As the founder of American Reform Judaism and all its institutions—the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Hebrew Union College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis—Isaac Mayer Wise has been apotheosized in a prodigious number of works. Bibliographically, indeed, he outranks every historic figure of American Jewry. The latest addition to the sacred writings on Wise is James G. Heller's voluminous Isaac M. Wise: His Life, Work and Thought.1

Rabbi Heller's biography describes in tedious detail Wise's European origins and American accomplishments and also makes available for the first time extensive selections of Wise's writings, classified by subject. But its scholarly apparatus notwithstanding, Heller's book, like those of his predecessors, reads like hasidic hagiography. Wise is rabbenu, morenu: our rabbi, our teacher, sainted scholar, prince of Torah, one in a generation. Small wonder, perhaps, for the author is the son of one of Wise's first disciples and rabbi of the congregation Wise himself served for nearly half a century.

It is not that partiality as such is objectionable; nothing can be more deadening than the passivity that poses as objectivity. But Heller's adulation of his subject has resulted in a disservice to it, leading him to gloss over the embarrassments and minimize the excesses of Wise's personality and activities. Instead of a real man, peppery and vitriolic, combative and vituperative, we are left with a rabbinic Pollyanna embalmed in universal esteem. Nor is Heller much more illuminating about the Reform movement itself. Among other lapses, he does not explain why the mid-19th-century Reform movement enjoyed so phenomenal a success in America—so much beyond anything it had achieved in Europe. Yet this question is, I believe, by far the most interesting and important of the many questions raised by Wise's career. It can be answered only by viewing Wise and his movement in the context of American religious life as a whole during the period of his greatest activity—something Rabbi Heller is insufficiently detached to do.


When Isaac Mayer Wise came to the United States from Bohemia in 1846 there were between forty- and fifty-thousand Jews here, who formed compact communities in most of the large and some of the smaller cities of the Atlantic seaboard, the Middle West, and the South. These Jews were organized into about forty congregations, but they had only four rabbis among them, for Jewish learning was at the time in rather short supply in America. Even among the German and Polish immigrants, knowledge of the Talmud was not very extensive, while among the earlier Sephardic settlers, it was nearly extinct. Isaac Leeser, for example, the pioneer preacher and founder of the Jewish press in America, whom we think of as a pillar of traditional Judaism and learning in his time, had not yet completed his study of the Talmud when he arrived on these shores at the age of seventeen. And the same held true for many other, lesser, Jewish leaders.

Given the shortage of rabbis, the conduct of Jewish religious affairs was largely in the hands of laymen. Most of these were baale-tefilla—readers, cantors—while the more ambitious among them became “preachers,” bestowing upon themselves the honorific title of “reverend.” Two decades later, the writer Israel Joseph Benjamin (whose chronicles of life in farflung Jewish communities earned him the sobriquet, Benjamin II) attributed the sorry state of Judaism in the United States partly to “rabbis and teachers who have knowledge neither of the Talmud nor of the literature of Judaism.” “Not infrequently,” he wrote in Three Years in America, “he, who at home enjoyed not even the benefits of a superficial education, in this country holds his head high and proud and makes a lot of noise, like an empty ear of grain.”

Under these circumstances, responsible laymen tended to be suspicious of anyone who claimed rabbinical competence. Thus, in 1845, when three leading German congregations in New York agreed to employ Max Lilienthal as their rabbi, their contract stipulated that he must produce documentary evidence of his ordination, and once submitted, the document, particularly the ordaining rabbi's signature, was scrutinized by a committee for authenticity.

If Judaism in those days was in a somewhat indecisive state, Protestant America was in the throes of religious upheaval. An indigenous American religion was coming into being, whose primary impulse was a repudiation of the orthodoxies of European Christianity and the institutional authority of established churches. Despite basic theological differences, pietists and rationalists alike concurred in the view that Christianity had been corrupted by the churches and their priests, and that the true meaning of Christianity could be restored only by a return to the original religious source—the words of Jesus. The liberals regarded the New Testament as a non-doctrinal source of faith and morality that yielded readily to latitudinarian interpretation, while for their part the host of competing right-wing Protestant sects, which were beginning to flourish on the American frontier, considered the New Testament the chief symbol of their Christian authority and legitimacy; and all sects claimed the right of “private judgment” in matters of faith and doctrine, validating their private judgments by their own reading of the scriptures.

Into these surging currents of religious reformism, Reform Judaism flowed quite naturally. It, too, was in revolt against its European origins, standing in much the same relation to European Jewish Orthodoxy as the burgeoning Protestant frontier sects like the Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples, did to their European forebears. In its attempt to decommunalize Judaism and make it a private matter, Reform was, like these frontier sects, in revolt against centuries-old tradition and institutionalized clerical authority. The fact that Reform discarded the Talmud and rabbinic tradition and recognized only the Bible as authoritative made it even more consonant, in style no less than in doctrine, with developments within American Protestantism: its service was frequently in the charge of men who had little more than the Bible in their hands, and who, like the frontier Protestant preachers, rejected traditions and practices which they had never even succeeded in mastering.


When one examines the origins of Reform Judaism in America, nothing strikes one more forcibly than the marginal relation to traditional Judaism of its earliest mentors.

The first rabbi to settle permanently in the United States was Abraham Reiss (or Rice, as he later called himself), who arrived in 1840, at the age of forty; but Rice-reared and trained in Bavaria, and a finished product of European Orthodoxy—was distinctly an exception during this period in the development of American Judaism. In the next decade some half-dozen or so young rabbis were to arrive, all in their late twenties or early thirties, and all scantily qualified by traditional standards. Notwithstanding Jacob Schiff's dictum that no one could be a good Reform Jew unless he had once been Orthodox, it was these fledgling rabbis who were to lay the groundwork for Reform Judaism in America.

The European rabbinical experience of that same Max Lilienthal, the only one among the early Reform rabbis who could satisfactorily document his ordination, is a good illustration of this marginality. Lilienthal's first post had been with a prosperous, status-striving congregation in Riga which allowed him free rein for the anti-traditionalism that would soon bring him to the attention of Count Serge Uvarov, Tsarist Minister of Education. Uvarov enlisted Lilienthal in his plan to eliminate the hedarim and yeshivot and to establish in their stead secular schools for Jewish children. These schools became the target of an extraordinary boycott by the traditionalist Jews, who believed their ultimate purpose to be conversion—as indeed it was. When Lilienthal suddenly learned what the Russian Jews had known all along, he fled Russia and came to America, where, at the age of thirty, unchastened by past experience, he once again set about reforming the Jews.

Isaac Mayer Wise arrived the following year. At twenty-seven, he was already a full-fledged modernist, and a disciple of Moses Mendelssohn and Gabriel Riesser, having come under the sway of the Enlightenment as a youth of eighteen. Wise's rabbinic experience was limited to a few years as the green and unseasoned young rabbi in a Bohemian shtetl, where he early came into conflict with the traditionalist district rabbi. The rabbinical conferences of 1844 and 1845 at Brunswick and Frankfort, convoked by the modernists for the purpose of reforming Judaism, strengthened him in his rebelliousness, but it was left for America to provide him with the richest possible opportunity to revise the tradition without having to face the intractable opposition of established and prestigious rabbis.

The Jewish learning that Wise brought with him to these shores was not very extensive (indeed, his Orthodox critics charged he was better qualified for the stage than for the pulpit), and his secular education was hardly less meager and random. What Wise did bring in ample supply, however, were the visions and hopes of the Berlin Haskala of a half century earlier. He was, as Jacob Rader Marcus put it in the shortest and best study of Wise yet published, “an 18th-century European liberal on 19th-century American soil.”2


Neither theologian nor philosopher, at heart a man of action, Wise energetically promoted in the United States the reforms he had admired in Germany. There, as in other European countries with absolutist regimes, the Jews thought their political emancipation was conditional on the “modernization” of Judaism. Zealous to demonstrate their fealty to the state, to repudiate charges that they preferred the Kingdom of Heaven to (for instance) the Margraviate of Baden, German Jewish reformers favored such measures as eliminating from the liturgy the prayers for the return to Palestine, for the restoration of the Temple sacrifices, and for the coming of the Messiah. This super-patriotism of the German Jews, Wise transported to America along with the whole package of German reforms, so that in his first year as rabbi at the Beth El synagogue in Albany he introduced a choir and a violin into the service, abbreviated the liturgy, and excised the “objectionable” prayers concerning the Messiah, Palestine, and the sacrifices. He also eliminated the sale of mitzvot and aliyot, had the women's gallery moved down to the ground floor of the synagogue, and introduced the practice of confirmation. These “reforms” embroiled the congregation in ceaseless turmoil, lawsuits, and even physical violence. Finally, in 1850, Wise was ousted, but not before taking with him a seceding faction of the congregation, which, reorganized as Anshe Emet, provided him with his next post. Here he augmented his previous innovations, by the addition of pews and an organ for Sabbath and Yom Kippur services.

In his private life Rabbi Wise took even greater liberties. In 1849, after the death of his two-year-old daughter, he disregarded traditional mourning customs, and a year later, in Charleston, he publicly proclaimed his skepticism about the Messiah's coming and about bodily resurrection and, for that matter, about the doctrinal authority of the Talmud. Returning in triumph from his Charleston visit, Wise was tendered a banquet by his Christian friends, where the guests, as he boasted in his Reminiscences, consumed “oysters, champagne, and bananas in as great quantities as possible decently.” (Heller, with discretionary delicacy, glosses over the menu at this affair, presumably a trial run of the notorious trefa banquet of 1883.3)

In 1854, Wise bettered his position by becoming rabbi of B'nai Yeshurun in Cincinnati, where he remained until his death in 1900. The congregation had undergone the traditionalist-modernist struggle some years earlier, with victory going to the modernists. Even so, Wise found much that was still in need of “reform.” He abolished observance of the second days of festivals, introduced a hymn book, initiated a late Friday evening service, and permitted uncovered heads in the synagogue; at last, in 1873, he dropped the observance of the second day of Rosh ha-Shana as well. (Many years before, after B'nai Yeshurun had adopted Wise's abbreviated and modernized prayer-book, Minhag America, Benjamin II noted that the second section of the prayer-book containing the service for Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur had not yet appeared, and that on those days the congregation adhered to the old ritual. “Perhaps,” he commented, “they were afraid that God was awake on those days and they might be the worse for it in God's judgment.”)


When Wise, following the German Radical-Reform belief that all Judaism was reducible to the Ten Commandments, declared that the only “external laws” were “those based on the principles expressed in the Decalogue,” he became the first influential rabbi to permit, even to recommend, adapting Jewish law to the American way of life. There is no doubt that the uninhibited spread of Reform during this period in America was in large measure due to its do-it-yourself aspect. Wise provided a Jewish equivalent to the free-wheeling Protestant sects of the frontier, a religion which Jewish peddlers could easily shoulder in their travels through the roaring West, and which Main Street merchants could readily follow without undue detriment to their fledgling businesses.

Conservative Judaism had its origins, as Marshall Sklare has shown us, in the struggle between a traditionalist rabbinate on the one hand, and a largely non-observant, status-striving laity on the other. Making all manner of concessions to the laity and to the times, the rabbis nevertheless held fast to the Halakhah, so that eventually, Conservative Jews came to expect their rabbis to observe the Law which they themselves disregarded; through their rabbis, therefore, they remained linked, however tenuously, to the normative Jewish tradition. But the pioneer Reform rabbis broke the chain of tradition, releasing themselves as well as the laity from the Halakhah, and setting their rabbinic stamp of approval on non-observance. The consequence was that the zealous young Reform rabbis—and Wise was among the most zealous-goaded part-observant Jews into non-observance, and liberated the non-observant from their guilt over abandoning the Law. (Some Reform rabbis, however, nurturing a private sense of guilt, later testily denied, in heavily documented studies, that the rabbis had fathered the Reform movement, insisting that the laity had done it all by themselves!)

Not only did the original Reform rabbis approve modifications and changes in the tradition, but eventually—in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885—they went on to elevate non-observance into a doctrinal antinomianism. The most radical Reform document ever issued, the Pittsburgh Platform declared obsolete all Mosaic and rabbinic laws governing diet, dress, and priestly purity. A leading Reform rabbi once described the document as “the Jewish Declaration of Independence,” which led Orthodox opponents to ask the question, “Independence from what?”, and to answer it, “Independence from Judaism.” Fifty years later, in 1937, when Reform rabbis convened in Columbus, Ohio, to adopt a new statement of principles, it was clear that nothing had dated as rapidly as the “modernism” which the Pittsburgh Platform had promulgated. And since then, the thrust of the Reform movement, especially among its younger rabbis, has been in the direction of restoring part of the discarded tradition.

So far as his own theological views went, Wise was a man hard to pin down; to him, inconsistency was no hobgoblin. One thing was clear, however: he disliked Orthodoxy, whether Jewish or Christian, and never ceased attacking it for its “irrationalism,” “supernatural-ism,” and “superstition.” Probably, he could best be described as a “liberal” in religion, without dogmas and constricting practices. On one occasion, according to his Reminiscences, he as much as identified himself as a Unitarian (another embarrassing incident which Rabbi Heller sidesteps), describing a conversation he had with Daniel Webster in Washington in 1850:

I referred to Theodore Parker's conception of Unitarianism, and set over against this my conception of Judaism. This forced me to the conclusion that there was no essential difference in the matter of doctrine, but in historical development, which, however, did not enter into the question of doctrine. “It is well,” said Webster, extending his hand to me; “you are indeed my coreligionist.”

But five years later, when Wise called David Einhorn, leader of the Atlantic seaboard-German Radical Reformers, “a Deist, a Unitarian and a Sadducee and an Apostle of deistical rationalism,” he was being abusive, not admiring. Einhorn, who was challenging Wise's hegemony in the Reform movement, had declared that only the Ten Commandments were immutable laws of the Covenant, a view that Wise was himself insistently to proclaim only a few years later.

Wise disliked intensely the Germans (apparently both Jews and non-Jews) in and around Cincinnati who, he claimed, affected atheism because it was fashionable. In his Reminiscences, he accused “some wounded apostles of the atheistical stripe” for the failure of Zion College, a precursor of Hebrew Union College, and further charged them with having driven him out of the Republican party, then being founded. One must, I think, treat this accusation with reserve, for on other occasions Wise charged these same “atheists” with being in sympathy with his Eastern opponents, the advocates of German Radical Reform, whose theology he nevertheless supported whenever it seemed politic to him.

In later years, Wise became more conservative in his attitude toward certain Jewish practices and more radical toward others, but he certainly did not become a baalteshuvah in his old age, nor did he return to Orthodoxy. From reading his views on Judaism and on religion in general, I am convinced that he was stirred most of all by a vision of a universal religion (he once called it “Israelism”), along the lines of the Hebrew theism of the Danish Jew, Meir Aaron Goldschmidt, the Bible Brotherhood of the Russian Jew, Jacob Gordin, and the Hillelism of the Polish Jew, Ludwig Zamenhof. All these men had attempted to create a non-dogmatic religion that would unite mankind in brotherhood on the basis of the ethical principles underlying Judaism. However, Wise's messianism was, I think, somewhat more worldly than that of the others. (The American Constitution, he once said, is “Mosaism in action.”) Moreover, he seemed to think that the messianic age would arrive momentarily in America.

Yet this ardent advocate of universalism, this apostle of liberty, equality, and justice, who looked forward to a universal republic, when “soon, very soon, all mankind will celebrate one Passover before the Lord,” was not sufficiently compassionate or generous to include in his vision Negroes as free men, or Russian Jewish immigrants as his equals. Such was his vehemence against the Abolitionists that it inhibited his outrage against the conditions of Negro slavery. He blamed Abolitionist “Protestant priests” for causing the Civil War. They would rather, he claimed, “see this country crushed and crippled than discard their fanaticism or give up their political influence.” As for immigrants, Wise demanded of American consulates in Europe that they send only “useful” ones, instead of the “cripples, beggars, work-and-light shunning loafers who crowd together, particularly in the dirtiest streets of New York and Chicago.” In his paper, the American Israelite, he editorialized that it was “next to an impossibility to associate or identify ourselves with that half-civilized orthodoxy which . . . gnaws the dead bones of past centuries.” The only time he approved of the Zionist idea of restoring Palestine as the Jewish homeland was when it offered the possibility of diverting the Russian Jewish immigration from the United States.


Wise's favorite expression, Rabbi Heller tells us, was “the spirit of the age.” But he mistook both spirit and age, thinking they were still those of the short-lived Enlightenment in France and Prussia. In the United States, Christian theological liberalism was rapidly losing ground in its struggle with the resurgent Protestant orthodoxies: it was the heyday of revivalists, evangelists, Bible-quoting enthusiasts, and sectarians. But though this spirit permeated most of American society, Wise ceaselessly and vigorously denied its existence. All his life he fulminated against the notion that the United States was a “Christian nation” and that Americans were a “Christian people.” (Alexis de Toqueville showed himself more perceptive when he wrote two decades earlier that Americans “combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.”)

Arguing on constitutional grounds against the incorporation into law of the sentiment that America was a Christian nation, Wise arrived at the position that because the United States was not a Christian nation de jure, it was not, nor could it be, a Christian nation de facto. On that failure to distinguish the legal from the social reality, he based his ideas about the separation of church and state in America, ideas which became the sanctified heritage, preserved intact for a century, of Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and even some Orthodox ones. In recent decades many of Wise's synagogal reforms have been abandoned and his theological views discarded in favor of a return to Jewish traditionalism and a restoration of the distinctively Jewish elements in prayer and ritual. By contrast, however, his ideas about church and state are now more accepted than ever, and have become as ossified and resistant to change as the most inflexible Orthodoxy.

We often think that the more traditionalist Jews are in matters of religion, the more conservative they are in politics. In European countries, the Orthodox community usually followed a policy of accommodation toward the state, avoiding open opposition. Reform Jews, whose philosophy of Jewish existence was almost always identified with liberal political philosophies, nevertheless frequently pursued a policy not of accommodation, but rather of submission, to the modern state. Modernist Jews often bought political emancipation at the price of religious emancipation, but in the end paid also with slavish patriotism. No Germans were as patriotic as the Reform Jews. Similarly, American nationalism and American patriotism flourished among Reform Jews. Thus, Wise was prepared to discard from Judaism whatever he thought inappropriate to Americanism: “Whatever custom, law, doctrine or practice can be justified before the tribunal of reason, if it collides with American sentiments, is doomed to perish; and what is left, that is American Judaism, or Judaism transformed to correspond to American sentiments, feelings and thoughts.”

This passion to assimilate Judaism into Americanism provides yet another instance of the conformity of Wise's sentiments to the prevailing Protestant trend. It was during Wise's lifetime that the Protestant denominations added the finishing touches to a Christianity whose God was manifestly directing America's destiny, and who had set a providential course for America.

Among Jews, the effect of this Americanization of Judaism was to reinforce assimilatory trends and to provincialize Jewish religious culture. Here, then, was yet another way in which American Reform Judaism came to resemble American Protestantism, sharing its optimism and its identification of America as the chosen land.

1 The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 819 pp., $10.00.

2 The Americanization of Isaac Mayer Wise, Cincinnati, 1931, 23 pp.

3 See John J. Appel, “The Trefa Banquet,” COMMENTARY, February 1966.

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