Jewish people are the descendents of his family and their associates. But, however close or distant the blood kinship, there is an identity of Jews as Jews. As you cannot let your brother starve in the street or go neglected when he is ill, so Jews have a sense of a kinsman's responsibility for other Jews. That is why we have a United Jewish Appeal. That is why we buy Israel

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Essay by Gertrude Weil

bonds and contribute to the poor old man who comes around representing this orphans' home or that. It is our common identity as Jews and hence our common responsibility. There is an obligation based on our kinship. This is so particularly in consideration of the Jew's position in the world, often precarious, in many places tragic. There is a special obligation on all Jews for loyalty and support. An extreme and dramatic example of what I mean was seen just before and during the 1967 six-day war. As Arab-Israeli relations became more and more tense anxiety was felt throughout the Diaspora as well as on the scene of confrontation. Jews flocked - voluntarily - to buy Israel bonds, to add to the funds of the United Jewish Appeal and other agencies to meet the needs of fellow Jews.

And it is not only in such extreme cases of Jewish distress and need that we see evidence of what I call a sense of identity and obligation. However detached we may think ourselves from the life and fate of the Jewish people, there is often a natural reaction to the lives and achievements of other Jews. We exclaim with pride, "Look at all the Jewish authors on the best-seller list this week" and "Did you see that the hero of the latest world series was a boy named Guinsberg?" "The Nobel prize was just awarded to the Jewish poet Agnon." There is an automatic reaction of pride in these accomplishments of our fellow Jews.

So I say there are four relations in which I feel my identity as a Jew. (1) In my freedom to find God as creator and ruler of the universe without a prescribed theology from outside myself; (2) In our traditional inclusion of morals in our religious conception; (3) In my sense of an informing, super sensuous spirit in the universe; and (4) in my kinship with all other Jews.

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Date / time
late 1960s

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Essay by Gertrude Weil." (Viewed on November 26, 2014) <>.


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