Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rebecca Gratz - Women and Judaism in Antebellum America by Dianne Ashton

Professor Ashton has written an excellent American Jewish history surrounding the outstanding personality of Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia. Gratz is famous probably for the legend about the character, Rebecca of York in the Sir Walter Scott historical novel Ivanhoe.  In the novel, Rebecca of York is invited to stay on with Ivanhoe and his wife, Rowena as court doctor on condition that she converts to Christianity.  The sympathetic Jewish character delivers a formidable defense of remaining true to her people and religion in declining the offer.  In real life, Rebecca Gratz devotes her entire life promoting traditional Judaism and arguing against conversion and intermarriage despite the fact that even some of her siblings marry Christians. During this period of Antebellum America, Evangelicalism keeps pressuring Jews to convert; Gratz only demands respect for her own convictions without preventing her from carrying on close correspondences with her gentile sisters in law.

Gratz was a member of the Philadelphia elite.  Her father and uncle were patriots (Ben Franklin even contributed to the building of their synagogue, Mikva Israel).  Her home was essentially a salon to a literary class - Washington Irving was a frequent guest.  She was a voracious reader and enjoyed writing poetry and excelled at correspondence.  She was a remarkable voice against Reform.  Not believing in parochialism, nevertheless, she understood the need for Jewish education and founded the first Hebrew Sunday School system patterned after the Protestant model.  She also founded the first Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and also the first Jewish Foster Home in Philadelphia.

Antebellum America (first half of the 19th century) was an environment that lacked Jewish Scholarly leadership.  Often times, a Rabbi's credentials could not be verified.  What made Gratz extraordinary was the fact that she did not know Hebrew, but was content with a Siddur with English translation on the opposite side of the page, that her devotion to Judaism was Bible centered with little rabbinic insights.  She was, nevertheless, an implacable foe to any changes to Jewish practice and could not identify with the leaders of Reform, David Einhorn and Isaac M. Wise. She believed that Jewish people had no reason to feel inferior to Christians; that American values demanded equality and respect for all. The dearth of educated Jews was acutely felt because without Jewish education one could not intelligently respond to the arguments of Evangelicalism.  Her clergyman, Isaac Leeser, also acutely understood the need for Jewish education and vigorously defended Traditional Judaism in his influential periodical, The Occident. 

The uniqueness of Rebecca Gratz lies in her benevolent work and her spinsterhood.  Although considered an outstanding beauty, she remains single but that does not lead her into a lonely life lacking traditional domesticity.  She often has to care for her immediate family and raise her nieces and nephews when they become orphaned. She expresses a deep love for children and articulates deep affection through her correspondence for her extended family. She is also clearly a powerhouse, an organizational leader in the benevolent community.

Why Rebecca Gratz did not marry remains a curious mystery. As an orthodox Jewess, often defending Judaism, she must have understood the value of marriage.  There is evidence from her correspondences, however, that perhaps she was skittish about entering into a bad marriage.  This is speculation (based on little evidence) that her suitors were gentile and she refused to marry for religious reasons. Unfortunately, why she remains single is a mystery.

At the end of this fine history, Professor Ashton ruminates on the lessons learned from Rebecca Gratz's individuality, single-hood and her legend making some interpretations that serve as examples for modern Jewish women who remain single or deviate from traditional domesticity . I feel her interpretations are difficult. The interpretations take Gratz out of context of her milieu and position. The motivation for Gratz's single-hood is unknown.  The fact of single-hood should not be enough to serve as a meaningful model.  One who defends tradition, advocates no changes (meaning that the Torah is sufficient to inspire everyone and needs no improvement) would seem to me hardly an example to inspire those that have strayed from Traditional Jewish practices.

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