A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady
A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady
By: Rachel "Ray" Frank
Source: Frank, Rachel. "A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady." American Hebrew. (October 1890).
About the Author: Rachel "Ray" Frank was born in San Francisco in 1861. She taught public school in Nevada before moving to Oakland, California, to teach Sabbath School (classes on Jewish religion and history). After the congregation's rabbi and school's superintendent resigned Frank became the school's principal. In addition to teaching, she also worked as a journalist throughout the Northwest. In 1890, Frank addressed a congregation in Spokane Falls, Washington, during the High Holy Days. Her sermon made her a sought-after orator and preacher; newspapers dubbed her "the maiden in the temple" and "girl rabbi of the golden West."
Traveling through the American Northwest as a journalist in 1890, Rachel "Ray" Frank reached Spokane Falls, Washington, during the Jewish High Holy Days (the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). Because of ongoing strife between Orthodox and Reform Jews, she learned, the town had no synagogue. Voicing her dismay at such a state of disunity, she agreed to address the community. In doing so, she became the first Jewish woman to preach in the United States. The Spokane community asked her to stay and continue to speak throughout the High Holy Days. She soon became a preacher and lecturer to diverse audiences throughout the country and continued her public speaking role for the next decade.
Frank's oratory challenged the role of women in traditional Judaism, which offered few leadership roles to women during this period. Women could not read from the Torah and were segregated from men when attending synagogue. During this period, however, some American Jews had begun to reform these traditions, introducing mixed-sex choirs and family pews, which helped increase the presence of women within Jewish communities.
At the same time, the role of women in society was beginning to shift. The American West, which lacked the social structure of the Eastern states, gave women more opportunities. In 1890, the same year as Frank's sermon, Wyoming joined the Union as the first state to grant full suffrage to women. Colorado, Utah, and Idaho followed soon afterward. As a result, the frontier states symbolized opportunities for women and political equality.
Although Jewish communities in the West lacked the established institutions and communities of the East, the very fact that Frank spoke from the pulpit was unusual. As she later noted, "I know that it is unusual, and that in the history of our people no woman except Deborah spoke in the synagogue, yet the experience did not seem strange."
Frank spoke wherever she traveled along the Pacific coast, covering such diverse topic as culture, history, and art. She spoke at B'nai B'rith lodges as well as women's groups and synagogues, and even officiated at services. Some of her speeches, such as "The Prayers That are Heard," "Jewish Women in Fact and History," and "Nature—The Supreme Teacher" are infused with deep spirituality. Although her speeches challenged the role of women in religious leadership, she held to traditional views. In 1893 she wrote, "Nothing can replace the duty of the mother in the home." Upon her marriage in 1901, she retired from public life.
Frank gave this speech on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1890, speaking from the pulpit—the first Jewish woman in America ever to do so.
Ladies and Gentleman, and considering—this is Yom Kippur eve, I know you will permit me to say—friends, brothers, and sisters; for surely to-night is one of the most solemn and sacred periods in the lives of Israelites, for tonight, at least, we must be brother and sister in letter and spirit. My position this evening is a novel one. From time immemorial the Jewish woman has remained in the background of history, quite content to let the fathers and brothers be the principals in a picture wherein she shone only by a reflected light. And it is well that it has been so; for while she has let the stronger ones do battle for her throughout centuries of darkness and opposition, she has gathered strength and courage to come forward in an age of progressive enlightenment and do battle for herself if necessary, or prove by being a noble helpmeet how truly she appreciates the love which shielded her past.
I can scarcely tell you how much I feel the honor you have this evening conferred upon me in asking me to address you. For a woman to be at any time asked to give counsel to my people would be a mark of esteem; but on this night of nights, on Yom Kippur eve, to be requested to talk to you, to advise you, to think that perhaps I am tonight the one Jewish woman in the world, mayhap the first since the time of the prophets to be called on to speak to such an audience as I now see before me, is indeed a great honor, an event in my life which I can never forget.
The time is short, and the story have to tell a long one; I most therefore do as a young friend of mine did who was once called upon for a narrative—that is—"begin in the middle."
I have been requested to speak to you concerning the formation of a permanent congregation. On Rosh Hashana I was surprised to find such a large number of you assembled here for worship, and at that time the idea of a permanent congregation first occurred to me. Mentioning the matter to some of the prominent Jewish gentleman of Spokane, I was informed that the number of Hebrews and their financial standing was sufficient to warrant an established congregation. "Then," said I, "how is it you are content to go on this way having neither schule nor a Sabbath School? Do you think you are doing right towards yourselves, towards your children who are growing up without a creed of any kind, a most dangerous thing for society and a most ungrateful way of paying tribute to God." I was answered that such a difference of opinion existed among you, so many were prejudiced against reform, the remainder stubborn for orthodoxy, that it would be hopeless task to organize a permanent congregation. Think of it, ye Israelites, the "chosen of the earth," so divided as to how you will worship Jehovah that ye forget to worship at all! You who have received divine protection through centuries of danger and oppression, you whom the prophets say are to survive for the grandest destiny of man, you to whom has been vouchsafed every blessing—because you cannot agree as how you will do this or that, how you will say thank you, Almighty, therefore you do not say it at all. O, you intend saying it all in good time! There maybe be repentance at the eleventh hour, but who can say which hour may not be the eleventh one? This is the time for action—right now, and our solemn Yom Kippur is the right now of our existence.
Now is a most excellent time for you to consider the question. It is the time for you to decide whether you will effect a permanent organization or whether you will continue to go on and hold only one or two services a year. There are here, I know, certain disagreements as to the form of worship, whether we should cling to the old orthodox style or take up the reform that has gradually been instituted in the Jewish church. This is a progressive age, and some of the customs of two or three thousand years ago will not do for today, and at the same time many customs which were good then are just as good now, and can be just as appropriately used. It would be well for you to throw aside all little disagreements and unite in the one cause—that of upholding the creed of our religion. Do not persuade yourself that coming to schule once or twice a year, or fasting for twenty-four hours, will make you a good Jew. Do not comfort yourself with the belief that God will, at the eleventh hour, accept your tithe, which you pay because you must. For three hundred and sixty-three days you are content to go your own way, doing as you please, piling up the coin of the United States, and congratulating yourself that your credit is good. You give never a thought to the One from whom all blessings come until reminded that Rosh Hashanah is here and Yom Kippur will follow. O, the growls that come because the store must remain closed two days; perhaps you refuse to close it at all! O, the shameful ungrateful sneers and remarks by the too reformed to be good ones! Friends, you are making a mistake. For such as I have mentioned it would be better to keep the store open—the sin would not be so great.
Religion is not compulsory. God wants not grudgingly that which you give; keep it, you cannot be poorer that you are.
Whatever you do for religion, or whatever you give, must be voluntary and sincere. Coming here because your neighbor does is not religion; neither is it religion to give certain amount because some one else has done the same. True religion is true repentance for our many sins and mistakes.
I have before me one of the most intelligent audiences of my people I have ever addressed. It would make the best congregation on the Pacific Coast. I can tell by your faces, and the little that I have conversed with you. You have always said that in union there is strength, therefore it is necessary that you should unite, giving help to each other through the creed you all believe in. Drop all dissension about whether you should take off your hats during the service and other unimportant ceremonials, and join hands in one glorious cause. We are all Israelites, and anxious to help one another. Look up to our creed and live up to it. It is not necessary to build a magnificent synagogue at once; that can be done in time. The grandest temples we have ever had or the world has ever known were those which had the blue sky for a roof, and the grandest psalms ever sung were those rendered under the blue vaults of heaven.
It is absolutely necessary for a man to be something. A cipher or a million of ciphers all count naught. One must have fixed value or be looked upon as a nothing. This holds as true in religion as in the other things. Your neighbors of various creeds and denominations would as soon think of avowing themselves cannibals as of disavowing their religion. They have no respect for the man who is nothing; neither do they trust him. If you would stand well in the eye of the community, uphold your faith and teach your children the glory of perpetuating a grand old creed.
Form yourselves into a permanent congregation as soon as possible, and organize a Sabbath school. Unless one is established soon your children will grow up without any creed at all. One must believe in something, and one must have faith in something or become a menace to society. Keep one day holy, and teach your children to do the same. It isn't good for you to do as you are doing. We are no longer a nation of people, although we are often spoken as such. We have no ruler, but are simply citizens of the country we live in. We are loyal to the civil rule that governs us, and we should be loyal to the religious rule that we all bow to.
Friends, I thank you for your patience with which you have listened to me, and in the name of all we Hebrews hold most dear, I ask you to be patient with each other. Drop all personal feeling in this matter, and meet each other half way over your differences; give each other a hearty handshake for the sake of the cause, and I prophesy Heaven will crown your efforts with peace and prosperity.
From tonight on resolve to be something.
Frank took advantage of the opportunities afforded by the lack of societal constraints in the West to confront the traditional role of women in Judaism, openly challenging conventions within its leadership. Her actions broke barriers not only for Jewish women, but for other women as well. During this time, women's public speech was severely restricted. In legal matters, women could not sue, stand as witness, or enter into contracts. Following in the paths of other women orators of the time, such as Susan B. Anthony, Frank helped propel women into leadership within the religious and political communities.
Nadell, Pamela S. "Opening the Blue of Heaven to Us. Reading Anew the Pioneers of Women's Ordination." Nashim. (April 1, 2005) 88.
Jewish Women's Archive. "Exhibit: Women of Valor—Ray Frank." 〈http://www.jwa.org/exhibits/wov/frank〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).