Peculiarly representative of a bygone chapter in American religio-cultural history was Charles Fleischer, rabbi of Temple Adath Israel in Boston from 1894 to 1911, and later the founder and leader of the non-sectarian “Sunday Commons.” Fleischer’s radical reinterpretation of Judaism, and his substitution for it of a “religion” of progress and American democracy, was the rash expression of an impulse which, Arthur Mann indicates, has importantly shaped the religious temper and practice of the various ethnic groups of this country, and served to bring the different faiths closer together. The apparent failure of Fleischer’s venture does not detract from the continuing reality of that impulse in our society. Mr. Mann writes: “In the preparation of this article I profited from the insights of Dr. John Haynes Holmes, Minister Emeritus of the Community Church in New York. Mrs. Mabel Leslie-Fleischer, widow of Charles Fleischer, kindly allowed me the use of her late husband’s personal papers and library.”
In the career of Charles Fleischer, who served Temple Adath Israel of Boston—later the congregation of Joshua Loth Liebman—around the turn of the century, and who left Judaism while still relatively young, we may observe at its fullest the impact of American religious liberalism on American Judaism I do not intend to draw any lessons or moral from Fleischer’s story here—it is presented as a chapter of Jewish religious history in America.
The history of religion in America is largely concerned with the transformation of the theologies, rituals, and loyalties that were brought to this country by some forty million immigrants. The quest for democracy and unity out of diversity accounts for much of this transformation. In forging a conception of their own peoplehood, Americans learned to overlook doctrinal differences and agree on moral fundamentals. What the Deists hoped to achieve without a church has in large degree come to pass in the land of many churches. Indeed, the idea that religion is handmaiden to democracy has made such headway that American Catholicism, American Protestantism, and American Judaism appear like parallel shoots on a common stock.
Scholars who write that Reform Judaism “began” in Germany and simply “came here” with German Jewish immigrants not only overlook the pivotal role of the second and third generations, but distort the picture especially in ignoring the importance of native influences, particularly those of secular liberalism and of Unitarianism, on Reform.
In 19th-century Boston, general religious developments were peculiarly suited to influencing the Judaism of that day. Unitarianism, spreading and becoming ever more radical throughout the 19th century, was a remarkably close parallel to a similarly rising Jewish tendency, particularly emphasized in 19th-century Germany—the emphasis on Judaism as the “religion of reason.”
When Charles Fleischer arrived in Boston in 1894 to assume his rabbinical duties at Temple Israel, the Reverend Dr. Edward Everett Hale welcomed him at the railroad station with the words: “Now, my son, you too are one of the preachers of New England.” These words reflect the respect which Solomon Schindler, Fleischer’s predecessor, had won for the Reform synagogue, and the faith of Boston’s progressive Yankee clergyman that Judaism would contribute to the evolving civilization of America. Throughout his tenure at Temple Israel, from 1894 through 1911, and as head of the non-sectarian Sunday Commons, from 1912 to 1918, Charles Fleischer spoke to Bostonians, both Jews and non-Jews, who gravitated toward the new, the strange, the experimental. By 1905, a Boston newspaperman wrote that “no man in Boston. . . [has] a greater following among the young intellectuals.”
Charles Fleischer was an immigrant who hoped to emancipate himself and his congregation from old forms by embracing the American concept that religion must participate in the amelioration of society. The times were then with him. John Dewey and Charles Beard, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, John Haynes Holmes and Stephen S. Wise—these figures symbolize how Americans around the beginning of this century transformed their conceptions of man, society, and God. These men and their many co-workers and followers differed with one another, yet all shared the hope that the mind and the spirit could be used to make society and men better. They emphasized action over contemplation, observation over dogma, evolutionary growth over the maintenance of the status quo. Fleischer’s age was the age when the rebels triumphed, when non-conformist ministers, scholars, and statesmen basked in the high noon of reform.
Early in the 20th century, Temple Israel’s rabbi became a rebel too. By temperament he had always been one. He outraged his superiors at Hebrew Union College by flirting with the agnostic ideas of Robert Ingersoll. Called before the president, he retorted: “I am not a follower of Ingersoll, but I do think for myself.” In Boston he continued to think for himself, championing what was new. He put Sunday services on a permanent basis at his synagogue, inaugurated the practice of exchanging pulpits with both Unitarian and Trinitarian Christians, and fused Judaism with the Transcendentalism of Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was the first Boston rabbi to invite social reformers to speak from his pulpit. He composed verses for the summer colony of liberal intellectuals at Greenacre, New Hampshire, and was honored with the presidency of the Browning Society He was also the first Boston clergyman to go up in a balloon. Charles Fleischer loved novelty almost for its own sake; his motto was that men should “always [show] dissatisfaction with things as they are. . . .”
Endowed with extreme good looks, Temple Israel’s minister also made rebellion romantically attractive. A bachelor throughout his tenure at the synagogue (he married only in 1919), he was considered one of the handsomest unattached males in Boston. Evangeline Adams has described him as the “Beau Brummel of the Back Bay,” while one newspaperman was struck with his resemblance to the Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto. Fleischer’s good friend John Singer Sargent believed that he looked like Edgar Allen Poe, and recorded this impression in a black and white portrait—arched eyebrows, dark eyes, black hair, luxuriant mustache, thin nose. The impression is one of sensitivity, and Fleischer’s ever-present black silk “artist’s” tie heightened it. Yet there was nothing delicate about the man. He was of average height and sturdy build, and went off with Sargent to climb mountains in Alaska.
His voice, contemporaries report, was clear, lyrical, and sweet; and he often expressed his thoughts in the language of Browning and Byron, Whitman and Emerson, whom he read prodigiously. His bachelor apartment went with his manner. Somewhat bohemian, it contained flowers, the art of half a dozen nations (including a frieze of Orpheus and Eurydice), and books that spilled from the shelves to the floor, tables, and chairs. For companionship he kept two pets, “a King Charles Spaniel, which announces all guests and sees them to the portal when they leave, and a Swiss canary, whose jubilant carolling is smothered in his throat by an admonition from his master when the talk is of too weighty a character for such an accompaniment.” The rabbi also sang well.
His origins were humble. Born in Breslau, Germany, December 23, 1871, he emigrated nine years later to America with his widowed mother and three brothers. They settled on New York’s East Side. Charles was the intellectual of the family, earned a bachelor of arts degree at CCNY (1888), went on to Cincinnati for a D.D. at Hebrew Union College and a Litt. B. at the University of Cincinnati, both of which he attained in 1893, and served Rabbi Berkowitz of Philadelphia as an assistant until called to Boston in 1894. Given his talents in music, art, scholarship, and oratory, he soon became a Boston institution. As his popularity increased, Unitarians, progressive Congregationalists, non-Jewish ladies’ clubs, and reform groups of one sort or another sought him out as a lecturer. He delivered a paper at the Theodore Parker Centenary, contributed to the Arena, joined the liberal Twentieth Century Club, wrote a column for Hearst’s Boston American, and lectured throughout New England on democracy, education, and the relations of Jews and Gentiles. In time his associates and friends included President Eliot of Harvard, Robert A. Woods of South End House, Edwin D. Mead of the New England Magazine, as well as numbers of Unitarian clergymen. After 1906, when Temple Israel, on his urging, adopted Sunday services, he preached to an audience that regularly numbered nearly as many Gentiles as Jews.
Here was the rub. The non-Jews who admired the rabbi were liberal Yankees who, like Fleischer, embraced the traditions of the New England Renaissance. Thus, Benjamin Orange Flower, editor of the Arena, complimented the Jewish minister in the best way he thought possible by placing him among the “young scholars. . . coming to the front and taking up the work once so gloriously carried forward by Lowell, Channing, Parker, Emerson, Whittier, and Phillips.” Flower meant that Temple Israel’s pastor was more interested in sociology than theology, more devoted to uniting the human race than perpetuating ethnic and religious divisions.
But could Fleischer believe himself to be heir of New England’s great progressive Protestants and remain a Jew? How long he struggled over his two heritages is not clear, but by 1908 he made it known that he preferred Emerson to Moses; and in 1911 he left Temple Israel and Judaism to found the Sunday Commons, a non-sectarian religious congregation dedicated to the amelioration of society and the fusion of America’s diverse stocks into a new people. It was Boston’s first community church.
In 1919 he married Mabel R. Leslie, a gifted and intellectual Vermonter of Scotch descent and Presbyterian upbringing. The Reverend Dr. Charles Cummings, successor to Edward Everett Hale, performed the marriage ceremony, one given a new form in which “the bridegroom verbally recognized the full equality of his bride.” After the Sunday Commons failed to survive the 19141918 war and the reaction that followed it, the Fleischers left Boston in 1922 for New York, she to practice law and he to do editorial work for Hearst’s Evening Journal. Fleischer died on July 2, 1942, surrounded in death, as in life, by friends who had rejected “the parochialism of race and religion.” Dr. John Haynes Holmes of the Community Church of New York officiated at the funeral, delivering a eulogy that lasted for more than an hour. Fleischer’s body was cremated, and his remains placed in a nonsectarian cemetery, as he had requested before death.
Charles Fleischer, paradoxically, had been installed in the pulpit of Temple Israel to preserve the Jewish identity of his congregation. His predecessor, Solomon Schindler, after successfully instituting a number of reforms (prayerbook in English, organ, choir, family pew, male worship without hats), had outraged his congregants when he sanctioned intermarriage with liberal Christians. Nor did he succeed in converting them to the socialism of Edward Bellamy, which he embraced as a means of creating a society free of class, race, and religious differences. The Temple’s congregation comprised second-generation American Jews who were businessmen of one sort or another and who aspired to a Judaism along the rational lines of Unitarianism. They did not want to revolutionize society—they wanted to belong to it. They wanted humanism and humanitarianism, but they wanted it within Judaism. They would not convert the synagogue into a community church or a society for ethical culture. In short, they would melt the frozen forms of Orthodoxy, but they would not be melted down into the universal man who proclaimed his loyalty to all mankind and severed his ties with his original ethnic and religious group.
All this Rabbi Fleischer understood, and for a dozen years or so he did not, from the pulpit, go beyond the limits of Reform Judaism or the Unitarianism upon which, in Boston, it had been modeled. Like other liberal clergymen, he accepted Charles Darwin and the Social Gospel, and urged the progressive improvement of society. With Whitman and Emerson he spoke of the American mission to democratize the world, and also of the contribution of America’s immigrant groups to the New World culture that was in the making. A cultural pluralist before the term was coined, he preached that his people could be Americans and Jews at the same time, provided they were also humanists and humanitarians.
The Jews, according to Fleischer, were a religious group, not a nation. Sharing this view with all Reform rabbis of the day, he immediately affiliated his house of worship with the liberal Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and adopted the Union Prayer Book—the standard liturgy for Reform synagogues. When Zionist leaders attempted to recruit followers in Boston, Fleischer insisted that Jewish nationalism had died nearly two thousand years ago: “We Jews in America are not Jews, but Americans in nationality.” He urged Jews who found Europe intolerable to emigrate to America, not to agitate for either Uganda or Palestine. In the New World “sheer humanism—the progressive application of moral ideals to all phases of human relationship—will. . . win their battles [and]. . . the Jews’ voice [will]. . . mingle with the chorus. . . .”
This “chorus” consisted of the diverse groups that had emigrated to these shores Lecturing to a Congregationalist men’s club, Fleischer, with an acknowledgment to Emerson, said that “the strength of a community . . . is measured by the. . . variety. . . of . . . types,” and that America should therefore encourage the plurality of immigrant cultures. If, on the other hand, the immigrants and their descendants became exactly like older Americans, the nation would turn into an “English colony. . . an outpost of Anglo-Saxon civilization.” As Emerson foresaw, Fleischer continued, the New World, because of its heterogeneous population, would ultimately create a society unlike any from which America’s immigrants had come in the Old World. The Jews, too, would “enrich our land with spiritual wealth,” and they had “a worthy reason for their differences. . . .”
The new temple building (1906) embodied Rabbi Fleischer’s idea that the Jew must retain his religious identity in order to contribute to American culture. The style was neither Georgian nor neo-Classical; the synagogue was easily distinguishable from a chaste New England church. Nor was it done in the then fashionable style that drew its model from Romanesque France or Renaissance Italy. The motif was Middle Eastern, to symbolize “the religion which has come to us from the most ancient time.” The central dome stood for the Hebrew belief in a single God, and the seven windows on each side represented the Jewish idea that seven was a perfect number. The wall band purported to represent the phylactery, while the onyx Ark, the interior marble, and the two exterior pylons were facsimiles of the originals in Solomon’s Temple. Yet the synagogue on Commonwealth Avenue did not only look back. The organ pipes, shaped like trumpets—the symbols of victory—spoke for “the confident world-outlook of the Jewish faith.” The inscription, “Dedicated to the Brotherhood of Man. Consecrated to the Fatherhood of God,” embodied the humanism and humanitarianism of Boston’s Reform Jews.
From the pulpit, Rabbi Fleischer constantly spoke of the need that Judaism be the religion of humanity. In practice this meant that Temple Israel must combat social evil. Thus Rabbi Fleischer inveighed against the “imperialists” of 1899. Where France had violated its belief in fraternity by persecuting Dreyfus, so America, in coercing Filipinos, “is doomed to fail in its larger mission . . . to assure the success of democracy.” During the election of 1904, the rabbi, in a sermon delivered on Yom Kippur, declared that Theodore Roosevelt, who unrighteously glorified war and conquest, would if elected President betray America’s principles. He attacked the advocates of restricted immigration and the high-tariff men; with the son of William Lloyd Garrison, he appeared before the General Court of Massachusetts to argue for the abolition of capital punishment. He crusaded for equal rights for women and, in a still prudish day, championed planned parenthood. (Like the scientists of the day, Rabbi Fleischer believed “people must be properly mated from the point of view of eugenics before they are allowed to enter matrimony.”)
He urged the planning of cities and declared his attachment to municipal socialism. By 1908, Rabbi Fleischer had forgiven the bully of San Juan Hill and hailed him as a modern Isaiah: “It is just as much a holy work for Mr. Roosevelt to say Thou shalt not to malefactors of great wealth as for any prophet. . . in Palestine.” In short, believing that a “congregation can be. . . worth while only if it concerns itself with the whole range of human relations,” Rabbi Fleischer made Temple Israel into a civic forum. To the synagogue he brought fellow reformers as guest lecturers: Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Edwin D. Mead, Charles H. Dole and Charles Ames, Julia Ward Howe and Alice Stone Blackwell, Robert A. Woods and Meyer Bloomfield, variously known as advocates of such bold, new, progressive causes as world peace, municipal socialism, city planning, settlement houses, equal rights for women, and free thought.
But more significant for his relation to Judaism was the development of his general ideas on religion, which generally found expression away from the pulpit. By his own admission, his “patron saint” was Emerson. The rabbi’s library (kept intact by his wife in New York) reveals that he read and reread the works of the Concord philosopher, heavily annotating them. In his dogeared copy of Emerson’s Nature, the following is underlined: “Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” It is not known just when the rabbi read Nature, but as early as 1896, at Greenacre, he had written:
Take this message to heart:
All,—of God is a part.
Again at Greenacre, he seemed to write like a “transparent eyeball”:
Manifest Thyself in me!
Manifest Thyself in Me!
Taking a pantheistic position, Fleischer rejected not only Jehovah, but Schindler’s concept of God as clockmaker and First Cause.
Disapproving of the God of his fathers, Fleischer, by 1902, was intimating that there was a religion other than Judaism to which he was devoted. He chose to disclose his opinion in the Arena, the outspoken advocate of newness. “We of America,” he wrote, echoing Whitman and Emerson, “are . . . the ‘peculiar people’ consecrated to that . . . ‘mission’ of realizing Democracy [which] is potentially a universal spiritual principle, aye, a religion. . . .” He “would have men like Washington, Samuel Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln. . . John Brown (. . . the spiritual soldiers of democracy) . . . placed literally in a calendar of saints. . . to be reverenced by our future Americans as apostles of our Republic.” Faith in these democratic demigods would give the nation’s diverse immigrant stocks a single heritage that would melt them down into a single new people.
The Arena article, as well as another in the following year, did not go beyond saying that the schools must teach democracy. In 1905, however, Rabbi Fleischer asserted that the synagogues and churches were outmoded, and that a new church, too, must preach the democratic faith. Save for the Roman Catholics, most people, he declared, were dissatisfied with their denominations, as evidenced by the falling off of attendance. The church and the synagogue were becoming “feminized,” and the unethical practices of disreputable businessmen revealed that religion in America was one thing on Sunday and another on Monday. We need, Fleischer wrote, a religion that will talk less of God and more of good, a new prophet like “Jesus, Isaiah. . . [who] will talk. . . about the sort of man that the individual must be in himself and in his social relations. . . .” The sanction for ethics must rest on man’s reason, not his fear of God’s punishment. Fleischer’s conclusion, borrowed from Emerson, was that America, forging a new people out of its many ethnic groups, would create the new faith; and that, as greater intercourse developed among nations, the American creed would spread throughout the world, and bring about the perfecting of human society.
Until 1907, the Jewish clergyman and his congregation differed from Unitarians and liberal Congregationalists in two respects chiefly: they neither worshipped on Sunday nor accepted Jesus as part of their heritage. These two differences were removed after the consecration of the new temple building in 1906. In that year Sunday services were adopted; and one year later Rabbi Fleischer, speaking from his pulpit during the Christmas week, preached that while Jews could not regard Jesus as the miraculously begotten son of God, they must embrace him as the greatest of all Jewish prophets. Jesus had understood God’s message that the human race was one, that we must all love one another. “Jews and Christians,” Fleischer observed, “will be reconciled and reunited, largely through Jesus, in love of God and service by man.”
Shortly thereafter the rabbi agreed to exchange pulpits with the Reverend Dr. George A. Gordon of the Old South Congregational Church and the Reverend Dr. Thomas Van Ness of the Second Church. That Fleischer and Van Ness should exchange pulpits was no surprise, for the latter was a Unitarian. Dr. Gordon, however, was a Congregationalist and, while championing Progressive Orthodoxy, was the leading Trinitarian Christian in Boston. To his orthodox critics, Gordon retorted: “Jesus was a Jew, the sovereign Jew, and gave himself in life and death for his people. I infer from this fact that he would not be displeased by an act of respect done to his people by a minister of the Gospel.” When Fleischer addressed Dr. Gordon’s congregation, he did so, as he put it, as a “fellow-Jew of Jesus,” to emphasize the latter’s “supreme injunctions to love God and to love man. . . the sublimated spiritual commonsense of mankind.”
Speaking from pulpits once occupied by Cotton Mather and Ralph Waldo Emerson, lecturing with great success in all the New England towns that looked to Boston for culture, Fleischer no longer felt any strong tie to Judaism. By 1908 he expressed his desire to terminate his contract with Temple Israel, and stayed on only when given carte blanche.
Knowing now that he would not long remain in Judaism, he expressed his advanced views more often, and from the pulpit as well as away from it. Thus he declared to his congregation that Jews were already of mixed blood, and that they must further intermarry with the other peoples of America to build the “new nation. . . to emerge from the melting pot.” “Obviously,” he concluded, “such fusion means annihilation of identity.” At a union Thanksgiving service at the Second Church, where his congregation had joined Dr. Van Ness’s for the occasion, he declared that, while it was a sign of a larger fraternal spirit for “liberal Jews and Unitarians [to] come together,” a “formal union” of all progressive religions would be more in keeping with the democratic creed of permanently abolishing all parochial barriers.
When President Eliot of Harvard in 1909 published his views on the need for a new religion similar to Fleischer’s (in a letter to Fleischer, Eliot acknowledged the kinship), Temple Israel’s rabbi defended the Harvard scholar against his orthodox critics. “I assent,” he stated, “to Dr. Eliot’s. . . creed which reverences truth. . . . science. . . the individual. . . social service.” At the Theodore Parker Centenary (1910) Fleischer announced his desire to “promote the cause of free religion to which [Parker] was consecrated”; Judaism and Christianity, Mohammedanism and Buddhism—all chapters in the history of religion—must be effaced for the “free and natural religion” of democracy.
The climax came dramatically in 1911, when Solomon Schindler, Rabbi Emeritus, who had started the revolution at Temple Israel in the 1870’s, appeared before his congregation to preach on “Mistakes I Have Made.” Reconverted in old age to the faith of his fathers, the one-time radical hoped to start a general return to a Judaism more like that before the advent of Reform. His chief mistake, Schindler exclaimed, had been to try to make “the Jew like the Gentile.” That had failed; “the Jew will never succumb. . . to the melting pot.” American Jews must form their own communities, as the God of the Hebrews commanded. They must also return to old forms, accept a uniform creed, pay less attention to reason and more to emotion. Parker, Spencer, Huxley, Wallace, Darwin, Ingersoll—these men, Schindler said, had betrayed him into believing that the Jews should give up their peoplehood for universalism.
Shortly thereafter Fleischer, who was now ready to resign his pulpit, answered Schindler in a sermon, “Some Seeming Mistakes Which I Have Gladly Made.” The younger man did not wish to make the Jew like the Gentile; he hoped to fuse all Americans into a new people. Schindler, he said, was narrow-minded in refusing to surrender a distinctive Judaism in order to foster “the union of the human family on an increasingly inclusive basis.” Defiantly, Fleischer concluded: “I have gladly made the seeming mistake of encouraging assimilation . . .”
Temple Israel chose neither the reaction of Schindler nor the radicalism of Fleischer. When the latter’s contract terminated in 1911, they engaged Rabbi Harry Levi, a moderate, whose views were those of the Fleischer of 1900—those of Reform Judaism. In taking leave of his congregation, Fleischer declared that he was giving up the husk of Judaism for the core of free religion: for a transcendental God, for science, progress, and the love that “draws man to man” and “rises above and beyond the barriers of nation, creed, or color.” Thereafter he would worship Man, whose boundless goodness would create a society as yet undreamt “by the most visionary. . . of Utopians.” After seventeen years in the Jewish pulpit, during half of which he had said one thing to Jews and another to Gentiles, Charles Fleischer was relieved to proclaim: “I am henceforth beyond. . . sectarianism. At last, the world is mine, and I am the world’s.”
On January 2, 1912, Charles Fleischer released the following to the Boston News bureau: “America need’s and deserves its own particular type of religion—a practical idealism which will glorify the life of our day, and pass on a better spiritual heritage to the American generations still to come.” Sunday afternoon, January 7, the Sunday Commons held its first service at the Majestic Theater.
Central to the thought of the Commoners was the belief that Judaism and Christianity were not adequate for America because they had originated in an ancient time and in a far-off place. What was the Bible, asked Fleischer, if not the ideals and the idolization of Hebrew folk heroes? America had its own heroes, “Lincoln, Emerson, Whitman, Parker. . . Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin.” It also had its own holy scriptures, the Declaration of Independence, Common Sense, Leaves of Grass, Nature, The Permanent and Transient in Religion, the Emancipation Proclamation. Since more than one-half of the American people was unchurched Fleischer asked, and since the age demanded ethical thinking on social problems, should not the Americans, a new people, attack these social problems in the moral spirit of their saints, and in a new church?
On the surface, the Sunday Commons seemed to be an adventure in secularism. Charles Fleischer was not called “Reverend,” “Father,” or “Rabbi”; he was simply “Leader.” He published a bi-weekly, Democracy, and a slim volume entitled American Aspirations, but he did not attempt a new theology, as had the Christian Scientists and Theosophists. Distrustful of all theologies, his motto was: “Face Facts and Proceed.” Like parishioners in other churches, the men and women who attended Sunday services at the Commons sang hymns; but these hymns were patriotic songs. The text for the Leader’s addresses came from current events, from a divorce, a heroic act, the death of a robber baron, Cardinal O’Connel’s denunciation of socialism, the Lawrence strike, war. There was no Bible reading, and no prayers. On occasions, Fleischer invited one social reformer or another to occupy the rostrum.
Yet, at bottom, the Sunday Commons was still more spiritual than secular—at least as Commoners understood these terms. Fleischer and his followers wished to dignify the national life by living the values American society cherished, as once the ancient Hebrews had lived their values. Thus the Leader championed the cause of trade unionism not so much out of the desire to see workers well off materially, as in the hope that labor organizations would democratize American life by equalizing it. Although he supported America’s entry into World War I, he opposed war in general, again not so much because it brought suffering, but because it violated the sacredness of the individual. In attacking the trusts, he spoke less of restoring competition than of imbuing the great capitalists with the desire to serve fellow Americans. And in his arguments for Negro rights, the call for equal opportunity in housing, education, and employment was emphasized less than his assertions that white Americans could not be real Americans until Negroes were granted their own human dignity. “Democracy,” he said, “demands such mutual respect as makes of intolerance a vice, and even of tolerance only a veiled insult.” Fleischer had one idea, to be found in every lecture: “The only solution for the human race is in the re-discovery of our spirituality; in the practical use of our spirituality; in taking spirituality out of. . . metaphysics. . . .”
During the first years of Sunday Commons as many as 1,700 people attended services, an unusually high figure for a day characterized by religious indifference and poor church attendance. Believers in the melting pot, these “worshippers” came from diverse ethnic stocks and religious backgrounds. A few of them intermarried. Roland Hayes, then a young tenor, sang at the Commons; of four ushers, Fleischer boasted, there was “an Armenian, a Hungarian Jew, a pre-Revolutionary Yankee, and a Scotchman.” One of the financial angels was Tom Lawson of Frenzied Finance, the muckraker of Wall Street,
The Commoners came not only to listen to “a well-informed, well-read, erudite, and independent person think aloud on the important subjects of the day,” but, after the address, “to stand with bowed head” to an “aspiration.” The “aspirations” were a substitute for prayer, for if man had the divine spirit in him, there was no need to pray to a deity outside the universe. Rather one must express the longing for the “Better which brings the inspiration of the Best.”
“Let us stand,” Fleischer said, “wholehearted before the universe and consecrate ourselves to the greatness and splendor of Man. We believe that Man is God, that in Man hope and faith are innate and not bestowed. . . . Let us glorify our nation. . . . Man is the creator of creeds, of parties, of peoples. These He [sic] has made, and what He has made He has the right to unmake and the duty to improve.”
In his twenty-ninth year Charles Fleischer said to a Boston audience in Parker Memorial Hall: “I thank God that I have not been born an American, so that I might have a chance to achieve my Americanism.” An immigrant, he discovered the historic meaning of the land of his adoption in the philosophy of American liberalism. Emerson, in particular, gave him the idea that the New World was really new, and that Americans, as individuals and as a people, must consecrate themselves to building a society that would assure every member of it a measure of human dignity. As a rabbi, Fleischer sought to enable a recent immigrant group, with its descendants, to assimilate the values America lived by. He failed to win his people to universalism because they believed, as he himself had earlier, that the country was strengthened by the plurality of its cultures. Nor could they as second-generation Americans obliterate a heritage that was so close to them.
They would have agreed with the remark of Henry James’s Eugenia in The Europeans: “One’s reason is dismally flat, it’s a bed with the mattress removed.” Fleischer’s rational religion was for them dismally flat with the Judaism removed. But the Sunday Commons was not entirely a religion of reason. It was grounded in the sentiment of men and women of intense good will who were strenuously devoted to expanding the meaning of democracy. And behind the sentiment lay faith—the faith of an entire reforming generation in the melting pot and the sacredness of the individual, in the mission of America to perfect mankind.
Such faith and sentiment withered in the 1920’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald declared for a disillusioned generation that he found “all Gods dead. . . all faiths in man shaken.” The faith that died hardest was the faith that underlay all the faiths of Fleischer and his liberal contemporaries: that America would create a civilization that would make life meaningful for the nation and for the individual. As Malcolm Cowley has written: “‘They do things better in Europe: let’s go there’ became the slogan of the intellectual classes.” Today even this slogan is dated.
But the dilemma that led Fleischer out of Judaism remains. His problem was not one of reconciling tradition and innovation, or reason and emotion. Rather he came to believe that sectarian worship controverted universal values. Actually, he meant American, not universal. Here we have it. Since the Enlightenment, the passion for social justice has so permeated religious life in America that the uncompromising modernist often has regarded denominational divisions as arbitrary, even divisive. When ethnic allegiance—the axis of denominationalism in America—breaks, the modernist is likely to leave the ancestral religion for another, or for a non-sectarian congregation, or for his own private humanism.