Gertrude Weil, “What Judaism Means to Me,” late 1960s. North Carolina Office of Archives and History.
What is religion? In many people’s code religion is limited to the area of theology: their idea of God, God’s will, obedience or disobedience to His laws, etc. I recall reading recently a criticism of the Rev. W.W. Finletter, of Raleigh, for concerning himself with social conditions. The writer thought a minister should confine himself to matters of “religion”, that is theology, church creed, church attendance, the prospect of heaven or hell. In my definition, religion includes the whole of life: one’s beliefs, one’s attitudes to society, one’s behavior. It is significant that our leaders —...our prophets and priests — enjoined on their people not only a belief (faith) in God, but an ethical code of behavior: strict honesty in commerce, fair treatment of employees, kind consideration of the dependent (the widow, the orphan, and slaves). It even takes care of animals and their humane treatment. One’s religious duty included — and includes — the whole range of life and its activities.... There is a modern tendency to divide life into compartments and to impose different codes of morals in our various relationships. There is a business code, a political code, a family code, a religious code, etc. I am all against such departmentalisation. Life is one and whole. My religion demands the same honesty, fairness, reliability, in all one’s relations.... Our prophets and teachers are absorbed in the idea of righteousness [tzedek] as the ideal. And only through righteous behavior can they obtain blessedness. This is not a mere highflown ideal, but a practical program of behavior, specific in the enumeration of duties — in business dealings (honest weights and measures), in relation to slaves, the widow, the orphan, the stranger among them, even the far off alien (as in Jonah’s responsibility for the Ninevites). Hear the familiar words of Micah (6:6-8): “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?... It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. How does Weil understand religion and religious duty?

2. Why did Weil see religion as relating to working for the human rights of others?

3. Why does Weil understand the Jewish value of tzedek [righteousness] as a “practical program of behavior,” rather than as a “highflown ideal”? How does the quote from Micah illustrate this idea?

4. Do you agree with Weil that religion encompasses the “whole of life: one’s beliefs, one’s attitudes to society, one’s behavior”? What attitudes or practices in your life that aren’t strictly “religious” do you attribute to your Judaism?

Time Period: Modern (Spinoza through post-WWII)