Detail from the window of the chapel at Ahavas Chesed, Mobile, AL.

“We Cannot Hide These Things from the World”

The lost history of a heterodox rabbi who struggled to remake Judaism — and remade religion instead

When I was growing up as a teenager on Long Island, I once heard a young rabbi tell a religiously and politically conservative congregation that when we suffer inside we can also become deeper human beings. The formula for self-growth, he said, is “to turn your pain into a painting.” Some may have found it corny, though judging from the silence in the room his remarks made an impact. I never forgot them.

Those words were a distant ripple from a Jewish spiritual-therapeutic movement that began in 1916 in response to the popularity of mind-power metaphysics and Mary Baker Eddy’s healing faith of Christian Science among American Jews. In an echo of Mrs. Eddy’s phrasing, it was called “Jewish Science.” One of the motivational movement’s most eloquent exponents was a St. Louis, Missouri, rabbi named Louis Witt (1878–1950). Though Witt disliked the term Jewish Science for its derivativeness, he energetically spread the movement’s metaphysical and therapeutic values into Judaism and other American faiths.

Rabbi Louis Witt (1878–1950)

The Jewish Science movement was rooted in the early twentieth century, when American Jewish leaders worried over a steady in flow of Jewish converts into Christian Science. Though estimates widely varied, several thousand American Jews had joined Mrs. Eddy’s healing movement by 1911. That year, the Jewish civic order B’nai B’rith was sufficiently concerned about the blurring lines between Judaism and Eddy’s movement that it voted to exclude members who followed Christian Science practices.

It was not difficult to see the appeal of Christian Science to early twentieth-century American Jews. The modern healing faith had none of the historical baggage of anti-Semitism. Christian Science literature was free of racially or religiously antagonistic language.

Many Christian Science congregations were situated in upscale neighborhoods and, in the eyes of some, may have seemed like portals to assimilation and social acceptance. Most important, the rituals and liturgy that marked Jewish worship could, at times, seem formalized and empty to hungry seekers, who discovered a more intimate experience within the radical metaphysic and prayer treatments of Mrs. Eddy’s church, with its promise of healing and a revelation of spiritual truth that soared beyond the bonds of the material world.

“May it be,” wondered one Reform rabbi, Maurice H. Harris, “that we Jews — the rationalists of history — have been rational to a fault and have not realized sufficiently the value of the mystical in life?”

In 1916, Rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses, leader of a Reform congregation in Mobile, Alabama, conceived of a response. Moses attempted to devise a Jewish alternative in his book, Jewish Science, which gave the movement its name. While his ideas lacked the rigor of Mrs. Eddy’s metaphysics of immaterialism, the rabbi sought to highlight what he saw as an authentic healing tradition tucked within the folds of Jewish history. Moses extensively revised his book in 1920 to reflect a more explicitly New Thought tone, with an emphasis on affirmations and denials, psychological insights, constructive optimism, and healing prayers. Moses drew his examples chiefly from Scripture — for example, he reframed the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, and receiving his new name of “Israel,” as a parable of man’s quest for inner development.

“All human progress,” Moses wrote, “has been accomplished by ‘the Israelites’ of humanity, who struggled with the forces of ignorance and wrong and mastered the laws of life and truth.” The language of his 1920 book also rejected the work of New Thought author Ralph Waldo Trine, with its injunctions to “enter the silence” — Trine’s signature phrase for communion with the infinite. Jewish Science, if not one of the best-remembered New Thought books, nonetheless had a distinctive and boldly experimental tone.

The book did not settle the question of how Judaism should respond to the mental-healing and Christian Science movements. Some rabbis wanted a more formal approach that specifically acknowledged and integrated mind-power methods. This was the position of Missouri rabbi Louis Witt, who in 1925 petitioned the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the representative body of the Reform rabbinate, to authorize a committee to consider what Judaism could learn from the mental- healing movements.

At the group’s 1925 annual meeting, Witt’s proposal elicited caustic, even hostile, remarks. Rabbi Philip Waterman, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, lampooned the language of the “Cult of Jewish Science.” From the convention floor he told Witt and the resolution’s supporters: “Gentlemen of the Jewish Cult of Jewish Science, I want to say to you that humble as I am, I offer you this affirmation, I offer you this denial. Take it into the silence and let the silence be profound, let it be long.”

Regardless, the conference did authorize Witt to chair a nine-person committee on “the Relationship of the Synagogue to Mental and Physical Healing.”

Two years later, in June 1927, Witt was ready to present his committee’s findings at a CCAR convention in Cape May, New Jersey. The committee itself was divided, 5 to 4, whether to even present its heterodox conclusions. With a slender majority at his back, Witt rose to deliver the findings on the final evening of the conference. The Witt report called for three basic reforms: (1) A rabbinical statement supporting “Spiritual Healing” in conjunction with mainstream medicine, as well as the promotion of “faith and prayer and higher forms of suggestion” to move a person’s “indwelling divine energies into action.” (2) The publication of booklets and periodicals to help congregants use Bible verses, rabbinical writings, and Jewish prayers for spiritual healing. (3) Establishing a course in “Reliotherapy or Spiritual Healing” at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the Reform movement’s seminary.

Witt knew he was facing opposition. In an era when most people still felt the chill of Victorian prohibitions against discussing matters of personal life, Witt delivered an extraordinarily intimate appeal from the convention floor. Speaking before three hundred conventioneers, he described how he and other rabbis were secretly sick at heart because of their disappointments in religion and their inability to help people in psychological anguish. As the St. Louis rabbi spoke, his words soared with such power that, at times, they seemed to emanate from the mouths of the reformist Hebrew prophets of antiquity:

Now it has been said, to my utter amazement, that this report and this recommendation is a departure from Judaism. If it is a departure from Judaism then I wish I could be in something else than in the Jewish ministry. I claim this is the very essence of all that is fine and beautiful in Orthodox Judaism. It is that which haunts those of us who have been raised in Orthodoxy. Orthodox fathers and mothers did not have our rationalistic attitude. To them God was a reality. I tested out this recommendation in New York City last week. I asked a group of Orthodox Jews to give me some of their experiences. . . . I knew some of them very intimately. One of them told me that his daughter was very ill. He went to the Synagogue, he said, and had a prayer offered for his daughter. When he came home his daughter said to him, “Papa, I had a dream; I dreamed that my bed was carried to the altar and I began to feel better.”

The physician came the following day and although he had held out no hope the day before, he said, “Your child is going to get well.”

I have gone into the hospitals; I have heard Orthodox Jews say, “God will help.” This is what saved Judaism, it has been that personal attitude to a God who was very, very near, who could heal the sick, who was always present in time of trouble, who was always doing a spiritual healing. . . .

I am moved almost to smile — and if it were not so tragic I would smile — when I hear some of the rabbis say: Let us give the people more Judaism. You have been talking “more Judaism” ever since I have been a member of this Conference. What have you got? You have got nothing out of it because you have gone the wrong way. You are putting out new textbooks and you are giving more eloquent sermons on plays and novels and such things and you are talking before Rotary Clubs and on International Peace, and all those things. They are incidental to religion. . . .

A woman came to me three weeks ago, in the depths of melancholia. I did not know what to do for her. I talked as a doctor might talk — but I wanted to offer prayer for that woman and I wanted that woman to feel that I myself have been helped. I have gone through the period of melancholia. I have been a neurasthenic because of an utter disillusionment with regard to certain things in the Jewish ministry, and the things to which I dedicated my life, and many of you have confessed to me in past years, and some of you confessed to me last night and the night before, that you are suffering the same thing. We are hiding these things from the world . . . but the fact is that there is many a rabbi who is suffering from a sick soul and his soul is sick because life has meant frustration and disillusionment for him and we ourselves are not helped enough by the God that we preach — God is not near enough to us. . . .

I want this Conference to say that there is more power in religion than we are utilizing, and I want us then to proceed to utilize that power.

Witt’s statement did not carry the day. His committee’s recommendations were overwhelmingly voted down, 46 to 13. But a seed was planted. Ten years later, in 1937, the nation’s Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, acted on one of the committee’s recommendations and inaugurated its first course in religious therapeutic training. The course later expanded to newly opened Hebrew Union campuses in New York and Los Angeles, and today is mandatory for Reform rabbis in America.

The same year the National Council of Churches formed a Commission on Religion and Health to promote therapeutic training among pastors. In 1949 the Lutheran Church formed an Advisory Council on Pastoral Care to promote clinical training of ministers. As the next decade opened, there existed two new and respected journals dedicated to ministerial counseling: the Journal of Pastoral Care, begun in 1946, and Pastoral Psychology, begun in 1950.

Yet the most decisive step in the mainstream acceptance of pastoral therapy grew out of the experience of World War II. Many of the eight thousand U.S. chaplains who went off to war discovered that soldiers were eager for counsel and solace. Sensing this gap in what servicemen wanted versus what they could offer, thousands of chaplains enrolled in courses on counseling. Harvard’s Army Chaplains School, through which most military chaplains passed, established a curriculum in pastoral care in 1944. A study of American ministers conducted in the 1950s by the New York Academy of Sciences found that clergy often continued in this counseling role after the war, and that the wartime experience made them see pastoral therapy as a “special part” of their duties.

“By 1950,” wrote religion scholar Rebecca Trachtenberg Alpert, “pastoral psychology was a routine part of the education of ministers.”

Louis Witt, the Missouri rabbi who believed so deeply in the healing power of religion, is not widely remembered today. His name appears in few works of religious history. But Witt’s ideals, and those of other rabbis loosely grouped within the movement of Jewish Science, formed a ripple. Joining with other influences, this ripple helped establish pastoral counseling as a mainstay of American religious life.

(This article is adapted from the author’s book One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown/Skyhorse).

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