American Jewish History 87.4 (1999) 402-404
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The emergence of a vibrant Orthodox community in America represents a sea change from its modest beginnings. In his memoir of American Jewish life, the traveler and chronicler Israel J. Benjamin described Reform synagogues teeming with congregants during the late 1850s and early 1860s, while Orthodox congregations struggled to maintain adherents and attract young people to fill the pews. No one played a more prominent role in championing the cause of this fledgling Orthodox contingent and in addressing the many problems and issues of this community than Reverend Isaac Leeser. Leeser, the subject of Lance Sussman's superb book, devoted almost four decades of his life to the task of strengthening Jewish life in general and preserving traditional Judaism in particular.
During the past several decades, historians have come to recognize the importance of Isaac Leeser to the development of American Judaism. Several biographical studies have explored various aspects of his career. This outstanding, full-length monograph by Lance Sussman is by far the most comprehensive work to date and is likely to remain the definitive work on Leeser for many years to come. Well-researched, utilizing archival sources that hitherto were not consulted, this book is rich with discussion and analysis and includes several episodes not previously brought to light.
In some ways Leeser was an unlikely person to have become a leader of Orthodox Judaism. He did not receive an intensive yeshiva education. His knowledge of rabbinic literature was limited to a few years of study as a youngster in his native Germany under the guidance of rabbis Benjamin Cohen and Abraham Sutro. Leeser's knowledge of rabbinic texts was largely self taught. Unlike most Talmud scholars, Leeser never obtained rabbinic ordination, serving instead as a cantor and minister for much of his career. Deeply pious and devoted to Jewish tradition, Leeser remained a life-long bachelor and was, both existentially and religiously, a lonely person. Yet Leeser became one of the most prominent and colorful figures of American Jewish life, during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
Sussman recounts the numerous problems Leeser encountered with the leadership of his congregation, Mickveh Israel, in Philadelphia. At times these difficulties were so severe that one wonders why Leeser did not walk away from Jewish communal life. Sussman correctly notes that [End Page 402] serving the Jewish community was more than a livelihood to Leeser; it was a passionate calling. Bold, tough, principled and driven, Leeser deftly managed to negotiate a contractual relationship with his congregation, while maintaining many other pursuits.
Facing a diverse Jewish community with little unity, poor standards of religious regulation, few institutions of Jewish education, and a laity who neither recognized nor rewarded his talents, Leeser nevertheless left a legacy of literary achievement and communal involvement. He worked on behalf of numerous Jewish charities, including Jewish hospitals and foster care. He pioneered efforts to develop institutions of Jewish education, including elementary schools, high schools and Maimonides College. He was one of the founders of the American Jewish Publication Society and of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites.
Leeser faced the daunting challenge of confronting a group of talented Reform clergymen, including Isaac Mayer Wise, Max Lilienthal and David Einhorn, who were advancing non- traditional religious views in synagogue pulpits, community forums, and reformist newspapers. With dignity, respect, and firm conviction, Leeser became one of the most articulate spokesmen, among a small group of Orthodox clergy, defending Jewish law and custom in the face of a growing movement of Reform.
A prolific writer, Leeser authored numerous works for children and adults. Although Leeser's ideas were not original, his writings addressed the practical needs of Jews by explaining religious philosophy, law, and custom; promoting Jewish observance; and bringing social and political issues to the attention of a growing Jewish community. His passion for journalism led him to found The Occident and American Jewish Advocate in 1843...