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In 1879 when the Union met in New York City it decided to celebrate its marriage with the Board of Delegates of American Israelites: East and West were now one. It was a great occasion, one that justified a great feast at Delmonicos. The banquet was kosher. Four years later history provided another pretext (not that one was needed) for an elaborate repast. Unfortunately this time the dietary laws were not observed; certain consequences flowed from this omission. The Union met in Cincinnati, July 10-13, 1883, to celebrate three events: the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Union, a meeting of the Rabbinical Literary Association, and the ordination of the first class of the Hebrew Union College. Told that he must make sure that the food was kosher the caterer, a Jew, was most meticulous in excluding all forms of swine’s flesh. Although the Jewish princes of Porkopolis, who paid for the dinner, drew the line at pork, they were served several kinds of forbidden seafoods, to say nothing of ice cream served with meat. The seven different spirituous liquors were of course kosher. The rabbis present were annoyed; two walked out; others did not touch their food. The traditionalists present expected the Union, not a Reform organization, to respect the laws of kashrut. When protests were raised Wise mishandled the situation; instead of beating his breast he remonstrated that he was not the cook. Some of his supporters sneered at “kitchen Judaism.” Wise might have pointed out that he himself observed most of the dietary laws but he was entirely too cocky; he thought that the Hebrew Union College and the Reform movement were impregnable. Certainly most middle-class Jews of that day no longer kept kosher and even the national Jewish fraternal orders ignored the dietary restrictions at their annual convention banquets, but Wise’s enemies used this banquet as a pretext to belabor him once more. This “unclean” (terefah) feast did little to cement the recently established union of East and West. The traditionalists in the East remembered resentfully this disregard of their sensitivities: “His day will come.”1


Symbolically the sniping at the Union for its unkosher banquet in Cincinnati was a declaration by the Easterners that they would never resign themselves to western leadership in Jewish life. By 1885 several factors strengthened the Easterners in their resolves. In the spring of that year Alexander Kohut, a scholarly cultured Hungarian rabbi, arrived on these shores and began to attack Reform from his pulpit. Kaufmann Kohler, then in New York, answered from his chancel carrying on, as it were, a long distance debate. Both disputants of course spoke in German. Kohler defended Reform in a series of lectures, “Backward or Forward,” in which he pointed out that spirit is more important than form, that a liberal Judaism is constructive, not destructive, and that Jews in this land want an American not a Palestinian Judaism. As large numbers of East European refugees poured into this country fortifying Orthodoxy, the Reformers became apprehensive. They saw the handwriting on the wall; it was only a matter of time before they would be overwhelmed numerically. The Reformers, Americanized and acculturated, also feared that they might be linked with the uncouth, alien-tongued, impoverished immigrants. They saw themselves as they had once been a generation earlier and, believing that their status was threatened, they were determined to establish a sharp line of demarcation between themselves and the newcomers.

Reform went on the defensive. On the right it was faced by the European cultured, college-trained tradition-true leaders like Kohut; on the left it was confronted by agnostics, extremists, Ethical Culturists, and a generation of apathetic youth. It was imperative, thought the liberals, that they define where they stood, that they crystallize their own Reform philosophy, that they consolidate their ideological gains. In a more positive sense the Reformers of 1885 were ready to lay down basic principles to win new followers, the youth, and to appeal even to the working classes. It was an age when there were strong liberal stirrings among the Protestants as well.

In this developing conflict with the Orthodox, the Reform leadership was preempted by Kohler (1843-1926). Prepared with his heavy German accent to bottle (battle) for the Lord, he was a real stormer of heaven, unyielding in liberalism as he had been unyielding in Orthodoxy back in Bavaria as a youth. Kohler was an unusual combination, a social scientist and an enthusiast, a literary critic and a pietist. By the 1880’s he was American Jewry’s outstanding theologian. Kohler had emigrated from Germany because his reputation as a biblical critic, established by a radical doctoral dissertation, precluded any future for him in the German rabbinate. On his arrival here in 1869 he attended the Philadelphia Conference, married Einhorn’s daughter, and after serving in Detroit moved on to Chicago and to New York where he succeeded his father-in-law in the new pulpit that came to be known as Beth-El. There he remained from 1879 to 1903 when he was elected president of the Hebrew Union College, an appointment which was Einhorn’s postmortem victory over his dead rival Wise. The East had taken over the West. When Kohler called the Pittsburgh Rabbinical Conference which met November 16-18, 1885, Wise was still alive. Wise was chairman; he dared not remain away, yet his time was past; Kohler dominated the sessions as his father-in-law Einhorn had dominated in Philadelphia in 1869. Pittsburgh was the flowering of Philadelphia.2

Kohler made an opening address in which he outlined his program, a combination of theological pronouncements and practical desiderata. He spoke of the need for a common prayer book—nothing was done in this area—of uniform practices in marriages and funerals, of new ceremonies for the Holy Days, and of the importance of dressing up Hanukkah to compete with Christmas. It was imperative, he pointed out, that religious schools be improved, that curricula be standardized, and that a textbook literature be prepared that would appeal to the youth. Better translations of the Bible would have to be made and expurgated editions be published that would be suitable for the young. His suggestion that a new Jewish publication society would have to be established—two had already faded away—fell on fertile soil. The young Joseph Krauskopf, just two years out of the Hebrew Union College, was the chief architect of the third and permanent publication society that was established in Philadelphia three years later. Seeking the moral and intellectual elevation of his people Kohler stressed the need for educational tracts and deplored the lack of books for private devotion. He was undoubtedly influenced by the flourishing Christian home missions of that day. He was eager to do missionary work among the children of the Russian and Polish Jews, to educate them Jewishly, and to Americanize them through good religious schools. His proposals were positive and constructive; his chief concern was the youth.


The real concern of the Reformers was not to confront Orthodoxy or speed up the acculturation of the older German immigrants; the real challenge was to stop the defections, the disinterest of native-born Jewry. This was a problem shared by Christians too as they stared at empty pews. Earlier Wise and his colleagues had tried to solve this problem by instituting the Friday night service. It was introduced not only to save the Sabbath but also to thwart the proponents of the supplementary Sunday service. Wise wanted no Sunday service under any circumstance for he shared the view of those who maintained that the Christian day of Jesus’s resurrection—Sunday—could never become a Jewish holiday. Wise’s prejudice or loyalty to the traditional seventh-day Sabbath was not shared by all his contemporaries. There was a minority who wanted supplementary or week-day services on Sunday. It was very difficult to muster a religious quorum of males on Saturday, for the men were in business; the congregations on that day were made up of children and older folks, and in small numbers at that. Kohler and the Pittsburgh Conference opted for a supplementary Sunday service when necessary, rationalizing that they had to make provision for workingmen who were not free on the Sabbath. Of the Reformers only Emil G. Hirsch of Chicago and one or two others were willing to accept Sunday as a substitute for Saturday. Most rabbis were at one with that Jew who stoutly asserted that the Sabbath which is allowed to die on Friday will never see its resurrection on Sunday.

The desire for a Sunday service among Jews goes back to the 1820’s in Germany; it is even earlier here in the United States. The able and successful Richmond businessman, Joseph Marx, recommended a Sunday-Sabbath no later than 1819; it would save one day a week, for the Jew would not have to rest on both Saturday and Sunday. Sunday services became a subject of more general discussion on this side of the Atlantic during the 1830’s; by the 1840’s Baltimore radicals were even attempting to worship on that day, and in the next decade they and Jews in one or two other towns were holding services sporadically on Sunday. In 1874 Kohler began to preach in Chicago on this Christian day of rest and others followed suit in Philadelphia and in Baltimore although these services were supplementary to the Sabbath assemblies rather than a substitute. Only a negligible few, however, encouraged these gatherings on Sunday. Even the disinterested Jews who refused to attend on Saturday rejected the Sunday-Sabbath as an act of apostasy. Kohler, however, not only encouraged Sunday religious gatherings but emphasized the common characteristics of Christmas and Hanukkah; he even talked of shifting the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, to January 1. By the turn of the century Kohler was changing his mind; he turned against the additional supplementary Sunday service. Judaism must not be stripped of its national forms and traditions; if this is done nothing but theism is left. The Russian pogroms and expulsions and the growing anti-Semitism in Germany and France may have made Kohler more particularistic, more traditional.

Though Sunday lectures with some worship elements were to continue into the next generation, the belief that worship on that day was the cure-all for apathy probably reached its zenith no later than 1890. About 10 percent of the congregations still held lecture-services on the Sunday in the first decade of the new century. Outstanding among the popular preachers who drew large crowds on the first day of the week were Hirsch in Chicago, Stephen S. Wise in New York, and the brilliant Reformers who graced the pulpits of Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Many of their auditors were Christians; Jews continued to stay away. Long ago Einhorn had reproached his coreligionists bitterly: Saturday they traded away, Sunday they gambled away.3


Fewer than twenty rabbis met in Pittsburgh but their theological and ideological pronouncements crystallized “Classical Reform.” They were unequivocal in their belief that the Jewish concept of monotheism was superior to that of the Christian trinitarians. Recognizing that the two faiths had much that they shared and that Jewry should be happy to work with the sister faith in pursuance of common humanitarian goals, these Jews made it clear that they were determined to preserve their historical identity. The Reformers in Pittsburgh were anything but assimilationists. Unyielding in their ingroup loyalties they were opposed to intermarriage which could only lead to the disappearance of the Jew and his religion. They welcomed proselytes—in theory at least—but came to no agreement on the necessity of circumcision for adult Gentile converts; indeed some Jews still rejected the rite of circumcision not only for proselytes but even for their own children. One New Yorker brought suit for damages against a circumciser who had performed the ceremony on his children without his permission. Kohler deemed the operation on converts a “barbarous cruelty,” and Wise saw no need to require proselytes to submit to the knife. This permissiveness of Wise and Kohler was unacceptable to the Conference, for the rabbis knew the masses clung tenaciously to this custom, ascribing sacramental character to it; a rabbinical assembly meeting in 1892 declared that proselytes could forego the operation. In actual practice Wise, too, required this initiatory rite because his people wanted it. This was typical of him; vox populi, vox dei.

Though he said nothing Wise was probably not very happy when his confreres declared that the Bible was literature—great literature but nonetheless the work of man. It was easier for him to go along with them when they stated that all universal religions enjoyed divine revelation: God does not speak to Jews alone. Since the Bible is not a definitive manual of science, said the rabbis, there is no problem of the congruence of Judaism and science. Here again, departing from Wise’s thinking, the rabbis saw no reason to protest against Darwin’s concept of the descent of man from an animal of the anthropoid group. Very significant is the flat asseveration of the discussants that spiritual elevation, the ethical, is more important than the traditional ceremonial, ritual, and customary laws. This is in effect a break with Orthodox law (halakah) of the last 2,000 years; the dietary laws, animal sacrifices, the distinctions between priest, Levite, and Israelite in Judaism, the “caste” system, are all thereby abolished. Only the moral laws of the Old Testament and the rabbis are binding.

There is no Heaven, no Hell, no physical resurrection, only immortality (whatever that is). There was no Messiah, only a Messianic Age, and it is the mission of the Jew to bring it about, to perfect Judaism, enlighten the Jewish masses, and further the welfare of all mankind. If the job of the Jew is to help the world then there is no need even to think of returning to Palestine to reestablish the Jewish state. The Jews are a religious people not a nation. This anti-Palestinian statement was undoubtedly promulgated at the Pittsburgh Conference because Jewish nationalism was a growing sentiment. A European group of proto-Zionists had met in Kattowitz, Prussia, in 1884 and had discussed the agricultural renascence of the Holy Land. Because of the plight of the Polish and Balkan Jews, and the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and in France, this anti-restoration clause of the Pittsburgh Conference was later deeply resented by the Zionists who began to discover themselves in the late 1890’s.4


If there is to be a just society in a Messianic Age it is obvious that Jews must interest themselves in social justice in order to bring it about. This concern, reflected in the Platform, is an evidence of the strong influence exerted by a small band of this-wordly Christian liberals who were stressing the abuses of the contemporary industrial society. In turn, the Jewish clerics assembled in Pittsburgh departed from their sanguine generalities about the future and addressed themselves to the everyday realities of poverty and injustice. We must face the social questions of the day, said Kohler. Women must be integrated into our organized religious society; the poor must be brought into the synagog and shown more consideration. This new thinking is the Jewish reaction to the Christian Social Gospel crusade that began in England in the 1840’s as an attempt to cope with the ills of the new factory system with its slums, misery, strikes, and panics. It was a rational movement tied to political liberalism, objective science, and critical scholarship. As early as 1858 the sensitive and highly intelligent Felsenthal of Chicago expressed a desire to improve the material conditions of his fellowman. The Jews were very slow to interest themselves in these questions yet even before the Pittsburgh Conference was called to order there were some Jewish spiritual leaders who were concerned about the evils of urban society. The masses of East European refugees in New York City were suffering. As early as 1878 Rabbi Adolf Huebsch of that great metropolis was preaching on capital and labor urging the two to work in harmony under the beneficent influence of religion. Seven years later Article Eight of the Platform declared that “the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society” must be solved “on the basis of justice and righteousness.”

In 1888 Henry Berkowitz, the “beloved rabbi,” as he was to be known, a member of that brilliant first class of the Hebrew Union College, published Judaism on the Social Question. An anti-Marxist, he had been soured on labor by the Haymarket Bombing Massacre of 1886. Yet, he pointed out, the laborer must be recognized as a human being. The Jew must be out in front fighting for social betterment. The prophets of Israel had fought to improve society and even the great lawgiver Moses had made a most substantial contribution to the social question: there were no tramps in ancient Israel! When by the 1890’s individual rabbis began to emerge as social reformers they found themselves in good company. They could be as papal as the pope, for Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) said a kind word for the trade unions and reminded his hearers that workmen were not bondsmen. When Rabbi Landsberg of Rochester called for an improvement in social and political conditions, he was certainly influenced by the radicalism of his Unitarian colleague, William Channing Gannett. But men like Landsberg and Huebsch were exceptions; most Gentiles and Jews of that day were indifferent to the drive for social justice. The typical pious and moral Christian anxiously sought to save his immortal soul and Wise and his colleagues did not want to be smeared as radicals by their cautious Christian neighbors. The rabbis dared not forget that the leaders in the Jewish community were usually employers, politically conservative. It was not until the second decade of the twentieth century, during the Progressive Era, that a new breed of rabbis, native Americans, began to take vigorous positions on matters of social import. The prime influence in this change seems to have been the personality and writings of Walter Rauschenbusch of Rochester, a Baptist minister.5



In 1885 in his programmatic address to the Pittsburgh Conference Kohler had said that the rabbis would have “to face the great social questions and problems of today”; it remained for his brother-in-law Emil G. Hirsch to suggest the inclusion of a social justice article in the Platform. Hirsch was born in Luxembourg where his distinguished father was the chief rabbi. The youngster was brought to America at the age of fourteen and was later given an Emanu-El scholarship and educated at the Jewish Hochschule in Berlin. After brief rabbinates in Baltimore and in Louisville he finally settled down in Chicago where he dominated the Jewish community spiritually from 1880 to 1923. In 1892 he was given a post in Judaic Studies at the University of Chicago and later demonstrated his high scholarly abilities as a consulting editor of the new Jewish Encyclopedia. Unlike most erudite academicians he was also a great preacher. Whenever the labor leader Samuel Gompers was in Chicago he would make every effort to hear the rabbi. Hirsch was probably the most distinguished Reform clergyman in the United States in the early 1900’s, the unquestioned leader of the leftwingers despite the fact that he was personally abrasive and brutally frank. He was not popular with his fellow rabbis and some of his rich congregants; his colleagues respected him for his intellect, feared him for his tongue, and envied him for his salary.

Hirsch’s interests were many. He was a leader in education and in the social justice movement, certainly among Jews. It was his conviction that workmen were being mistreated but he evinced no understanding of the growing sentiment to grant the franchise to women. Many influences molded him; like his father he was a student of German critical thought and was close intellectually to his father-in-law Einhorn. American religious radicalism in its multifarious forms shaped his thoughts and deeds. Ethics is religion and religion is ethics; he was a rationalistic, humanistic theist with little interest in traditional ritual. Yet he was no assimilationist, no secret Unitarian: Jews are distinct and must remain so in order to prepare the world for a universal religion. As early as 1869 at the Philadelphia Conference his father Samuel had suggested that Christians be admitted to the synagog as associate members; this was an invitation that the son would probably have seconded in 1885. The synagog must be a place for moral instruction dedicated to the improvement of society. This tough-minded, pugnacious fighter was no bigot. When the Michael Reese Hospital, controlled by the Reform Jewish elite, refused to establish a kosher kitchen for the Orthodox immigrants, Hirsch supported the traditionalists in their effort to establish a hospital of their own.6


Hirsch, Wise, and the other members of the Pittsburgh Conference were certainly encouraged in their thinking by the leftwing Gentile religionists of the 1880’s. Reform Judaism was at that time probably one of the largest liberal religious movements in the United States and the Jewish Reformers, like the modernizing liberal Christian religionists, were under the influence of the European Enlightenment, Jacksonian individualism, transcendentalism, the English Social Gospel Movement, American idealism, and Unitarianism. Most of the liberals, both Jews and Christians, worshipped at the shrine of reason. But in this galaxy of socioreligious leftists the Jewish Reformers and the Pittsburgh conferees were on the conservative right; they deprecated extreme individualism and they wanted fixed restrictive principles. They were in no sense radically permissive. They made abundantly clear their belief that their literature (Bible) and their faith were superior.

Seeking tolerance and understanding for themselves and their faith the Jews moved closer to nondogmatic Gentiles. Jews who believed in man’s innate goodness felt close to Christians who preached the gospel of perfectibility. Thus it was that the Jewish liberals were very sympathetic to the noncreedal, rationalist, and science-oriented Free Religious Association (1865) which sought fellowship with all ethical groups. The Association hoped for a kingdom of God here on earth for there is a “Messiah cradled in the bosom of every man”; the Jews wrote of the glory of the coming of a Messianic Age. Along with Emerson, Jewish leaders joined the Free Religious Association. When Felix Adler was president in 1879, Felsenthal was an honorary vice president; Wise, another member, had addressed the society in Boston in 1869 and encouraged it to meet in his Cincinnati cathedral in 1870. Those liberal Christian Protestants who accepted biblical criticism and the conclusions of science were creating an intellectual environment where Jews and Christians could meet on common ground.

By the 1890’s, the decade which Wise hoped would bring all religionists close together, the Jewish-Christian religiocultural détente was approaching its zenith. The two faiths worked closely together at the World’s Parliament of Religions which met at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies which had numerous Jewish officers among its members talked of love, justice, humanity, and knowledge. Christians as well as Jews flocked to the Friday night and Sunday morning lectures of the rabbinic liberals at the turn of the century, listening to socioethical appeals geared to the new age of political progressivism. These men and movements and religions were all part of that wonderful late nineteenth century optimistic and ecumenical world that stood on the heights eagerly waiting to greet the dawn of the new Messianic Age. It was a pity, a great pity that this hope was soon spent. What killed it and buried it? Was it the growing nationalism and imperialism of the Americans and Europeans, a narrowing of views that left no room for an almost maudlin universalism? Were World War I and the Treaty of Versailles its death knell?7


There were a number of Jewish religious leftwingers in that generation of great expectations who recommended radical changes. The gauge of their extremism is the lessening degree of their Jewish particularism and the increasing measure of their universalism. In addition to Hirsch there were men like Max Landsberg, Adolf Moses, Solomon H. Sonneschein, Solomon Schindler, and Charles Fleischer. All of them were born in Central Europe. Landsberg (1845-1928), a Berliner who was given an excellent Hebraic education, was called to the Rochester rabbinate in 1871. In the prayer book which he prepared he blandly changed the original blessing invoked on the Jews to one for all of God’s children. He substituted confirmation for bar mitzvah, brought Christian clergy into his pulpit, and like other liberals joined with Christians in common Thanksgiving Day services. On one occasion when his members refused to worship together with a Congregationalist minister because of his “subversive” economic views, Landsberg protested most vigorously to his board. He loved Hebrew but kept it to an absolute minimum in his religious manual and prided himself on how little his services differed from those of the Christian liberals. The Sunday service? He was opposed to it; the radicals were never of one piece.

A common characteristic of practically all left-wing rabbis was their involvement in the social problems and institutions of the communities in which they lived. In 1911 Landsberg, an outstanding worker in the field of social welfare, was elected president of the New York State Conference of Charities and Correction. Rabbi Adolf Moses of Louisville was a Kentucky commissioner for the blind. Moses, a Pole, had come to the United States a year before Landsberg; he officiated as rabbi in Montgomery and Mobile before accepting the Louisville pulpit. He was no ivory-tower scholarly figure for he fought with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts in 1859 and later served as an officer in the Polish rebellion until he was imprisoned by the Russians. Desiring to lessen the national character of Judaism and to attach Gentiles to his universalist version of it Moses preached a religion of humanity. He felt that his faith would profit by changing its name from Judaism to Yahvism.8

Rabbi Solomon Schindler served Boston’s most prestigious congregation till he finally resigned to devote himself to social work. Like Moses and Landsberg he came to America because as a liberal his opportunities for advancement at home were hampered in the conservative religious setting of that day. Schindler was not happy in the pulpit and finally became the superintendent of the newly established local Jewish union of charities, one of the first inclusive Jewish philanthropic federations in this country. He evidently left the federation to become the director of the Leopold Morse home for orphans and infirm Hebrews, named after the Boston Jewish congressman. Years later he moved to the right publicly apologizing in a sermon, Mistakes I Have Made, for reaching out to save the world when he should have devoted himself to the individual Jewish congregant. As a social worker he had finally learned that charity began at home, that a pastoral visit was in its way as important as a pretentious lecture on Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer.

Schindler’s successor in his Boston pulpit ultimately abandoned Judaism. Charles Fleischer had come to these shores from Silesia with his widowed mother when only a child of nine. Isaac M. Wise, always on the lookout for bright youngsters, admitted him to Hebrew Union College from where he graduated with the class of 1893. A year later he was rabbi at Adath Israel. The congregation and the community at large loved him. He was an extremely handsome man, a poet, an orator, and a gifted student of art and music. He fitted beautifully into the Boston of the culturally elite and the all embracing theological universalists. Fleischer, one of the early rabbinical advocates of social justice, moved rapidly to the left. His first allegiance was to the world, not to Jewry and this was the philosophy he expounded in his pulpit which became a civic forum like Stephen S. Wise’s Free Synagogue in New York City. But there was this great difference: Wise was a Jew and determined to remain one; Fleischer, reaching out beyond the horizon, saw America as the great apocalyptic melting pot out of which there would yet come a new people and a new faith. This man, for whom Jesus was the greatest of the prophets, was an assimilationist openly encouraging intermarriage and finally taking a Gentile to wife. In 1911, against the wishes of his congregation which was sorry to lose him, he left the rabbinate and founded the Sunday Commons, a nonsectarian community church, and when this experiment in world brotherhood languished he became an editor of the New York American and a free-lance lecturer. Like Felix Adler he had long ceased to be a “Jew,” but the editors of the 1926 Who’s Who in American Jewry refused to accept his resignation from the Jewish people. They carried both Adler and Fleischer as Jews.9


In a sense the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 set out to cut itself off definitively from the Schindlers and the Fleischers of the future: This far but no farther. The pronouncements in Pittsburgh became the basic “creed” of humanitarian Reform and in essence it remains so today. Its rational, this-worldly, somewhat secular approach would still meet with the approval of late twentieth-century Reformers though they would summarily reject its anti-Palestine article and would more warmly urge the pursuit and practice of ceremonies. Pittsburgh produced a complete Reform system set on facing the future and saving for Judaism the Americanized and acculturated youth. The new generation, impatient of religious discipline, did not respond in large measure by flocking to the synagog with its modernized services and its intellectualized theology. These young Americans had other interests.

In some areas the Pittsburgh manifesto was conservative. It took no definite stand on the religious status of women and on the vexed question of circumcision for proselytes. The rabbis could speak only for themselves, not for their congregations. They could not disregard the dues payers in the pews. The Platform was anti-assimilationist yet optimistic ignoring the anti-Semitism and pogroms in Europe and in Russia. Anti-Semitism and the mass murders of Jews were but unfortunate episodes on the road to progress, enlightenment, and an inevitable acceptance of the Jew into the polity of all lands. The rabbis in Pittsburgh broke with the gradualism of Wise, not that he was in disagreement with any of the articles adopted, but he would not have expressed himself publicly so unequivocally, so bluntly. The Platform pleased many and worried many. The liberal rabbis could not take their stand against it on principle yet the Reform Jewish rank and file were so unhappy with it that the rabbinic conference called for 1886 had to be cancelled. The articles of the Platform contravened the beliefs and practices of America’s Jewish masses and a cold wave of disapproval chilled the Reformers. The break with tradition was too abrupt. Strongly and resolutely particularistic, few Reformers were willing to be tarred as schismatics. The Union and the College, as corporate bodies, disavowed the Platform, for both institutions, nominally at least, represented all wings of American Judaism. Once more Wise retreated declaring that the men who had met spoke only for themselves, not for the laity.10



If many moderate Reformers were annoyed by the publication of the Pittsburgh Platform, the Orthodox were outraged by its precipitate break with Jewish tradition; although a very substantial percentage of the nominal Orthodox were negligent in observing the age-old ceremonies they maintained the importance of tradition. In a day when the Christian evangelicals were resurgent in attacking their own liberals the Jewish Orthodox also aligned themselves on the side of virtue, conservative creeds, and customary practice. The murders in Russia ever since 1881 may well have tended to turn Jews to the right even as they were impelled in that direction after the Holocaust. In addition regional rivalries were still strong; Wise, the bête noire of the Easterners, was chairman of this radical Pittsburgh gathering; he was not a scholar, a gentleman, or a Jew!11


The Platform was attacked and rejected by the Orthodox who far outnumbered those aligned with the liberal religious elements. The Orthodox of the 1880’s were for the most German-born immigrants; even by the end of the century there were only two Orthodox rabbis who had been born in the United States. On the other hand most East Europeans in the United States—Orthodox—chose to ignore the Pittsburgh resolutions. In principle, if essentials alone are considered, the Orthodox and the Reformers were one in subscribing to a universal morality and to an ethical monotheism. But life was certainly not lived on such levels. Those men and women who were loyal to tradition believed in the dietary laws and the Sabbath and the Holy Days with their attendant ceremonies. Despite the increasing availability of the bathtub women were expected to visit the mikveh for the monthly rite of purification. The Sunday supplementary service is Christian; the Pentateuch is divinely inspired, and all oral, rabbinic tradition is sacrosanct, inviolable. The siddur, the standard all-Hebrew and Aramaic prayer book, already centuries old, is authoritative. It posits a belief in the Messiah, the restoration to Palestine, the rebuilding of the Temple, animal sacrifice, resurrection. Most of these treasured beliefs had long been excised from Wise’s Minhag America and when two Orthodox Jews in Cincinnati were accidentally handed a copy of Wise’s prayer book they threw it into the stove. The Cincinnati Reformer’s reaction to this act was typical. He offered two cents for the photographs of the respective book burners as long as their jackass ears were prominent.

The loyalty of the majority to Orthodoxy was largely spiritual and emotional. Actually traditionalism was in retreat despite growing membership in both the churches and the synagogs. Nonattendance was almost de rigueur. Some angry Jews in Colorado had to lock the doors of the sanctuary to guarantee the preservation of a quorum; New Yorkers occasionally hired professional worshippers to ensure the necessary quota of males, and a Richmond minister once started to read services without a single worshipper. There was no ecclesiastical court of any consequence in all America; the rabbinic laws of marriage and divorce were too often observed in the breach. Most immigrant Jews did close their stores on the High Holy Days.12


Not surprisingly a number of congregations that bared their fangs at the Pittsburgh Reformers were themselves moving slowly to the left, adapting the forms of worship to the ineluctable demands of the American ethos. Even Shearith Israel the very foundation stone of American Orthodoxy flirted in 1872 with the employment of an English lecturer. Orthodoxy was altogether a relative concept; most treasured observances were in a state of flux. In his 1879 book, The Jews, E. M. Myers distinguished five categories of believers stretching from Strictly Orthodox to Radical Reformers.

The Orthodox majority despite their accommodative leanings began to move against the egregiously radical Pittsburgh Reformers. The attacks of Kohut and the arrival of the East European Orthodox thousands encouraged the traditionalist offensive. The American Hebrew, published since 1879, was a conservative mouthpiece, and Rodeph Shalom of Philadelphia, the oldest Ashkenazic synagog in the country, seceded from the Union (1884). Many Easterners were now convinced that Reform and the College were schismatic and it was not too difficult to persuade them that they deserved a college and a union of their own. This time the Easterners were successful: out of their hunger for institutions of their own came a new school and a new Jewish denomination, one that was ultimately to be known as Conservatism.13


From the 1850’s until the turn of the century the word “Conservative” was used by Orthodox and moderates to express their desire to conserve or preserve Judaism against the inroads of the Reformers; indeed the word “Conservative” was often but another synonym for Orthodox. When used by Reformers its connotation was reproachful if not pejorative. By 1880 the term was sometimes applied to the acculturated Orthodox or to moderate right-wing Reformers. Conservative congregations, growing in numbers, were those that tolerated mixed seating, art music, women in the choirs, vernacular preaching in German and in English, minor liturgical omissions, confirmation, a rigid insistence on decorum, and the doing away with the auctioning of synagogal honors. These were the congregations that advertised for preachers with modern ideas but sought to retain those traditional customs which were deemed practicable. These people spoke vaguely of the spirit of the times but thought of themselves as completely observant Jews. By the middle 1880’s when they referred to themselves as “Conservatives” they were thinking hostilely of the Pittsburgh Platform. It was not until the early twentieth century, however, that these Orthodox leftists had created a movement of their own that began to be known as “Conservatism.” Ultimately it was this group that decades later became America’s most numerous Jewish denomination.14



Though the Orthodox and their allies were strongly opposed to Reform and the pronouncements that emerged from Pittsburgh they were just as determined as the Reformers to save the youth in this permissive American environment for Judaism, Orthodox Judaism. A good traditionally-oriented seminary would go far to counteract the baneful influence of the Hebrew Union College. The Orthodox had been working to establish an educational institution of their own since 1841. Rabbi Aaron Wise of New York City was pleading for a school in the East as early as the 1870’s; it remained for his son Stephen Samuel Wise to establish the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1922. Sabato Morais, the minister of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, wanted a seminary Orthodox in name as well as in deed, but Kohut and others preferred the more inclusive name Jewish Theological Seminary, which was the name of the Breslau school which was the most prestigious modernistic rabbinical college in all Europe and where some of them had studied. Thus it was that a Jewish Theological Seminary Association was fashioned in 1886 to unite the Orthodox and the right-wing Moderates. It was their goal to maintain “historical Judaism”; actually Wise and his Reform colleagues always insisted that they too stood firmly on “positive” historical foundations, that they had not broken with the past. The Association, however, strongly affirmed its loyalty to the Mosaic law as interpreted in rabbinic traditions. The new school established in 1887 was governed by native Americans, immigrant Germans, and a Polish-born Yiddish newspaper publisher; all were staunchly Orthodox. Yet despite the fact that the school was traditional it was thoroughly Americanistic; the East European masses of the Lower East Side looked upon it with suspicion.15


It was the coming of Alexander Kohut and his anti-Reform assaults that helped start the chain reaction that was to eventuate in both the Pittsburgh Platform and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Kohut, a Hungarian, had studied at the Breslau Seminary—with its insistence on a thorough secular background—and had then returned home to embark on a great career becoming one of Hungary’s most distinguished rabbis, a scholar of note, and a member of parliament. It is difficult to determine what brought him, a great talmudist, to this rabbinic frontier unless it was the anti-Jewish Tisza-Eszlar ritual murder accusation that shocked and disillusioned Hungarian and World Jewry during the years 1882-1883. Kohut may have fled from Hungarian Christian obscurantism but he was probably enticed, too, by the prospect of serving a wealthy and generous New York congregation. He mounted his new pulpit in May, 1885. Although the synagog which he led, Ahabat Chesed, was a member of the Union he was not deterred from attacking the Reformers even in those pre-Pittsburgh Platform days. Kohut was a moderate, far to the right of Wise, but like the Cincinnatian, a gradualist. He was not Orthodox; he tolerated a policy of “salutary neglect” with respect to those Jewish practices which were no longer venerated by traditionally-minded Jews. When the new school was opened Kohut taught Talmud. His early death in 1894 followed three years later by the passing of Morais was a blow to the new seminary.16


Kohut was not the founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary. If any man deserves the honor it is the Philadelphia hazzan or rabbi Sabato Morais (1823-1897). This native Italian came to the United States in 1851, a young man of twenty-eight, as Leeser’s successor at Mikveh Israel. The unhappy Leeser had resigned in 1850; his board was very difficult and Leeser was neurotic. Morais remained with the congregation till his death in 1897 a tribute to his capacity to survive. Unlike Kohut he was not a distinguished talmudist but he was an excellent Hebraist, a fine student of the Bible, a Hebrew poet, and the translator of the book of Jeremiah for the Jewish Publication Society’s proposed new English version of the Old Testament. He was a scholarly cultured gentlemen. When Leeser opened Maimonides College, Morais taught Bible, an experience which no doubt stood him in good stead in the new school. In 1884 he began to agitate for an out-and-out Orthodox seminary. The Terefah Banquet of 1883 had very probably turned him against the Cincinnati college, and the Pittsburgh Platform confirmed him in his efforts to establish a rival school, though he had previously attempted to work with Wise. Together with a number of other rabbis he wasted but little time after the Pittsburgh Conference in calling for a new seminary. When it was opened in 1887 he served it as professor of Bible and as president of the faculty.

The new institution was strictly Orthodox; Morais had no desire to deviate from the halakah, canon law, and in this respect he was over to the right of the more permissive Kohut. Yet this Philadelphia rabbi was in no sense an obscurantist. He was always an Italian patriot, a friend of Mazzini, an antislavery man before emancipation had become a national policy, and a respected speaker at Christian gatherings. When the Russian Jews began moving into Philadelphia he became their friend. He cooperated with the Alliance Israélite Universelle and aided the East European newcomers who had planted themselves in the New Jersey agricultural colonies. In recognition of his work and services in the Jewish and general communities the University of Pennsylvania conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1887. In all probability he was the second Jew in the United States so to be singled out by a distinguished academic institution; the first was Bernhard Felsenthal.

As a college president commuting from Philadelphia to New York City and as a busy minister in a demanding congregation, Morais could hardly be expected to give the seminary the attention it needed. It was not a successful institution though it did manage to stay alive despite the lack of funds and real leadership. Unlike the Cincinnati college the New York school had no federation of synagogs to support it, and the immigrant East Europeans, poor and petit bourgeois for the most part, shied off. For them the natives and the acculturating Central Europeans were as unkosher as the Reformers, if not worse. The founding synagogs, a pot pourri of native traditionalists and Moderate Reformers, were held together largely by animus toward Wise and Reform. Time moved some of them to the left and by 1900 with the death of the Cincinnatian they joined or rejoined the Union. The Jewish Theological Seminary graduated few students. The one man among them to make a great career was Joseph H. Hertz who was to become the official chief rabbi of the British Empire.17



The rise of the Jewish Theological Seminary was a blow to Wise who had always maintained that his College served all American Jews. No doubt he consoled himself that his school was successful and that it was guaranteed permanence by the enthusiastic if not the generous support of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Though he now had a seminary and a federation of synagogs behind him he still lacked a national association of rabbis to effectuate his hopes for an authoritative ecclesiastical body that would bring order and uniformity to Jewish beliefs and practices. To be sure there had been minuscule local rabbinical assemblies ever since the 1840’s and throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s ministers had met sporadically in New York, Philadelphia, and even in Chicago. There were always rabbis who talked of regional or national organization. Leeser had sought in vain to bring the Jewish clergy together as early as 1853 but with the rise of the Union in the 1870’s the hope for a rabbinical assembly became practicable. Rabbis, as well as laymen, attended the periodic councils of the Union. The rabbis placed much more importance on unity in worship and observance than the laymen and when at the Union meeting in 1879 the ministers attempted to organize, the lay leaders ruled them out of order. As in the B’nai B’rith, religion in a denominational sense was deemed divisive.

The rabbis were not to be stopped, however. A year earlier, 1878, Lilienthal had sought to unite the Jewish clergy and, in the following year, did succeed in establishing the Rabbinical Literary Association of America. It lived till about 1883 when it went the way of all flesh: Lilienthal was dead and the Terefah Banquet in Cincinnati that year certainly did little to cement unity. During the brief span of about five years it was quite successful. It published two volumes of a rather good popular-scientific magazine called the Hebrew Review (1880-1882) which had something less than 100 subscribers. It was hoped that Jewish laymen and cultured Christians would read the Review which was strongly apologetic and ardently American in tone. The Association was interested in producing Jewish books, but its real objective was to establish a forum where discussion might bring some degree of uniformity if not of authority. The burning questions of that day were the dietary laws, marriage, divorce, and funeral ritual problems, the admission of proselytes, and of course the Sunday supplementary service. These are the very questions that were to engage the rabbis at the Pittsburgh Conference. Wise’s push for a discussion on a synod helped disrupt the Association.

A Jewish Literary Union established in St. Louis in 1885 aspired to produce an English Bible and liturgical and juvenile literature but this regional association of rabbis and laymen accomplished little. Five years later Henry Berkowitz seems to have been the moving spirit behind yet another transmississippi group, the Rabbinic Alliance. Its goal was the education of the youth, a favorite theme with Berkowitz. In 1893 he established the Jewish Chautauqua, a national education association in which rabbinical influence was paramount. These organizations, though dominated by rabbis, were primarily educational in scope and were not really clerical conferences.

After the dissolution of the Rabbinical Literary Association rabbis interested in uniformity began to organize regionally into conferences. The Conference of Rabbis of Southern Congregations, centering around New Orleans, was founded in 1885 and managed to stay alive for two or three years. This was a Reformist group that subscribed to the Pittsburgh Platform but permitted the rabbis the right of dissent. Some of its members insisted upon circumcision for adult proselytes and expressed their opposition to Sunday services. They reaffirmed their belief in the Sabbath of the Decalogue. Papers were read, common problems were debated, and an effort was made to raise standards in the Sunday schools. Northern rabbis organized the same year as the Southern ones, calling themselves the Jewish Ministers’ Association of America and including both Orthodox and Reformers. Like the other rabbinical associations the rabbis met together in the attempt to solve common problems but in this instance were particularly united in their distrust of Wise and the Union.18

With a Northern and a Southern fellowship in existence it was inevitable that a Western or Central association would ultimately arise. This new conference was called into being in 1889 by Wise who had sought to organize and unite the rabbis ever since the late 1840’s. He had called them together in the 1850’s in Cleveland and had summoned them once again in 1870 and then 1871. In his determination to achieve unity he had even met with the Einhorn group in Philadelphia and with the Kohler radicals in Pittsburgh although undoubtedly with misgivings. Everything pointed toward a larger national organization; the Christian churches were united and during the last quarter of the century America with new transportation and communication systems was itself entering an era of consolidation and centralization. The seventy-five-year-old Wise moved to take action, conscious that the Orthodox were resurgent in the Jewish Theological Seminary. Calling together his friends and his own graduates he established the Central Conference of American Rabbis. It was an immediate success; after a while even the radicals and the Easterners and the Southerners began to join. It was to become the first permanent rabbinical conference in World Jewry. His followers did not commit themselves to Reform; however, the Conference was non-Orthodox for it officially incorporated not only all the resolutions and decisions of the earlier German rabbinical assemblies but also the Pittsburgh Platform. From its very beginning the CCAR was American Judaism’s first national Reform institution; nominally the UAHC and the HUC were not Reform.


The rabbis who met in the CCAR were concerned with both personal and professional problems. They wanted to raise the standards of their office, to encourage the spirit of fraternity among their associates, and to provide relief for colleagues in distress. They read scholarly papers, published tracts and sermons for the small-town Jews, and reached out anxiously for uniformity in practice. It was these deliberations that brought unity to Reform, that established a consensus in public worship, in marriage and divorce, in the confirmation ceremony, in conversions to Judaism, in circuit preaching, cremation, anti-Zionism, religious school instruction, and in equal rights for women. To be sure, Wise wanted more than a consensus; he wanted authority, a synod to compel uniformity, but in this area the rabbis overruled him. The CCAR was and still remains a sounding board; none of its resolutions is binding. That is the secret of its viability and success. Because freedom was and is accorded to all, the Conference speedily became a vehicle to unite liberal rabbis and to further Reform.19


In his 1848 call “To the Ministers and Other Israelites” Wise had intimated, if only vaguely, the need for a Union, a College, and a rabbinical association. Apparently he had by the 1890’s accomplished all he had set out to do. The use of his “American Rite,” the Minhag America, had brought uniformity of worship to many congregations. Nevertheless this manual was a personal one; it was by no means the book of common prayer for all Reformers. Many rabbis were of the opinion that no effective union in Reform could be created without such an instrument, one that would be thoroughly Americanistic. The old fashioned Hebrew prayer book would certainly not serve to unite Reform Jewry. Many read no Hebrew and its attacks on persecutors and its petitions for a restoration of the Davidic monarchy and an obsolete Temple ritual were altogether unacceptable. The English translations that faced the Hebrew page were often archaic or inadequate. When “Alphabet” (E.B.M.) Browne moved to have the UAHC sponsor a prayer book that would bring uniformity out of diversity his motion was ruled out of order, for some of the Union synagogs still used the siddur; the liberals all had their own treasured prayer books. It was obvious that if a common rite was to be adopted it would have to be new and sponsored by a religious body with some degree of authority.

The CCAR determined to prepare such a work for the Sabbath, weekdays, and festivals. It appeared in 1892 and was soon followed by a volume for the High Holy Days and, ultimately, by a Union Haggadah for Passover and a Union Hymnal. Volume one of the Union Prayer Book was prepared by a committee that was independent of Wise. It fashioned the new work from a number of liberal rituals that were then circulating. Although Wise lost a steady source of income through the displacement of his Minhag America he offered no objection as he had in 1870 when the New York rabbinical conference threatened his beloved manual. The new Union Prayer Book omitted most of the Hebrew of the siddur and was completely leftist and universalistic. Successor editions down into the late twentieth century gradually restored some of the Hebrew as the Reformers moved back toward the center identifying themselves more closely with World Jewry.20


It is very probable that the radical spirit in the CCAR reached its zenith in 1895 at the convention which met in Rochester. It was then that the men declared that the rabbinical writings were literature, nothing more. This rejection of the Oral Law, of the halakah, the observance of which is obligatory on all tradition-minded Jews, formally marked a definitive break with Orthodoxy. Some of the radicals present would have liked to include the Bible in this statement but they desisted out of respect for the aged Wise and fear of disrupting the Conference. There were still rabbis who believed that the Bible had a sanctity and an authority all its own.21

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