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If American Jews were held together by their religion, who were the leaders who helped them understand and remain loyal to that religion? What part did leadership, lay and “rabbinical,” play in herding Jews together within the ambit of Jewry? The leadership was very important, but it was not vital. There was always a need for someone to handle the administrative apparatus no matter how primitive it was. As the fines imposed on laymen for refusing office make clear, few wanted to be leaders. Responsibility, time, and financial expenditures were involved. But once a man accepted office, he was quite ready and willing to be a boss. The men of substance who helped write constitutions in the larger cities paid lip service to democracy, but in practice tended to be oligarchic—in this respect perpetuating a European pattern. The parnas was often resented, but he was the core around which the congregation agglomerated. There were two types of lay leaders: one was the congregational worthy; the other was the man who cut a swath in the general community, possibly a marginal Jew whom the non-Jews respected, so that for local Jews he was a light to the Gentiles. Were these Jewish lay leaders educated Jewishly? It is difficult to generalize. Some European-born parnasim were learned; others, who had come out of the American Jewish day schools, had little Jewish knowledge and were marginal Jews not well versed in the traditions of their people. Wealth was not yet a primary requisite for office, though it could not be ignored; generous Harmon Hendricks, who had never served Shearith Israel as president for more than two or three years, was always part of the synagog’s power elite. Without Jacob S. Solis, a businessman who was never to become a merchant of substance, there would have been no congregation in the New Orleans of the 1820’s. One suspects that it was always one man, a layman, who prodded his fellow Jews in the new towns to organize, to worship, to build—a Solis in New Orleans, a Sheftall or a De La Motta in Savannah, a Jonas in Cincinnati. These men were zealous Jews, eager to build a community. But could a man like Dr. De La Motta, who was no pronounced success as a professional, truly serve as a lay leader in Savannah or Charleston? His influence may have been limited, but when there was a religious challenge he met it; he did a job. If a synagog was to be consecrated in Savannah, he assumed leadership. The others in town went along with him. Leadership by default? Leadership, nevertheless.1

There is reason to believe that Charleston, the leading Jewish community in the country until about 1820, had a number of devoted Jewish laymen. Dr. De La Motta is one example. Not too much is known about the important Charleston community at this time because its early records were destroyed during the Civil War. Leadership in Richmond was largely lay during part of this period, at least until the 1820’s. It was Jacob I. Cohen, a merchant, who read the prayer for the government in 1789 when the congregation met to celebrate the first national Thanksgiving day. If there was a hazzan—and this is to be doubted—he was bypassed. When the first synagog built in town was consecrated in 1822, again the honor was entrusted to a layman, Jacob Mordecai. As a lay leader, Mordecai could always consult Israel B. Kursheedt, one of the most erudite Hebrew scholars in the country. Kursheedt had filled his belly with talmudic knowledge in two of Germany’s best rabbinical academies. At times, Kursheedt served as a volunteer hazzan. Richmond’s outstanding Jew, the attorney Gustavus Adolphus Myers, frequently represented Richmond’s Beth Shalome when the Jews were called upon to address their Christian fellow citizens—this, even though he had married a Gentile in 1833, and his was not a Jewish home.2

As in New Orleans, the outstanding families in Baltimore assumed no religious leadership. The old-timers whose roots went back to the eighteenth century looked upon themselves as aristocrats which precluded their uniting with the German newcomers to build a Jewish community; the social distance could not be bridged. A congregation did rise in the late 1820’s, but it was built by the Ashkenazic newcomers. Among them were men like the Dyers, John Maximilian and Leon. John M. Dyer, a charter member of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, born in 1729 at Alzey in Rhein-Hessen, had originally been known as Imanuel Gershom Feist, but took the name Philip Haim after the Napoleonic edict of July 20, 1808, was enacted. In the United States, where he immigrated in 1812, he became John Maximilian Dyer, taking the name of a New England Christian who had befriended him. In Baltimore, he became a butcher. When he came to this country, he brought with him his five-year-old son Leon. By 1835, Leon, still a young man in his twenties, had been elected a trustee of the synagog; five years later, he was president. Leon, a big man physically, had leadership qualities to match. Baltimore soon knew him as one of its outstanding politicians; he served the city as acting mayor for a few days when it was torn by riots, so it is reported. Here was a man always on the move. The 1830’s was a decade when young Americans lusted to exhibit their heroism. They had ample opportunity when they were massacred at the Alamo and Goliad.

The year 1836 documents the adventurous activities of Leon Dyer. February, 1836, found him in New Orleans, where he took the oath as the regimental supply officer in the Louisiana Volunteers whose job it was to help crush the Seminoles of Florida. Dyer had enlisted as a private, but as soon as he was appointed quartermaster, he had been commissioned a lieutenant. After a stint of less than four months chasing Indians in Florida, he returned to New Orleans with his regiment and was almost immediately commissioned major in the Army of the Republic of Texas and appointed an aide to General Thomas J. Green. In November of that busy year, he fought a duel with a man who, it seems, had aspersed his Jewish origins. A person like Dyer could not resist the lure of California after gold was discovered. In 1848, he crossed the plains to the Pacific and there, in 1849, helped organize one of the first Jewish congregations in San Francisco; his admirers elected him president; he was a notable. Two years later, he went back to the East. It is patent that a man of this type would not stay long enough anywhere to exercise the qualities of leadership which he obviously possessed. Here was another wandering Jew who went

From place to place but cannot rest

For seeing countries new.3

Philadelphia, as befitted its status, had a number of lay leaders who served the congregation for years. There were Gratzes, a Nathan, Manuel Josephson, Benjamin Nones, Jacob I. Cohen, Lewis Allen, and four Phillipses, all presidents. The presidents were interesting, if not distinguished, men. In a way, the lay leadership in New York City was unique. There was a new president almost every year; no one man could entrench himself; Seixas, related to a number of them, was urbane and worked well with his parnasim. Conflicts with the hazzanim were few. It is strange that Noah, the darling of the Gentiles who flocked to hear him, was never president. He was the town’s renommé Jew, trotted out on important occasions to harangue the Gentiles on the virtues of the Chosen People and their divinely revealed religion. One may guess that the congregation’s elite was afraid of Noah: he was at times irresponsible; involved as he was in city and state politics, he had a host of enemies; he was aggressive, egoistic. In his case, it is evident, Shearith Israel had decided that discretion was the better of valor.4

There were insurmountable barriers to clerical leadership. Congregational leaders, successful businessmen for the most part, would brook no interference from the hazzanim, who were limited to their routine duties of chanting, teaching, marrying, and delivering an occasional address. One may surmise that the presidents, subconsciously at least, looked upon the clergy as potential rivals. In most cases, they had nothing to fear. Not all these chaunters were trained professionals competent to work closely with a congregation. Very few were scholarly, though one or two had read a little in the Latin and Greek classics. More than one of of these hazzanim, quondam businessmen, had turned to the ministry for lack of something better to do. They were not of leadership calibre, though on the whole they were far better trained academically than the backwoods evangelical preachers. Unlike these Christian ministers, hazzanim had no “call”; such an emotional experience of a divine inner prompting seems foreign to the Jewish psyche, yet men like Moses L. M. Peixotto and Isaac Leeser were ardent, pious religionists. Good European officiants were at first hesitant to come here; ordained rabbis avoided the United States, a land of few Jews where rabbinic scholarship was not valued.

This would begin to change in the late 1830’s as emigration picked up and political reaction induced notables to leave Europe. Samuel Myer Isaacs (1804–1878), who came here in 1839 would be one of several competent “ministers” who officiated in this country as rabbis, expanded their role as preachers and publicists, and attained influence. Isaacs was eager to exercise leadership. Born in Holland, he grew up in London, where his father had settled after undergoing economic reverses. There were five sons in the family; four of them were to become ministers. Isaacs taught in some of London’s Jewish welfare and educational institutions before coming here to serve Bnai Jeshurun in New York. There he preached in English about once a month; his was the first Ashkenazic congregation in the United States to introduce regular sermons (Leeser had been preaching in Philadelphia since 1830, but his was a Sephardic synagog). In 1840 a year after Isaacs landed, Baltimore elected Abraham Rice its rabbi. Rice was the first “real”—i.e. ordained—rabbi to take a post in this country; it was nearly 200 years after the Jew Solomon Franco landed in Boston at a time when Miles Standish and John Alden were still alive. A real rabbi with a semikah, a “diploma” of ordination giving him the authority “to teach and to judge,” Rice was learned and pious enough but evinced no qualities of leadership; his following was small. This rabbinical newcomer was oriented to a religiously immutable Europe, whereas his contemporary Samuel Myer Isaacs, embraced the Anglo-Saxon world of culture and challenge.5

Jewish New Orleans, an urban frontier community if ever there was one throughout this period, employed lay “rabbis,” spiritual guides who may well have been more distinguished for unconventional ministries than for learning and orthodoxy. In a small community like Savannah, it would be decades before a full-time hazzan was employed; on occasion, the Savannah Jews may have contracted for the services of part-time functionaries. Jacob R. Cohen, who succeeded Seixas in Philadelphia, was a factotum who never fully succeeded in commanding the respect of his people. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, he fled the city as did thousands of others. This flight was held against him because he had promised to stay. Put your faith in God, he had told his flock; then he left town. Several hazzanim in Philadelphia and New York and other towns, too, had no other goal than to please their flock. Apparently they were content with their lot. They read and chaunted the prayers, were present at the rites of passage, and seem to have made few enemies. Whatever authority they exercised was very limited; the surviving records testify that they presented no programs to their board. If any of these ministers of the first half century after the adoption of the Federal Constitution hoped to be accepted as leaders, they were doomed to failure. The European and American Jewish tradition of lay domination and oligarchy was too strong. Inevitably, therefore, there would be conflict between lay boards and any minister who aspired to overt leadership in matters religious. Two officiants may well have had hopes that extended beyond the reader’s desk; a third was determined to be no mere hireling. The first two were Seixas and Carvalho; the third was Isaac Leeser. Compared to their colonial predecessors, these three represent a new breed in American synagogs.6

The Rev. Emanuel Nunes Carvalho (1771–1817), a native of London, was a craftsman who worked in coral, jet, and amber. Influenced by the French Revolution and its English sympathizers, he became a liberal interested in democratic forms of government. Though many others in England also leaned to the left, his political views, it would appear, induced him to leave the kingdom. It was in London, very probably, that he gained some command of Oriental and modern languages; he was an educated man and continued his studies in later years. By 1799, he felt qualified to accept the position of minister in the Barbados congregation, The Scattered Israelites, and probably would have remained there if not for the climate. Yellow fever plagued the Caribbean islands. Leaving Barbados, he moved north to New York, where he taught Spanish and Hebrew to Jews and Gentiles and served as an instructor in Shearith Israel’s day school from 1808–1811. Since there was no hope for a congregation of his own in New York—Seixas was still active—he moved on to Charleston, then the best post on the continent. There he was hazzan and schoolmaster till 1815, when he returned north to Philadelphia and served Mikveh Israel until his death. It was there that he published a Hebrew grammar and worked on a Hebrew and Aramaic dictionary, which apparently was not finished; certainly it was not printed. As he had done in Charleston, in Philadelphia, too, he ran a private academy where Jewish as well as general subjects were taught. Like all hazzanim who had a command of English, he was called upon to make an occasional address. In 1816, after the death of Seixas with whom he had worked in New York, he wrote a eulogy, which was printed. The Philadelphians were interested; Seixas had been their minister between 1780 and 1784. Carvalho’s well written tribute is prefaced by a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,

His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal.7

This was the first printed discourse delivered by a Jewish clergyman in Philadelphia. Since the position in Charleston was considered superior to the one in Philadelphia, why did he leave it? Was it the threat of yellow fever, or was there some other reason? While in Charleston, Carvalho had trained a children’s choir and then for reasons at present unknown discontinued it; when the board asked him to revive it, he refused. There are no extant minutes; they have long since been destroyed. It is not known what happened, but it does seem that Carvalho was determined to question the authority of the board; the result was censure and a brief suspension. He and his sympathizers appeared at a meeting of the larger executive committee, and when a petition they presented was rejected, a miniature riot ensued in which the hazzan, too, was beaten—if not clubbed. It is a pity that so very little is known of this uprising in which the protesters were referred to by a contemporary as “rabble” and “vagrant Jews.”8


In a letter from Charleston to Uncle Naphtali Phillips, of New York, in 1812, Mordecai Noah said that Carvalho should have taken a lesson from Seixas, a man who enjoyed the respect of his congregation and the public at large. In modern American Jewish historical literature, Seixas is praised as a spiritual leader. To what extent does he deserve his reputation? How much influence did he exert on his board, on his congregants, on American Jewry? If he was indeed a leader, how did he demonstrate his leadership? Of one thing there can be no question; this man was an ardent Jew. In 1811, then sixty-six years of age and ill, he traveled north to Canada for thirty-four days on a religious mission; he performed four circumcisions, two on children and two on adults. (One of the adults was forty-one: this can be none other than Ezekiel Hart, who was later twice elected to the Lower Canada House of Commons, but was refused a seat because he was a Jew. Ezekiel had never been circumcised because he lived in a small Quebec town, Three Rivers, where no mohel [circumciser] was available.) In 1768, Seixas had been appointed hazzan of Shearith Israel at the age of twenty-two. With the exception of the four years in Connecticut exile with his New York friends and the four years as rabbi in Philadelphia at Mikveh Israel, he served Shearith Israel till his death in 1816. An autodidact, he was well read in English literature, including the English Deists. His Hebrew training was received in the local Jewish day school, but he certainly improved himself by constant study and was able to consult the standard rabbinic code, the Shulhan Arukh and to write a passable Hebrew—no mean achievement for an American of that generation. He wrote the Hebrew graduation oration which nineteen-year-old Sampson Simson delivered at Columbia College in 1800. When important questions of rabbinic law were raised, Seixas and the board could always consult some learned Jew in town. In 1784, after the War, Seixas returned to New York. As a minister, he received an automatic appointment to the board of Columbia College; the Gentiles recognized him as a clergyman on a par with their own officiants. Even in Philadelphia, where he served an all-American synagog, he was accorded or assumed the title of rabbi. This was true also of his successor, Jacob R. Cohen.9

This New York rabbi was a humanitarian, concerned not only with his own people but also with the needs of the larger community. As a creative social worker, he helped establish a Jewish sick-care and burial society; he labored for years as an educator in the school which Shearith Israel conducted. In response to requests from the government, he delivered a formal address when a public fast or intercessory service was held in the synagog. On one occasion, for instance, he gave a Thanksgiving address; on another he appealed for funds to support war victims, and he delivered the requisite talk when the Federal Constitution was finally adopted. It is perhaps not to his credit that no one could take offense at anything he said.

His theology? He was traditional without equivocation, a “fundamentalist,” we might say. At no time did he ever compromise his orthodoxy. God had revealed himself to his Chosen People; the Hebrew Bible bears witness to that. It is the privilege of the Jew to bring the only true gospel to the world. Because the Jews have been unfaithful to the divine charge, they are now in exile and will remain rejected until they repent and follow God’s Law. Then and only then will the Holy One Blessed Be He send his Messiah, the Son of David, to lead them in triumph back to the Promised Land. God, at the end of days, will raise up all the dead; the wicked will be punished; the good will live on forever. This, very briefly, was what he believed, but Seixas was Janus-faced; he embraced not only the past, but also the future; he was a modern man, on whom the Enlightenment, too, had left its mark. In consonance with Judaism and some Protestant thinkers, he believed in a benevolent deity and in the perfectibility of man. Living as he did in a Calvinistic Christian milieu, he quite unsurprisingly flirted at times with such concepts as depravity and original sin; sin was something real for him. He was fully cognizant of the new approaches of the sciences, of the ethical teachings of the Deists, of the demands of reason. In his own traditionalist way, he tried to come to terms with all thinking that threatened Orthodoxy. Because he was at least aware of the problems facing Jewish Orthodoxy, he may be denominated the country’s first modern Jewish clergyman.

His rootedness in Anglo-Saxon amenities cannot be questioned, for he could boast of three generations of ancestors in the British colonies. Born into both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic worlds, he enjoyed the best in both—the spiritual and the gastronomic. This man loved food, particularly ma’s cooking; his wife’s culinary works of art are described glowingly in his letters, her fricassees, her beautifully roasted duck, her sausages and spinach, her stews and potatoes, the halibut and asparagus, the bread fritter, as large as a plate, with Madeira sauce. Maybe he had earned his “rheumatick complaint.” In the bosom of his family, he was jocular, charming; his children loved him. Seixas was an exemplary product of the American Jewish melting pot: he was Ashkenazic and Sephardic in ancestry and probably knew as many Yiddish as Spanish-Portuguese words. His mother came of an Ashkenazic family, his schoolmates, teachers, and congregants were overwhelmingly Ashkenazic. Nevertheless, he was a proud Sephardi, too, almost patronizingly tolerant of the German newcomers and contemptuous of those who were uncouth. But he loved and respected his learned son-in-law, the German-born Israel Baer Kursheedt, who had studied at some of the best rabbinic academies in Central Europe. New York’s rabbi was certainly modern in his constant insistence on Western decorum and the English vernacular; he was never unconscious of the surrounding Christian environment. Seixas was a fighter for political equality. In Philadelphia, he was a member of the committee which protested the constitutional denial of public office to Pennsylvania’s Jewish citizens. This clergyman would not forget that he was a grown man in his fourth decade before his native state of New York emancipated its Jews, the first state in the Union to do so.10


But now to the point: what was the character of his local and national leadership? It required years before Seixas began to receive a modicum of recognition in his own congregation, from his own board. Little note was taken of him during his ministry in the immediate postrevolutionary period, although on his return to New York to take up his work in 1784 it was he whom the parnas designated to address the members and to beg them to conduct themselves decorously. This native son had many friends in the congregation; he was an excellent pastor; many loved and respected him, and this respect was to become veneration as the years passed and his students became members of the congregational board. All this took time. In 1785, just a year after the trek back from Philadelphia, he received only 14 out of the 25 votes cast. Why no reelection by acclamation? In every congregation, there were always members ready to vent their frustrations on the incumbent pastor. The Christians, New York’s elite whom he met at Columbia, liked him, and after his death, the Columbia College board commissioned the striking of a portrait medallion to honor his memory. The Latin legend on the rim of the coin reads: “Gershom M. Seixas, Priest of the Hebrew Congregation of New York.” The portrait is eloquent testimony to the respect accorded him by his Gentile friends. His status among Gentiles and Jews alike was enviable; he was something of an aristocrat at a time when many of his congregants were immigrants. People admired him for his personal integrity, his graciousness, his insistence on the dignity of his office and his person.11

He was no scholar, no giant intellect, but his contemporaries sensed that he was a gentleman, a man of character. Public opinion, if nothing else, required that New York Jewry have a religious representative, an articulate one; Seixas supplied that need. His position brought him a degree of respect from almost everyone, since Shearith Israel was the oldest congregation in the country. A state law enacted in 1784 equated the Jewish clergyman with Christian ministers; Seixas enjoyed that recognition. Whether the board of the congregation liked it or not, it had to accept that equation. All hazzanim in the United States craved respect. Carvalho, in his eulogy of the New York minister, refers to him not as a hazzan but as a pastor, a reverend. Seixas, one suspects, yearned for more authority, more recognition from his board, yet knew that this was unrealistic. But he was no supine factotum; his relations with his board were not completely harmonious, for he protested more than once that his salary was inadequate. A suggestion he once made that Christians be called into arbitrate the question of emoluments has all the indicium of an implicit threat, but he made no real issue of this matter; he knew that Shearith Israel had budgetary problems. Fully aware of Seixas’s influence with the rank and file—and also, of course the power of his extended family—the board found it advisable to walk softly where he was concerned.12

In their search for an increase in official status, Seixas and his fellow-hazzanim were never successful. Boards and most members believed that their worship leader was an underling, an employee delegated to read, to do a job which almost any layman could do. American and European traditions of autocratic lay control—certainly among Jews—was deeply rooted. Owing to the built-in safeguards which restricted authority to the board, there was no possibility in this country of real leadership for any hazzan. Limited as it would always be for the minister, leadership could be manifested only through the personality of the incumbent; that is how Seixas’s influence increased with the years. After his death, three eulogies were delivered and published; no one could doubt that he was the most respected hazzan of his generation. In no small measure, it was he who laid the foundation in this country for the ultimate emergence of the rabbi as an important officiant, a potential religious communal leader. National leadership? As pastor, reader, and occasional preacher in New York, Seixas himself had no pretensions to national leadership, and he achieved none. America’s Jewish communities all knew and admired him as an exemplary figure. Compared to his notable Christian contemporaries, this good man does not loom large; he was not of the calibre of a Francis Asbury, a John Carroll, a Timothy Dwight, a Lyman Beecher, a William Ellery Channing. What, then, if anything, did Seixas achieve? He helped to further a native American orthodoxy, one able to survive and even to prosper on American soil.13



Time brings perspective; today the historian can affirm: Seixas was a good rabbi; Leeser, a great one. Leeser served as hazzan at Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia from 1829 to 1850. He was far more important than the more attractive Seixas in his effect on American Jewish life. The New York hazzan was a man of the eighteenth-century; Leeser was a man of the nineteenth-century who faced the twentieth. Was Leeser a national Jewish leader? The question must be dwelt with in detail. Who was Leeser? He was a German immigrant, a native of the village of Neuenkirchen in Westphalia. His mother died when he was a child; it was not long before his father and grandmother followed her to the grave. Thus he grew up as an orphan, an unhappy one, it would seem. The fact that he was an orphan was to influence him profoundly throughout life; this aloneness colored his thinking and his behavior. The youngster was fortunate—and this he was only too willing to admit—that people rallied to help him. They saw to it that he received a rather good general education, including instruction in a high school (gymnasium). A voracious reader, by the time he emigrated he had gained some training in the ancient classics as well as French, and some Spanish (German, of course, was his mother tongue). The eager student had read widely in belles lettres and history. For a German Jew of the early nineteenth century, his was a better than average education. The Westphalian youngster also learned to read some Talmud—not much, to be sure—and could consult the Shulhan Arukh, Jewry’s most popular code. His German brother-in-law wrote to him in Hebrew, and scholarly men in this country addressed him in the Sacred Tongue. The numerous Hebrew articles which appeared in his magazine, The Occident, were apparently all edited by him. Hebrew, said Leeser, is a national tongue; it ties all Jews together.

He was no Jewish scholar as the academicians define the term, but the published catalogue of his library evidences that he had an understanding of the fast developing Science of Judaism, the new critical examination of Jewish history and literature. Yet this innovative approach to tradition, this judgmental evaluative scrutiny, did not move him to the left. Leeser was definitely aware of the Enlightenment literature, but it failed to pull him away from his orthodox moorings. While still young and impressionable, he had come under the—clearly lasting—influence of educated conservatives, both Jews and Catholics. His Jewish teachers were opposed to the new Reform Judaism, which had made its first appearance in his native Westphalia. None of them was an obscurantist; indeed they were modernists in their eagerness to embrace learning. Abraham Sutro, chief rabbi of Muenster and Mark, was wedded to Orthodoxy, but at home in modern disciplines, and it was to Sutro that Leeser dedicated his ten volumes of sermons: “to you it is chiefly owing that I ever ventured to undertake the task of a public teacher.”14

Like thousands of others, Leeser came to the United States to make his fortune and then return to the Fatherland—and, like most, he, too, remained. Uncle Zalma Rehiné brought the seventeen- or eighteen-year-old youngster to the United States, to Richmond. Rehiné, an old-timer had come here in the early postrevolutionary days, had married a niece of Gershom Seixas, and had become a member of Richmond’s Sephardic Beth Shalome. In Richmond, then, the Ashkenazic Leeser was exposed to strong American Sephardic traditions, which appealed to him so much that he became a devoted Sephardi ritually. His strong religious commitments led him to learn the Sephardic ritual and chants, read constantly both in the Jewish and general field, and even serve at times as a voluntary reader in the synagog. In his studies, he was advised by his uncle and the more learned Jacob Mordecai. For the first four or five years after his arrival in Richmond, he clerked for Uncle Zalma, served briefly in the militia, and played with the thought of studying pharmacy or medicine. Business was certainly not his métier. Loving the South and its lifestyle he would never become an abolitionist, though he was not pro-slavery; forty years later, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Leeser was shocked. It was in 1828 that he read an anti-Jewish article which had appeared in the London Quarterly Review; he had probably seen a reprint in New York’s Journal of Commerce. Angry at this Judeophobic attack on his people and his faith, he published an answer in Richmond’s Constitutional Whig beginning with January 8, 1829. This was a tour de force for a twenty-two-year-old youngster who had landed but four years earlier. One may surmise that he had been helped by Jacob Mordecai and Baruch H. Judah, librarian of the Richmond Library Association. The Whig’s Gentile editor, impressed by the young immigrant, had no doubt polished a paragraph or two.

Leeser’s articles brought him a degree of local and even national recognition on the part of Jews. It was at this time too, that Philadelphia, looking for a hazzan, invited him to take the job as reader and school-teacher at Mikveh Israel. The salary offered him was quite good, but after his election the young clerical aspirant found that it had been cut; the board was a thrifty lot. Again encouraged by Mordecai and Uncle Zalma, Leeser took the job; he was interested in Jewish culture and education; he was very ambitious; he craved recognition. What the congregation soon found out was that it had hired a very unhappy man. Five years after going to Philadelphia, he was stricken with smallpox, which pitted his face and only reinforced the discomfiture of this awkward, morose, introverted man. Leeser was constantly ill, neurotic, inclined to paranoia. He believed that people were against him—and many were—yet in 1837, after a fire which destroyed some of his printed books, six men in the congregation lent him money to reprint his works. Certainly these congregants wanted to help him. He could be brutally frank, even abrasive in his relations with people, and never forgave an enemy. Celibacy had worn him to the bone. He had little capacity to make friends. There were people who respected and admired him; he was privileged to have a number of intimates, but there is very little evidence that he confided even in them. But he did have a dog and that is a good sign. The person with the least faith in Leeser was Leeser himself; possessed of a relentless inner drive, he was always trying to prove himself. There was no urbanity in this clergyman, no charisma, little ability to establish rapport with human beings, yet—notwithstanding the overwhelming uncertainties within him—he nursed a strong ego. All in all, he was an unheroic hero.15


From the very beginning, Leeser had trouble with his congregation; his hypersensitivity and quickness to take offense involved him in quarrels with the board. Since he equated his clerical function with the Christian ministry, he hoped for respect and a degree of independence. The adjunta (board) looked upon him as an employee subordinate to its orders—which galled him. Because he had offended some, the board members fought him all the years he served the congregation. They denied him tenure, haggled constantly over salary, insisted on more pastoral calls, asked for improvements in the service, and manifested an indifference to the importance of the sermon. Apparently Leeser was no orator. Requests made by him were ignored; they censured him more than once. Some good souls questioned the wisdom of allowing the hazzan to live in a Christian home; others intimated that he was unduly friendly with his landlady. The board, very businesslike, insisted that he sign a bond for faithful performance of duty. Humiliated and infuriated by their demands, he sniped at them—subtly, to be sure—in his Occident. Relations between him and his congregation deteriorated, and he finally resigned in September, 1850. For the next seven years, he was without a pulpit until, in 1857, his friends and admirers founded a Sephardic congregation in Philadelphia and invited him to occupy the pulpit. The name they took is revealing: The True House of God (Beth El Emeth). The new congregation was kind and generous to its sick old hazzan who was happy to have a forum for his views. Leeser never forgave Mikveh Israel, and the congregants never regretted letting him go. They were very content with Sabato Morais, his successor. Morais, a genial, cultured Italian, thought the board autocratic, but worked with it harmoniously; he had no trouble securing the tenure denied Leeser: this is interesting! Simon Wolf, an eminent American communal worker, said that Mikveh Israel had tortured Leeser, that he was a martyr.

What was behind Leeser’s feud with the congregation? The quirks of a neurotic? There is much more than this to the quarrels between the two. The ultimate conflict was between “church” and “state,” between the clergy and the laity. As far as the present sources indicate, Leeser was the first Jew in this country to fight such a battle in the synagog publicly, vigorously, and sacrificially. As a minister, he wanted to speak his mind fully in the pulpit; he insisted in vain on the right of the hazzan to appear before the board and congregants and address them on personal matters. Like most clergy, he sought to improve his position; he wanted better pay, a vacation, a long grace period if he were discharged. It was his belief that the shohet and the beadle were, to a degree at least, subject to his authority. With the congregational officiants in mind, there was no doubt where he stood; there could be but one skipper on a ship. Possibly the real underlying source of the contention between Leeser and his opponents was a cultural-religious one. The congregants would in no sense cooperate with him as he strove desperately to initiate new Jewish religious programs. He was completely frustrated. The board wanted a functionary to read the prayers, officiate at the life cycle ceremonies, and listen respectfully to the dicta of the board and congregants. It did not want a Jewish scholar or a spiritual leader.16


Leeser was a conforming traditionalist. His system of beliefs was not of his own making; it was the theology of most affiliated Jews, of those who accepted the Hebrew Bible as it had been interpreted by the rabbis throughout the ages. In a formal sense, Jewish religious doctrines were not authoritative; there was no hierarchy to impose belief in such matters. The liturgy included the twelfth-century Maimonidean articles of faith but this credo was but one man’s theology. For many, the Maimunist creed was sacrosanct; for a few, it was a point of departure, but if there is a traditional Jewish confession of faith, this is it. Actually, theology was no matter of concern for American Jews; they took their doctrines for granted. They sang the Yigdal, a credal poem, without ever reflecting on its meaning, its theology; they were interested in the melody. Jews in the United States rarely argued on matters theological except with missionaries. There was a theological consensus; people would have agreed that a creed was a good thing to have but not to discuss. Then, wherein lay its importance? But this is what the Jews had believed for the past 3,000 years; this is why their ancestors had died at the stake; this is why they erected a barrier between themselves and the Gentiles. Christians believed in a loving divine Trinity, in which Christ played the most prominent role. Believe in Jesus and you will be saved. And the Christianity which in this generation confronted the American Jew? There were different and various streams of Christian thought here, for this was a period of religious ferment. There were evangelicals, liberals and radicals, Deists, rationalists, skeptics; Enlightenment influences were strong in the late eighteenth century and were to continue well into the nineteenth. Though Deism had declined its followers were still numerous. Many Gentiles indifferent to their inherited Christian faith, joined no church. Proportionately, there were certainly more Jews in the synagog; it was for them an indispensable social institution. Though not a social center, it was always to remain the core institution for Jewish religionists. The advances of science and critical scholarship chipped away at Jewish orthodoxy, but left it unshaken here in America; the synagog was permissive, tolerant, rarely inquisitorial.

Jews as a body resisted the advances of the Christian theological liberals; just as they ignored, almost contemptuously, any proselytizing tentatives of the evangelicals. Perceptive Jews, both laymen and clerics, however, were not unconscious of the fact that there was turmoil in the Christian world about them. Reacting to the radicalism of European confessional innovation, a Protestant counterreformation had set in here. Evangelical Christianity was reborn; the Second Great Awakening and the revivals brought thousands back to Christ and the gospels. Sects and communitarian idealists proliferated; faith and piety took on a new life. Not unmindful of the moral implications of the nineteenth century, orthodox Christians began manifesting a humanitarian philanthropic concern for the masses in every region of the world. New evangelical societies, interdenominational and voluntaristic, arose in the United States. There were Sunday schools, home and foreign missions, new seminaries, Bible and tract societies, and dozens of new Christian religious journals. Motivated by religious idealism, Christian organizations set out to help and save a suffering humanity. It was a grand design, an ethical outreach of almost breathtaking proportions.17

How did the liberal-radicals and the conservative Christian religious movements and societies influence Jews? Individuals, attuned to the best in the Gentile world about them, were affected. Leeser, in his Instruction in the Mosaic Religion, still deemed it imperative to wage war with the Deists who had made some inroads into Jewry. The schismatic Jewish Reformed Society founded at Charleston in 1824 was more than adequate evidence that radicalism had affected this cultured southern Jewish community profoundly. Yet, liberal Christian religionists like the Unitarians, the Universalists, and the Transcendentalists seem to have left Jews untouched spiritually, in all likelihood because these Christians had still not emancipated themselves from Christology and consequently could hold no charms for Jews. Protestants stressed the Bible and allowed every individual to interpret it as his mind and prejudices dictated—an invitation to sectarianism which the Jews rejected; they were too small to afford the luxury of atomization; they presented a solid front. The Jews, frowning on freedom of interpretation, stationed themselves to the right of Protestantism; for them the halakah, the Law, provided all answers. Protestants churches emphasized their differences; Jews were quite content to remain loyal to their own collective ethnos and tradition. Gentile communitarianism, with its centrifugality, left them untouched; all Jewry constituted a “community.” Any sectarian hankerings Jews had were apparently satisfied by the constant synagogal secessions; these gave free play to Jewish centrifugal impulses. Inconsequential liturgical differences assumed importance; newcomers hastened to establish congregations based on country or region of origin; by 1840, various synagogs had been established in New York in which American-born, or English, or “Polish,” or German Jews played the leading role.

Right-wing Christian orthodoxy may well have confirmed Jews in their own unyielding adherence to traditional doctrines. Jews were exposed to Christian Evangelicalism on all sides. In general, the children of Israel preferred to avoid extremes on both the right and the left. There was very little spiritual ferment among them; revivalism left them cold at best. Mystery, grace, spontaneous emotionalism in prayer—all these were foreign to the American Jewish tradition of rationality, even though manifestations of the inward experience in the form of Hasidism were common in contemporary Eastern Europe. The Jews of the early American republic were not romantics—despite their prayers for the restoration of the ancient homeland; actually they were not looking backward; in a larger sense, their liturgical “Zionism” reflected a sanguine hope for the future; tomorrow will be better than today. American Protestants, in a curious mixture of theology and philanthropy, set out to save all human beings, but Jews were not concerned with all-encompassing humanitarian reforms; their problems were too immediate. Universalism has never been absent from Jewish liturgies—but first things first! Anxious for their own physical survival on this continent, most Jews limited themselves pragmatically to their welfare confraternities.18

Theology was all important for Protestants, but was no vital factor in the lives of most Jews; it posed no problem for American Jews who remained on the whole steadfastly oblivious of its existence, its challenges, its emotional and intellectual demands. Jews were not really concerned with salvation in the hereafter; they wanted security here within the bosom of their own group—this, though Judaism is a religion, with a theology of its own and, if confronted with the need to define itself doctrinally, could do so. In brief, what did American Jews believe? Actually, all traditional Jews of that day subscribed to commonly held Jewish doctrines: There is one God, the creator, unique, incorporeal, beneficent, omniscent, immutable, eternal; he has revealed Himself to mankind through the Torah, the Law, the Teaching to be understood only as interpreted by the rabbis through the ages. This Torah was given to the Chosen People with whom God covenanted at Sinai, and they have been elected by Him and, in His own good time, will be restored to their Promised Land; as of now, having sinned, they are in exile. God gave them free will to do good or evil; they chose evil and broke the covenant; they sinned and are being punished, for God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. When they observe God’s moral and ceremonial injunctions, when they repent, they will be forgiven, the messianic son of David will make his appearance, the Jews will return to the Land of Israel, the dead will rise and the just among them will live on forever in bliss. In essence, this theology is incorporated in the thirteen Maimonidean Articles of Faith, which can be understood as a polemical catechism directed against Christianity and Islam: God alone (not Jesus) is worthy of worship; God has revealed Himself through Moses and biblical Prophets (not through Jesus or Mohammed); there will never be another Law (pace the New Testament and the Koran); ultimately, the Lord will send His Messiah and he will not be Jesus.19


The twelfth of the thirteen Maimonidean articles reads: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah.” Did American Jews take seriously the coming of the Messiah and the Restoration? Sentimentally, yes, for Restoration means a reborn people living on their own soil and endowed with power and high status. That is why most American Hebrew congregational names are messianic in character: Jews are the Remnant of Israel who will be saved (Shearith Israel, New York); the Scattered Ones will be returned (Nidhe Israel, Baltimore). The hope of Israel (Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia and Savannah) is that the Dispersed of Judah (Nefutsot Yehudah, New Orleans) will one day be restored. All traditional Jews in their synagogs prayed daily, as they do today, for a speedy return to Palestine. Was this merely a pious wish, or was it a genuinely political hope to be implemented speedily? With the exception of Mordecai Noah, there is no evidence that Jews of that day in America contemplated any sort of political action to establish a modern state; in that sense, there were no Zionists. Most Jews are likely to have read the Restoration passages and phrases mechanically, though a few did envisage a divine Restoration in their own day. One of these last, Noah, sketched the outlines for a contemporary political return, though the pre-Restoration training colony he proposed to establish in western New York State was certainly not devoid of commercialism. Political events in the United States and Europe from 1783 on stimulated some Jews and Christians to hope for a speedy Restoration through divine intervention; the political cataclysms they were witnessing in the age of the American and French revolutions and Napoleon were construed as the “birth pangs” of the Messiah.20

If America has achieved independence, why not the Jews in Palestine? As early as 1784, a New York cantor, Van Oettingen, prayed that Jews might enjoy their freedom in a Restored Palestine even as the thirteen states have been emancipated. But the text of his petition to God shows that he is thinking in traditional religious, not political, terms; his prayer voices hope for the restoration of the sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple and for the resurrection of the dead. From the 1790’s on, a number of Christians in England and in the United States, too, believed that the millennium was at hand; the Messiah was ready to appear; at any moment, the Jews would be brought back to the land of their fathers. Brochures and books calculating the speedy coming of the Messiah were reprinted here from the London originals of the 1790’s. Seixas followed these messianic speculations carefully; among his papers are some notes of a European rabbi suggesting that the Messiah would make his appearance in 1783. Seixas, stimulated by the prevailing nationalistic sentiment in the North American republic, may have hoped for a speedy return of the Jews, but warned the members of his flock that God would not restore them until there was a moral reformation. Seixas proposed no political action. He was an American patriot; this was his country; the Restoration would have to come about through divine, miraculous action. Again, the Napoleonic wars furthering a version of the revolutionary program in Europe certainly encouraged some to hope for a new Jewish state in Palestine. There were rumors in the 1790’s that Napoleon would reestablish the ancient United Kingdom of the Hebrews. In 1806, the emperor assembled a European congeries of Jewish notables and that same year convoked a Grand Sanhedrin on the pattern of the old Sanhedrin, though in this Jewish congress of sorts nothing was said about a Jewish state. Even so, some Jews could not help thinking in terms of a reborn Jewish Palestine. Seixas at the turn of the century and Noah during the first half of the 1800’s reflect the messianic or “Zionistic” thinking of American Jewry. Though not untouched by immediate political events and hopes—in Noah’s case, especially—their views were essentially traditional: God will restore us. Jews in those two generations, 1776–1840, may have flirted with the thought of a Third Jewish Commonwealth, but they did nothing. And what could they have done? God, after all, would have to carry the outcasts of Israel and the dispersed of Judah on eagles’ wings back to the land of the patriarchs and the prophets, as He had promised in Holy Writ (Exod.19:4, Isa. 11:11ff.).21


As far as the record indicates, Leeser had few if any problems in the congregation on the score of his theology. Undoubtedly, some members of the congregation stood to his left, but they were not vocal. A few may well have shaken their heads in disagreement when he preached against gift giving on Christmas. Was there no Santa Claus? Those in the synagog who were unhappy with the complete Hebrew liturgy could always stay away; attendance at worship was not compulsory. Leeser’s fight for more decorum could hardly have offended anyone. On the whole, he wanted no deviation from the “old paths … the good way” (Jer. 6:16). Where did he stand theologically? What was his creed? Like all Jews who prayed in the traditional synagog, he was in full accord with the teachings of Maimonides as laid down in his thirteen articles of faith. Actually, wrote Leeser, the Jews have no formal profession of faith; the whole Hebrew Bible is the word of God—and, he admonished the unobservant, if you do not implement God’s teaching as incorporated in your copy of Holy Writ, then burn it! Anyone who denies the Torah will come to a bad end and might even perish on the gallows. God punishes sinners; if there are yellow fever and cholera epidemics, it is because God is angry. Reform Jews who ignore God’s commands … are an ungodly lot!22

Christian theological concepts were never totally absent from the thinking and writing of notable American Jews. Leeser believed in original sin. When Adam transgressed God’s command, he was driven from the garden of Eden; the sin he committed is transmitted to his descendants in every generation. American Jews found it easy to adopt Christian theological phraseology. Seixas spoke of salvation, regeneration, grace; eulogizing the dead Seixas, Naphtali Phillips said that he had returned to the bosom of Abraham; Rebecca Gratz in her will spoke of God’s redeeming love. When Rebecca’s Female Hebrew Benevolent Society made an appeal for funds, it reminded fellow Jews that God loveth a cheerful giver; let us not be weary in well doing—phrases from the Christian gospels, the Epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians (II Corinthians, 9:7, Galatians, 6:9). The good ladies had attended schools where the New Testament was taught and memorized. Leeser made it quite clear that all the laws in the Mosaic Code, the Pentateuch, must be observed. It is immaterial that some of these ordinances cannot be justified rationally; the Jew has no choice; God’s commands must all be obeyed; the moral and the ritual prescriptions are equally important. When the Jews return to the Promised Land, Leeser said, they will reintroduce the biblically stipulated animal sacrifices, but—modern as he was—he rationalized the motivation: sacrifices cannot atone for sin; they are an expression of thanks.23

When the Restoration dawns, must all Jews go back to the Land of Israel? What of the happy Jews in America? Leeser posed and then answered this question. The Restoration will come, but not every Jew will return. Even so, he said, those who remain behind must nurture the traditions of the Jewish people; Hebrew must be taught; kinship must be stressed. The Diaspora has in no sense been a loss where the Gentiles are concerned; they have been benefited by the Dispersion of the Jews, for the knowledge of God has been spread everywhere. The Jews are called upon to serve as moral examples to all the nations. In essence, Leeser was preaching the “mission” of the Jews. Only the Jews possess God’s Law, the original ethical code, a “Teaching” superior to all others. God has chosen the Jew to be a messenger to the world. This is why the Jews are the Chosen People. They have a mission to mankind:

We are God’s chosen race … that we

might become … the moral reformers of the world.

The world will yet accept this Law as the Jew interprets it. Leeser hoped to see a day when the pulpits of a thousand American synagogs would resound to the eloquence of American-born preachers and writers: “This country, let my readers believe me,” he wrote, “is emphatically the one where Israel is to prepare itself for its glorious mission of regenerating mankind.” The greatest contribution the Jews have made to humanity and civilization is the Jewish religion. Why then Restoration, Return to Jerusalem? There is no peace on earth; Christianity has never brought rest for mankind. There is no peace anywhere. A messianic redemption is imperative if we are to see an end to wars. This is what Leeser said in the wake of the American Civil War, a catastrophe in which hundreds of thousands died or were maimed.24

As a modern man, Leeser was determined to enjoy the best of the two worlds he knew, the world of miracles and the world of reality. Though committed to a miraculous divine Restoration, he adopted a realistic approach to the problems of Palestine. Disillusioned with the inefficient and wasteful system of dispatching messengers from Palestine to solicit funds for its Jews, Leeser supported his colleagues in the effort to establish a national American collection agency with local branches. National appeals were made in the 1850’s and the monies were sent to the English philanthropist Montefiore for disbursement. Leeser, like many other Jews of his day, objected to the doles parcelled out; he saw them as pauperizing the recipients and instead wanted the Jews of the Holy Land to return to the soil, to crafts, to self-supporting effort. This pragmatic attitude explains why he was willing to support Warder Cresson, the Quaker proselyte, who set out to teach farming to Palestinian Jews. The Jewish unemployed and persecuted in the Diaspora, Leeser thought, will stream to an economically viable Palestine. Leeser’s mind-set and way of life were conservative—in keeping with the counterreformation evangelicals among whom he lived—but he genuflected also in the direction of the sciences. The Law, written millennia ago, is true; Leeser—and Seixas, too—never questioned it, but both believed that science and religion were not necessarily hostile and could be congruent.25

It was Leeser—much more than the less articulate Seixas—who laid the foundations for an American Jewish Orthodoxy. Unwittingly influenced by his German background, he helped Protestantize Judaism here in the United States. A preaching minister, he looked upon Judaism as a creed, a Konfession. Leeser, well read and intelligent, was fully aware of the political, religious, and social philosophies of his non-Jewish contemporaries. Like Seixas, he read what the liberals and radicals wrote, but remained firmly entrenched on the right. He was familiar with Calvinism and other Protestant concepts and doctrines. As were all Jews, he was exposed to the surrounding Christian religiocultural milieu. His stress on the Bible was not typically Jewish; it is more characteristic of Christian, in particular Protestant, thought. Not Bible but postbiblical writings have been emphasized in rabbinical Judaism for the last 2,000 years. It is not too much to say that both Seixas and Leeser were American Jewish clergymen in a somewhat Protestant mold.

These two men were different from European rabbinic scholars, who interpreted the Bible undeviatingly in talmudic terms. Seixas knew very little Talmud, Leeser not much more. In theory and in practice, both men accepted the rabbinic codes and doctrines without reservation, but each leaned heavily on the Hebrew Bible and held it the basic Jewish book. It is worth noting that they stressed the Bible’s ethical rather than its ritual precepts and ceremonies. In this way both leaders furthered an Orthodoxy that would mesh with the European Enlightenment, egalitarianism, and the accepted civilities. Both of them insisted on a worship service of dignity and decorum. Leeser, by 1840, had become the country’s outstanding Jewish theologian. Though devout, he was no bigot. Reminiscent of the Christian antebellum gentlemen theologians who preached in the towns and cities, he believed his religion a reasonable one. Leeser reached out to the world; in his catechisms and sermons, he emphasized the dignity of all human beings and spoke of the duties the Jew owed his fellowman. In general, Leeser must be counted a universalist; he had a strong sympathy for proselytes; the mission of the Jew, as he saw it, was to welcome everyone into Judaism. It was wrong to quarrel about theological differences; it was sinful to hate others because they cherished dissimilar beliefs. This Philadelphian preached peace, the love of neighbor, the need to help the poor and the sick; he talked of aiding one’s enemy. When Lincoln died Leeser recited the memorial prayer for him, a prayer generally reserved for Jews. Anticipating criticism for memorializing a Christian, the martyred president, Leeser said that all men are created in the image of God and all have a claim on his mercy, even if not Jews.26


Leeser was wholly Orthodox and wholly modern. It was his good fortune to have been reared in Westphalia at the time the Jews were emancipated under French occupation. He was accustomed to political equality; and the German reaction after the fall of Napoleon served to confirm him in his love of liberty. Undoubtedly, too, his love of freedom was heightened by his sponsor Sutro who fought for rights and immunities after Prussian rule had been restored. Leeser used two German textbooks as sources for two of his religious works; both authors, Johlson and Kley, were to the left of Leeser. They were no ghetto Jews and he was no ghetto Jew. As a modern man, he would certainly have frowned on the zealotry of a younger contemporary, the Hungarian rabbi, Hillel Lichtenstein (1815–1891), who was opposed to modern secular education and denounced the new rabbinical seminaries where rabbis were trained to confront the problems of contemporary society. This extremist objected also to the playing of musical instruments and to games like chess and checkers. Lichtenstein had no sympathy for his colleagues in the Austria-Hungarian Empire who fought to remove political disabilities. The Jew is in Exile and must suffer until God is ready to redeem him. One thing the two clergymen did share was an aversion to Reform Judaism. Leeser, however, did want to institute certain reforms in the traditional services; he, like many observant Jews, favored abolition of money offerings during worship. Donations distorted the prayerful mood and lengthened the services, while their requirement from those called to the Torah penalized worshippers and, indirectly, rewarded those who absented themselves.27

In short, Leeser wanted more decorum, more dignity, more reverence. He objected to the old custom of swaying followed by most Jews as they prayed. Unintelligible liturgical poetical compositions (piyyutim) could well be omitted. He, like some others, was ready to exclude prayer book passages which were out of harmony with the times; what he had in mind were prayers reflecting medieval persecutions and breathing a desire for revenge. (What would he have thought of the German Holocaust with its millions of victims?) Rationalism was not absent from his teachings, and he attacked superstitions, although he did not stop to define them. There is no reason why a Jew cannot observe the Sabbath and the dietary laws meticulously and yet be a cultured educated person! In his own way, Leeser attempted a symbiosis of science and religion; science, in his view, helps expound the word of God. Jewish beliefs and practices must be founded on reason, said Leeser, and in the same breath maintained that revelation takes precedence over logic. This antinomy apparently posed no problem for him. Leeser’s positive approach to the Gentile world in which he lived made it possible for him to admire and respect Christians, to cultivate their friendship. (In his Westphalian days, he had read and studied the New Testament in a Catholic secondary school. This was most unusual.) A man, as he saw it, has no right to quarrel over religion; belief is a matter which concerns the individual and his conscience.28


In I Corinthians 9:22, Saul of Tarsus said that he was all things to all men; Leeser, a latter-day “missionary,” was all things to the Jews, for he functioned as rabbi and hazzan and was also prominent as author, preacher, publicist, apologete, communal worker, educator, and national leader. He was a true missionary, for he set out to save all American Jews for Judaism. To effect his purpose, he traveled thousands of miles all over the eastern half of the United States. Asbury, the Methodist, is said to have preached about 16,000 sermons and to have traveled 300,000 miles in pre-railroad days—at an annual salary of $64. The Philadelphia rabbi’s record is not comparable, but he was the first effective American Jewish home missionary; American Jewry was well aware of his presence. It seems indisputable that Leeser was influenced by the feverish Protestant religious activity. Important denominations were establishing educational societies; more than twenty-five theological seminaries had been founded by 1840. Leeser’s was a day of Christian tracts, publications, and Bible associations. Missionary organizations dedicated to bringing the gospel to American and transoceanic Gentiles, infidels, were now established. Leeser would have liked to help the Chinese Jews and bring them the solace of Jewish tradition.29


In his work as a “home” missionary—home means American religious activity in contrast to foreign missions—Leeser emphasized preaching. Preaching, in one form or another, was not new in the synagog; it is probably as old as the synagog itself. The Reformers in Germany had emphasized the vernacular sermon ever since the first decade of the nineteenth century in Leeser’s native Westphalia. Hortatory addresses had been delivered occasionally in London’s Sephardic Bevis Marks since the 1700’s; more regular preaching was introduced with the dawn of the nineteenth century. Preaching was not entirely new even in the American synagog, for under British rule and subsequently under the new American republic, all congregations, Christian and Jewish, were called upon to hold special services of thanksgiving and humiliation, thanksgiving for good harvests and military victory; humiliation, in the face of epidemics and disasters. Eulogies were delivered for deceased rabbis; sermons were preached by laymen and by the clergy when synagogs were dedicated. After the Richmond theatre burnt down on the day following Christmas, 1811, taking dozens of lives, Samuel Mordecai was called upon to memorialize Jews who had perished. Speaking for his auditors in excellent English on January 1, 1812, he voiced their gratitude to God who had spared them. Let them now thank Heaven by living lives of virtue. The only explicitly Jewish note in this brief appeal was Mordecai’s assurance to bereaved kin that those who had died were now enjoying eternal bliss in the bosom of Israel. Sermons, lectures, and orations were by no means unusual in the first two decades of the 1800’s in the five synagogs. The Reformers in Charleston, influenced by the rebirth of the sermon in Germany, advocated regular preaching in 1824, though there is no evidence that preaching was a regular part of their services. A year later, in his grandiloquent proclamation calling upon the Jews of the world to establish a colony in New York state, Noah encouraged them to preach in the vernacular. New York’s Bnai Jeshurun regaled its members with an occasional religious talk or lecture. Had any objection to preaching been interposed by conservatives, it could have been pointed out that Hamburg’s meticulously observant Chief Rabbi, Isaac Bernays, was preaching in German to his followers.30

In general, no regular preaching was known in American Jewish synagogs before the 1840’s. Hazzanim were rarely able to preach, and congregations were not ready to listen. Sermons prolonged an already lengthy service; sermons were thought to be Christian or Reformist, hence suspect. In 1850, when Leeser severed his connection with Mikveh Israel, an anonymous pamphleteer attacked him with the claim that he had put too much emphasis on his homily and too little on the service itself. Preaching in that theological age was important to Christians, but not to Jews; the supplications in the venerable prayer book supplied their spiritual wants. They enjoyed rattling off the familiar Hebrew petitions, entreaties, and psalms, familiar to them since their childhood. Leeser had other aims; he was determined to edify his people by using the vernacular. Without education and understanding, without admonition in a language Jews knew, there could be no survival for them. He was almost obsessed with the need to preach. Was this determination to be heard tied up with his personal problems of expression and recognition? The young Leeser preached his first sermon on June 2, 1830, interpolating it toward the end of the service before the final hymn. Later some of his talks were even delivered after the last hymn; they were actually not part of the worship. Many years later Leeser said, almost apologetically, that he had initiated his preaching because friends had asked him to do so. This may be taken with a grain of salt.31

Though the board had hired him to chaunt, not to preach, Leeser was determined to talk and was equally insistent that the pulpit be free. He fought for that freedom, but was never successful. There were times he had to submit his manuscript in advance to the trustees. At the most, he never preached more than once a month. He did not believe in preaching every Sabbath; there was “no profit or pleasure” for auditors who were constantly harangued. In his effort to induce the board to make the sermon part of the service, he seems to have had the support of the women. It was not until 1843, thirteen years after his first address, that the congregation agreed to integrate the homily into the ritual. He had kept after his people, pointing out to them that sermons were then being preached in England and in America, in prestigious synagogs. One may venture the opinion that he restructured the American Jewish rabbinate from a scholarly-judicial one to a preacher-educator one. How effective was this pioneer? Did he influence other congregations to follow in his footsteps and introduce the sermon? Since he was the first to preach regularly, other hazzanim may have cited his example if they were eager to address their congregants. But only a few were; Samuel M. Isaacs of New York seems to have been the only other American Jewish clergyman who preached regularly before 1840. Rebecca Gratz was impressed by Leeser’s preaching, and she was a discriminating judge. No later than the 1850’s, in congregations where there was no minister, a layman would occasionally read one of the published sermons of the Philadelphia rabbi. Christians, bred on edificatory literature, bought and read his published works, including his sermons.32


Not only in his sermons but in almost everything he wrote and published, Leeser never forgot that he was an apologete for traditional Judaism. In talking to his congregants and to other Jews, he dwelt on the importance of their ancient heritage. Judaism was God’s chosen religion; the Jews were his darlings. Thus he encouraged his people to believe in themselves and to respect the religion they professed. He was always eager to inculcate in them a degree of pride and to give them knowledge to refute their opponents. With equal zeal he defended his people against the misrepresentations which so often characterized Christian writings about Jews. There is no known report that Leeser ever spoke in a Christian church; thus he could not champion his faith from a Christian pulpit. In his dealings with Christians, he wrote much that was polemical and he attacked Gentiles for their unjust aspersions on his people. Was this type of apologetics necessary in America? Leeser certainly thought so, and he was right. Prejudice against Jews was strong throughout the 1800’s. Most Christians were convinced that, unless these infidels turned to Jesus Christ, they would be damned eternally. It was not until the very year of Leeser’s death, 1868, that North Carolina opened all elective offices to Jews; it would still be another nine years before all disabilities were removed from Catholics and Jews in New Hampshire. A number of Leeser’s works were written deliberately to refute attacks on Jews and Judaism. Whether Leeser ultimately accomplished anything in this realm is moot, but he advocated and pursued a vigorous policy of counteraccusation. In 1844, when Israel Daniel Rupp invited him to write about Judaism, he responded with alacrity. Though in no sense a polemicist by nature, he never failed to let the Gentile world know that the laws of the Hebrew Bible had not been abrogated, that Jesus was not the Messiah, that Jews required no mediator. Defending his people against a common accusation in a day when eighteenth-century physiocratism was still very much alive, he told his Christian readers that Jews were not averse to agricultural labor; they were interested in what today would be called the social sciences and evinced proficiency, if given the chance. If Jews were disliked, the real reason was envy; persecutions in the past were motivated by the desire to plunder Jewry. The reason the Scattered People had not disappeared was that they could not be destroyed; the God who had dispersed them was the God who preserved them. Were the Jews clannish? What did Gentiles expect? They treat the Jews worse than animals. But Jews were good to one another.33

It is not easy to distinguish between Leeser the educator and Leeser the apologete. His sermons, his essays, his textbooks, his occasional addresses, all his works were intended to edify, to defend, to educate. His first work, Instruction to the Mosaic Religion, was a textbook; his next, The Jews and the Mosaic Law, was an apologia, indeed the first such book written in this country by a Jew. This work, a survey of Jewish practices and beliefs, was intended for both Jews and Christians. The important word in these two publications is “Mosaic.” Leeser sought to emphasize that Jews followed the law of Moses—not the law of Jesus. The polemical nuance here must be noted. By 1837, he had published three volumes of sermons and addresses and in 1867, shortly before he died, had the pleasure of watching a ten-volume edition of his discourses and occasional talks roll off the presses. These ten volumes remain among antebellum Jewry’s most important literary monuments. They are, historically, a priceless source. His Hebrew and English edition of the Sephardic prayer books, six volumes in all, appeared in 1837–1838. It was Leeser’s hope that this liturgy would be accepted as the standard American Jewish prayer book. This eager educator published a Hebrew Reader in 1838 and hoped to follow up this publication with a Hebrew grammar and a volume of readings in the sacred tongue of his ancestors. He wanted Jewish children to study Hebrew in order to understand the meaning of the prayers that they read in the synagog. It was his hope that the new generation would be able to read the Hebrew Bible in the original and understand its contents. The Hebrew Reader enjoyed scant success; the other books in the proposed series never appeared; parents were content if their sons could read Hebrew mechanically—one is almost tempted to say that, for many Jews, there was an inverse ratio between attachment to Hebrew and the capacity to fathom its meaning.34

In 1839, Leeser produced a second catechism; he called it a Catechism for Younger Children. It was a reworking of an earlier German work. Like his Hebrew Reader, it was written for the Jewish Sunday School, opened just a year earlier by Rebecca Gratz. Leeser unfortunately lacked the ability to write books for children; it was not in him. He himself realized this deficiency, and no doubt at his suggestion two sisters, Miss Simha Cohen Peixotto and Mrs. Rachel Pyke, prepared textbooks that were more acceptable. Leeser was there to help them. Rachel’s text was a revision of one published by the Protestant American Sunday School Union. No wonder that the Jewish generation was tinctured verbally with Protestantism. Simha’s book was popular; Sister Rachel’s rhymed catechism was also well received by the youngsters. It was easy to memorize:

       Q. What should your wish be when you die?

       A. That God may take me when I die to live with him above the sky.35

In 1842, Leeser edited and published Grace Aguilar’s Shema Yisrael: The Spirit of Judaism. Miss Aguilar, a brilliant London Jew of Sephardic ancestry, was known for her poetry, fiction, and books on religion. After her death at the age of thirty-one in 1847, her family published an eight-volume edition of her writings. Her Shema Yisrael touches on God’s love for man, the Ten Commandments, and the importance of teaching religion to children. The Philadelphia hazzan pointed out that Miss Aguilar’s book was directed in part to women, and he agreed that there was much women could do to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Philadelphian was pleased with this London Daughter of Israel—so he called her—because she took time to write a Jewish book instead of some secular piece which would have been far more lucrative. But he also voiced his disagreement with her failure to put sufficient emphasis on the teachings of the postbiblical rabbis. For Leeser, the rabbinical interpretations of the Bible were authoritative unless they contradicted the Scriptures and common sense. The historical importance of Shema Yisrael lies in the fact that Leeser published and annotated her work here in America from a manuscript sent him by this gifted Englishwoman. It may well have been the first time that American Jews met a cultural challenge which English Jewry had ignored—the first faint intimation of an ultimate American Jewish hegemony.36

The same year, 1842, Leeser sent out a prospectus announcing his intention to publish a Jewish magazine. By 1840, the Anglo-Saxons on this continent had already published 850 religious journals; the Jews had published only one which survived but two years. Leeser wanted to reach out and influence all of American Jewry, not merely the Philadelphians. The Jews of Germany, we know, were publishing excellent journals, among them Die Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums and Der Orient; English Jews were enjoying The Jewish Chronicle. Leeser’s periodical, the first permanent Jewish magazine in America, was called The Occident and the American Jewish Advocate. The title tells a story. The paper was addressed to the Jews in the United States and Canada and the Islands: the western periphery of World Jewry, hence the Occident—but Leeser also intended it to be the Jewish counterpart of the Christian Journal and Advocate, the most important Protestant religious paper of that day. The Occident, a monthly, was of course religiously oriented; it set out to save American Judaism, to be the advocate for Jewish life, and to further Jewish literature and Jewish values in this country. Leeser wanted Jews to create a literature that would be both Jewish and American; this, too, meant something new.37

Three years later, in 1845, with the aid of a Protestant Episcopal clergyman, Leeser published the first American Hebrew Bible with vowels; three years later, he issued the country’s first Book of Daily Prayers according to the custom of the German and Polish Jews. Printing this Ashkenazic Hebrew-English work was tantamount to an admission that the Spanish-Portuguese rite he had earlier championed would never become the standard prayer book for American Jews; Ashkenazim, Central and East Europeans, had been arriving in substantial numbers since the late 1830’s and far outnumbered the devotees of the Iberian worship style. There was no let-up for Leeser in his religio-cultural work. He kept pushing ahead; every three or four years at the latest a new book of his appeared. In 1850 he translated Joseph Schwarz’s Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine. Isaac Mayer Wise, in one of his expansive literary moods, claimed that Leeser had admitted to an inability to read unvocalized Hebrew; the translation of the Schwarz book from Hebrew and German proves Wise mistaken. Leeser had an excellent knowledge of biblical Hebrew and a working knowledge of rabbinic Hebrew. (Incidentally, the drawings in the Schwarz book were made by a Jew, probably an American. Graphic artists had begun to come here; as American Jewry increased in numbers, the community attracted technicians and skilled craftsmen from Europe.) In the 1850’s Leeser published three notable works: the first, an English translation of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem; the second, a translation of the Hebrew Bible; the third, a polemical answer to those who sought to convert Jews.

Mendelssohn’s imposing Jerusalem was an eloquent plea for freedom of religious expression; the English translation of the Hebrew Bible—what Christians know as the Old Testament—was the first by a Jew to appear in Anglo-Saxon lands; the polemic was published by Leeser in order to give Jews here the data to refute the claims of Christian disputants. Leeser published his translation of the Bible because he wanted to emancipate the Jews from the King James version which he deemed Christological. (In the previous century, Mendelssohn had done the same for German Jewry—in that case, it was Luther’s version which seemed too Christological.) For the Philadelphia minister, no book was more important; this he believed in common with the millions of Christians about him, but, like his revered Mendelssohn, Leeser wanted a Jewish Bible, one that Jews could read and Christians, too, if they wanted to know what the Hebrew text actually meant. As Leeser saw it: let the Jews now read their Bible if they want to know what has transpired in the past and what will surely happen in the future. God’s will is reflected in his scriptures, Leeser never doubted. In translating the Bible Leeser leaned over backwards to reject many beautiful phrasings of the authorized Protestant version; some of his renditions, alas, are less felicitous and no more accurate.

The anti-Christian polemic which Mikveh Israel’s hazzan published in 1853–1854 was entitled A Series of Letters on the Evidences of Christianity. The author was an eighteenth-century English merchant, Benjamin Dias Fernandes, the maternal great-grandfather of Grace Aguilar. Manuscript copies of these letters had circulated in this country among Jews during the eighteenth century; some had been published in Solomon H. Jackson’s The Jew; others appeared over a period of many years in the Occident and were now collected and published in book form. Missionaries were always hammering away at the Jews, who had no material to defend themselves or to use in order to go on the offensive; now they were fully armed. Leeser had in mind editing a number of such works in a Jewish Controversial Library, but no other polemic was issued in this particular series. In 1860, however, he did republish a work on the Inquisition which had originally appeared in England in 1709 in Portuguese. The English translation, by Moses Mocatta, a London Reform Jew, dated from 1845; the book itself had been written by David Nieto (d. 1728), a London Sephardic rabbi, who published it under a pseudonym, since Jews of the early eighteenth century were still afraid to engage openly in polemics in England. The place of publication had been given falsely as Turin, Italy. Even when Mocatta published his English translation, he distributed it privately; it would be another thirteen years before the first English Jew would be permitted to take his seat in Parliament. English Jewry was still not emancipated. The book in question, edited and reprinted in Philadelphia, was entitled, The Inquisition and Judaism: A Sermon Address to Jewish Martyrs on the Occasion of an Auto da Fé at Lisbon, 1705, by the Archbishop of Cranganor, etc. While the victims of this auto da fé were tied to the stake and before they were incinerated, they had to listen to the Archbishop’s address—which covers ninety-three printed pages. Nieto’s refutation, which follows the Archbishop’s sermon, ran to over 120 pages. In his introductory “Note,” Leeser said that it was still necessary to supply Jews with arguments when confronted by missionaries and other zealous Christians. English Jewry in Mocatta’s time was also plagued by the solicitations of the missionaries; their pertinacity may account for the need to translate this Nieto book and thus make its arsenal of arguments available to English Jews. Ignorant women and youth must be protected against the importunities of the soul snatchers. Inasmuch as the cautious Mocatta had published his book privately, it was not available for purchase in the bookstores.38

Leeser continued to be productive in the 1860’s, the last decade of his life. The year the Civil War erupted, he edited a work by one Sarah Harris, Thoughts Suggested by Bible Texts, etc., a series of edificatory sermonettes followed by a prayer of an ethical nature. Three of the many themes treated here are neighborly love, immortality, truth and falsehood. As was his wont, when he saw a good English book, Leeser reprinted it. One questions very much if he ever bothered to seek permission from a copyright holder. Hester Rothschild’s English translation of Jonas Ennery’s French Meditation and Prayers (1859) was edited by Leeser in 1864. It was a religious manual containing prayers for the Sabbaths and weekdays, Holy Day petitions, and meditations for adults and children, for the sick and the dying. Especially interesting is the section which treated of the Mission of Israel: God has given Israel the task of teaching his divine truths to all the peoples of the earth. Hebrew is our national speech, important for it binds us all, but prayers in the vernacular are very much a Jewish tradition, Leeser said. He hoped—and this was also Ennery’s intent—that these prayers would be used in the synagog and the home.39

In 1864, Leeser wrote an introduction to the first American edition of Aguilar’s Jewish Faith, which had first appeared at London in 1846. Another handbook which set out to edify youth in matters touching on religion and morals, it is in the form of a series of letters from an older woman to an adolescent girl, from Inez Villena to Annie Montague. These “Jewish” names are interesting. Leeser said outright that there was a demand for a book of this type. Was there indeed, or had he succeeded in convincing himself that Jews, particularly women, were inclined to the type of piety so prevalent then in Christian circles? Aguilar went out of her way in Jewish Faith to emphasize the “Old Testament” origin of the concept of personal immortality. Leeser affirmed her conviction. Modern biblical scholars would very probably disagree with both of them. Miss Aguilar, said Leeser, valued her religious works more than her novels; many modern readers would not share her priorities. Leeser’s writings did not sell well, as he admitted. Were religious, moral and ethical works already unfashionable? It is difficult to know the answer. Leeser obviously thought that there was a financial and spiritual market for his wares and hewed persistently to the line he had drawn; American Judaism must be strengthened; he would supply the Jews with a library to answer their needs. That was his determination. Certainly most young ladies preferred love stories to moral meditations but no one in the antebellum period was comparable to Leeser. His vision was all encompassing; when the young Isaac Mayer Wise began to formulate his plans for a new Jewish America in 1849, he was only following in Leeser’s footsteps.40


What did Leeser accomplish? What were his goals? He set out deliberately to give spiritual leadership to American Jewry and at the same time create the institutions and the texts that would further American Judaism. The American Jewish community he confronted in 1829 was less than 10,000 strong; it was nominally Orthodox, but there was lack of interest and there was a pronounced degree of assimilation. Analyzing the reason for this indifference, the Philadelphia hazzan attributed it to the love of money, the desire to escape Jewishness, and to pattern oneself on one’s Gentile neighbors. It was, he said, a day when unbelief was fashionable. This man set out all alone, as it were, to revivify Jewry, to induce his people to adhere to the practices and beliefs of traditional Judaism. By 1840, the problem had been exacerbated by the arrival of the Germans. It was comforting that they tended to be observant, but they had to be acculturated, Americanized, without diminution of religious loyalties. Leeser was completely and utterly an Americanist; he was a patriot. In Richmond, where he had lived for five years, he was exposed to an Americanism of Jeffersonian hue and seems to have been all but completely de-Germanized. Jews in this country, he taught, must be public-spirited; they must zealously support America because here they enjoy rights denied them in other lands. Leeser himself evinced no sentimental attachment to Germany; he had landed in the United States but five years after anti-Jewish riots swept through the German states. He objected to the importation of German Jewish religious functionaries; the communities here, he believed, had to train their own communal servants. There was no reason to speak German; it was the language of a people who had oppressed the Jews. Retaining the German vernacular would only hinder the fusion of the Jewish natives and immigrants. He had set his mind on Americanizing and, though he did not think of it in such terms, Protestantizing Jewry where the amenities were concerned. He wanted an English sermon, he wanted quiet and decorum in worship. The service itself? It must remain completely in Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible? Instruction in it he saw as all-important.41

No later than the 1850’s, Leeser worked to federate the local Jewish social welfare agencies. As one of Philadelphia’s Jewish leaders he helped in the establishment of an orphan asylum, although, like others, he was fully aware of the value of home care for young unfortunates. He worked successfully to help organize a Jewish hospital and, what was no doubt dear to his heart, the fashioning of a local board of Hebrew ministers who set out to supervise shehitah and thus guarantee the integrity of the supply of kosher meat. The Hebrew Education Society knew him as one of its most vigorous protagonists and he rejoiced when in the early 1850’s the Society opened its first all-day communal school. He had been working toward this end since the 1830’s. Moses Elias Levy, Jacob S. Solis, and others, too, would have rejoiced to see the opening of a school where Hebrew, Latin, French and German were taught. He was fortunate in living long enough to see the fulfillment of some of his hopes and plans, all made possible by an enlarged Jewry which included some men and women of vision and devotion to Jewish cultural ideals.42

Fully aware of the progress then being made in the European Jewish communities, he insisted on similar standards here in the schools and charitable institutions. His Occident, infinitely superior to Jackson’s earlier The Jew, was an effective journal. It is to his credit that he did not bury his head ostrichlike and ignore the significance of the incoming Central European Jews. As early as 1841, he realized that this new group was destined to play an important role in the life of American Jewry. He lived to see it dominate the American Jewish communities. Before he died, he had established both a national journal to unite Jews and also the country’s first Jewish publication society. In the 1860’s he had served as president of a B’nai B’rith District Lodge. In Philadelphia, he was among those who had helped create a Jewish Foster Home, though, to be sure, he had quarreled with some of the women who were its founders. Practically every institution in town had been furthered by him—the Young Men’s Literary Association, the Palestine Relief Society, and the local federation of charities. On a national scale, he had attempted to establish an overall American Jewish umbrella-type organization, one that would further national congeries in the fields of education, religion, and philanthropy. Though not without misgivings, in 1859 Leeser did support and help create the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, a national civic defense organization based on congregations.43

Surely he derived satisfaction from the knowledge that he was the first Jewish minister in this country to preach regularly, that he had been able to found an academy whose graduates—so he hoped—would compare in education and culture with the urban Protestant clergy, yet be distinguished for their traditionalism and loyalty to the teachings of the rabbis. To achieve his ends, he traveled extensively. Dozens of congregations learned to know him personally as he moved up and down the length of the land—everywhere east of the Mississippi—dedicating synagogs and encouraging men and women in the outlying communities to hold fast to their Jewish way of life. He was a “home missionary” of far-reaching influence. Some of the institutions he fashioned—the magazine, the academy—foundered in the course of time; others were only sketched on the drawing board; but, ultimately, the pattern which he outlined was adopted and implemented. Plans for Jewish culture, religion, education, were pushed persistently for the first time after nearly 200 years of American Jewish settlement. It is Leeser who was the spiritual progenitor of twentieth-century American Jewish Conservatism and Modern Orthodoxy; it is he who was the prototype for Isaac M. Wise, the most successful of the nineteenth-century religious organizers. Wise outdistanced Leeser because of his personality, his charm, his ability, and because of a confluence of favorable demographic and economic circumstances.44


In some respects, it is indisputable, Leeser was a failure, for his own congregation finally rejected him and let him resign. His major problem seems to have been that he had little inclination to please others; he simply would not stoop to conquer. True, some of the members were “proud, ignorant and presumptuous.” Rebecca Gratz summed up his difficulties in a sentence. “He is the most unselfish person I know … but with it all he is so imprudent in expressing opinions.” When the congregants balloted on retaining Leeser as their hazzan those who had been hurt by him helped vote him out of office. Trying to change American Jewry was too much for one man; he had to carry the load almost alone. Leeser, however, was undaunted. He strove to create a national Jewish religious school system—no such structural organization has yet taken shape in the United States even today. It would be almost twenty years before Philadelphia Jewry would open a city-wide Jewish all-day school. His Jewish Publication Society died, not because of the fire that destroyed its inventory, but because the few Jews in this country were too busy struggling for a living to allow themselves the luxury of a cultural institution. Patterning himself on the various Protestant denominations which had organized themselves both locally and nationally, he hoped that the Jews, too, would build a powerful synagog union to exercise authority in all matters of religion. To his chagrin, the Board of Delegates chose not to exercise jurisdiction where beliefs, theology, and practice were concerned; the leaders knew that the synagogs which they had brought together would tolerate no infringements on their congregational autonomy. The delegates of the board in 1859, like the American Constitutional Convention of the 1780’s, shied away from any type of church establishment; it was too dangerous. Leeser was a centripetalist but the Jewish congregations in this country were not; they invariably insisted—and continue to insist—on autonomy in anything touching doctrine and observance.45

Leeser was unsuccessful in his attempt to effect a significant degree of national religious discipline, but it was a bold concept. He failed to realize that what was possible in the smaller compass of an authoritarian German state was altogether impossible in the vast stretches of a permissive America. Leeser, a devotee of the Sephardic ritual, also failed to understand that his sectarian followers at Mikveh Israel would join no national Jewish religious assembly; they knew they would be outvoted by the Ashkenazim whom they disdained socially. This fear of an Ashkenazic takeover can be detected as early as 1730; it may be still older. The new Germans who had begun arriving in the second third of the nineteenth century were never to become Leeser’s enthusiastic allies. The Philadelphian was no longer one of them; he had become uncompromisingly an Americanist and a Sephardi. This acculturated Southerner who rarely wrote a German letter forgot—as Isaac M. Wise did not—that the newcomers loved the German language, that it was a persistent part of their German-Jewish way of life. It was no longer possible for him to identify with the newcomers intimately. Leeser had never deviated in his devotion to Orthodoxy, but some of the German immigrants, exposed to American laxity, began drifting away in matters of observance; they maintained only loose ties to the synagog. Leeser was annoyed and thwarted by the Reformers, who were growing in power and numbers. Five years after his death, these religious liberals played a large role in the creation of a national synagogal union which would prove so effective that it came to serve as the organizational pattern even for the Conservatives and Orthodox of the next generation. It was Leeser’s misfortune to be a religious conservative in an age when apathy was widespread and when many Jews found a religious haven in Reform. Leeser did not fail Orthodox American Jewry; the Jews of his generation failed him; they were more interested in identifying themselves with this new land than in adhering to the ancient mores. Thus, though he failed in many things, history has vindicated him; present-day Jewish America is in many respects the child of his imagination and his vision.46


Traditional Judaism’s sociocultural religious concepts of man’s place in the world and his relationship to the deity found their classical exemplification in Isaac Leeser’s life, activities, and writings. To understand him is to understand the customary conventional Judaism of this age and to gauge its leadership. Prior to the Civil War, this Philadelphia “rabbi” was the country’s most representative exponent of Jewish faith. His culture and beliefs were typical of Jewry’s thinking elite. True, his own board and his congregants too, looked askance at him and he finally had to leave. Nevertheless, there can be no question that most Jews in America subscribed to the religious fundamentalism which he preached. The key to Leeser is in his German background, his European academic training, his cultured Orthodox Jewish teachers. He meant to advance his people and his religion, to defend Jewry and Judaism from defamation. Leeser cannot be compartmentalized very easily. He was active and productive in several disciplines, all of which overlap. The educational cannot be separated from the religious, since in Jewish life the synagog is a House of Study as well as a House of Prayer and a House of Assembly. The Occident made him Jewish America’s first successful and influential journalist. Fully aware of the assimilatory, permissive pull of the American environment, he set out to enlighten his people, to keep them Jewish. In this effort, he and Isaac Mayer Wise were one; both were editors and used their papers to achieve their ends. Much that Leeser wrote and said was prompted by his fear of missionaries. Like virtually all American Jews, he tended to exaggerate the threat of conversionism. The apostasy of one Jew could destroy a family. Christian religious overtures were resented by Jews; the Children of Israel were completely insensitive to Christian theology, the offer of salvation through God’s son Jesus. They rejected the Christian concept that the Nazarene had died on the cross as a vicarious atonement for the sins of all mankind. Salvation is not of Christ; the very idea was a denigration of the spiritual validity of Judaism.47

It has been said that “no prophet is accepted in his own country.” There is certainly more than ample evidence that Leeser was not accepted in Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. Even so, he was nationally recognized in his own day as the living symbol of Jewish Orthodoxy. People respected and venerated him for his achievements. Trying to induce him to come to New Orleans in 1865, the Dispersed of Judah offered him a large salary; Louisville presented him with a silver goblet for his efforts to champion the Jews and their rights; Charleston’s Orthodox Remnant of Israel gave him a gold watch and thanked him for his work as a minister, teacher, and editor; Simon Wolf, American Jewry’s first Washington lobbyist, dubbed him America’s pioneer Israelite; it was Wolf’s way of acclaiming him the country’s first Jewish leader. Correspondence still extant in the Leeser files in Philadelphia provides eloquent testimony that people from all corners of the land were in constant touch with him. Moses Montefiore, Jewry’s international leader, congratulated the Philadelphia Jewish community in 1845 because it was privileged to enjoy the spiritual ministrations of a Leeser. Following a talmudic observation, Orthodox America would have said that God, the Merciful One, always provided a remedy in advance for every disease with which he afflicts humankind. Before the Reform Jews began their attack on tradition in 1824, Leeser had already landed! The Reform-minded Wise, often a bitter opponent of Leeser, admitted that the Philadelphian was Orthodoxy’s leading exponent, and this was said at a time when the traditionalists were by far the largest Jewish denomination in the country. It was Leeser who consolidated the forces of those who held to the old ways; he fused them emotionally and thus prepared them to withstand the attacks of the religious left-wingers. Through his writings, his visits, his talks, Leeser created a national community of Jewish sentiment. More than any other antebellum figure, he furthered Judaism. If there was a national Jewish leader then in the United States, it was this man.48



When the Americans broke with the British in 1775, American Jewry was minuscule; by 1840, it numbered about 15,000. Though the Jews had increased sixfold by 1840, they were never an important body in the early American republic, but still remained a relatively obscure group nestling at the bottom of a list of churches, between the Sandemanians and the Rogerene Protestants. The typical Jew, busy in his shop on Front Street or King Street, was not constantly conscious of being Jewish. He was an American citizen of the Jewish persuasion. At most, he reserved a very small proportion of his time for the synagog or for thinking of himself as a Jewish religionist. The native-born Jews were totally acculturated, but even this man, the Jewish businessman who was the complete American, had his Jewish goals. The natives wanted to remain Jewish and adapt their religious practices so that Jewry would survive religiously. There was little fear that Jews and Judaism would not live on; the silent rejection of Jewry by Gentiles was the surest guarantee that Jews would stay Jewish. On the whole, Jews were happy to be with their own; they had a basic institution around which they could agglomerate, the synagog; no community could survive without it. Often the synagog embraced within itself the entire communal apparatus; it offered worship services, a cemetery, and a Jewish school system, such as it was, and it controlled the charities.49

In the larger towns individuals clustered around auxiliary religious, philanthropic and educational societies (hevrot), where devotion, fellowship, and a strong sense of intimate togetherness were highly developed. All this made for an attachment to Judaism. The synagog maintained many religious folkways; it encouraged the life cycle ceremonies of birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage, and emphasized constantly the need for kosher food. It worked closely with the home and supported its values. This house of God gave the observant Jew a chance to embrace—if not to study—Judaism, to document his loyalty, to identify with fellow Jews; it gave heart to all who came within the compass of its walls. The synagog was the medium, frequently the only one, through which the community functioned; it helped integrate newcomers and was the cement that bound all Jews together. Gentiles saw in the synagog Jewry’s most representative symbol. The seventeenth-century Jews, the first to settle here, introduced their Spanish-Portuguese prayer book. Thus a precedent was established; the Sephardic rite became the standard worship style and remained the custom of the country for well over a century. Shearith Israel of New York, the oldest of the synagogs, became the “mother church.” Though this synagog has remained Sephardic to the present day, most of its members have been of Ashkenazic ancestry ever since the second decade of the eighteenth century.

Because congregationalism and denominationalism were tolerated in British North America and in the successor American republic, it was inevitable that Jewish immigrants would ultimately band together according to their own familiar rite and region of origin. Jews from German-speaking lands were already sufficiently numerous to establish their own prayer groups in the late 1700’s; there were permanent multiple synagog communities no later than 1801. The Central Europeans had started coming in large numbers by the late 1830’s; by then, the Ashkenazic congregations outnumbered the Sephardic about three to one. The newcomers wanted their own liturgy but the division between the two groups was less ritual than social. The native-born and the Americanized immigrants looked askance at newcomers. Some of the Sephardim even insisted on their own cemeteries. Culturally and socially, the six or seven Sephardic synagog-communities dominated the American Jewish world during this period; and in American Jewish historiography these decades are known as the Sephardic period. Still, despite the differences between the two groups they did manage to tolerate each other. Both the older settlers and the newcomers were equally exposed to anti-Jewish prejudice; often they all huddled together for comfort. There was a degree of cross-fertilization; Rodeph Shalom, a congregation of Central European immigrants, referred to its board as the “junto” employing the Spanish-Portuguese term; the Sephardim used Yiddish words, so that the synagog was always known as the “shul.” With a steady increase in the numbers of Central Europeans, it was patent that the future lay with the Ashkenazic communities.50

To a degree at least, American Jews were held together by their leaders, both lay and clerical. There were exceedingly few lay leaders of national stature but some individuals did enjoy national recognition. Major Noah, the New York layman, was widely known as a journalist, a dramatist, and a litterateur; the Jews in the city called upon him frequently to speak for them in public. In most Sephardic congregations, there was at least one man who served as leader, representing his people in the larger Gentile community. Manuel Josephson did so in Philadelphia, Jacob and Samuel Mordecai in Richmond, the de la Mottas and others in Charleston and Savannah. The Sheftalls, too, stood out as personages in Georgia’s capital city. In Philadelphia, the second generation of Gratzes and other Revolutionary War families, following in the footsteps of their fathers, played a part in synagogal administration. The rise of a militant Protestantism in the early nineteenth century may have had some influence on America’s timid Jews. The religious enthusiasm of the nineteenth-century Protestant Awakening may have strengthened the orthodoxy of New York’s Seixas. His “leadership” was local; he was respected because of his personality and because of the recognition accorded him by the Gentile community. The much younger Leeser was the only Jewish clergyman in antebellum America who stood out as a leader. He was recognized for his work as a “home missionary,” as a writer, journalist, preacher, and educator, and as a man who sought to effect a synthesis of rabbinic tradition and modern secular culture. In a modest way he was establishing the pattern for his successors, the rabbis of the middle and late nineteenth century.

All Jewish communities of the early nineteenth century, with the exception of Charleston’s secessionist Reformed Society, were Orthodox. What was this Orthodoxy? What was it not? Certainly it was not the religion of the Georgia frontiersman who wanted his “whisky straight and his politics and religion red hot.” It rejected totally the Christian revivalist approach with its ardent emphasis on salvation. Unlike Protestant Christianity, whose adherents read and studied the Bible, Jews did not read or study their Scriptures, and, unlike the non-Jews among whom they lived, were not obsessed with a life beyond this one. It is impossible to conceive of a Jewish girl emulating eleven-year-old Hannah Whitaker, who fashioned a beautiful sampler with this verse:

Religion should our thoughts engage

While youth is in its bloom.

‘Twill fit us for declining age

And for the awful tomb.

American Jews of that day were simply not interested in religious speculation; the few intellectuals who wrote and published followed traditional paths despite their magniloquent prose. Observant or not, the typical Jew here was enveloped in an all-encompassing system of institutions, practices, concepts, and biases which offered him a comfortable psychological haven. Christians in their churches sang Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and the Jews, too, made the rafters ring with their magnificent Yigdal:

The living God we praise, exult, adore.

He was, he is, he will be ever more.

But the theological congruence is only verbal. The Christians rallied around Jesus; the Jews rallied around one another. A detailed ideology was not at all important in the sanctuary where they gathered together; the synagog was as much a social hall as it was a religious institution. In that generation—and it may be in every generation since—Judaism meant piety and devotion for only a select few. Rebecca Gratz was among the elect: loving “the laws of my forefathers … they embrace all that is good and holy in religion.” When a certain Moses Levy, of Amsterdam, sent a son to America in 1795, he gave him a letter—spiritual food for the road:

Fear and serve God, avoid all evil, feed the poor,

observe the Sabbath, honor your father, remember your

family, be good and kind to all.51


The synagog had its problems; the churches, too, were not exempt from anxieties and difficulties. There were constant, recurrent depressions; no congregation ever had enough money; the members were frugal; they were not accustomed to giving liberally to religious institutions. Providing kosher meat was a sisyphean task. Even Shearith Israel, the most patrician of synagogs, was mismanaged, as Seixas complained in a letter to his daughter in 1813. During the years when there was but a trickle of Jewish immigrants to the United States, 1789 to 1824, only three new congregations, at the most, were established in this country. Many Jews visited the synagogs during the important Holy Days: formal affiliation was minimal; it is questionable if any congregation, except Beth Elohim of Charleston, had more than seventy-five members. In all America, there were not many more than 1,000 Jewish householders who were registered dues payers. Despite considerable apathy and some defection, Orthodoxy was holding its own. It is probable, though impossible to prove, that the growing membership in the churches impelled some Jews to join synagogs. Christians respected their churches; Jews seeking status may, therefore, have decided to affiliate formally with a Jewish “church.” It was during this period that more room was needed to provide for the new generation of the native-born and the immigrants. The Jews had to build; the old synagogs were no longer large enough. The newcomers—not yet Americanized, their religious loyalty still keen—flocked to the synagog. Strangers in a strange land, they turned to the synagog for security. As yet, they had no desire to explore new ways or accept, let alone introduce, new practices. They read their old prayer books and swayed in traditional fashion, contented religiously, as their fathers had been time without end.52

They were untouched by the new waves of theology and philosophy confronting Christians here as well as not a few Jews in Hamburg, Berlin, and Vienna; these immigrants were totally unaware of the new radical religious streams rising in New England. As late as 1840, after all, there was not a single Jewish congregation in Boston. Taking their old beliefs and doctrines for granted, most Jews ignored the new religious currents. There was a widespread revolt in Protestant America against the rigidities of Calvinism; evangelicals—but also Unitarians and Universalists—rejected many traditional Christian doctrines. With the exception of the 1824 breakaway in Charleston, Jews did not revolt against Orthodoxy, their own version of “Calvinism.” There is no evidence that doctrinal schisms were ever contemplated. Jews then and now formed no community of believers; Judaism possessed no sacraments; “sin” remained a noun without connotation. All that a synagog community required of them was attendance at services; that spelled identification. Quarrels in the synagog would never be doctrinal, but invariably personal; most often they arose out of squabbles over administration. Frustrations would be worked out or exacerbated in synagog meetings; the house of God was the communal arena where all Jews met—and fought. Not improbably, to be sure, some educated natives were ideological liberals; these stayed away from the house of God or disaffiliated or left Judaism. There is no way to determine how many were lost. A number of Jews attended services rarely, swallowing small doses of Judaism annually. God’s angry man Leeser berated his congregants during the Ten Days of Penitence in September, 1833. But the objects of his impassioned denunciations, whether present or absent, could not afford to defect and be left stranded, alienated from their fellow Jews. They were always aware that they would never be fully accepted by Christians, even if they apostatized. All important is the fact that synagogs put up few barriers against individuals who had made their compromises with the outside culture; the synagog was of this world, not outside it.

The liturgy was conceptual. Prayer books published in this country provided English translations facing the Hebrew. Did readers study them as they sat in the synagog? There is no way to know the answer. But all the evidence strongly suggests that even the apathetic nursed a basic loyalty to Jewry, if not to Judaism (in the long run did it make any difference?). Jews were held together by a consensus, the consciousness of a common past, a common tradition, awareness of a similar way of life. With their sense of kinship, Jews identified with one another and responded to cries for assistance both here and abroad. Believing in the concept of the Oneness of Jewry they were interested, genuinely so, in the Jews of India and China. Most Jews were loyal, kept so by their wariness of Christian good will. They enjoyed being Jews and managed to survive very complacently as Jews without effective leadership. Their need for one another and the comforting security of their folkways was all they required. In the final analysis what made for survival? One must first ask who was a Jew in that generation? The ethnic Spanish-Portuguese Jew was, for the most part, long gone.

The novus after 1720 was the liturgical Sephardi, an amalgam of Iberian, Central European, and East European. The Spanish-Portuguese settlers had left their impress on the synagog; its liturgy, its pronunciation of Hebrew, its administration was theirs. Actually an Ashkenazic-Sephardic melting pot had cooked what turned out to be a potpourri of foods, phrases, and intramarriage. Attempts were made in synagogal constitutions to define, if only negatively, who was a Jew, but there was no consensus. It was too dangerous to fix a definition; too many “Jews” would be vulnerable. A precise definition would necessitate the exclusion of some, if not many. There were several Jewish types. Earlier Oliver De Lancey (the second), the son of Phila Franks, was a born “Jew” by rabbinic standards; he was definitely a Christian. At the other end of the spectrum was Isaac Leeser, scrupulously observant of all Jewish religious practices. Between Oliver De Lancey and Isaac Leeser stood thousands of Jews, each one religiously unique. In 1840, most American Jews were not dues-paying synagog members, yet called themselves Jews, observed some Holy Days, and preferred to associate with Jews. They all nourished a sense of kinship. Conversion? Most of them had no interest whatsoever in Christianity. For even the very ambitious, conversion was a price that only a few would pay. Who, then, was a Jew? A Jew in that generation was a man who called himself a Jew, associated with Jews, and did not too flagrantly flout the accepted body of Jewish practices.53

Jews and Jewry survived in the early American republic. Was it because Jews made changes which brought a new lease of life? No. There were no perceptible modifications in the practices of traditional Judaism. There was more apathy here, there was indifference, too, but one finds no surrender in ideology. Survival may have been helped by the homage paid democracy in the synagog. Democracy was inevitable here in the smaller congregations; the alternative would have been disastrous, for every male was needed to constitute the minimum religious quorum of ten. In some synagogs, democracy ruled by default; no one wanted to be president. In the larger congregations an elite probably remained in power. There was little dictatorial control anywhere because of the budget; every contributor counted; constitutions were rarely written to concentrate power in the hands of a few; they were administrative instruments. There had been changes, of course, since colonial times. Every congregation now had not only a parnas, a president, but also a secretary, a treasurer, and a number of committees. The synagogal apparatus was enlarged. The introduction of the sermon in the English vernacular was due entirely to Protestant Christian influence. Because Jews never forgot that, here in America, they lived outnumbered a thousand to one in a Protestant Christian world, they were constantly conscious of their neighbors; they talked a great deal about decorum. Some Protestant concerns, however, did not affect them. They were not interested as a body in social reforms, women’s rights, temperance, or the abolition of slavery. These were all too controversial for this tiny group of what Christendom defined as infidels; Jews here, on the whole, sought low visibility. The social idealism of the Jews was satisfied with the hazy hope in the ultimate Coming of the Kingdom of Heaven when every man would live at peace under his own vine and fig tree. Because of their lack of interest in creed as such, few Jews moved in the direction of sectarianism; if unhappy, Jews seceded and established new congregations, but remained well within the bounds of religious tradition.


In the final analysis, Judaism here survived religiously because of permissiveness within Jewry. Under American influence, latitudinarianism flourished; tolerance of diversity obviated the resort to rebellion. Compulsion was rare; expulsions from congregations were few. Here in the United States, the salvation of the Jew lay in salutary neglect. Though there were lay leaders in every town, very few were such paragons of religious virtue that they inspired imitation. Lay leaders were not responsible for survival, and the clergy had little authority. Every individual conjured up his own conception of salvation and tailored the Law to his own needs. In matters of religion, Jews here did not have to start anew; they brought Europe to America. Transferring their synagogs across the Atlantic they reconstituted the familiar old religious milieu. There was a difference, however. The challenge of speaking a new language, adjusting to a new economy, subsisting in a new land made for a lesser religiosity, because social controls here were weaker than in Europe. But even those who began drifting away found it very difficult to divorce themselves completely, to cut the ties that bound them to their religion.

In the lives of most Jews, Judaism was the continuum underlying their cognitive and affective lives, even if it was submerged and not apparent. Disregarded it might be, yet it remained a not insignificant factor in their consciousness. Jews were a religious people, although not all Jews were religious. Judaism and the Jew were one; religion was the core and essence of the community. Despite all problems, that generation remained Jewish and flourished, institutionally at least. Synagogs multiplied, cemeteries were purchased, charities were established, schools were opened. The complaints of contemporaries and the cumulative evidence of the minute books testify eloquently that the decades ending in 1840 were not years of great religious strength or revival. But the fallible historian too often fails to see the forest for the trees. Here are some indisputable facts: during this period, the synagogs in all major communities were rebuilt, at least once. If this is a criterion, then Jews and Judaism were not only surviving, they were prospering. To all intents and purposes, the Sephardim on the coast and in the piedmont dominated American Jewry; by 1840, however, their synagogs were outnumbered; Americanizing themselves, the “Germans” began moving up the social and economic ladder. The new Ashkenazic synagog was slowly losing its European character; it was influenced by the Sephardim and by established and respected American Protestant religious mores. The new evolving Orthodox Jewish synagog was well on its way to becoming distinctively American.54

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