Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rebecca's Monotheism

Alexander Pope's "The Universal Prayer," Rebecca Gratz's favorite poem, provided her with some views, which if not heterodox, were not exactly traditional in western religion.

The most important of these is enunciated in the very first stanza of Pope's poem:

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

There is in Pope's universe not one God and many false gods; for him, every "god" represents the human attempt to understand the One.

Here is Rebecca, writing in 1834:

"The sublime, beneficent holy Spirit, to which all forms are but the outward costumes in which different nations chuse [sic] to dress it -- is still the same and all who lift their souls on high in Adoration -- may walk the earth in charity with one another...."

This sounds like Pope and makes clear how Rebecca's religious toleration, one of her most attractive qualities, is tied in her belief in the One behind the many.

In 1837 Rebecca found another writer who used a clothing metaphor to explain the variety of gods worshipped on earth (and much else). Here is an excerpt from Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored):

"Church-clothes are...the Vestures, under which men have embodied and represented for themselves the Religious Principle....They are first spun and woven, I may say so, by that wonder of wonders, Society...."

Rebecca read Sartor Resartus and sent it on to her "book buddy," Maria Gratz, her sister-in-law in Kentucky. In following letters she asked Maria what she thought of it, but sadly, if they had a discussion through the mail, the letters have not survived. I remember reading Sartor Resartus in college and being amazed that what in many ways could be termed an early Existentialist work had been written in the 1830's. Just as surprising was that although his satirical jibes had not aged well, Carlyle's prose style was still exhilarating. I would love to know what Rebecca and Maria, two spiritual pilgrims (and by no means Existentialists), made of this extraordinary work.

The second of Pope's non-traditional opinions was that God could not be Lord of Earth alone in a universe so large:

Yet not to earth's contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

This idea got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in 1600, but by the eighteenth century it was less a scandal and more of an interesting speculation which even the Roman Catholic Alexander Pope could take up in print. There is no evidence in her writings that Rebecca believed in multiple worlds, but based on what I know about her it is possible she would have found it an intellectually stimulating topic, but of not much use in determining the best way to live her life, the focus of religion for her.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rebecca's Favorite Poem

Much of Rebecca Gratz's girlhood education in literature must have been given over to the memorization of poetry. A niece remembered that she and her sisters played a game in which Aunt Becky quoted a few lines of poetry and everyone tried to guess the poem. The same niece said that Rebecca's favorite was Alexander Pope's "The Universal Prayer," and its place in her life is revealed in a letter from the late 1850's. Rebecca at Saratoga Springs had started to write down the poem for a woman she had met there, but found she was unsure of a line in the last verse. (At 76, she was certainly allowed her senior moment.) She wrote to her nephew in Philadelphia to have the poem copied out and sent immediately. Here is the poem Rebecca thought was important enough to get right:

The Universal Prayer
Alexander Pope

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

Thou Great First Cause, least understood
Who all my sense confined
To know but this, that Thou art good
And that myself am blind.

Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
To see the good from ill;
And, binding Nature fast in fate,
Left free the human will.

What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heaven pursue.

What blessings Thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives;
To enjoy is to obey.

Yet not to earth's contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

Let not this weak, unknowing hand
Presume Thy bolts to throw,
And teach damnation round the land
On each I judge Thy foe.

If I am right, Thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
To find that better way!

Save me alike from foolish pride,
Or impious discontent,
At aught Thy wisdom has denied,
Or aught that goodness lent.

Teach me to feel another's woe,
To right the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.

Mean though I am, not wholely so,
Since quickened by Thy breath;
Oh, lead me wheresoe'er I go,
Through this day's life or death.

This day be bread and peace my lot:
all else beneath the sun
Thou know'st if best bestowed or not,
And let Thy will be done!

To Thee Whose temple is of space,--
Whose altar earth, sea, skies,--
One chorus let all beings raise!
All Nature's incense rise.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), England's greatest poet of the eighteenth century, is not much read today. Although he has not fallen in scholarly esteem, his satires are too topical to be easily accessible to modern readers and his poetic style has gone out of fashion. The heroic couplets, for which Pope was famous, and the "common meter" of this poem are a little too obvious for most twentieth- and twenty-first-century tastes.

The poetry cannot be said to be short on substance, and Pope's outlook is echoed in Rebecca's writings. Like him, she believed in a loving but unknowable God who moved "in mysterious ways" (to quote another of her favorite poets William Cowper). She was very sensitive to the power of conscience, the importance of its guidance and the hell on earth which guilt could cause.
She also saw her spiritual bond with God not dependent on right theological beliefs so much as on the way she lived her life, with mercy, kindness and toleration.

"The Universal Prayer" was a very popular poem for two hundred years, and most people who liked it were happy to overlook some of its elements which are not traditional Christian or Jewish beliefs. Rebecca did more than that; she embraced at least one of his more unorthodox views.

To be continued in "Rebecca's Monotheism."

(The niece who remembered Rebecca's mastery of poetry was Sarah Hays Mordecai. She wrote "Recollections of My Aunt, Rebecca Gratz" in 1870; it was privately published in 1893 (31 pp).
Her letter from Saratoga is undated but internal evidence puts it at 1857. It is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Festival of Tabernacles

In early November 1837, Rebecca wrote to her sister-in-law Maria Gratz in Kentucky about the Festival of Tabernacles (in Hebrew, Sukkot), the Jewish holiday of thanksgiving for the harvest which takes place in September or October each year:

"I am glad you...kept the Tabernacle celebration, in scenes so naturally appropriate to the season. For my own part I was only once under the shelter of its roof [Rebecca was ill during the festival], and partook no further of the feast spread before me than a little bread and salt tho' I enjoyed the sight of goodly fruit and wine distributed in plenty and listened to a hymn of thanksgiving...we were permitted to meet at the sanctification of this festival & view the emblems of former rejoicing. The palm and branches of goodly trees, mentioned in scripture as taken by the youths and damsels as they went out after the ingathering of the blessings of the year, to dwell in booths and rejoice before the Lord, has always had a great charm in my imagination. I like the idea of cheerful gratitude and combining religious worship with heartfelt thankfulness in scenes where they had just reaped the benefits of their labor -- and praying that God would enable them to use his gifts for their good and the benefit of the poor -- this is making religion one of our daily duties -- a habit of our lives..."

Besides giving us Rebecca's meditation on Sukkot and the place of religion in her life, this passage reveals that her brother Ben and his family observed the holiday in Kentucky. In 1819, when Ben married Maria Cecil Gist, a non-Jew, the couple decided that each would keep his/her own religion although the children would be brought up Episcopalian. Nearly twenty years into their marriage, we find what seems to be a modern and ongoing arrangement in which the family observed the Jewish holidays as well as the Christian ones. Rebecca had been initially hesitant about Ben and Maria's decision, but in 1825, she was able to write to Ben: "I love your dear Maria, and admire the forbearance which leaves unmolested the religious opinions she knows are sacred in your estimation. May you both continue to worship according to the dictates of your conscience and your orisons be equally acceptable at the throne of Grace...."

(Both letters are from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Yom Kippur, 1861

On August 10, 1861, Cary Gratz, the son of Rebecca's brother Ben, was killed at the Battle of Wilson's Creek on the side of the Union. His stepbrother and cousin, Jo Shelby, the son of Ben's second wife Ann, fought for the Confederacy in the same battle. Rebecca had known both young men since boyhood. This is an extract from a letter of Rebecca's to Ann, who was not Jewish, dated September 13:

"How I wish by sharing I could lessen My poor brother's grief!

I sympathize with you, too My dear Ann, in the anxiety which is so harassing by the uncertain accounts the papers bring of the contending Armies -- we may pray for Jo's personal safety -- tho' we cannot for the success of his arms -- Faith in Him, who in justice & in Mercy rules over the destiny of all, must give us patience! Tomorrow will be a holy day with us -- Sabbath & day of Atonement, when memorials of the dead mingle with petitions for the living -- and we endeavour to purify ourselves by devotion, confession & repentance -- you will all be remembered by me, in the house of prayer --"

(For the full letter, see Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)
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