Tehilla Lichtenstein, a co-founder of the Society of Jewish Science, was a religious and spiritual leader recognized for her charisma and pioneering views on Jewish women’s spirituality. A New Yorker practically her whole life, Lichtenstein ran the Society’s religious school and edited its newsletter before assuming leadership after her husband’s death in 1938. Throughout her tenure, she continued to edit the newsletter, teach classes, and host a weekly radio show on Jewish Science, emphasizing the power of positive thinking and the importance of relationships, both with God and with other people. She spoke often on the need for active engagement with current problems in the world, from combating Nazi aggression and helping found the State of Israel to ending anti-Semitism in postwar America.
In 1951, the New York–based Society of Jewish Science published a small pamphlet entitled “What to Tell your Friends About Jewish Science.” Written by the society’s leader, Tehilla Lichtenstein, the pamphlet sought to clarify the differences between the religions of Jewish Science and Christian Science. Portraying Christian Science as the outgrowth of a Christian philosophy of denial, Lichtenstein defined Jewish Science as the positive application of Jewish teachings to everyday life. She elaborated on this idea in over 500 sermons delivered between 1938 and 1972, becoming the first Jewish American woman to serve as the spiritual leader of an ongoing Jewish congregation. While the society, which continues to exist, never sought formal affiliation with any of American Judaism’s major religious movements, it retains strong historical and theological ties to classical Reform Judaism.
Early Life and Education
Born in Jerusalem on May 16, 1893, to Eva (Chava) Cohen and Rabbi Chaim Hirschenson, Tehilla came to the United States at age eleven and was raised in Hoboken, New Jersey, where her father served as the rabbi of a small Orthodox congregation. One of five children, she retained a close relationship with her siblings, especially her sister Tamar De Sola Pool, who, with her husband, David, a rabbi, provided Lichtenstein with constant encouragement, support, and friendship. While the religious education she received was adequate, her secular education was exceptional. She earned a B.A. in classics from Hunter College in New York City in 1915, an M.A. in literature from Columbia University, and had begun doctoral work in English literature at Columbia when she left school in 1920 to marry Reform rabbi Morris Lichtenstein. She gave birth to a son, Immanuel, in 1922, and to another son, Michael, in 1927, raising her family in New York, where she remained until her death.
Founding the Society of Jewish Science
Working closely with her husband, Lichtenstein helped to establish the Society of Jewish Science in 1922; it was one of several efforts by a handful of Reform rabbis to stem the tide of Jews attracted to Christian Science. Borrowing from Christian Science and New Thought (a Protestant-based alliance with a similar emphasis on healing) such prayer techniques as affirmation and visualization, the Society of Jewish Science acknowledged, as did New Thought but not Christian Science, the reality of matter, evil, and suffering as well as the benefits of modern medicine. At the same time, it emphasized, as did Christian Science sects, that God alone is the true source and restorer of health. Thus, to be healed one needs to recognize, and actively affirm, that God’s presence and healing power lies within oneself.
While leadership of the society remained firmly in Morris Lichtenstein’s hands until his death in 1938, during its early years Tehilla Lichtenstein served as the principal of its religious school and as the editor of its monthly periodical, the Jewish Science Interpreter. Upon her husband’s death, Lichtenstein became the society’s spiritual leader, a position she assumed more by circumstance than by design. In his will, Morris Lichtenstein had specified that leadership of the society should go to one of his sons or, if neither was willing to succeed him, to Tehilla. Since her sons did not aspire to the rabbinate, Lichtenstein took on the position, which she held until shortly before her death in 1973. According to the New York Times, over 500 people came to hear her deliver her first sermon on December 4, 1938. Although the society’s membership gradually decreased, Lichtenstein retained a loyal lay following, many of whom remained society members long after her death.
Leading with Original Flair and Style
In 1956, the society built a synagogue in Old Bethpage, Long Island, which regularly held Sabbath and holiday services, usually led by a local Reform rabbi or rabbinical student. Lichtenstein continued to preach in New York City at the society’s “home center,” the hall at which Sunday morning services were held. She also continued to edit the Jewish Science Interpreter, taught classes in Jewish Science and occasionally in the Bible, counseled those in need, regularly trained a number of members to become practitioners, or spiritual healers, and, in the 1950s, hosted a weekly radio broadcast offering a combination of practical advice and Jewish Science teachings. While she viewed herself as Morris Lichtenstein’s disciple, many of the religious images and ideas that she presented were her own. For example, having spent much of her adult life as a wife and mother, she often drew upon images related to marriage, motherhood, and the home. She also focused, far more than her husband had, on the relationships between human beings, which underscored her conviction that, as God’s children, people have a responsibility toward one another. Such human relationships, she believed, serve as a model of the relationship between the individual and God. Lichtenstein frequently described God as a kind and benevolent father, but also suggested that seeking the divine presence was analogous to running toward one’s mother. Both images, she believed, were of the same “divine fabric” and expressed the love of God in the “same boundless way.”
Lichtenstein also placed great emphasis on divine election as a reminder of shared responsibility and destiny and spoke frequently and passionately about the founding of the Jewish state. After Israel’s formation in 1948, she continued to voice her support and to hope that the new country would incorporate Jewish ideals and teachings into its notion of statehood. Both Tehilla and Morris Lichtenstein viewed Judaism as a practical religion. Yet, perhaps because by the late 1930s American Jews were drawn less to the teachings of Christian Science than to those of Norman Vincent Peale, Lichtenstein placed greater emphasis than her husband on the power of positive thinking, which she identified as the power of positive prayer. Many of her sermons focused on specific how-tos: how to achieve inner poise; how to get along with people; how to pray and when to pray. At the same time, however, she attempted to show the applicability of Jewish teachings, as understood by Jewish Science, to national and international problems. To demonstrate her conviction that Judaism could provide an answer to any and all situations, she gave sermons focusing on such issues as Nazi aggression, Soviet foreign policy, and antisemitism in postwar America.
Due to illness, Lichtenstein stepped down from the pulpit in 1972, although she remained the society’s leader until shortly before her death on February 23, 1973. Today, the Society of Jewish Science identifies both Morris and Tehilla Lichtenstein as its founders and continues to print their sermons in the Jewish Science Interpreter. Lichtenstein remains historically significant for her religious leadership, 34 years before the ordination of women as rabbis. Her sermons are an important resource for those interested in Jewish Science, American Reform Judaism, and women’s spirituality.
Friedman, Doris. Applied Judaism: Selected Jewish Science Essays by Tehilla Lichtenstein (1989).
Lichtenstein, Tehilla. Papers. Archives, Society of Jewish Science, NYC, and American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Umansky, Ellen M. “Piety, Persuasion, and Friendship: Female Jewish Leadership in Modern Times.” In Embodied Love: Sensuality and Relationship as Feminist Values, edited by Paula M. Cooey et al. (1987).