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The Jews of the early nineteenth century were not stupid; they were fully conscious of the fact that there were defections and this fact disturbed them. They knew something had to be done. At first, it was not easy for them to understand that the fault, the cause, lay in the over-whelming impact of the environment. Many of them, particularly the native-born, were enlightened, cultured, thoroughly Americanized. Their minds had been set free by the American and the French Revolutions, by the Enlightenment. For not a few of them, it was a problem to find themselves emancipated politically and culturally, but not religiously. Now, in the nineteenth century, they had to adapt themselves religiously to tolerant, if not invariably, friendly neighbors. They were not sufficiently history-minded to understand their dilemma fully. Many were unhappy with the inherited traditions of a largely unintelligible Hebrew service and frequently objectionable rituals. They were ashamed of traditional Jewish practices in the presence of their cultured Christian friends. Because they believed that there was no nexus between life and religion, some urban—and urbane—Jews had no hesitation in jettisoning their traditions. But there were others who cared and were convinced that something drastic would have to be done, if Jews and Judaism were to be saved. Like the evangelical Protestants of the 1820’s, loyal to the past, most European Jewish immigrants who had come to these shores had no desire to effect changes. They wanted more Orthodoxy, more devotion to their ancestral teachings. They seceded from Shearith Israel in 1825 to create Bnai Jeshurun, a new traditional congregation of their own. Others, however, were prepared to revolt. Reform Judaism was necessary for the Americanized Jew, if not for the recently arrived immigrants. For most Jews, religion remained important, the core of Jewish life and history, the only guarantee of continuity. Leeser, the traditionalist, and Harby, the liberal, had this in common: Jews, they were convinced, could survive in the liberal American milieu. Leeser hoped to achieve a synthesis of Orthodoxy and Americanism; Harby, an amalgam of Reform and Americanism. The “progressives,” as those on the left might be called, approached the problem of harmonization deliberately; theirs was the first group attempt at a conscious adjustment to American life. If changes were to be made, it was because many believed that they had no choice; the adaptation of Judaism was imperative, if assimilation was to be halted.1


What influenced the rise of Reform in this country? Above all, events in Europe! American Jewry in 1820 was a “frontier” community; all told, not even 1 percent of world Jewry lived here. It was inevitable that French and English influences would make their presence felt. Jewish Deists and freethinkers had been active in Europe ever since the eighteenth century; they had broken intellectually with their past. In the years 1807–1809, Napoleon attempted through implicit threat to catapult French and Italian Jews into the modern world culturally, politically, economically, and spiritually. In the early nineteenth century, individuals in London’s Sephardic Bevis Marks talked of Reform in the service, of decorum and instrumental music. Some of the city’s Ashkenazim also pushed for changes; they wanted to limit the number of financial offerings during the hours of worship and objected to exotic forms of chaunting. Jewish Enlighteners (Maskilim) who had settled in the city encouraged the demand for change—with little success, to be sure. One of these scholars, Hyman Hurwitz (d. 1844), even questioned the authority of rabbinic law (halakah). The philanthropist and communal leader Isaac L. Goldsmid pleaded in vain for a Hamburg Temple reformist type of service in 1831. That same year, the Sephardim did introduce the English sermon though the innovation was of short duration. There was dissatisfaction in London with the traditional forms of worship and inherited beliefs, but no reforms of consequence were made before 1840, when the West London Synagogue of British Jews was established. The new congregants initiated some revisions in the worship service and insisted on decorum.

They were in no sense pioneers, since German Reform was by that time advanced and American Jewish religious radicals had made their appearance in Charleston as early as 1824. Leeser, the conservative, had been preaching regularly in Mikveh Israel ever since 1830. There is no evidence that the agitation for Reform in England had any influence or reverberations here in the United States; the contrary may be true. But the Germans were more influential. American Jews knew that some coreligionists on the Continent, patterning themselves on the Christians, had introduced sermons, art music, the organ, the mixed choir, and the ceremony of confirmation. Europeans Jews were garbing their ministers like Christian clergymen; actually Dutch and English Sephardic rabbis had been wearing Christian clerical dress since the late 1600’s. In 1810, the German Jewish religious reformer Israel Jacobson crowned his little synagog with a steeple and a bell. Such reforms were especially evident in the Germany of the first two decades of the century. That some of the Dutch, Westphalian, Berlin, and Hamburg Jews were modernizing their services was well-known to the impatient intelligentsia here in the United States.2


The first quarter of the nineteenth century in the United States was a period of social concern, of intellectual and religious ferment. Social reformers now devoted themselves to temperance and to the abolition of slavery; there was concern for the insane and a consciousness of the need to advance women’s rights. Utopian colonies began to dot the landscape. Masonry, which emphasized a common humanity, was widespread and commanded the devotion of thousands; for many, it was a new religion. Ever since the 1820’s, Jacksonianism and its radical slogans had become a movement with all the fervor of a religious crusade, suggestive of the political agitation and the turn to the left in Europe and in South America. In the libertarian upheaval here in the United States—actually since the revolt of the 1770’s against Great Britain—Jews began to come into their own. They were granted political equality; with the vote and office came a rise in social status and a larger degree of religious tolerance. Now it was necessary for the Jew who had moved well within the ambit of the Christian community to reevaluate his traditional religious beliefs. He would have to live with Christians; he was eager to command their respect.

This was incontestably a generation of religious ferment among the Christians. Christian orthodoxy was renascent—pietism, revivalism, a burst of an almost unrestrained evangelical fervor. There was movement over on the religious left, too: Deists, anti-orthodox Enlighteners, were still active; people still read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. Let it be remembered that Jefferson did not die until 1826. The Enlightenment was pervasive; idyllic humanitarianism was cherished. This period saw an emerging Unitarianism, important for Jews not because of its theology, which was still Christological, and not for its ethics, which had nothing to teach the Jews who stood foursquare on the Law and the Prophets, but because Unitarianism had a special message for the Chosen People; it was a Christian faith which had revolted successfully against America’s formidable Protestantism. By 1825, there were more than 125 Unitarian churches in this country. The Unitarians, liberals, were complemented theologically by the Universalists, who taught that all decent human beings would share in the joy of the hereafter—a divine democracy. Leftist religious thinking was strengthened in America by Transcendentalism, which emphasized spirituality and individualism.

By the 1820’s, there was religious ferment among some Jews, too, although it was not as pronounced as among the Christians. Social pressure by Jews and the hostility of Gentiles prevented Jews from advocating violation of the traditional mores. Still, if Jews were to change, they would certainly not turn to the right. They found evangelicalism in all its varied forms repellant; it was for them irrational, incomprehensible. For many American Jews of that day, Judaism seems to have been a cerebral rather than an emotional, mystical experience. For those Jews who sought to change the nature of the service or the articles of faith, the road was open. Church and state were separate; all sectarians were tolerated by the government; dissent was the order of the day. Here, Jews were free religiously to organize as they saw fit, if they had the courage of their convictions. Unlike the case in Europe, there was no official Orthodox Jewish hierarchy; there was no government control of the Jewish community. Under the irresistible impact of American culture and civilization, new religio-acculturational goals could be envisaged by all Jews. Immigrants and the American-born were alike determined to shed their “foreign” characteristics. Occasional public celebrations, with Christians present in the synagog, would see Jews studiously embrace the vernacular despite the fact that the service itself was in Hebrew and Aramaic. At such times Jews were most insistent on decorum, on aesthetics. No Jew, no matter his religious meticulosity and his orthodoxy, could escape the relentless pressures, the coercions, of the cultural climate. Jews were eager to fit themselves into the prevailing pattern of Americanization as practiced by the Protestant majority.3

Jews here had to change—religiously, too—inasmuch as their traditional way of life was always threatened with undermining by the free society that was America. They wanted to be like their neighbors; they wanted their neighbors to like them. As far back as the early eighteenth century, perceptive Jews like Abigail Franks (d. 1756) understood that, sooner or later, Jews would have to respond to the challenge of the contemporary culture. She knew how necessary it was to conform to established colonial Gentile amenities. A truly pious and observant woman, she conceded nonetheless that Judaism was clogged with superstitions and voiced the hope that it was time for a Jewish Luther or Calvin. As early as the 1760’s, two supplementary Jewish prayer books were published in English in New York City, a tacit admission that worshipers ought to understand their prayers, that it would not do to rattle off page after page of unintelligible Hebrew and Aramaic. In 1783, Rabbi Gershom Seixas, living in exile at Philadelphia, hesitated to return to his charge in New York. He insisted on a restructuring of authority, on organized budgeting, on “decency and decorum in time of public service.” Even in metropolitan, observant Shearith Israel, Americanization went on apace. By the 1780’s, the hazzan had become a “Reverend” with the garb of a Christian pastor. Ashamed of the chaos in its service, Newport Jewry in 1790 was apparently ready to eliminate the auctioning of honors in the midst of devotions. If there is no one who can chaunt properly, the Newporters were also told by the erudite Manuel Josephson, then read the biblical portions without the lilt, the melody. If the shofar blower is a profligate, don’t blow the shofar; if it is cracked, worship without it. This was accommodation, salutary neglect with a vengeance. It is obvious, too, from Josephson’s correspondence that this congregation wanted to put its best foot forward when it had Gentile guests. The Newport Jews were always very eager for their services to reflect credit on them.4

As in Newport, there were worshippers in Shearith Israel who were not pleased with the customary selling of synagogal “blessings.” Decorous Jews were annoyed by this interruption in the service and objected to it in much the same way that Luther had resented the indulgence peddling of his generation. A protest against this procedure was voiced by Ephraim Hart, who had served the synagog as president in the early 1790’s. This man, a founder of the stock exchange and a large-scale land speculator, was patently offended by the crass disruption of what should have been a spiritual exercise. In 1818, a group of young worshippers in the congregation petitioned the governing board to establish a class in choral singing; it was their hope that the chaunting of prayers and psalms would be conducted with harmony and solemnity. All this is a reflection of the Protestant concept of religious propriety. Early in October, 1821, the handful of Jews in Wilmington, North Carolina, conducted services on the High Holy Days. Because of the lack of male readers during the long services on the Day of Atonement, a service that stretched almost from dawn to dusk, two women were co-opted. Were they fluent Hebrew readers or, as one suspects, did they read only the English translations found on the left paralleling the Hebrew text? One of the readers was Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, a daughter of Jacob Mordecai, that pillar of Orthodoxy. But even Mordecai, who carried on a polemic against Charleston’s religious Reformers, was ready to abolish the financial offerings, to modify the chaunting, and to read some prayers and the prophetic portion in the vernacular. The times were making their demands on this Jew, a native American and cultured Virginian.5

Seeking to conform to the cultural standards of the age, both Orthodox and liberal Jews sought and often enough received the approbation of American notables. These Gentile luminaries responded by urging the Jews to educate themselves, hinting very delicately that they adapt their religion to the demands of the times. Many Jews were amenable to the suggestion that they improve themselves intellectually, for they were members of an urban middle-class which looked with respect on men of culture. In aligning themselves spiritually with this group, the Jews believed that they were following in the footsteps of the humanistic Founding Fathers. Commenting on an 1825 address by the Jewish reformer Isaac Harby, Jefferson wrote:

Nothing is wiser than that all our institutions should keep pace with the advance of time and be improved with the improvement of the human mind.

The comment of Charleston’s Unitarian minister on this Harby oration was in the same vein:

the spirit of the age … will gently and irresistibly convert the present synagogue with its obsolete ceremonials, its unintelligent language … into a rational sanctuary.6

Some individuals nursed radical religious ideas and views which they expressed privately to confidants or tried to effectuate among their fellow Jews and even in the larger general community. One of Moses E. Levy’s coworkers in the effort to effect a spiritual rebirth in American Jewry was Samuel Myers, of Norfolk. In a letter, dated March 2, 1819, this Virginian discussed Levy’s colony project with his father-in-law, Joseph Marx. The latter, too, was quite ready to challenge traditional Jewish practices, institutions, and beliefs, and even to reject some in order to further a modern Judaism. Marx emphasized education. He wanted Jews to be accepted by their Gentile fellow citizens. Many immigrant Jews were not Americanized; these newcomers would have to be educated and integrated into the general community. Myers and Marx were convinced that the Jew had to come to terms with America; it was imperative that he be completely acculturated and accepted by his fellowmen. Unless the essential principles of Judaism are taught to this generation, Jews and Judaism will disappear: Marx had no doubt of it. Jewry, he said, needs a literature, an anthology of our classics that will teach us and thus keep us alive. He had other ideas. A Sunday Sabbath would not only save one day in every week by eliminating the neglected Saturday, but it would also enable us on Sunday to go to synagog and thereby emulate the Christians going to church. Too much time was wasted observing the numerous Jewish Holy Days. Moses E. Levy and Marx had this in common: they wanted to get at the essence of their faith. In effect, these two wanted radical changes, a “reformation,” though they did not use this Protestant Christian term. In their desire, they were to be at one with the Jewish religious reformers who in the decade of the 1820’s would make their appearance in Charleston.7

Levy and Marx wanted to save the Jews; Moses Hart (1768–1852) wanted to save the world. Hart, a Canadian who had spent much time in the United States, offered the world a new substitute for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His father, Aaron Hart, had been a wealthy merchant, of Three Rivers. Moses, Aaron’s first-born son, inherited the major part of the family estates and a respectable share of the various Hart enterprises. This venturesome Canadian developed into a real seigneur, increasing by purchase the large holdings already bequeathed by his father. Literally hundreds of thousand of acres were owned and controlled by him; he paid taxes on property in a dozen different towns, and numerous habitants throughout Lower Canada bowed humbly before him. He lived like a seigneur in more ways than one. In his youth, while his father was still alive, he had sown a large crop of wild oats, and as he grew older, he continued with evident relish the habits of his youth. His brief, unhappy marriage to his cousin Sally Judah ended in a permanent separation. In addition to the family with which his wife presented him, he had at least eight other children whom he acknowledged. Some of them bore the Jewish names of his ancestors and were reared by their respective mothers to be good Christians.

In spite of his many eccentricities—if this is what they were—he was an excellent businessman, a banker, a merchant, and an exporter of wheat to Europe during the Napoleonic wars. Two years after Fulton’s Clermont laboriously chugged up the Hudson, Hart had a steamboat of his own on the St. Lawrence. Money and love alone do not seem to have satisfied him, however. He was politically ambitious and was only dissuaded from running for office by the solemn warning of wise old Aaron Hart that his Gentile neighbors would never elect him, a Jew. He ran for office toward the end of his life only to be rejected by his fellow citizens. In between, in 1807, his brother Ezekiel was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, but the assemblymen refused to seat him because of his religion; five years later, brother Ben was refused a commission in the militia because of personal enmities and because he, too, had been born on the wrong side of the religious fence. The rich Harts had made enemies as they clambered up the ladder of fortune.

Historic conditions conspired to make this a fighting family: the father fought to provide money for his four sons and four daughters; the children struggled for civil, political, and religious equality in Canada. Moses was unique among the brothers; he was a religious radical, bitterly opposed to all established churches and to all revealed religions; he was confident, like all Deists, that the world was ready for a change, for the creedless religion of a self-effacing God, a pale immortality, and a sound system of social ethics. What Papa Aaron Hart never knew was that, whenever Moses went down to Philadelphia and to New York—and his visits were quite frequent—he consorted with the followers of Tom Paine, if not with the archheretic himself. Hart was very close to this theophilanthropist circle, and it may have been through it that he became familiar with the literature and ideals of the French Revolution. In 1794 the same year that Paine wrote The Age of Reason, Hart up in Canada was experimenting with a book of radical prayers. Finally, in 1815, he published what he considered his magnum opus, a pamphlet of fifty-eight pages which he offered to the world as a General Universal Religion. This was a rounded-out liturgical system for the entire year, suitable for all peoples and religions, and sent forth with the hope that it would ultimately be accepted by Jew, Moslem, and Christian, and thus replace these decrepit revealed systems based on ancient writings of dubious origin. It was patterned on radical French revolutionary thought, the Cult of Reason, Theophilanthropism, Tom Paineism, Deism, and a healthy dash of morality, nature-religion, and ceremonial fol-de-rol. It is an interesting religion—appealing in a sense, too—for it encouraged preaching, forbade slavery, limited the subservience of married women, deplored war, and glorified peace. All prayers, of course, were to be in the vernacular. Three years later, a new edition was put out under the title of Modern Religion. This revised work appeared with one notable omission: nothing was said in it of the institution—dear to him no doubt for quite personal reasons—of half-wives and half-marriages, but whole illegitimate children. The latter under this system, were to be legitimatized.

During the decade after the appearance of Modern Religion, Hart made serious efforts to spread his gospel in Canada and in the United States, particularly in Vermont, the home of an old fellow radical, Ethan Allen. In 1820, the year in which the Mormon Joseph Smith was communing with angelic messengers, Hart was arranging to have his Montreal friend John Levi prepare some hymns for the new liturgy. Levi leaned somewhat in Hart’s direction, certainly in his Voltairean attitude toward the church. “It would still be congenial to my feelings,” said Levi, “to witness an overthrow of bigotry, to see the hands of moral feeling fire the unhallowed dome of upstart fanaticism and lay prostrate those whose crimes are shadowed by the cowl.” But Levi had no intention of deserting Judaism. “To speak impartially and dispassionately,” he wrote in a note to Hart, “I aver that of all religions, ours (the Jewish) is the true one, we are taught to believe in the unity of God, and to swerve from this point is violating the divine mandate.” Strangely enough—or is it understandable?—while Hart was preaching the gospel of a universal modern religion, he was also on occasion contributing to rigidly Orthodox Shearith Israel of New York. This was apparently an act of filial piety. It is hard to break with the traditions—the superstitions, he would have gravely interjected—of one’s benighted youth.

Hart wrote, but never published, an anti-Catholic polemic and an anti-Christian essay defending the Jews against the New Testament charge that they had crucified Jesus. In 1821, he carried on an unsuccessful campaign to induce the New York constituent convention to decriminalize blasphemy. A decade earlier, Hart had been shocked by the arrest, fining, and imprisonment of a citizen of that state who had maligned Jesus. The New York Supreme Court, in affirming the judgment, had declared that to scandalize the son of God was an attack on Christianity, that is, the established social order. Chancellor James Kent, who wrote the decision, maintained that any defamation of the general religion of the community was an abuse of the state’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Hart was something of a Don Quixote, but there is no question that he was a sincere, bold, and resolute fighter for civil, political, and religious liberty.8


Why did the Reform movement first appear in Charleston? Was it because a generation was rising here in the city that knew not God or His people? In their desire to save the youth, did the Reformers who now appeared on the scene follow the midrashic injunction of the Psalmist: Now is the time to work for the Lord. Break the Law! Break with tradition! (Ps. 119:126). The answer to this conjecture is that at that time indifference and apathy were characteristic of both Gentiles and Jews in every city; Charleston was not unique. Did Jewish revolutionaries make their appearance in South Carolina because the state numbered many religious liberals? That is not farfetched. Deism was strong among the cultured; South Carolina served as the setting for the anti-clerical propaganda of a Dr. Thomas Cooper, who dared to lecture on “The Authenticity of the Pentateuch.” Charleston was unquestionably one of the most cultured Jewish communities in the United States, possibly the outstanding one. The city already sheltered a group of highly educated young Israelites who were to make names for themselves in the antebellum period: Jacob Newton Cardozo, the economist and editor; Philip Phillips, the lawyer and member of Congress; Henry M. Hyams, who was later to become one of Louisiana’s outstanding politicians and who, when only twenty-one, served as secretary of Charleston’s Reformed Society of Israelites. In 1828, Hyams moved on to New Orleans, the Mecca of ambitious Charlestonians, to engage in banking and to practice law. His activities as a Whig and Democrat brought him recognition, for he served in the state senate for four years before he became lieutenant governor. Laura Smith, his wife, was a Gentile.9

The Charlestonians of this generation had read and studied. They were influenced by the French Enlightenment; they were at home in the writings of the English Deists and Tom Paine; they had a righteous contempt for “bigotry and priestcraft.” The economic, educational, and social advances made by Jewry in South Carolina brought them well within the ambit of cultured Gentiles. This Jewish elite wanted to make sure that the image of the Jew as a polished Carolinian, a man of intellect and learning, would never be tarnished. Judaism must conform to the finest, the best in Protestant Christendom. These Jews wanted a type of service which would not bring the blush of shame when a Gentile was present. The Jewish illuminati may have been influenced by rationally-oriented Protestant clergymen. They were in touch with Samuel Gilman, the Unitarian and litterateur who served the Second Independent Church. Cultured Charleston was a challenge for the bold among the Jews. It was almost inevitable that it would be the scene of a confrontation between radical Jews and those seeking to maintain the status quo. Charleston in the 1820’s sheltered the second largest Jewish community in the country. If the spirit moved them, there were enough educated Jews to lead a revolt and to attract a sizable following. Thus, the rebellion against the Orthodox that was to explode in 1824 was possible because a substantial number of radical intellectuals called Charleston home and among them were several willing to assume leadership. The last is important. The conditions that made Reform possible in Charleston were true as well of Philadelphia and New York, but the leadership was lacking.10


A group of religious rebels made its appearance in Charleston in 1824. Less than a year earlier the Prussian king had at the request of the Orthodox Jews closed the liberal Berlin conventicle. Now the Charlestonians were ready to carry the liberal torch. Though there is evidence that the emerging Carolina reformers had heard of the Prussian edict, there can be little question that the roots, the inciting causes of their movement, were American. Reform Judaism in its origin was indigenous to Charleston. Coincidentally, 1824 was the very year that the youthful Isaac Leeser landed in the United States. When he became the hazzan at Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, he set out to save and rehabilitate American Judaism by furthering an enlightened Orthodoxy. He would devote his life to a Jewish Counter-Reformation directed against the encroachments of secularism and Reform Judaism.11

Like their counterparts in Germany, these Charleston liberals were laymen. Most of them were probably native-born; all were completely acculturated and not very strongly rooted in tradition. Many were not even members of the synagog; apparently, some were synagogal “dropouts,” Isaac Harby among them. Religious officiants, hirelings literally, were subject to the synagogal authorities for their livelihood; they could not serve as leaders; they were not free agents. These South Carolinian insurgents resented noisy prayers in a foreign tongue; they found repugnant the swaying body-language, the raucous hawking of synagogal honors in a Spanish gibberish—they were ashamed of all this, particularly if there were Gentiles in the audience. They did not understand it; they had outgrown it.12

Jews in the North, though aware of the revolt against Calvinism and the rise of secessionist Universalists and Unitarians, were not moved to protest what they knew of conventional Jewish practice. Some of them lived in a world of a double truth. They remained members of the synagog, gave lip service to a theology which often meant little to them, conformed to tradition when and only when it pleased them to do so, and lived happily as political and intellectual—though not as religious—radicals. A Deistically inclined Solomon Simson could even become president of New York’s Shearith Israel. The rebels in the South, in Charleston, faced up to this antimony; they came out in the open. Was theirs a youth movement? There is not much evidence to support this suggestion though Philip Phillips was only seventeen when he joined the group, and Henry M. Hyams was probably only fourteen. Most of the members, it would seem, were adults, young men for the most part. What these Jews sought was a religious service that conformed to acceptable standards established by Christians in their churches. Jews were very eager to modify the traditional worship so as to make it attractive enough to appeal to coreligionists in a secular world that was drawing them away from the synagog. Something had to be done, they felt, to counter the widespread apathy and indifference. Tradition and modernism must mesh together harmoniously; an intelligible service would inspire respect and would further devotion.13

Forty-seven individuals and householders, representing a body of at least 150 to 200 souls, addressed the vestry of Beth Elohim on November 21, 1824, asking for changes, reforms. The Charleston petitioners said they wanted to perpetuate a pure Judaism and enlighten the rising generation. This was a very definite turning away from the right, from tradition. The protest was put in religious terms, but equal, if not greater, importance was the desire of this new group to further sociocultural adaptation. One wonders whether the Reformed Society of Israelites was a truly religious movement. Originally, only twelve rebelled, but forty-seven signed the memorial. The Society prospered from the start; by 1826, it numbered fifty members, which left only seventy householders in Congregation Beth Elohim. It was said at the time that there were many more who were sympathetic to the rebels, but did not join for familial reasons. The petition or memorial was rejected by the Board in December, 1824. The authorities of Beth Elohim were convinced that any major change in the service would only result in a complete break with the past and open the way for new and more radical demands. The leaders of the congregation, conservatives all, were determined—unwittingly, to be sure—to maintain their aristocratic stance in an age of nascent Jacksonian liberalism. All infractions of the constitution of 1820 were severely punished by heavy fines. Sabbath violations were discountenanced, intermarriages were frowned upon, and efforts were made to force every Jew to join the monolithic synagog-community. Beth Elohim’s leaders were intelligent, devoted Jews, but they feared change: “Touch not a cobweb in St. Pauls, lest you shake the dome.”14

When their petition for change was rejected by the board, the rebels moved to organize the Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to its Purity; thus the charter. This was secession. The association itself came into being on January 16, 1825; a constitution was adopted on the 15th of February; on September 21, 1826, the group appealed to the world at large, Jews and Gentiles, for funds to erect a new temple “to the service of the Almighty.” It is surprising, in a way, how slow the Jews were to turn to the left. Why had these Charlestonians waited two generations, since 1776, before attempting to bridge the gap between political emancipation and religious liberalism? Protestant dissidents had made their move at the turn of the century, a generation earlier. The wave of Christian liberalism now moved southward from New England. By 1819, Jared Sparks had been installed in a Baltimore church by the Unitarian Channing. Was Beth Elohim aware of the Protestant moves to the left, but undisturbed by them? When the congregation adopted a new constitution in 1820, the preamble emphasized that the members wanted to uphold religion and promote “harmony and social love.” Were there already liberal murmurings in the Jewish community?15

The sources tell us nothing. Maybe the reference to “harmony” should not be overstressed, for it had also occurred in the preamble to Shearith Israel’s 1805 organic statute. Discord was the lot of all congregations at all times! Nor should Charleston’s 1820 constitution forbidding the establishment of any new congregation within a five-mile limit be construed as an attack on putative rebels. Restrictions of this type were traditional and go back in England to the seventeenth century. They were motivated by a desire for central authoritarian control and a passion for anonymity. To repeat the question posed above: why were the Jews so slow to turn to the left? The Jews moved slowly because of timidity, because of the restraints of the many tradition-minded Jewish natives and immigrants. By the 1820’s, however, there was a new generation of educated Jews; they sensed that the survival of Judaism was at stake and were sufficiently interested to attempt a rehabilitation, to insist on radical changes. It is by no means improbable, too, that the reports of persecution in reactionary post-Napoleonic Europe may have evoked their latent Jewish sympathies and loyalties.16

The 1824 revolt against the traditionalists was American Jewry’s first organized attempt to cope with the challenge of a New World culture. It established the first liberal Jewish religious organization in the United States and was a deliberate attempt at a synthesis of Americanism and Judaism. J. C. Moïse, Harby’s biographer, was of the opinion that he was the “father of the movement.” Actually, the first elected heads of the Reformed Society were businessmen of established repute. Harby, however, was certainly one of the leaders; he served as the first chairman of the committee of correspondence. The Reformed Society of Israelites looked to American Jews for help and recognition; the Reformers hoped even to have an impact on European Jewry. To achieve its purpose, the Society set up a propagandistic committee of correspondence to put itself in touch with others and to preach the gospel of religious liberalism. This special body was patterned on the Committees of Correspondence of the 1770’s, the associations that had done so much to further the American Revolution. The chairman of this important group was the brilliant Harby, editor, litterateur, devotee of the classics, dramatist, and educator. Penina Moïse paid a postmortem tribute to Harby, who had once been her teacher:

The vivid scintillations of a mind

By nature gifted and by lore refined.17

Harby was an ardent patriot whose love of country may have been intensified because he was the son of an immigrant. He could not have been unmindful of the fact that, when he was born in 1788, South Carolina had not yet emancipated its Jews; he was glowingly grateful for the freedom that was his. His fervent Americanism threatened to swamp his Judaism, which was not deeply rooted in Jewish learning. One is almost tempted to say that Harby was first an American, then a Jew. Like many of his Jewish compatriots, he leaned to the left intellectually and theologically, but adhered tenaciously to the right in conforming to the behavior standards of his middle-class Christian friends. In an address made in 1825, Harby invoked the shades of Luther. The implication here is that this revolt against Charleston’s Beth Elohim was being compared to the Protestant Reformation. Harby may well have looked upon himself as a Jewish Luther. The rise of the Reformed Society, he felt, marked a new era in the history of Judaism; like the sixteenth-century German Protestant innovators, these Charleston liberals were shaking off the bigotry of the ages.18

The leadership of the Society during the first two or three years was fluid. Others who stood out in the organization were Isaac N. Cardozo, David N. Carvalho, and Abraham Moïse. Cardozo, a man of some learning was a customs officer; Carvalho, who served as the reader or officiant, was the Hebraist of the Society. Tradition has it that it was Carvalho, Harby, and Abraham Moïse who busied themselves collecting the material for the new Reform liturgy. In many respects, Abraham Moïse was the leader of this somewhat inchoate group, certainly its wheelhorse. He was a superior person, well educated, a student of literature, a member of the Philomathean Debating Society, a lawyer, politician, and magistrate. He wrote the 1824 memorial and later would draft the constitution, deliver an oration (1827), help edit the selected writings of Harby (1829), and issue the Society’s published prayer book (1830). From 1828 on, he served as the president of what seemed to be a group in decline. Certainly, he was the man who held the organization together in the late 1820’s and throughout the 1830’s after Harby and Carvalho had left town.19


The Reformed Society of Israelites developed structurally into a unique institution. It had several of the characteristics of a hevrah kaddisha, a burial and sick-care confraternity. The group held religious services and hoped ultimately to become a congregation with a hazzan, prayer book, and building of its own. Some of its members had seceded from the local congregation; others were previously unaffiliated; a few may have had double membership, remaining in the mother synagog in order to be sure of burial privileges, since the Society never purchased a cemetery for its followers. Originally the Reformers met in a rental hall once a month, later quarterly. Whether religious services were held only then or more frequently, on the Sabbath, is not known. Men, and women too, could join at the age of seventeen. The members referred to themselves as Jews, Israelites, and Hebrews, all three names occur. A number of these Reformed Israelites had come from the hinterland. Services were in English for the most part; some Hebrew was retained. According to Maurice Mayer, who wrote at a time when members of the Reformed Society were still living (1856), the services included a sermon and hymns with organ accompaniment. The worshippers prayed with uncovered heads. In 1830, the Reformers published a tentative, incomplete liturgical work of some sixty pages. It was used, probably to supplement the standard Hebrew prayer book. It was an eclectic work and included materials supplied by Harby, Carvalho, and Moïse. There is ample evidence that a number of different manuscript prayer books had been circulating during the 1820’s before the final publication of the Sabbath Service. Actually the Reformed Society of Israelites was a Kultusverein, a religious confraternity with a variety of goals and activities. Temple Emanu-El of New York City grew out of a verein of this type in 1845.20


What was the nature of the Society’s ceremonies? What were its beliefs? The rituals and fixed prayers were all important, for they mirrored the thinking and practices of the Society. Their form of worship was reflected in the Sabbath Service and probably in the manuscripts, since their Reform prayer book was not printed until five years after the association was established. If the published Reform liturgy was only supplementary, and if a standard Hebrew prayer book was also used, then the Sabbath Service does not tell the whole theological story. There was no daily service, though private prayers for individuals and special occasions abound. There were rituals for the High Holy Days, for Pentecost, and, of course, for the Sabbath. The Sabbath, the worshippers were reminded, was created for “rational creatures.” The fact that there was no liturgy for Passover and Sukkot would indicate that, on those Holy Days, the Society turned to the Sephardic Orthodox prayer book. Were these people interested in a Sunday service? Though the contemporary press spoke of Jews in Europe transferring the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday (1824–1825) and though there were rumors in Charleston that Jews were thinking of making this change, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Society even considered moving the Sabbath to the first day of the week.21

Provision was made in the Society’s prayer book for grace before and after meals; a marriage service was written, which by implication denied the spiritual authority of postbiblical worthies. There were prayers for circumcision, for naming a daughter, for the sick and dying, for burials and mourning, for voyages, storms at sea, and deliverance from danger. The confirmation service, the first among Jews in this country, was nothing more than an Americanized bar mitzvah in English for an individual male. Unlike today, no arrangements were made for a collective confirmation service at the Pentecost Holy Day for both boys and girls. More important is the rejection by these Reformers of the concept of a personal Messiah. They did not urge the Return of Jewry to Palestine, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, or the restoration of the sacrificial service. They had no desire to encourage the rebirth of an aristocratic priestly class. Despite these expressed convictions, theological inconsistencies persisted in their writings. Not Palestine but America—“these happy United States”—was the land promised in Sacred Scriptures. Whatever Jews observed and practiced had to comport with the American way of life, a member of the Society wrote. For these Reformers, Americanism, patriotism, was fast becoming a Jewish dogma. A few years earlier, in 1820, when Dr. De La Motta spoke at the dedication of the Savannah synagog, he had referred to this country as the land of milk and honey. Five years later, Harby gloried in his love for America and his insistence that Jews look upon their neighbors as members of “the same happy family worshiping the same God of the universe.”22

The Reformed Society of Israelites wanted more than decorum. Its effort was a revolution; it wanted a complete break with the rabbinic Judaism of the preceding 1,800 years. The appearance of this organization does not mark the culmination of a slow evolutionary development; it sprang up almost overnight. Its appearance is more abrupt than the emergence of the Unitarians out of Calvinism. The anti-Calvinist rebels were clergymen; the Charleston Reformers were laymen, who moved rapidly because they were laymen unmindful of past traditions, ungrounded in history, unfettered by Jewish knowledge. They were determined to do what they deemed right and timely. Theirs was an ideological revolution with a vengeance. Their appearance really marked the rise of a new sect, although they would have denied this. They insisted they wanted no break, but the crisis of coping with emancipation and living with Christian neighbors made it necessary for them to take radical steps, so they believed. They were determined to leave their spiritual ghettos; the medieval Jew had to face the modern world. There was no question in their mind that the traditional service was outmoded and would have to be revised to conform to the “enlightened” state of society. They were willing, however, to retain ceremonies deemed fit for the nineteenth century.

The Charlestonians were influenced by the Protestants and Catholics about them; they were eager to have a service of awe and reverence, not one of religiosocial character. They objected strongly to the Orthodox atmosphere of congeniality and emotional relaxation in the synagog. These Carolina liberals were far more radical than Europe’s German Jews who were engaged in Reform activities for the period 1802–1823. The reforms in contemporary Germany were cosmetic, superficial; the American reforms were radical. Judaism, the rebels contended, was to be presented in its “purity.” The sceptre of rabbinical power had to be broken. There was no need to recognize the authority of the Talmud and its latter-day commentators. Rabbinism and the Oral Law had to be summarily rejected; the rabbis of old were obscurantists. Freedom of thought, science, modern culture—these deserved priority.

In his 1825 oration, Isaac Harby lauded Spinoza and the elder Disraeli. That Spinoza had broken with Judaism and that Isaac Disraeli had already baptized his children—this does not seem to have disturbed him. Spinoza and Disraeli were enlightened men—that impressed him. These rebels rejected the authority of all law after the Bible. This is the Deistic slant. Their attack on blind observance shows strong Christian influence, for these Jews often drew their knowledge of Judaism from printed Christian sources, all of them critical of Jewish ceremonials. No wonder the views of the Reformers were strabismic. More than once they emphasized that the sources of Judaism were found in the moral teachings of the Mosaic Code and the Prophets. They even used the phrase, the Law and the Prophets, which comes from the New Testament. The Charleston Jewish rebels laid emphasis on the Mosaic Code, on the Bible. As with earlier Protestant sects in Europe and in the United States, Christian sectarians here demanded a return to the Bible, the source of religion. For Christianity, the Bible was the basic book. This was doctrine which the Charleston Reformers were ready to accept. The Society believed that the Ten Commandments had been given by God to Moses; they were the foundation of morality. However, the decalogue was not included as part of the prayer service by the Society; in this, Reform was at one with the Orthodox; the decalogue is reprinted in the traditional liturgy, but is never recited. In their prayers, the Reformers stressed love for all mankind. All vengeful denunciations for past massacres were to be removed from the ritual. The United States was not Russia or the Barbary Coast of North Africa. The approach of these Reformers was not Jewishly particularist; it was always universalist. Unlike Moses E. Levy and Noah, both of whom went through a “colony” phase, Harby and his cohorts had no desire to lock Jews up in a cultural enclave.23

The Reformers introduced basic changes into the services which they held in a Masonic Hall. They employed art music, and a choir; they sang the psalms together with both Jewish and Christian hymns. Some thirty hymns, borrowed from the Protestants, were appended to the Sabbath Service though none of them was Christological in content. Worshippers were abjured to chaunt in harmony with the reader. In all probability there was no separation of the sexes; families sat together. The sale of honors in the service was abolished. The amount of Hebrew read was curtailed, but there is no indication that there was any opposition to Hebrew as such. All told, the service was shorter than the traditional one in which only Hebrew was employed. Because it was imperative that worship be intelligible, weight was laid on the use of English. Rachel Mordecai Lazarus was unhappy with the translation of the traditional liturgy for the High Holy Days; the English was not good; some of the prayers were irrelevant. Rachel’s unhappiness with the Orthodox prayer book, even in its English guise, explains why the Society dwelt on the need to edify the adult and work with youth to keep them all in the fold; hence the growing emphasis on the English sermon, which was borrowed in this country from the Christians. Nothing was said by the Charlestonians about the dietary laws. For these innovators, ethics, love, and an informal piety were more important than ritual. But piety, too, had to be rational. There were no intimations of pietistic learnings; that would have been deemed Christian.24

The Society was essentially a movement of young adults. They were eager to fashion a service of which they might be proud, one to which they could bring their Gentile friends, one devoid of rabbinical excrescences and fully adapted to the needs of American society. One wonders if, in their Americanism, in their rejection of ancient rituals, the members were altogether free of nativism. It is by no means improbable that they looked askance at immigrants. They did believe that observant newcomers were still under the sway of bigotry. Hostility to new arrivals can be documented as early as the 1720’s; it is probably much older. Yet, despite their separatist tendencies, the members of the Society were not assimilationists or would-be defectors. They had no desire to merge into Christianity; they were universalists. In their liturgy and in their sermonic orations, the members never failed to stress morality, universalism, love of God. However, they always maintained stoutly that they were good Jews. They had no desire to break with the Jewish people. Although they infuriated traditionalists in Charleston and shocked many in the North, there is no record that anyone ever attempted to read them out of the faith. Theologically, they did subscribe to most of the articles of faith accepted by all Jews: the thirteen principles advocated by the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. They affirmed the existence of God and acknowledged his attributes. They believed in immortality, not resurrection. Revelation was an authoritative tenet, for God himself had given Moses the decalogue on Mount Sinai. God is man’s only redeemer! This of course was a polemical jab at Christianity. God will yet be worshipped by all the people of the world. Here we have an intimation—faint, to be sure—of the “Mission” concept: the Jew is called upon to teach the Oneness of God and his ethical demands. That is his role in history.25


The Society started out with such high hopes. Yet, in 1833 it returned with interest the money it had collected from Jews and Christians for the erection of a house of worship. Though the Reformers continued to hold services, it is obvious the rebellion had failed. Why? Were they held back by recent immigrants who adhered to their ancient traditions? The “German” immigration was not to begin in force till the sun of the Charleston Reformers had already set. Did the new movement die because of the oppressive atmosphere of evangelicalism, political reaction, and proslavery agitation? No. Reform was to break through again soon in Charleston at a time when the South had moved still farther to the right. Indeed, one might argue that Southern conservatives would look with favor on the Reformed Society, for its acculturation thrust brought it that much closer to Protestantism, superficially at least. Were the brilliant young men in this new Jewish movement too engrossed with politics and the Nullification controversy after 1829 to find time for religion? This is possible. Did the hostility of the traditionalists overwhelm the radicals? No, for Reform was to emerge triumphant in less than a decade when hostilities were even more bitter. Was the break with the past too shocking? This, too, is possible. The new faith was perhaps excessively cold and rational, hence lifeless. Traditional Orthodoxy was warm, vibrant, soulsatisfying. Intuitively, the Orthodox clung to the rock whence they were hewn; they believed that customs, traditions, rituals would keep them Jewish. For them, Harby and his friends had moved too fast.26

The Reformers stressed ideology, but theology was not important for the average Jew; the old-fashioned way of life was very appealing. It is much more probable that the Society faded because its members had no tolerance for tradition, no romanticism, no historicism, no profound knowledge of Judaism, no anchor to the past. In the final analysis, the historian may venture to suggest also that the Society suffered because it had no full-time leadership. Two of the four “leaders” were gone by 1828. Harby had charisma and ebullience, but more was needed. Supporting his wife and nine children was in itself a full-time job for him. He was never truly successful at anything he undertook and died in poverty. The Reform Movement of the 1840’s had Poznanski, Merzbacher, Isaac Mayer Wise; they had Jewish learning; they worked at their jobs full time; their liberalized synagogs flourished. When a minister arrived in Charleston in the late 1830’s and turned toward the left, Reform was reborn in that community, but in Beth Elohim, not in the Society.27

The Reformed Society of Israelites was not entirely a failure. In 1827, Isaac N. Cardozo, one of the leaders of the Society, bragged that it was making an impact on German and English Jewry. It was reported that Samuel Gilman’s review of Harby’s 1825 oration had been translated and published in Germany, where the Jews were talking about this American society. Sabbath moral lectures were introduced into Liverpool, England, a city with which the Charlestonians had commercial and familial relations; Jews of the Charleston elite had married into one of the best families of that English metropolis. Certainly, Reformers looked upon their innovations as an article for export. In the American North, so Cardozo said, English readings were introduced into one of the synagogs because of the precedent established by the Southern liberals. Harby wrote Jefferson that he was trying to influence his “co-religionaires.” The Society prepared not one but two Hebrew translations of its Articles of Faith. This was probably motivated by the desire to influence other Jews. It may or may not be significant that in 1826, less than two years after the Carolinians revolted, two members of New York’s Shearith Israel prepared and published an English translation of the Sephardic daily liturgy.28

The Society made its presence felt. Within a year after its birth, Noah, New York’s most articulate Jewish layman, was calling for English sermons and reforms in the traditional service. The talks, he insisted, should deal with the principles of faith; morality had to be emphasized, but there could be no departures from the basic religious traditions. The ritual, the prayers, had to be in Hebrew. There were to be no innovations; there was no end to the pruning knife. Let us make sacrifices cheerfully, but no changes! These warnings were unquestionably directed against his Charleston friends. But Noah was not blind to the needs of American Jewry. Like Harby, Moïse, Cardozo, and Carvalho, he, too, believed that changes must be made if the Jew was to be completely Americanized. In 1818, six years before the Reformed Society made its first protest, Noah had already come to grips with the problem of adapting Judaism to the American scene. For him, surgery, cutting the cord that tied the Jew to 2,000 years of history, was not the answer. Noah doubtless knew of the changes introduced by the Berlin Reformers in 1815. He, too, wanted adjustments here; they were necessary, but he feared the consequence of a break with the past.29

The next decade, the 1830’s, was something of a watershed. Emerson began to attack Christian orthodoxy; Rebecca Gratz, an admirer of Philadelphia’s Unitarian minister, had opened the first American Jewish Sunday School before the decade closed. Leeser began to preach in English, never failing to emphasize morality as well as the established ceremonies and rituals. In dedicating Shearith Israel’s new building, the Crosby Street Synagogue, in 1834, Noah touched upon the need for sermons and prayers in the vernacular, on modern music, on improvements in the worship service, on education for youth, on the importance of women in the synagog. He acknowledged the problem of burdensome ceremonies, though he hastened to add that no changes were to be made without rabbinical sanction. In October, 1844, Noah addressed a large Christian audience in a New York church, appealing to it to help restore the Jews to their ancient homeland. Four months earlier, twenty-four German rabbis had met in Brunswick to discuss the future of Judaism; they saw the need for reforms. With this conference in mind, Noah told his Christian auditors that the Jews were aware of the need to prune away talmudic additions. Jews had to return to the Bible, their safe guide. Four years later, in 1848, in an address at Shearith Israel, he hailed the building of a new synagog in Jerusalem. Once more, he addressed himself to the subject of reforms in Judaism. He knew that the 1848 revolution in Germany had moved people to think in terms of change: Jewish religious rebels in that country had moved far to the left. Noah was fully aware that, here in the United States, three Reform synagogs had been opened in the early 1840’s, two of them radical in their approach. But, reiterated the cautious Noah, the necessary reforms could be made only with the concurrence of the rabbis. Without doubt, leftist Temple Emanu-El in 1845 frightened him: Reformers created schisms and Noah was never a Reform Jew!30

The Reformed Society of Israelites did have an impact on American Jewry. Despite the fact that the Reformers had given up the hope of building a sanctuary in 1833, there is evidence that they limped along until about 1840, when Congregation Beth Elohim itself had begun to steer a liberal course. In 1837, even before Beth Elohim had begun to turn to the left, it had already declared that offerings could no longer be made in Spanish and, more significantly, that no minister was to be employed who was not at home in English and could not preach in that language. Very likely, this push to Reform in the South Carolina city was not due primarily to the returning rebels, not even to the new liberal rabbi, but to the times. American Jews were aware of what was going on in Europe: surface reforms—decorum, the vernacular, the sermon, modern music—were beginning to be accepted in the religious heartland of world Judaism. Jewish secular liberalism and Reform were soon to blossom here in the United States in the 1840’s. The 1830’s was a decade when the Jacksonians—if they did nothing else—talked of change, of rebellion against authority.31

In 1838, Congregation Beth Elohim, still ruled by uncompromising traditionalists, lost its beautiful sanctuary in a fire. Before the foundations of the successor building were even laid, the congregation turned to its new minister and asked him to use some English in the service and to preach in the vernacular every Saturday. Patently, it was the threat of the Reformed Society which compelled the board to take this action. In July, 1840, as the sanctuary began to rise, almost forty members, citing European precedents, asked that an organ be installed. Music, said the petitioners, would influence the rising generation and intensify its loyalty. In one of their communications on this subject, they waxed rhapsodic as they recounted the powers of music, this “universal language of the soul,” to control “the fierce passions” and to elicit “the finest qualities of our nature.” This time, the liberals moved more circumspectly, eschewing the revolutionary tactics of 1824. The approach now was gradual; the organ, a simple attractive musical instrument, was the Trojan horse that breached the Orthodox walls.

The new rebels, a younger generation, finally succeeded in winning a bare majority for their cause by their gradualistic tactics. There was nothing new or radical in the employment of the organ, said the would-be Reformers. This instrument is mentioned in the Bible, it was used in the temple at Jerusalem and employed even in the ritual of a Prague synagog in the eighteenth century. It has been introduced—and this was true—in German Reform Jewish synagogs ever since the second decade of the nineteenth century. Both in Europe and in the United States, the organ has always been the classical symbol of change and innovation, a change that was altogether out of proportion to its actual significance as a violation of tradition. The organ was the shibboleth, the test of orthodoxy, the break with the past. The first sonorous tones of that new instrument, pealing out the response to the inspiring “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord,” meant the first shot in a new war for religious independence. One of the leaders of this radical move was Abraham Moïse, now in 1840 once more a member of Beth Elohim. When the conservative board was overruled and it was decided to use an organ, about forty members seceded and established a congregation of their own. They called it Shearith Israel, since they intended to pattern themselves on the traditional synagog of the same name in New York. This year, 1840, a reform service of sorts was introduced in Beth Elohim. In this sense, it was America’s “cradle of Reform Judaism.”32

The new sanctuary was finally dedicated on March 19, 1841: the important address was made by Hazzan Poznanski. Coming to New York as a young man in his twenties, this Prussian Polish Jew had secured a position as shohet and occasional reader in Orthodox Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese synagog. Several years later, in 1836, Gedaliah Poznanski, recommended by the staunchly conservative Leeser, of Philadelphia, blossomed forth in Charleston as the Reverend Gustavus Poznanski, an able, affable, socially presentable gentleman. The congregation gave him life tenure; he married wealth and soon became an influence in the Jewish community, veering away from orthodoxy in the direction of liberalism. When his reformist sympathies became apparent, protagonists of time-honored observances spread the false rumor that he was a bastard by birth, if not by deed. Before Poznanski’s arrival in the United States in the 1830’s, he had officiated as a shohet in Hamburg, where he was surely well aware of the liberal tendencies that characterized the famous Hamburg Temple. By 1838, he himself had turned to the left. Thus, when in 1840 he was asked whether he approved of employing an organ in the services—and of course on the Sabbath—he answered in the affirmative.

In his dedication talk, he made it clear that he wanted to bring instrumental music into the new synagog building and favored increasing the use of the English vernacular in the service. These suggested innovations did not startle American Orthodoxy as much as his high-flown oratorical flourish: “this synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine.” Yet, his was no new doctrine. It had been implicit in Noah’s 1818 Discourse and in Harby’s 1825 Reformed Society oration. Harby had enthusiastically maintained that America was truly the land of promise spoken of in Holy Writ. Christian Americans, he had said, are our brethren; we all worship the same God. Here, then, are some of the roots of American classical Reform Judaism. Implied here, too, in the Poznanski address was the renunciation of a personal Messiah who would lead the Jews back to the Promised Land. Furthermore, if there was to be no Messiah, there would be no Resurrection. Poznanski’s blatant break with the concept of Restoration infuriated Rebecca Gratz, who saw it as nothing less than a denial that the Jews were to return to the Holy Land where a glorious future awaited them. Yet, a year earlier she had written that reform was in the air; such enquiries and talks on the subject were healthy, she had said.

Whether Poznanski, this quondam devotee of Orthodoxy, was by nature a liberal and a leader of the intramural revolt is difficult to determine. He was at all times careful to maintain a relatively low profile. It is true that, in 1843, he was to recommend, unsuccessfully, the abolition of the second-day Holy Days. Poznanski was no fighter; one may even question his commitment to Reform. Before the decade had come to an end he resigned his post, voluntarily. When he finally left town and settled in New York, he rejoined Shearith Israel, America’s bastion of Orthodoxy, but on his death he was eulogized by Temple Emanu-El’s Reform rabbis. What an interesting odyssey, Poznanski’s life.33

In 1843 the Reformers in Beth Elohim and the Orthodox in Charleston’s new secessionist congregation began to sue one another. The traditionalists, insisting that they were still members, wanted to capture the beautiful new sanctuary; the Reformers feared that they would be taken over by the Orthodox who were numerically powerful. After the liberals won out in 1845, their opponents, aggressive and determined, appealed the case, but lost again in 1846. In delivering his opinion, the judge, who favored the Reformers, declared that a granite promontory does not change; human institutions do.34


The Reformed Society of Israelites in South Carolina began as a radical lay movement that broke with the past. Stimulating protests and comments in the North, it encouraged dissidents who were to make their views felt no later than the 1840’s, when Reform began to blossom in this country. It infuriated the Orthodox. As early as 1835 Leeser was dismayed at the lack of interest in the Hebrew language and at the push for changes. This, he said, was not reform but deformity. The Philadelphia minister attempted to cope with liberal inroads by furthering a modernist Orthodoxy that would understand its literature, its doctrines, its roots. Rebecca Gratz supplemented his efforts and responded to the threat to tradition by establishing a Sunday School movement that emphasized the English vernacular, but adhered firmly to Orthodox principles. By the late 1830’s, Beth Elohim had moved somewhat to the left. The new minister, Poznanski, encouraged new approaches, but as a rabbi he linked them to the past; the nexus was not broken. In modern Jewish religious history, the laymen and the clergy have always had different roles. The laymen innovate, the clergymen conciliate. In Germany, England, and Charleston, Reform had begun as a lay movement; then came the clergy—who supported the insurgents, but made sure that they did not repudiate the past. In Charleston, for the first time in the United States, a clergyman played a leadership role, modest though it was; this was the first time that a “Reform rabbi” appeared on the scene.35

Charleston in 1841 was taking on a Reform look; that year it witnessed the reprinting of a translation of Gotthold’s German Reform sermons. The congregation looked upon itself as a reformist institution. Abraham Moïse bragged to Leeser that Charleston sheltered the only liberal synagog in the United States. His boast was supported by the fact that the congregation had refused to adopt a resolution that it adhere to Mosaic and rabbinical legislation. Yet, in actuality, the final reforms in the 1840’s were minimal. Despite the fact that the leftist stance of Beth Elohim induced two Orthodox secessions in this decade, the mother congregation made no radical moves at first. After all, the South was conservative, culturally, politically, and religiously; it was to become increasingly so as the decades passed. The changes made were cosmetic. There was decorum, an organ, a mixed choir, an occasional English hymn. There was some English in the service, probably a translation of a Hebrew portion of the ancient liturgy. Not a single paragraph of the traditional prayer book was omitted or modified, with one minor exception: the excision of a chapter of the Mishnah which described in some detail the regulations dealing with the Sabbath lights; it was not a prayer. Hats were not doffed in the service; women were confined to a special seating section; there were still no family pews. Officially the congregation still adhered to the dietary laws and it hired a shohet. The few changes listed above document the determination of this southern synagog to conform to a degree to some Protestant worship amenities. It is probable that the members rationalized these few departures as a return to pure Judaism. In the 1850’s, however, radical innovations were introduced into the service.36

Did Charleston “Reform” solve the problem of loyalties? Harby held the “rabbis”—that is talmudic law—responsible for the drifting and defections of the day. Actually neither the modern Orthodoxy of a Leeser nor the radical measures of the Reformed Society of Israelites would or could solve the problem of indifference to Judaism, the religion. That problem bespoke the times, the attractive pull of the secular American culture, and the possibility of surviving as a Jew outside the parameters of Orthodoxy and outside the perimeter of any synagog.

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