publisher colophon




Isaac Mayer Wise was the most important man in the history of the American Jewish Reform Movement. It is he who helped the rising Jewish middle class fit comfortably into the New America, a new political, cultural, and economic world. It was inevitable that the incoming immigrants would have to make some changes religiously, for though loyal to their faith they were eager to become good Americans after having been denied the opportunity to become good Europeans. In this drive toward acculturation, Americanization, Wise emerged as the recognized leader.

Who was this man? Wise was born March 29, 1819, in Steingrub, a Bohemian village so small that it is hard to find on any map. It was there that his father eked out a bare living working at the humblest of all Jewish professions, teaching Hebrew. At four the boy began learning Hebrew and at six he was introduced to the Talmud. He was a sturdy independent lad and when the town bully Hans tried to beat him, young Wise emerged the victor. And after a complaint had been lodged and Isaac’s father warned him against resistance—Jews must resign themselves to be beaten, they are in exile—the youngster retorted, “Why can’t Hans be in exile?”

At nine the bright boy was sent from home to immerse himself in the sea of the Talmud, and for years as he grew up he wandered about to different yeshivahs, old-fashioned rabbinic academies. He was never privileged to receive good academic schooling; for him there was to be very little formal education, no high school, no university, and in all probability, no formal certificate of rabbinic ordination (semikah). Like Abraham Lincoln, Wise was an autodidact, a voracious reader with an excellent mind but he was never to become a disciplined critical scholar; his methodology left to much to be desired.1

Finally in the early 1840’s the young Bohemian became a religious factotum, “a rabbi,” in Radnitz, a small town near Pilsen. He married and started raising a family; there is every reason to believe that he was successful in his ministry, but he was not happy, and at the age of twenty-seven he determined to leave for the United States. A belligerent rebel he fretted in that repressive era; the Christian officials were petty and despotic, and the Jewish religious leaders, lay and rabbinic, were cast in the same authoritarian mold. He could never reconcile himself to a reactionary culture where the right even to take a wife was limited by a Pharaonic law: he was probably involved in painful conflicts with his superiors. In the midst of an On-to-America-Movement he left his homeland never to return. Burning with an almost consuming ambition he left the tyranny of Austria behind to seek a career in the promised land of freedom and opportunity. Wise, who was never completely to lose his accent, landed in New York City in 1846. Twenty years later, rabbi in the Queen City of the West, he dedicated the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, one of the largest synagogs in the world, yet even then his work as a builder had not yet really begun.2


Wise may not have contemplated making the rabbinate his life’s work but Max Lilienthal whom he met encouraged him to accept a post in Albany. The rabbinate was probably the least line of resistance, certainly preferable to peddling, clerking, or some other form of trade. With a base salary of $250 a year he began his American rabbinical career in Albany’s Beth El, an Orthodox synagog. At that time there were only three Reform communities in all the United States. Wise moved fast: by 1847 he was working closely with Lilienthal to establish an ecclesiastical court that had national pretensions; he was already thinking of a revised liberal common prayer book for American Jews, and in 1848 he published a manifesto calling on Jewish ministers and laymen to meet in a national congress the following year. With the 1848 revolutions in full swing on the continent he and a host of others in Europe and in the United States were convinced that a new world was dawning, a world of universal civil and spiritual freedom for mankind, and for the Jew too. Wise wanted changes, reforms in religion and in organized Jewish life. Time after time, from that year on—for a generation—he spelled out his hopes for American Jewry in great detail: a union of congregations, a seminary to train American rabbis, a good ministry, a rabbinical association, national institutions to provide for the poor, a common prayer book, a Jewish press and publication society, hospitals, orphan asylums, Jewish elementary religious schools, books, and tracts. Obviously he was patterning himself on the well-organized Catholic and Protestant churches; in this respect at least they were his exemplars.

Wise never lost sight of the overall plan which was crystallizing in his mind as early as 1847 but was not to be realized until 1873. This young idealist was determined to whip chaotic American Jewry into shape, to give it common standards, uniformity, religious discipline. Though he would have repudiated it angrily, this was the Hapsburg German in him. Encouraged by Leeser he hoped a legislative synod of rabbis and laymen would assemble in 1849 to meet the challenge of America by uniting Jewry here and pointing it in the direction of progress. But, he hastened to add, no changes would be made that could not be sanctioned by traditional rabbinic law, by the halakah. This grandiose scheme failed; there were fewer than 100,000 Jews in all America, most of them immigrants too busy struggling to keep their heads above water to think of anything but providing for their broods. The liberals in Emanu-El of New York and in Beth Elohim of Charleston shied away, frightened by the hierarchical implications of a religious congress.3


In 1850 Wise was in trouble with his congregation. Young, headstrong, vigorous, able, he brooked no opposition. He was anything but placatory for he knew that he had many friends. Charges were made against him that he was religiously heterodox. There was no question that he was moving to the left, away from traditional belief and practices, encouraged unconsciously perhaps in these deviations by the cultured Christian elite with whom he associated in the capital city of New York state. He began preaching in the German vernacular, introduced confirmation of girls and boys, or at least talked about it, and insisted on decorum. Wise brought girls into the choir, introduced Sulzer’s modern music, and encouraged the singing of German hymns in an age when most churches were suspicious of all change. A century earlier, in Savannah, John Wesley had been arraigned before the Grand Jury for introducing some unauthorized hymns into the service, and Wise tells us that in his own day a gray-haired pillar of one of the Protestant sects, detecting a tuning fork in the choir loft, raised his voice in indignation crying out: “I demand that this instrument of Hell be removed from the house of God.”

There were rumors that he poked fun at time-honored practices, that he was indifferent to the need of women to patronize the mikveh in order to purify themselves monthly, that he had swung on a swing on a holiday, that he had written letters on the holy Rosh Hashanah, the sacred New Year day, that he was ready to abandon the public auction of synagog honors, that he was opposed to the donning of the phylacteries. While visiting in Charleston where he negotiated for the position of rabbi he publicly denied his belief in a personal Messiah and in the resurrection of the dead. This was indeed heresy, offensive to Jews and certainly to Christians whose Messiah had risen from the dead. His History of the Israelitish Nation in 1854 was to rationalize away God’s wonder-working miracles on behalf of the Children of Israel. Yet all this might have been forgiven him but not his quarrels with the butcher and the shohet, with the merchant whom he denounced for keeping his shop open on the Sabbath. Wise deliberately disobeyed the mandate of the board president; this was unforgivable and he was discharged.

Ignoring the dismissal he came to services on Rosh Hashanah and as he advanced to officiate the president struck him. This was the blow that was heard around the world. A riot broke out in the synagog as his friends rallied to support him; as the tumult increased, the sheriff cleared the House of God and Wise was hauled off to court for a few brief moments. During the sad days after Rosh Hashanah the young Hotspur thought of leaving the rabbinate and taking the bar examination but his devotees started a new synagog for him, calling it Anshe Emeth, the Men of Truth. It was a Reformistic synagog with family pews, a choir, and confirmation. Wise was launched on a new career.4


The reward of courage and enterprise, if not of meekness and humility, is a better position, one of the best. In 1854 Cincinnati’s B’nai Yeshurun called Rabbi Wise to its pulpit with a life appointment and a most attractive salary of $1,500. In later years he was to receive $6,000 making him one of the highest paid clergymen in the United States. Through this election Cincinnati Jewry with its 4,000 to 5,000 souls proclaimed to the world that Wise was one of America’s leading rabbis. And this he set out to confirm by establishing two national newspapers and a college, all within the space of about a year. The papers lived; Zion College, the first Jewish secondary school, expired, but in its death it taught him that he needed supporters and money. It was a lesson that Wise took to heart as he traveled up and down the land courting congregations for the great day that lay ahead.5


In October, 1855, the month before Zion College opened, Wise met with a small number of rabbis and laymen, Reformers and Orthodox, in what has been denominated the Cleveland Conference.

Summoned under the watchword shalom al yisrael, “peace over Israel,” the conference was to discuss and implement the Wise program of 1848. Aiming for a national union of congregations and a common prayer book—his own Minhag America—Wise set out to legislate rabbinic Judaism into the nineteenth century. He believed the conference would ultimately become an authoritative synod. It was his contention that he stood on positive historical traditional ground, a contention that was also stoutly maintained by many succeeding Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders. They too would have vigorously denied that they were moving beyond the ambit of Pharisaic Judaism. Wise insisted that the reforms he had in mind were in consonance with the spirit of rabbinic Judaism; reforms were to be achieved in an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, fashion. The immediate changes he had in view—modifications of the accepted liturgy, introduction of prayers and songs in the vernacular, organs, choirs, family pews, and amelioration of the status of women—all these could find their sanctions in Jewish law. And because he believed he stood foursquare on the gospel of ancient tradition, this man who only a few years earlier had denounced the authority of the Talmud now declared that the Bible was literally inspired and must be interpreted in accordance with the dictates of the Talmud. This statement of “fundamentalistic” Orthodoxy was formally adopted at Cleveland.

Was this return to absolute rabbinic authority a trick to gain the support of Leeser and the masses and to make him the King of the American Jews or did he think that his synod could legally alter Jewish practices that had been cherished for centuries? If he did think that his proposed legislative body which was to meet in 1856 could make these revolutionary changes peacefully, make them acceptable to the masses, then he was indeed incredibly naive. Because of this new conservative platform Leeser went along thinking Wise had repented of his heresies. Wise thought that he had been successful in uniting the Jews of the land, but he could not have been more mistaken. Leeser had second thoughts; the synod never met, and the liberals began to distrust the Cincinnatian and to suspect that he was ready to sacrifice principle to gain power. Har Sinai of Baltimore and its newly arrived radical Reform immigrant rabbi, David Einhorn, denounced the turn to the right with its rehabilitation of the Talmud, its proposal of a common prayer book, and its inclination toward hierarchy. There is no need for a Jewish Pope proclaiming the Law of God from the New Zion, Cincinnati! In this denunciation the Baltimoreans found that they were in thorough agreement with the liberals of New York and Charleston. Back in 1841 the South Carolina Beth Elohim Reformers had refused sharply to approve of Leeser’s call for a united national religious organization on a traditional basis. Finding himself in the middle between the Orthodox and the left-wingers, Wise beat a hasty retreat denying that the decisions of the Talmud were truly obligatory. By that time it was quite obvious that the liberals and the traditionalists were so far apart that there could not even be a semblance of unity. From then on three Jewish denominations were to be in evidence: Orthodox, Reformers, and a fluid middle group. The Wise of 1855 was in the middle.6

The Cleveland defeat left Wise undaunted. Two years later, an old American, already eleven years in the land, he brashly assumed national leadership once again. He led a protest against Washington’s refusal to insist on equality for American citizens in Switzerland. By now he had become “The Wise Man of the West.” He was feared, he was envied, but never ignored; even the European Jewish newspapers began to report on his activities. As a Democrat and a nonslavery though not an antislavery man in a time when the Republican party’s crusade in defense of the Negro led to Civil War, Wise maintained a relatively low profile politically. But he continued to lay his plans; he was a bull dog who never let go and by the time this war was over he was preparing to build and dedicate a Jewish cathedral in Cincinnati diagonally across the street from the majestic City Hall and directly opposite the magnificent Catholic diocesan church, St. Peter in Chains. This was in 1866.7



Did Wise create the Reform Movement? Was he the Martin Luther of this latter-day Reformation? Certainly not in any ideological sense. Reform Judaism was full-blown in Germany before Wise, an obscure small-town rabbi, ever set foot on American soil. How then did this German-Jewish Reform Movement influence Wise and American Jewry? The German revolution was crucial in European Jewish life. For centuries Judaism had been a religion designed to defend and help the Jews survive in a hostile world; the fall of the Bastille and the emancipation of French Jewry demanded a new type of faith, one that would integrate the Jew in a modern tolerant if not an egalitarian society. If accommodations were not made Jews would defect. In this crisis the rabbis could not and would not do anything. In the older segregated order the rabbinical legal system with the rabbi at the apex held Jews together; any limitation or questioning of his authority involved the breakdown of traditional Judaism. The rabbis dared not touch the Law. Thus it was the laymen in Germany, not the rabbis, who took the Law into their own hands in the early nineteenth century. Eager to enter into the new world of industry and commerce, finance and capitalist enterprise, these pioneers broke with the past and introduced a series of aesthetic changes. They demanded decorum and introduced the organ and modern music, singing, preaching and praying in the vernacular. They adapted the Christian ceremony of confirmation and recommended Christian clerical garb to Jewish officiants; even the word “Reformation” was taken over from the Protestants. By the middle of the century these non-ideological changes in the services were adopted by numerous metropolitan synagogs, even some in Eastern Europe.

Ideological changes were made more slowly and reluctantly. In 1841 Hamburg liberals, who had already turned to the left as early as 1818, enunciated in their prayer book what was to become the common body of Reform theology: they rejected the hope of a personal Messiah, the return to Palestine, the restoration of the promised state, the rebuilding of the temple, and the reinauguration of sin-forgiving animal sacrifices. They looked forward to the ultimate coming of a Messianic era to be brought about, it was devoutly hoped, by the ethical strivings of the emancipated Diaspora Jew. The modernist affirmations of the Hamburgers were complemented in the early 1840’s by lay rebels in Frankfort on the Main and in Berlin. Accepting the changes already proclaimed they rejected the biblical priestly caste system and announced their belief in the priesthood of all Israel. Every Jew was charged with the priestly mission of ushering in a golden age for all humanity. These radicals chose immortality, not resurrection, eliminated the second day holiday, shortened the form of worship, introduced supplementary and sometimes even substitute services for Sunday, wrote prayer books of their own, rejected the dietary laws, doffed the hat and the prayer shawl, scoffed at circumcision, and preached the gospel of the equality of women. The laws of the Talmud, they insisted, were not necessarily binding. Revolution is constant and continuous; changes are imperative, for each progressive generation must create its own Bible of sacrosanct values. Thus the lay radicals of the early 1840’s. The liberal rabbis attacked them unwitting that the heresies of that age were to become the orthodox Reform creeds of the next generation.8


Unhappy with these lay rebels, jealous of infringements of their authority, the liberal-minded rabbis called conferences to restore order. They wanted to proceed in an orderly fashion, under rabbinic leadership, and, wherever possible, justify all changes by recourse to rabbinic law and tradition. The rabbis met in conferences in 1844, 1845, 1846, at Brunswick, Frankfort on the Main, and at Breslau; in 1868 they gathered in Cassel. During the years 1869 and 1871 they convened with laymen in synods in Leipzig and in Augsburg. Since the rabbis could speak only for themselves, very few definitive changes were made, but almost all the possible radical theological challenges and new practices were discussed in some fashion or other. The very discussion lent the untraditional proposals credence and authority; many recommendations were tacitly accepted by congregations. There was much talk about the propriety of riding to synagog on the Sabbath and Holy Days and about the sad lot of the deserted wife (agunah); the rejection of certain objectionable marriage and divorce laws (halitsah); mourning and burial customs was also debated. The conferees discussed the status of an uncircumcised child of a Jewish mother, the cutting down of the long Hebrew readings from the Torah, and the adoption of a triennial rather than an annual cycle of readings to reduce the length and the boredom of the service. They were concerned about intermarriage. More important was their emphasis on prophetic truths, on the moral laws, on the ethical significance of the ceremonies. They dwelt on their concept of the perfectibility of man and pleaded for an intelligible devotional literature in the vernacular, and, above everything else, the need for improvement in the religious school.9

But the agitation aroused by the rabbinical conferences of the 1840’s never succeeded in creating a Reform Movement of any consequence in Europe, certainly not in the sense that Reform was understood in the United States in the late nineteenth century. The repressions of the Metternich Era, the reaction following the unfortunate revolutions of 1848, the impact of Bismarckian conservatism, the close relationships between church and state in the European lands, all these factors worked to channel the energies of liberal Jews into the fight for political not religious reform. Congregations remained fixed; a conservative policy makes for a conservative synagog; the authoritarian Central and East European governments looked askance at any religious movement that worked for change; religious liberalism would only lead to political rebellion. The rise of anti-Semitism in the 1870’s and the rejection of Jewry by Christians discouraged Jewish Reformist universalism. In this European world of rejection, religious differences within the Jewish communities were played down; a religious truce (Gemeindefrieden) was deemed imperative. In this world Reform could make no headway.


Nonetheless by its discussion of all these reform issues German Jewry set the agenda; American Jewry implemented it. Actually, inasmuch as the Jews of America and the European lands were faced with the same problems of coping with modernity, with fitting Judaism into a new culture and civilization, they both developed Reformist aspects of Judaism coevally; common problems invite common solutions. In addition these separate Jewries were in touch with each other; the German Jews in this country read European German Jewish newspapers; three of the great leaders of German Reform, David Einhorn, Samuel Adler, and Samuel Hirsch, came here in the 1850’s and 1860’s; a delegate attended the Leipzig synod in 1869. Just as the European climate made Reform difficult there, the ethos of America made it easy for Jews to become Reformers here. America’s traditions of religious liberty and personal freedom made it possible for churchgoers to move in almost any direction unhindered by the state. As early as 1818 Mordecai M. Noah was already thinking in terms of religious change; six years later the Charleston Reformed Society of Israelites broke with the most sacred traditions of Orthodoxy in its rush to fit into an enlightened Christian world. During the 1830’s the Leo-Wolf family influenced by the Philalethen, German rationalist religionists with roots in the French Enlightenment, helped fashion a Jewish ethical culture society, the Friends of Truth. By the 1840’s as cultural and spiritual liberalism made its presence felt on the general American scene, indeed in the very years that European German Jews assembled in conferences to wrestle with the demands of modernity, Jews here in the United States confronted the challenges of the decade. The moralistic edificatory B’nai B’rith (1843) and its Maimonides Library (1852) were established and a number of Jewish radical religious lay associations and congregations made their appearance, all the way from Charleston in the South to New York City in the North. As early as 1835 the angry Leeser had sputtered: “Deformity has become fashionable.”10

American Reform became manifest for the first time with the rebuilding of the fire-destroyed Charleston synagog in 1838. The early Charleston radicals who seem to have gone underground in the 1830’s now received the support of a number of moderates who forced the trustees to allow an organ and family pews in the new building. The victorious majority was not radical; influenced by the Christians and Unitarians about them and the educational needs of the native-born youth these Reformers demanded changes, but very modest ones. Beth Elohim remained officially Orthodox in theology; the traditional thirteen Maimonidean articles of faith were nailed on to the congregational walls. At the dedication of the new Grecian-like structure in 1841 the liberal rabbi, Gustavus Poznanski, euphorically orated: “This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine.” His opponents in Beth Elohim attempted to denigrate him by spreading the rumor that his mother was not a virtuous woman.11


The year after the dedication of the new Beth Elohim sanctuary a handful of Baltimore Jewish liberals established Har Sinai, a lay religious society, perhaps because they particularly resented the conservatism of Rabbi Abraham Rice who, among other innovations, objected to Masonic rites at Jewish funerals. It was in 1842 also that the Frankfort on the Main radicals plunged to the left although there is no reason to believe that the Americans were patterning themselves on the Germans. The times demanded changes and enthusiasts both here and abroad responded. Certainly the Baltimore Jewish Reformers knew all about the 1841 Hamburg prayer book for they adopted it. Angry at the schismatics, a local Orthodox congregation would not even lend the innovators a Scroll of the Law so that they could hold services. In 1854 Har Sinai was itself the scene of a schism: a few radicals wanted a Sunday service but if they went off on their own they soon returned to enjoy the ministrations of the distinguished David Einhorn who arrived the following year. Einhorn was a great liberal who preached as a radical but practiced as a conservative, a combination common among European German Reformers. He opposed intermarriage vigorously, defended the traditional Sabbath, and did not hesitate to don headgear as he led in worship. He preached only in German and long years after he had moved on to greener pastures Har Sinai still conducted some of its services in the almost sacrosanct language of the Fatherland. German was to the Ashkenazim what Spanish-Portuguese was to the Sephardim and what Aramaic was to the late Roman and early medieval Jewries; these tongues were almost holy.12


The reforming 1840’s which saw the rise of the Charlestonians and the Baltimoreans also gave birth to the liberal Mendelssohnian Society about the year 1843 in New York City. The society speedily became a religious confraternity with Reform goals. Some of its founders were the very men who had established the non-religious B’nai B’rith with its ethical and cultural overtones. By 1845 the new association, now calling itself Emanu-El (God is with us), began holding services led by Rabbi Leo Merzbacher. Like the other Reform congregations of that decade it was anything but radical; it was ten years before it published its own German-Hebrew ritual with the usual Reform omissions. This Merzbacher breviary—and it was brief—was the first American Jewish prayer book, for the two eighteenth-century English prayer books published in New York City in the 1760’s were designated for private devotion only. Despite its hesitation in moving to the left Emanu-El was intent upon providing for the needs of the rising American generation, and this it did by employing supplementary English preachers. Ultimately one of these men became the senior rabbi; this was the German-Englishman, Gustav Gottheil, who was brought over from Manchester in 1873. A liberal, he did not hesitate to hold memorial services in Emanu-El for the Christian, Henry Ward Beecher.13


In 1846 the year after the New Yorkers established Congregation Emanu-El, Isaac Mayer Wise landed, took a job as an Orthodox rabbi, and started his slow trek to the left. Three years later this Albanian who always had one foot in New York City—that was where the masses were—became interested in the Verein der Lichtfreunde, the Friends of Light. This was a German-European society of political and religious radicals who were probably influenced by the New Testament critics David Friedrich Strauss and Bruno Bauer. American branches of this nondenominational group, some of whose members were anti-clerical and atheistic, were established in the 1840’s. Free congregations and free societies were quite common in the Middle West; in Milwaukee a Jew who was secretary of a synagog was at the same time president of an association of unbelievers. A predominantly Jewish or all Jewish branch of the Lichtfreunde made its appearance in New York City late in 1848 or 1849, and its demand for liberty and freedom of thought may have impelled some Jews in the direction of Reform. By 1850, so it would seem, the Jewish Friends of Light had faded away.14


Thus by 1850 there were about a half-dozen non-Orthodox Jewish religious societies and congregations on the East Coast including one which had made its appearance very briefly in Philadelphia in 1842. Little is known about this ephemeral group except that it was sponsored by a Dr. Gotthelf Moehring and that it rejected circumcision. This was several months before the Frankfort on the Main lay society of the Friends of Reform also opposed circumcision as a religious symbol. In the 1850’s another radical Jewish lay society made its appearance in Philadelphia but soon joined Congregation Keneseth Israel when it began leaning to the left. Keneseth Israel was fortunate in its choice of rabbis; Einhorn, fleeing from proslavery Baltimore, became its spiritual leader in 1861 and Rabbi Samuel Hirsch, one of Europe’s distinguished liberals, was called to its pulpit in 1866.15


The first Reform congregation in the West was not Wise’s B’nai Yeshurun but Chicago’s Sinai. The name may well reflect the influence of Einhorn’s Har Sinai, Mt. Sinai, in Baltimore. The Chicagoans joined together in 1858 under the leadership of Bernhard Felsenthal although the congregation may possibly be an outgrowth of a group calling itself Ohave Or, the Friends of Light, already in existence in 1857. Obviously this was a branch of the European or New York Lichtfreunde. These Friends soon joined Felsenthal’s group. Felsenthal (1822-1908) was a Rhenish Bavarian who came to Indiana in 1854. He served as a rabbi in the thriving Ohio River town of Madison in 1856 and then two years later went on to Chicago where he became the moving spirit in a lay religious society composed of men who had seceded from the city’s traditional Men of the West, Anshe Maarav. In 1859 he wrote Kol Koré Bammidbar: Ueber Juedische Reform (A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: Concerning Jewish Reform) and in the constitution of the new society Felsenthal pleaded for the restoration of a pure Judaism, one that was built on reason, that would appeal to the youth and help usher in the Messianic Era. In 1861 the association became Sinai Congregation with Felsenthal as its rabbi. He was a remarkable man, one who is not yet fully appreciated as a pioneer of Reform in the West, truly one of God’s gentlemen, scholarly and kindly. Many years later, under the leadership of the incomparable Emil G. Hirsch, Sinai became the outstanding left-wing congregation in all the United States.16


By the time of the Civil War, after a generation of German immigrants had been exposed to American culture and civilization, there were many Reformist congregations in the land. Practically all of them except for Anshe Emeth of Albany and B’nai Yeshurun of Cincinnati had burgeoned independently of Wise. What role then did he play in Reform? If the movement had been developed in Europe and had indeed had a healthy start here even before Wise landed what then was his contribution? Wise was the outstanding Jewish religious leader in America. Leeser was still living and active but he was hamstrung by his congregation and his own personality. Wise knew what the masses, the people wanted, and he gave it to them: a modified Judaism tied to tradition yet acceptable to the eager Americanizers. He was the organizer of Reform in America. To employ a much abused word of later generations the Cincinnatian was dynamic; he was an achiever, a doer. He was the rabbi of an important congregation, an editor of two papers, superintendent of a large school, a writer and publisher of sermons, prayer books, hymnals, and histories. Wise also published a number of theological works, catechisms, polemics against Christianity, and apologies for Judaism. Numerous plays, novels, and poems, in English and German, poured from his pen. His writings and travels made him one of the best known and influential Jews in all America. Like the great Catholic and Protestant missionaries he went everywhere preaching and consecrating houses of worship. He was “God’s dedicated salesman traveling out of Cincinnati with a line of theological, ethical, and cultural notions.”

This pugnacious man was a prolific writer of polemical materials directed against the traditional Jesus and early Christianity. He lived in an age when Christian missionaries—God’s police—actively pursued Jews and when newspapers and many Christians did not hesitate to express their contempt for the Chosen People. Most Protestants and Catholics of that day were orthodox Christians, deep-rooted in New Testament prejudices against the Jews who had crucified Christ. The word Jew, a word of contempt, was consistently avoided even by the aggressive Wise. The immigrant German Israelites, attacked as Jews and Dutchmen, were constantly on the defensive. Thus it was that Wise became the defender of the faith and, going on the offensive vigorously, denounced Christianity as an inferior pagan religion. In a generation where Catholic baiting was popular, when the Know-Nothings flourished and most Protestants had little sympathy for any adherent of the Roman Church, Wise too became an anti-Catholic writer. He himself had experienced the power of the reactionary oppressive European state supported by the Catholic Church. Yet Wise was not a narrow-minded Jewish particularist. He hoped to win liberal Christians to Judaism and to gain their friendship for the Jewish people. The spiritual unity of the human family was constantly emphasized by him; Judaism, he pointed out, believes in salvation by righteousness. The Cincinnatian was one of the first American Jewish writers to look with some degree of sympathy upon Jesus the man and to view liberal Christianity with understanding.

It is obvious that a man who would vigorously repulse the missionaries would as energetically wage war against anyone who attempted to breach the wall between church and state. Like his friend Max Lilienthal, Wise was a civil libertarian fully cognizant of the implications of the drive to make the United States legally, constitutionally, a “Christian country.” The Bible, he insisted, must not be read in the public schools and it was wrong to invoke the virtues of Christianity in Thanksgiving Day proclamations. There was no more vigorous defender of the Jew when his passport as an American was disregarded in Switzerland and Russia. His voice was raised and his pen was vitriolic in the defense of the Jew here and abroad; he waged relentless war against prejudice and bigotry. There is no question that this man was an aggressive fighter, a person of great courage and heroic stature, but that is not the whole story. He was charming, charitable, kindly, and in certain respects unpretentious. Like Gershom Seixas, the Revolutionary War rabbi, and John Marshall he never hesitated to pick up a basket and do the family marketing. He remarried at fifty-seven; his letters to his sweetheart are so ardent that when they were deposited in the American Jewish Archives it was suggested that they be carefully wrapped in asbestos. Except in two areas (which will be discussed later) he was as liberal theologically as any of the left-wingers but his method of gaining his ends differed radically from those employed by them. He was ready to compromise and prepared to work with all groups, as far as possible, but he never lost sight of his ultimate goals. He was a dreamer who made his dream come true. There was nothing ineffective about him; he was a politician with a lust for power. Through his personality he tied thousands to him throughout the country. His energy, his personal drive, linked to ambition, was almost irresistible: “I had decided to conquer America.”17

In 1873 Wise was such an outstanding figure in American Jewry that he was invited to serve Anshe Chesed Congregation in New York with a salary that would have made him in all probability the highest priced rabbi in the world. By then he was certainly one of America’s best known, most respected and most loved of rabbis; it is equally true he was also one of the most cordially hated rabbis. Many of his confreres, the German university-trained men particularly, resented him as an uncouth, untutored upstart. They accused him—correctly—of an incapacity to write a good German and a good English, but this did not destroy the pulsating vigor that made his editorials come alive. Einhorn, the liberal, hated him passionately; Rice, the ultraconservative, prayed in Hebrew that his name be blotted out; Jastrow called him a liar, and the gentle Felsenthal confided to a friend that this man would never be a scholar. Wise was always controversial; he never hesitated to excoriate the Orthodox although his real opponents were the radicals who disapproved of his methods and attacked him as a blasphemous radical, as an atheist, as an insanely ambitious religious demagogue, as a reactionary obscurantist who believed in the Shulhan Arukh, the Orthodox code. In turn he lashed out at his enemies as radicals—radical was a “smear” word—denouncing them as Unitarians seeking to escape Judaism. And when he finally succeeded in establishing the basic national institutions of American Reform Jewry they made every effort to unseat him; they could never forgive him for being successful; his achievements were a reproach to them.

It is true that there was one virtue he did not possess; he was not modest. He was a self-centered braggart with an uninhibited tendency toward exaggeration. That he signed himself “D.D.,” Doctor of Divinity is not to be held against him; many clergymen did; the title went along with the office. After he had been in the country but a few years the young alien did not hesitate to seek out the President in the White House where he carried on a lively discussion. In the 1850’s he asseverated that he had been the initiator of everything Jewishly worthwhile in this country. It was his earnest conviction that he was called upon to save American Jewry. Megalomania? He was not alone in his opinion; Rabbi Maurice Mayer of Charleston said in 1856 that Wise was America’s leading Reform Jew. What was it that he accomplished? By 1873, largely due to his constant pushing and contriving, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the first permanent Jewish synagogal organization in the United States, had come into being. Two years later he established Hebrew Union College which, a century later, was to become the largest rabbinical school in the world with affiliates and branches in Los Angeles, New York, and Jerusalem. In 1889 he called into being the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a national association of rabbis whose members in the late twentieth century officiate in every part of the globe. Through these three organizations Wise ultimately influenced directly or indirectly, every Jew in the United States. Almost a half a century after his death the American government during World War II named one of its ships after him.18



Wise created the institutions of Reform but the people, the average men and women, created the practices of Reform, if only by neglect. They knew what they were doing; they adjusted the religion of the old world to the demands of the new. After a generation or more—often two—the traditional practices were eroded and new ceremonies, new rituals, new departures, new ideas were introduced. The chronology of change? There was no order, no logical sequence; no two congregations in America followed the identical pattern in discarding the old and unfolding the new. Roughly speaking Reform congregations were of two genres: Orthodox synagogs that moved into Reform and congregations that were ab initio Reformist, but even those nominally liberal at the time of their creation were not always consistently so in their practices. Some Orthodox traditions—for example the wearing of the skullcap by the rabbi—were retained by a congregation long after it had turned to Reform. Congregants fought bitterly for and against phylacteries (tefillin), the prayer shawl (talit), the skullcap (yarmulke), the wedding canopy, the chaunts, the one or two day Holy Day, the annual or the shorter triennial cycle of Pentateuchal readings. In nearly all Reform congregations the daily service and the mourning on the Ninth of Ab for the lost glories of the Temple and the State speedily disappeared and even the Sabbath had to fight for its very existence. Honors were no longer auctioned off; the practice of wrapping the dead in shrouds was discarded, and the dietary laws were no longer observed. When Betsy Wiesenfeld, Jonas Friedenwald’s daughter, paid a surprise visit to her daughter-in-law the latter hastily tucked the plate of oysters under the table to the delectation of the drooling dog lying in wait for a snack. After a while the children stopped hiding the forbidden foods when Orthodox in-laws or parents came to call.19


Friday Night Services

In general the changes making for Reform practice were in seven areas: the late Friday night service, the liturgy, the organ, the mixed choir, the family pews, the doffing of headgear, and the ceremony of confirmation. The Saturday morning service had long been doomed because most Jewish merchants, even the Orthodox, kept their businesses open on the Sabbath. Every effort by the rabbis to save that day as a day of worship was unsuccessful. The Friday night postprandial service soon became an acceptable substitute for many. Wise had experimented with this late Friday night service as early as 1851 and it was strongly urged by him in the 1870’s. It began to come into its own in the postbellum period as the rabbis, Wise among them, took advantage of the lyceum vogue and began to lecture to Jews and the general public. Friday became lecture night. Christianity and the Jewish-Christian heritage were favorite topics; the rabbis were careful, however, to avoid such controversial issues as prohibition and women’s suffrage. Their own synagog presidents would have stopped them.20

Liturgies, Prayer Books, and Sermons

The most obvious break between the traditionalists and the neologues was reflected in the rejection of the sacrosanct Hebrew common prayer book (siddur) and the introduction of new heterodox works of devotion. The Reform prayer books were usually issued in two parts or two volumes: the first for daily Sabbath and Holy Day services, part two for the High Holy Days. Many congregations used the books put out by distinguished rabbis; others published their own rituals. All of the new prayer books were probably influenced by the pioneer 1841 Hamburg manual; editors did not hesitate to borrow from one another; in general, of course, every ritual was tailored by its compiler to comport with his own prejudices and the idiosyncrasies of his synagog. There was much competition in the sale and use of these works because they were a source of substantial revenue to their authors. The more popular ones were used in dozens of congregations. The amount of Hebrew in the different rituals varied; most books retained a great deal in order not to alienate the immigrants with their Old World ties. For the most part the officiant read only the Hebrew; the accompanying translations into German and English were for the private enlightenment of the curious auditor. In general all Reform manuals were short, for the standard siddur was long. The omissions tended to be the same; theological concepts unacceptable to the Reformers and all expressions of hostility to Gentiles were eliminated. Most Reform prayer books were essentially a modification of the old siddur text, not something new. Reformist concepts appeared primarily in the paraphrastic translations. Only a few of the new rituals were distinguished by their radical departure from the traditional structure of the old prayer book. Some of these service manuals opened and read from left to right; others, in true Hebraic fashion, from right to left. Many of them included the words of hymns, prayers for the home, and devotions to be read by children, to be used in the religious schools. Separate and special worship and edificatory works were also published.

The first of the Reform manuals was Merzbacher’s Order of Prayer published in 1855. Before the century had run its course there were many others. Rabbi Raphael da Costa Lewin of Brooklyn published an American Jewish Ritual in 1870 which carried on its title page the revelatory sentence: “The Voice of Reason is the Voice of God.” Others were brought out by Adolph Huebsch of New York, David Levy of Charleston, Max Landsberg of Rochester, Aaron Hahn of Cleveland, Solomon Sonneschein of St. Louis, Joseph Krauskopf of Philadelphia, Leonard Levy of Pittsburg, and David Philipson of Cincinnati. This list does not exhaust the liturgical works published in a generation when every man and rabbi did that which was right in his own eyes. The three most popular rituals were the Abodath Israel (the Service of Israel) of Benjamin Szold—later revised by Marcus Jastrow and H. Hochheimer—which first appeared in 1863, the Minhag America (the American Rite) of Wise in 1857, and the Olath Tamid (The Continual Burnt Offering) of Einhorn in 1858. Sooner or later these all received English and German translations. Wise was quite a liturgical entrepreneur never unmindful of the clientele to whom he catered. Thus the editions of his American Rite varied. Some had no translation, others were in English or in German. One edition carried practically all the blessings found in the siddur, including those for the praying shawl and the phylacteries, though these aids to worship were no longer recommended by Wise himself. The Cincinnati Reformer set out to appeal to every Jew; Reform as he understood it was not a new Jewish denomination. Einhorn in his Continual Burnt Offering was of another mind. He would not compromise with the truth as he saw it; his book, and he made no bones about it, was a Reform manual for Reform Jews and he did not hesitate to abandon the structure of the siddur when he saw fit. His approach was novel.21

Sermons and Preaching

Modeling himself on the Protestant minister and the Catholic priest the rabbi—and this, too, was a sharp break with tradition—began to play a very important role in the drama of the service. He was no longer a bit player; he moved from the periphery to the center of the stage. For most people his discourse became the heart of the synagog production. Using his sermon to develop his ideology the rabbi was the oracle. Most preaching in postbellum days was in German although there was an English tradition going all the way back to colonial times. In general, however, there were relatively few rabbis who preached regularly in English till the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The templegoers, immigrants for the most part, were eager to listen to a word in season spoken in their mother tongue.22

Organ, Choir, and Music

Music, modern music, vocal and instrumental, was part of the nineteenth-century Reform revolution. To a certain extent the Protestants, too, had to cope with the problems of the introduction of the newfangled organs and melodeons but the church as a body accepted or welcomed the inevitable. Undoubtedly western music and the organ had become facets of religious respectability and thus appealed to the leftward-moving Jews in this country. Both here and in Germany the introduction or the rejection of the organ became the shibboleth separating the Reformers from the traditionalists. Playing an organ on the Sabbath was work and work was forbidden on that day. Along with the organ went the choir with women and even Gentile women. Since the woman’s place was in the gallery and Gentiles cannot pray for Jews, these issues were also joined. But by the 1830’s the Charlestonians had an English hymnal, and the Reformers of Emanu-El, influenced no doubt by the Hamburg Reformers, had their own German songbook before the Civil War; by the 1870’s German and English hymnals began to abound. At first the music, the hymns, and very often the organists themselves were Christian but by the second half of the century as music was encouraged in American Reform there was a turn to traditional Jewish themes. The nineteenth-century American Reform choir loft was soon dominated by the music of the Viennese cantor Salomon Sulzer; operatic and oratorio melodies thrilled the auditors of the postbellum generation. Modern trained cantors were employed, musical settings for the Reform services were published, and a corpus of Jewish musical literature gradually developed. Despite the fact that the rabbis were determined to be the star performers in worship they were conscious of the need for congregational participation. In 1897 the Central Conference of American Rabbis published its first hymnal.23

Family Pews, Hats, and Confirmation

The Jewish Oriental tradition of segregating women in the service broke down not only in the choir loft but also in the synagog nave. When the secessionist Wise and his Men of Truth bought a church in Albany in 1851 they kept the pews and sat with their wives. Family pews soon became general among Reformers all of whom emphasized the equality of women. Hats and the prayer shawl gradually disappeared from the synagog although the wearing of headgear was optional in some liberal sanctuaries as late as the second decade of the twentieth century. [The Reading Road Temple in Cincinnati permitted the wearing of hats in the service as late as World War I.] Confirmation was one of the Christian ceremonies taken over bodily by the Jews of Germany in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The confirmation of boys and girls, an affirmation by the youngsters of their intention to live as Jews, is another manifestation of the improving status of women under the beneficent influence of Jewish religious liberalism. The Charleston Society of Reformed Israelites had approved of this new ritual about the year 1830, and Lilienthal, still Orthodox, had imported it to New York City from Germany as early as 1846. After that time it became general among the Reformers.24


Although the laymen battled over practices and rituals, the rabbis paid homage to a common body of religious beliefs and conceptions. The theology they accepted was the one that the Reformers in Germany had fashioned in the conferences of the 1840’s. The Reformers in the United States added little that was new although on occasion the emphases were different. There was some talk here that doctrine had to be compatible with science. Some Jews like some Protestants were not hesitant to stress the primacy of science in a generation when Pius IX insisted that the Church was supreme in matters of culture and infallible in the area of religion. Judaism, said the Jewish liberal clergymen, was an ethical as well as a rational faith. Wise and Einhorn, like the earlier Isaac Harby, laid great stress on the importance of the Ten Commandments, a code of conduct that is unreservedly accepted by all Jews but relegated to an obscure spot in the traditional liturgy. In this insistence on the importance of ethics in religion the Reformers were close to the Enlightenment Deists. It has been said, and it may be true, that Reform is Deism in an ethnic setting. Certainly, like the Deists, the American Jewish liberals tended to downgrade the Talmud and some of its teachings and upgrade the veneration of the Bible. Binding authority was denied to postbiblical writings and rituals; the spirit is eternal but the forms are changeable. Because they deemed changes in the new friendly American environment imperative, influenced by the evolutionary ideas of the time, the Reformers harped upon the attractive concept of progressive revelation.

The mission of the Jew to usher in a Messianic Age tended to become basic in Reform thought. Of course the idea was not new. The conservative Leeser believed in the mission of Judaism and the American Catholics, too, nursed similar hopes for the future of their religion. This concept of a religioethical mission to the world was vitally important to the Reformers for it resolved the antinomy of acculturation and segregation. The Jew wanted to be of this world but was dedicated by God, if you will, to a unique task, and until it was accomplished he dare not assimilate. The mission theory was a comforting rationale for a continuing ethnic separatism. Jews scattered to all four corners of the world are not being punished because they reject Jesus; God so loved them that he scattered them to save the world. The mission of the Jew is to make the world better through ethical monotheism. Ultimately Judaism, at least in content, will become the religion of all mankind. Christianity, said a Jewish writer after the Revolution of 1848, was too particularistic. What is needed is a (Jewish!) concept of world citizenship that will embrace every human being. The great emancipatory Revolution of 1776, said Wise, was not directed against England but against Christianity. Like the Unitarians and the Evangelicals, too, Reform stoutly maintained that its faith would usher in a glorious messianic day. This hope for a better world beyond the horizon was closely tied to the American concept of progress.25


In a talmudic discussion the rabbis of old made the effort to boil down Judaism to a single sentence. Following this precedent one might venture to suggest that classical Reform may be encapsulated in this statement. The hope of the Jew is not to return to tiny Palestine but to bring the ethics of his faith to the whole world. But theologies are lived by human beings. In spite of their virtual unanimity of belief the liberal American rabbis were often at odds: individuals among them were selective in their practices; they were not at one in their approach to tradition or in their attitude toward a formal union of all Jews. They differed because of their diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, because of prejudices, rivalries, factional disputes, and clashing personalities. These men shaded off into three groups: rightists, leftists, and centrists. Their posture is defined by their relation to tradition with which all had broken. The conservatives attempted to hold on to many of the old ways and to reevaluate the teachings of the fathers; the radicals broke with tradition almost completely; the centrists swung from one side to the other.

Benjamin Szold who came to Baltimore from Hungary in 1859 was a typical conservative. He had studied Talmud in Europe and received a relatively good modern education. The devotion which he constantly nursed toward his ancestral faith is reflected in his very popular version of the prayer book. This work was brought out with an English or a German translation. When he summed up his loyalties in the parody on Terence: “I am a Jew and nothing Jewish is alien to me,” Szold meant to say that he felt himself at home with the Jewish masses. His friend Marcus Jastrow, one of the authors of the Szold-Jastrow prayer book, shared Szold’s rightest views. Obviously he would be on the side of the traditionalists for he was a fine student of rabbinic literature and in later years published the first large-scale dictionary of the Talmud in English. This Prussian Pole came to the United States in 1866 after a most interesting career in Europe. After he had accepted a call to Warsaw his open sympathy for the Polish political rebels brought him a brief term of imprisonment in a Russian jail. Shortly after Jastrow’s summons to Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom he became a teacher in Leeser’s newly opened Maimonides College. He worked closely with the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the international Jewish cultural and defense organization, and in his later years expressed his sympathy for the new Zionist movement.26


Three outstanding men constitute the left. They were Samuel Adler (1809-1891), Samuel Hirsch (1815-1889), and David Einhorn (1809-1879). In the Jewish literature they are frequently referred to as radicals but that word was often applied in a defamatory sense. These three had much in common; they were seasoned, older, mature, for they had each participated in at least one of the German rabbinical assemblies of the 1840’s. They were well educated, university trained, scholarly, superior intellectuals who were at home, thoroughly at home, in Jewish lore. All three had brilliant, well disciplined minds; they were concerned with theology and ideology. In no sense were they opportunists ready to compromise in order to advance their cause. They did not have the political motivation of Wise nor were they as adept as he in advancing themselves. The fact that all three were West Germans may or may not have been of some influence in their thinking; their opponents on the right were for the most part Austrian-Hungarian and East European, closer to an inflexible Orthodoxy, less influenced by eighteenth-century Enlightenment and nineteenth-century liberalism. And finally all three were Germanizers if only by virtue of the fact that they had emigrated too late to become Americans linguistically. This may be important, for language frequently influences convictions. Yet in no sense were these men less devoted to American political ideals than their rabbinical contemporaries.

Their American patriotism may have been dictated by their experience in reactionary Germany and Austria. This suggestion may well apply to the Rhinelander, Samuel Adler, who had struggled valiantly to extend the civil liberties of his fellow Jews in Germany. Adler was invited to become the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, one of the country’s most prestigious posts, and he remained there till he retired honored and respected. He was a gentleman and a scholar of no mean repute yet his inability to preach in the language of the land induced his board to employ English-speaking associates. Ultimately one of them, Gustav Gottheil, succeeded him in 1874. Adler had hoped that his son Felix would follow in his footsteps but this brilliant scion of the family turned away from Judaism and became the founder of the Ethical Culture movement. Apparently Samuel Adler was the least “radical” of the triad although he was close to the other two men. As rabbi of Emanu-El he had seen to it that Samuel Hirsch’s brilliant son Emil Gustav was provided with a scholarship to study for the rabbinate in Germany. The Hirsch-Einhorn axis was established when young Hirsch married a daughter of Einhorn and Hirsch senior’s position as Einhorn’s successor at Keneseth Israel, in Philadelphia, was undoubtedly arranged by the latter. This new American, Samuel Hirsch, was the most radical of the three, possibly the only one of the group who was willing to conduct Sunday services and to officiate at intermarriages. He was an out-and-out universalist, emphasizing the need for ceremonies to serve as symbols to reflect the humanitarian principles which would tie Jewry to all mankind. Judaism, he taught, was a God-centered humanism.27

The most important of the three leftwingers was the Bavarian, David Einhorn. When the unhappy forty-six-year-old rabbi sailed for Baltimore to become the spiritual leader of Har Sinai, this was probably his first good job. Within a year he had established the magazine Sinai, prompted to do this, possibly, because of his hostility to Wise, the editor of the Israelite who was ogling Orthodoxy at the Cleveland Conference. Two years later Einhorn published his own prayer book, The Continual Burnt Offering (1858), possibly as an answer to Wise’s American Rite. In 1861 during the antiabolitionist Civil War riots Einhorn found it advisable to flee Baltimore and to seek refuge with Congregation Keneseth Israel. There he found peace till 1866 when he went on to a larger congregation in New York. He died in that city in 1879.

Wherever he went the anti-Orthodox Einhorn was nearly always in trouble; like Poe he might well have been called the Tomahawk Man. He was abrasive, sarcastic, and an intellectual snob. There is a tradition—and it seems to be well founded—that he told his people at Har Sinai: “Wir bleiben klein und rein.” (Let us remain small and pure.) Although he is reputed to have held Sunday services in Budapest he was strongly pro-Sabbath in this country and, unlike Hirsch, was an opponent of intermarriage. Of the three radicals he was the only one who aspired to leadership and this drive may explain some of his dislike for the more successful Wise. Einhorn was a fiery preacher; his style of vigorous assault on evil and wrongdoers undoubtedly influenced his son-in-law, Kaufmann Kohler, who was also known for his strenuous pulpit manner. Einhorn was a good hater, a good Jew, and a good American for he would have no truce with any form of reaction. Yet, and this is humanly understandable, he always remained tied to the Germany that had rejected him. During the triumphant days of Bismarck he preached in honor of the German victory over the French. Germany, he said, was the most cultured of all countries and without the German language there could be no Reform Judaism.28


Einhorn, Adler, and Hirsch were leftists but not extremists. There were, however, a few real radicals on the far leftist outreaches of Reform particularly in the 1880’s. The extremists tended to identify their religion with a liberal Americanism, and in this equation they were close to leftwing Protestants and Unitarians. An early radical was Rabbi I. Chronik of Chicago who wanted services on Sunday. Most remained within the ambit of Judaism; a few, very few, left the faith of the fathers. Solomon H. Sonneschein (1839-1908), a Hungarian who officiated at St. Louis’s Shaare Emeth, suggested that Jews and Christians celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah together; he conducted services for Unitarians and German Protestants in their churches, and was a very articulate proponent of the radically Reform 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. In 1886 this advocacy, coupled with doubts about the quality of his personal life, turned many of his St. Louis congregants against him. It was then that he began to flirt with the thought of joining the Unitarian Church but he finally decided to remain within the fold becoming the rabbi of a new liberal synagog that called itself Temple Israel. Later in his career this brilliant but erratic rabbi was elected a vice-president of the National Conference of Charities and Correction.

Solomon Schindler (1842-1915) left a more permanent impress upon his people and his times. This Silesian started his new life in America as a peddler; in desperation he became an Orthodox rabbi. Fortunately he was soon invited to serve as the spiritual leader of the Boston Jewish community and there he developed his religious talents. It was soon evident that he was an agnostic, a socialist, and a radical Reformer who looked forward to a utopian society in which all racial and religious differences would disappear. Enamored of Edward Bellamy’s best-selling Looking Backward, a romance which described a felicitous future world where crime and poverty had disappeared, Schindler wrote Young West, a sequel. For Schindler, the Boston liberal, Judaism was a religion of humanity, an ethical faith that would eventually embrace both Jews and Christians. God for him was the First Cause, removed from the personal problems of the individuals; his religion, like that of his Jewish fellow radicals, was one that was concerned with people at large not with the more limited specific hopes of the Jews. In his emphasis on the good and the noble he had much in common with his contemporary Felix Adler.

The congregants of Temple Israel where Schindler officiated went along with him. As proper Bostonians they were sympathetic to Unitarianism, but they never forgot that they were Jews. They offered no objection to his Sunday discourses where he spoke to large assemblies of Jews and Christians and lectured at times on the life of Jesus. As he veered more and more to the left his views impelled him to leave the temple in the 1890’s although years later he was to return to the security of a strong identification. It may well be that the Dreyfus Affair and the constant Russian pogroms brought him back to his people. His successor in 1894, Charles Fleischer, a Hebrew Union College graduate of the class of 1893, was even more to the left than Schindler, the social visionary. In 1912 Fleischer became the head of a Boston nonsectarian religious group calling itself the Sunday Commons.29


It has already been intimated that Wise differed with the radicals not in theology but in tactics. Wise the centrist was opposed to all extremes in the rejection or modification of traditional practices. It may well be, too, that he had to move slowly for his Cincinnati congregants were in no sense sophisticated intellectuals veering to the left. It took him decades to introduce some changes into his own synagog. Though he himself was always opposed to circumcision of proselytes he went along with his congregation which demanded the performance of this rite; he made no issue of his liberalism. Personally he enjoyed observing the dietary laws, with the exception, of course, of oysters. This Old World rationalist would have justified his approval of these bivalves on a hygienic basis which he did not extend to swines flesh. It is reported that he left in a huff at the dedication of a Heidelbach & Seasongood store when ham was served. For him being a Jew was as important as being a Reform Jew.

Essentially Wise was a devotee of the Enlightenment who gloried in the biblical phrase: “Let there be light” which he had painted in Hebrew on the walls of his cathedral and blazoned boldly on the front page of his Israelite. He was really sui generis, a curious admixture of American liberalism, French Enlightenment, German Reform, and universal Jewish Orthodoxy. He never cut himself off from his traditional background; he wanted a positive Judaism, one that was linked to the past. Borrowing freely from Thomas Paine, and others, too, he gestured: “The world is my country and love is my religion.” Wise, the universalist, believed in “one mankind, one liberty, one fraternity.” This humanitarian, cosmopolite, American individualist, democrat, and progressive wanted a universal religion based on Mosaism. But, he was a universalist with a timetable. As far back as the 1850’s he assured those who listened that by the turn of the century Judaism, in one form or another, would become the religion of the civilized world.30


Wise was loyal to many schools of thought, eclectic, not concerned with what he would have dubbed foolish inconsistencies. He rejected Darwinism; the survival of the fittest was homo-brutalism; “Darwin succeeded in making monkeys of men but failed in making men out of monkeys.” Wise was very definitely opposed to what he called “the gorilla theory.” He was prompted to refute the teachings of Darwin after John Fiske wrote his reconciliation of theism, science, and evolution in 1874. Fiske called his book, The Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy. The Cincinnatian began a series of public lectures which appeared in print as The Cosmic God (1876). It was his contention that all science only confirmed the existence and reality of God. Wise was proud of the fact that he had settled the conflict between science and religion; freethinkers came to hear him talk, and once for all he had put an end to atheism in Cincinnati! So he said!31

Always sure of himself Wise not only believed that he had confuted the Darwinians but also the Higher Critics who threatened to dismember the Bible with their documentary theses. Like most Christians of his day the Cincinnati rabbi believed that the Bible was a literally inspired book. It was sacrosanct. He may well have been influenced not only by his traditional prejudices but also by the Protestant counterrevolution of the late nineteenth century. Moses wrote the Pentateuch, said Wise, and God wrote the Ten Commandments. As long as the Cincinnati rabbi was alive no one at Hebrew Union College dared treat the Bible as literature only. The Bible was not a composite documentary work; it was not a pack of forgeries. To prove its unity and antiquity Wise wrote the Pronaos to Holy Writ in 1891. Eight years later he hired the Russian-born Louis Ginzberg, one of the most brilliant scholars of that generation, and brought him to the United States to teach at the College. When Wise was informed—possibly erroneously—that Ginzberg believed in the Higher Criticism, the young man was told that he was not wanted. That was an error of major proportions; Ginzberg, who allied himself with the Conservative Movement, soon emerged as one of the most learned Jewish savants of the twentieth century.32


Like Leeser, Wise was almost obsessed with the Americanization and unification of all Jews in this country. Judaism and Americanism, said Wise, had much in common. As a civil libertarian he passionately cherished American privileges and immunities; he loathed the despots and despotism of the Hapsburg Empire where he had once lived. Yet, though he loved America and all for which it stood, he never discarded the Germanic culture of his youth. The German language was dear to him; it was his mother tongue in which he wrote his Reminiscences, his poetry, his novels, his editorials in the Deborah, and his love letters to his fiancée. It was the idiom in which he preached frequently to his congregants, almost down to the day of his death. When preaching became part of the synagog service here in the United States, German was the language which was most frequently employed at first. After all most of the congregants were immigrants who loved German and wanted to hear it at home, in the pulpit, and in the Jewish schools. It was the only language in which they were truly comfortable. Yet like many German Protestant and Catholic clergymen, Wise knew that if the Jews persisted as Germanizers they would forever remain strangers in the land. Adaptation, acculturation, was ineluctable. Wise and many others, laymen and rabbis, began to preach in English and to publish English translations in their prayer books. The use of English, symbol of willing submission to the Americanization process, was their affirmation of the value of citizenship, their hopeful answer to anti-Jewish prejudice, and their refutation of any possible charge of dual loyalties. And when the socially undesirable East Europeans appeared on the scene with their Yiddish “jargon” and the Germans became concerned for their status, English became imperative.33

The demands of the new generation for Americanization in Reform were imperative. The youth knew no German and wanted no part of it; they insisted on English and decorum. The Hebrew Union College was established primarily as an American institution for American Jews. The native-born Jewish children were one with Wise in demanding Americanization in language, manners, dress, mores, and patriotic sentiment. Even the Szold-Jastrow prayer book had a special service for Thanksgiving Day, a patriotic holiday, and unbosomed itself of a fervent panegyric on the United States in the service read on the Ninth of Ab commemorating the destruction of the ancient Israelitish and Judean states. Most Jews of that day were in agreement. America is our Zion. They would have approved heartily of Wise’s pronouncement, “Providence reserved this sea-girt continent for the last and highest triumphs of humanity.” The Cincinnati Reformer enjoyed scolding his opponents, Hirsch, Einhorn, and Adler, as Germanizers. He vaunted his Americanism, changed his name from Weise to Wise, signed himself, Wise, D.D., popularized the phrase “American Judaism”; in July, 1874, he transformed the Israelite into the American Israelite, convinced that now there was an American Jewry and an American Judaism. He paraded proudly on the American stage with the English Bible in one hand and the American flag in the other.34

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.