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A Bold Centrist: Remembering Isaac M. Wise on His 200th Birthday

A Bold Centrist: Remembering Isaac M. Wise on His 200th Birthday

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise with sculptor Moses Ezekiel and the bust of Wise that Ezekiel created

Isaac Mayer Wise is widely recognized as the founder of Reform Judaism in North America. Born in Steingrub, Moravia (Czech Republic) on March 29, 1819, he arrived in the United States in 1846 and immediately went to work to create a nationally united expression of Judaism, a Minhag America, under his leadership. Criticized by traditionalists as a reformer and resisted by radical reformers as unprincipled and unrefined, Wise nevertheless relentlessly pushed forward with his dream.

Largely due to his urging, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)), the first national organization of synagogues in the United States, was founded in 1873 followed by the Hebrew Union College (now the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)) two years later and finally, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in 1889 to completing the denominational polity of what would become the Reform Movement in North America. Ultimately, his more traditional opponents created similar structures both for the Conservative movement in Judaism and modern American Jewish Orthodoxy.

Ironically, at the time of his death on March 26, 1900 Wise’s national organizations and institutions had been “conquered from within” by radical reformers. However, his unparalleled achievements were understood to be transformative and the Reform Movement he had created went into deep mourning with news of his death. In Cincinnati, 10,000 people attended his funeral. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, it is important to reconsider the life and career of Isaac Mayer Wise, his achievements, and his legacy.

First and foremost, it is important to recognize that Wise was pugnacious, a fighter, and indefatigable. His personality, spirit, and energy loom large over all his actions and concerns. Second, he must be understood as a person of his time. Nineteenth-century American Judaism was very different than 20th-century American Judaism just as there are many indications that 21st-century American Judaism will be remarkably discontinuous from its predecessors. Third, Wise was a bold centrist in much of what he did and he positioned toward the “right center” of the Reform Movement of his time. Of course, the middle is always a tough place to be, particularly when the polar opposites on a spectrum deny the possibility of a vital center.

For example, on the difficult issue of slavery, Wise as a 19th-century American viewed himself as a moderate. Today, his failure to embrace abolitionism is viewed as a moral failure. On his own, like most American Jews, he accepted slavery as a biblically sanctioned institution, which was unduly harsh in the United States but still was permissible. Wise, the Copperhead Democrat and anti-missionary religious leader, was superior to the abolition of slavery. In his mind, he was a bold centrist.

With respect to the role of women in Judaism, Wise was a reformer but hardly a feminist. He lived before the suffrage movement but allowed men and women to sit together in synagogue, confirmed girls as well as boys, and allowed mixed voice singing. He even welcomed girls to study at the Hebrew Union College. On the other hand, he did not actively advocate for the ordination of women. He was a moderate modernizer, not a radical.

Wise actively opposed new concepts like evolution and the documentary hypothesis (which argued that the Torah was multi-authored). He believed in a de-nationalized American form of Judaism and in the value of vernacular prayer. He actively opposed the political Zionism of Theodore Herzl. On the other hand, he opposed Jews becoming Unitarians and thereby abandoning their covenant with the Jewish people and equally resisted Felix Adler and Ethical Culture which rejected both God and ethnicity. He invented the late Friday night service to help preserve the historic character of the Jewish Sabbath and opposed the Sunday Sabbath movement late in his career.

Uniquely American, Wise sported bushy sideburns and a clean-shaven chin! Indeed, no rabbi before him looked anything like this Midwestern Jewish preacher. He edited his own newspaper, wrote fictional works in English and German to create new ways of envisioning Jewish life, and edited his own prayer book to create a path for Judaism in America which was both traditional and modern.

Above all, Wise believed in the importance of the well trained, well-spoken rabbi. He believed that religious leadership was the key to Jewish success in America and that the Jewish professional who would lead the way was a new type of articulate, confident, and rabbi-preacher of which he was a leading exemplar. As a congregational rabbi, he built one of America’s great cathedral synagogues (Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio) and trained dozens of students to follow in his footsteps. In time, he learned to partner with lay leadership but in the end believed that Judaism’s fate was ultimately in the hands of a trained, modern rabbinate.

As the late HUC-JIR Professor Samuel Sandmel once cautioned, it would be both unfair and inadequate to remember Isaac Mayer Wise on the bicentennial anniversary of his birth just as an organizer and builder. He was much more than that. He was a bold moderate, a theologian, a literary artist and a Reform activist. He was the one and only Isaac Mayer Wise. Two hundred years after his birth, we would do well to retell his story, learn from his example, and move forward in the sacred work of creating a compelling modern Judaism for our time.

Photo: Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise with sculptor Moses Ezekial and the sculptor's bust of Wise. Courtesy of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, and the Chair-Elect of the Board of Governors of Gratz College. A historian of the American Jewish experience, Sussman has taught at Princeton, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College. A prolific author, he is currently editing a volume of his own essays and working on a television documentary on Philadelphia Jewish history.

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