The Rise of the Reform Rabbinate: Rabbinic Road Out of a Wilderness

A conversation with Rabbis Steve Fox and Lance Sussman, Central Conference of American Rabbis chief executive and national chair of the press, on the dramatic rise of the Reform rabbinate.

What prompted European rabbis to arrive on American shores in the early to mid 19th century?

Until the 1840s, none of the religious "prayer leaders" and teachers who had come from Germany to serve American synagogues were ordained rabbis; they had not earned the title "rabbi" academically. And most of them were mavericks who'd experienced political or congregational trouble back in the old country. Because America before the 1840s represented the frontier of Jewish life, properly ordained rabbis who were secure in their positions had little incentive to cross the Atlantic and learn a new language in order to take a pulpit job in a Jewish wilderness.

Those prayer leaders and teachers who did make the trek were often accorded little respect from the lay leaders who then dominated synagogue life in America and saw the synagogue as a lay-led institution—of, by, and for the people. Indeed, to assert lay power, during the early 1850s almost every major synagogue in the U.S. dismissed its prayer leaders. Take the case of Isaac Mayer Wise, who literally had a fistfight with his temple president! The leadership of Congregation Beth El in Albany, New York had removed Wise because of his liberal theological views. On Rosh Hashanah 1850, however, an adamant Wise attempted to lead services. The temple president, Louis Spanier, tried to stop him and a fistfight ensued. Wise later recalled the incident, writing that the president "steps in my way, and without saying a word, smites me with his fist so that my cap falls from my head. This was the terrible signal for an uproar the likes of which I have never experienced."

Why did congregations want to keep their rabbis from preaching from the pulpit?

At one level, it was a practical matter. A typical Shabbat service could last as long as three hours. Lay leaders didn't think people in the pews wanted to sit for another 45+ minutes to hear a theological treatise. It was also a question of authority—whether the rabbi should be perceived as the official interpreter of Jewish religious tradition.

How did the rabbis eventually prevail in being allowed to preach?

We have evidence that it was the women who pushed for sermons. Beginning in 1830, the women of Mikveh Israel, a traditional Sephardic congregation in Philadelphia, asked their rabbi, Isaac Leeser, to speak. At that time, synagogues provided tutors and Hebrew schools to train boys to become b'nai mitzvah, but there was no training for girls. Jewish women who were rapidly Americanizing wanted to be elevated by the same kind of "religious discourse" that their Christian friends experienced in church. The male leadership finally agreed to the rabbi's sermon, but required that it be delivered at the end of the service (after Adon Olam), which gave the men an option to leave. In time the sermons became shorter and more entertaining.

What happened to Wise after the Albany fiasco?

After being fired, Wise and his supporters created a new synagogue in Albany. Anshe Emeth pioneered the Reform practice of men and women sitting together during services. In 1854, the ever energetic Wise accepted the position of rabbi at Cincinnati's Bene Yeshurun congregation. There he also began publishing Jewish journals and worked on establishing the first rabbinical seminary in America. He sought to professionalize the rabbinate by creating modern rabbinical schools which employed contemporary and academic ways of studying Judaism, as opposed to the traditional yeshiva approach in Europe. Twenty years later, the Hebrew Union College opened in the basement of Cincinnati's Mound Street synagogue. That America's first rabbinic school began in a synagogue basement—where most Jewish learning was conducted at the time—testifies to how much progress we have made in upgrading Jewish education since those days. In fact, at the very beginning of the 20th century, there was literally a campaign to "Get Jewish Education Out of the Basement" in North America.

How did Wise recruit his first students?

Wise found it very difficult to attract native-born Jews to the college, as the rabbinate had not yet been established as a respected profession. He had the most success in recruiting Jewish young men who were living in poverty—a number of them from a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland—with the promise of upward mobility. Indeed, the rabbinate was an educational and professional track out of poverty.

Take the example of Joseph Krauskopf. Born in Ostrowo, Prussia in 1858, he came to America on his own at age 14 in search of opportunity. His older brother, who was living in Trenton, New Jersey, set out to meet him but was murdered en route. Poor and alone, Krauskopf was taken in by a distant cousin in the port town of Falls River, Massachusetts. The intellectually inclined young man spent much of his spare time reading books given to him by Mary Slade, a well-known New England poet and the wife of his high school principal. Slade recognized his potential and agreed with Krauskopf's request that she send Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise an unsolicited letter to recommend him for Wise's program. "He has all the Christian virtues," Slade wrote, by which she meant that he was moral, read the Bible, and was capable of public speaking—all qualities required for the "ministry." Krauskopf was accepted, but by the time he reached Cincinnati, he was penniless and practically starving. With Wise's help and his own personal determination, he got through eight years of study and became one of the first four rabbis ordained by the Hebrew Union College. He also earned a Doctor of Divinity degree from HUC; in those days it was very important to be a "Reverend Doctor" to bolster one's position in the Jewish and larger community.

After serving a few smaller pulpits in the Midwest, Rabbi Krauskopf moved on to B'nai Jehudah Congregation in Kansas City, Missouri. There he gave two series of blockbuster sermons—one on the golden age of the Jews of Spain which implied that America could be the location of a new golden age for Jews; and the second on evolution, the hot-button topic of the day, in which he proclaimed the compatibility of Judaism and science (and thereby publicly disagreed with his teacher, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was on record as against Darwin's theory of evolution). Krauskopf's sermons, subsequently reprinted in two volumes, were so popular, he became one of America's most recognized Jewish preachers. He was then recruited by Congregation Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia, which he quickly built up to become one of the largest congregations in the United States. Every week his Sunday lectures on religion, ethics, and social science packed the house, and the transcripts were sold on the streets of Philadelphia until his death in 1923.

Joseph Krauskopf epitomized the new American rabbi: celebrity preacher, public intellectual, and congregational leader.

Did all four graduates of HUC's first class share a common Jewish worldview?

In many ways, Joseph Krauskopf, David Philipson (who later served as I.M. Wise's right-hand man in Cincinnati), Henry Berkowitz (who became the rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Philadelphia), and Israel Aaron (who served Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo) all shared Wise's belief that America was the new Promised Land and that synagogues were the new temples of the Jewish people, so there was no need to pray for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem. Moreover, they believed that Judaism was a religion with a universal message. Consequently, there was no need to reestablish a national Jewish homeland. Zionism, they maintained, was an ideological misapplication of Judaism.

The four graduates were also united in rejecting the emerging Ethical Culture movement. Founded by Felix Adler, the son of Samuel Adler (the rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in New York), Ethical Culture held that one did not need God or Jewishness to be an ethical person. This competing movement was causing affluent, assimilation-inclined German-born Jews to abandon Reform synagogues and flock instead to Adler's secular alternative.

Faced with this challenge, a group of leading Reform rabbis convened in Pittsburgh in 1885 and issued the first Reform statement of principles—the Pittsburgh Platform—which declared that a Jew could be modern and ethical while still affirming God and Jewishness.

Four years later, Wise created the Central Conference of American Rabbis. What was its purpose, and why did he use the word "Central"?

By 1889 several regional rabbinic organizations had been created in the United States. Wise, based in Cincinnati, wanted to organize a Midwestern association of rabbis—though his true aim was to consolidate the American rabbinate into one larger body which could provide a support system, fellowship, and learning opportunities for all rabbis. Reaching out at first to rabbis in the Midwest—hence the name "Central"—he quickly succeeded in recruiting alumni of his college, Midwestern rabbis, and rabbis across the United States who broadly supported the Reform Movement. By the time the CCAR met for the first time in Cleveland in 1890, it had clearly emerged as the voice of the Reform rabbinate in America.

One of the CCAR's first orders of business was to create a Movement-wide prayer book that would help a distinctly American Reform rabbinate provide religious guidance and assert a greater leadership role among Reform Jews. The strategy worked: By the 1890s, a large number of the UAHC-affiliated congregations had adopted the Union Prayer Book I as their liturgy, making it a unifying force in the emerging Reform Movement. Subsequent CCAR prayer books and other liturgical works continued this tradition, most recently, Mishkan T'filah: A Reform Siddur (2007).

How else did the CCAR exert influence?

In the early 1900s, a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization, the Central Conference began to speak out forcefully on social justice issues, particularly for the rights of workers, even as rabbis had to contend with the displeasure of anti-union owners and managers sitting in the pews. At the time, the movement known as American Progressivism—which focused on social reforms intended to improve the life of the ordinary worker—was on the rise, and Reform rabbis became increasingly convinced of its compatibility with Judaism. Often they advocated for social justice in concert with Christian clergy, who preached what was then widely called "the Social Gospel."

Here again, women congregants also helped pave the way to enable rabbis to speak truth to power. The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now Women of Reform Judaism), founded in 1913, recognized that the rabbis were in fact championing one of their own causes—addressing the needs of working women, particularly in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. And following World War I, Jewish women, who tended to view war as a great injustice, joined forces with the majority of Reform rabbis in advocating pacifism.

But the most contentious issue in the Reform Movement concerned Zionism. In opposition to what had been the prevailing view since the original Pittsburgh Platform, a faction led by the charismatic Rabbi Stephen S. Wise began to give primacy to the idea of "Jewish peoplehood." This more ethnic understanding of Jewish identity, interwoven with the historical religious experience of the Jewish people, collided with the earlier Reform notion, articulated in the Pittsburgh Platform, that Judaism held a universal worldview of God. As antisemitism rose around the world and violence against Jews intensified, first in Russia and then in Germany, the tension between these conflicting views reached a tipping point. It became apparent that the old belief in lofty ethical monotheism had to be tempered by the practical need to help oppressed Jewish communities around the world. Thus, in 1937, in Columbus, Ohio, the CCAR issued a new statement of Reform principles—the Columbus Platform—which emphasized the Jews' specific religious experience. This was a huge shift from the universal ideas espoused half a century earlier. Whereas the Pittsburgh Platform opened with "We recognize in every religion an attempt to grasp the infinite," the Columbus Platform began with the affirmation that "Judaism is the historical religious experience of the Jewish people."

Did later Reform platforms also encompass dramatic shifts in perspective?

Unlike the earlier platforms, the CCAR's 1976 "Centenary Perspective"—named to coincide with the American Bicentennial—was not intended to be a response to specific ideological or theological threats, but rather to serve as a snapshot of the Movement in the last quarter of the 20th century. However, under the guidance of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a new and fundamental question about the nature of Reform Judaism crystalized: "How can a Reform Movement rooted in the idea of personal autonomy hold itself together when it incorporates so many diverse theological perspectives and religious practices?" Rabbi Borowitz's answer: "Make the tent large enough to accommodate as many views as possible." He concluded the platform, "…Yet in all our diversity we perceive a certain unity and we shall not allow our differences in some particulars to obscure what binds us together." This same approach was reflected in the Central Conference of American Rabbis' 1975 prayer book, Gates of Prayer, which afforded Reform congregations a larger variety of Reform services from which to choose, many of which diverged theologically.

By the end of the 20th century, however, some rabbis were beginning to wonder if upholding personal autonomy as the ideal was weakening Reform Jews' sense of Jewish obligation. If throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century Reform Jews in America had grappled with the question: "How can I be American?" the question now became: "How can I be Jewish?"

It was in this context that in 1999, in Pittsburgh, the CCAR issued its latest statement, the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism (Pittsburgh II), which may be seen as an attempt to "re-Judaize" and spiritualize the Movement. With "so many individuals…striving for religious meaning, moral purpose, and a sense of community," the document's principal author, Rabbi Richard Levy, invited "all Reform Jews to engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition [and…] to transform our lives through holiness." Mishkan T'filah: A New Reform Siddur (CCAR Press) similarly pointed toward re-Judaization, reinstituting ideas and practices (such as the wearing of t'fillin) that had been discarded by Reform rabbis in earlier generations.

How has the congregational rabbi's role changed over time?

The most significant change in the Reform rabbinate in the last century occurred in 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first woman to be ordained by HUC-JIR, opening up women's religious leadership in the Movement, which then transformed Reform Judaism intellectually, culturally, and spiritually. The era of the rabbi as great preacher is, by and large, behind us. The rabbi as a critical scholar has also diminished to some extent—the 2,000 or so non-rabbinic scholars with Ph.D.s in Jewish history or literature are often filling that role, especially on college campuses. Instead, congregational rabbis are increasingly called upon to be personal spiritual guides for their congregants and the community-at-large, and to juggle new, increasingly complex responsibilities. Not only are they the religious, spiritual, educational, pastoral, and organizational leaders of their communities; they are also expected to be community organizers, outreach experts, technology mavens, financial and personnel managers, social justice advocates, membership recruiters, Middle East experts, and more.

To help rabbis excel in so many roles, the Central Conference of American Rabbis now offers intensive training seminars in being the "CEO" (Chief Engagement Officer) as well as continuing education in such areas as contracts, organizational systems, fundraising, and, as always, Torah study. Recently the Conference also inaugurated a study trip for CCAR rabbis who had never led a trip to Israel, focusing on the issues that arise when bringing a group of first-timers to the Jewish State.

Where do you see the CCAR heading in the future?

The CCAR is partnering with the URJ and HUC-JIR in forging a vision of what our Movement might look like in 20, 30, or even 50 years from now. Currently all three institutions are exploring the possibility of creating a shared Center for Reform Judaism, to be housed under one roof. In addition, Reform rabbis, just like their predecessors, will continue to lead the Jewish people into unchartered religious landscapes by adapting and preserving our ancient heritage with love, knowledge, and faith.