Happy 200th Birthday Isaac Mayer Wise

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, March 28, 2019

This first week of April, I will be gathering with Reform rabbinic colleagues in Cincinnati, for our annual convention. On Monday morning, our morning convention service will be held in the magnificent historic synagogue, K.K. Bnei Yeshurun Plum Street Temple, built under the guidance and vision of the founding father of Reform Judaism in North America, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. We will be celebrating Isaac Mayer Wise’s 200th birthday.

Born in Bohemia on March 29, 1819, the son of a schoolteacher, he learned Hebrew and Judaic studies from his father and grandfather, later continuing his studies in Prague. Isaac Mayer Wise was appointed Rabbi at Radnitz, Bohemia in 1843, a position that he held for two years. In 1846, he emigrated to the United States, leaving behind the restrictive laws that Jews lived under in the Austrian empire – special taxes, a prohibition against owning land, restrictions on the right of residence. Upon arriving in New York with his wife and daughter, Wise was appointed rabbi of Congregation Beth-El in Albany, NY. He very quickly instituted reforms in the synagogue. He encouraged men and women to sit together in services, he advocated praying in English and German rather than only in Hebrew, and he replaced the male cantor with a mixed sex choir. Unfortunately, his desire for reform and modernization did not sit well with many in his congregation.

After weeks of constant clashes, on Rosh Hashanah morning 1850, as he approached the ark, a fist-fight erupted between Wise and the Temple president, Louis Spanier, who blocked Wise from taking the Torah from the ark.

A report in the Albany Evening Atlas on September 7, 1850, outlines the dissension within Albany’s Jewish community regarding Wise.

“During the last two or three days the members of the Hebrew Congregation worshipping in Fulton Street, have been in great excitement. It seems they are not all united in love for Rev. Mr. Wise, their spiritual adviser, and one portion have labored with great zeal to remove him from his pastoral station; while the other portion have been equally zealous in maintaining him in his position.

“On Thursday, it seems, an election was held to test the question, when, we understand, there were other feelings than those of brotherly love strongly manifested. This morning, the Jewish Sabbath, the congregation assembled very early, when a strife arose between the two sections as to whether the Rev. Mr. Wise should, or should not officiate. It seems that as soon as the attempt was made by Mr. Wise to conduct the ceremonies, a general melee commenced. Argument, persuasion and conciliation were dispensed with, and angry words, threatenings and even blows were resorted to, and several severe assaults were committed.”

Shortly afterwards, his supporters split off from Beth-El and formed a new synagogue, where he served for a few years until he was called to the pulpit of Kehillat Kodesh Bnei Yeshurun in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1854. Having learned from his experiences and his mistakes in Albany, Wise insisted on a life contract as part of his terms to become their new rabbi in Cincinnati. He also committed himself to “make haste slowly” and avoid controversies within his new congregation. In his autobiography, Wise states, “I was very moderate, considerate, and argumentative (as far as externalities were concerned) in the pulpit … I had to address every Saturday a very mixed audience. My hearers comprised, not only the members of the three other congregations of Cincinnati, but also the inhabitants of near and distant towns, because business brought many merchants of the West and South to Cincinnati at that time. I was therefore compelled to speak carefully and tactfully if I wished to succeed, and I was determined to succeed.” (I.M. Wise, Reminiscences, 1901, p. 258)

It was in Cincinnati, which was by 1860 the third largest city in the United States, that the reforms Wise’s envisioned began to flourish. Wise’s vision was to shape American Judaism, to create what would be the minhag America or custom, for all of American Jewry. He had no intention of forming a separate movement of Judaism. In 1857 he published a new prayerbook, called “Minhag America”, with the idea that this prayer book would unify the Jewish community in America and help new immigrants to fully integrate into America. In the creation of the new prayerbook, Wise stated that he and his colleagues “adhered anxiously to tradition; they had no desire to found a new religion or to institute a new cult. They wished to recast the old and traditional prayers reverently, so that they might be brought into accord with the religious consciousness of the time and the democratic principles of the new fatherland.” (I.M. Wise, Reminiscences, 1901, p. 345)

Wise was tireless in his work to create a modern unified form of American Judaism. While he did not succeed in unifying all of American Judaism, Wise founded the largest Jewish movement in North America. Today the Union for Reform Judaism serves more than 2.2 million Jews, and 900 congregations in North America, with many more congregations affiliated with the World union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), the Reform movement outside of North America. Through his writing, preaching, and his founding of major institutions, Wise’s legacy was to create an American Judaism, distinguished from the European Judaism that he had left behind. In his weekly English-language newspaper, The Israelite, (founded in 1854 and remains today as its masthead proudly proclaims, “The Oldest English Jewish Weekly in America”, Wise was able to disseminate his beliefs and opinions on Jewish life and important political issues to a wide audience. He published many volumes on history and theology, as well as a number of novels. The American Civil War propelled his political influence forward. Wise wrote frequent editorials and continued cultivating political leaders. Although he ran for state senate in 1863, he pulled out of the race when his congregation expressed concern that he would not be able to fulfill his duties to them.

In 1866 Wise’s congregation KK Bnei Yeshurun dedicated the magnificent temple on Plum Street. At the dedication ceremony, the synagogue’s president lauded Wise for his impact on the congregation and on Jewish life in North America: “The real history of the progress of our congregation dates from the time when our esteemed rabbi, Rev. Dr. Wise, was chosen as our spiritual guide, for to him we are indebted for the position which we now occupy in the community and among our sister congregations. It was he who commenced fearlessly, and in opposition to all existing obstacles and prejudices, to remove the superficial practices in our service, and he slowly but surely created order and system out of chaos. His excellent teachings found a willing ear in his congregation. He not only managed to retain in our midst peace, harmony and concord, of which this congregation has always been characterized, but he extended the same wholesome influence over the majority of the congregations in the West, who are co-operating with us in the onward march of progress, enlightenment, and true religion.”

In his quest for a unified American Judaism, Wise believed that a union for congregations was necessary to set out a clear direction. In 1873 he sent out a call to congregations to join this union, and by 1874, the union of American Hebrew Congregations was formed, and held its first meeting. At this meeting the union determined its first major goal to be the creation of a rabbinical seminary to train rabbis for the American Jewish community. Wise was elected president of this school, to be called Hebrew Union College.

Hebrew Union College opened its doors in 1875. The first class of students met in the basement of the Mound Street Temple. The whole library fit in a small trunk – which kept out not thieves, but mice. That trunk resides today in the Skirball Museum on the Cincinnati Campus of the Hebrew Union College, along with Isaac Mayer Wise’s writing desk. By 1879 Wise had founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is now the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in the world. And In June 1883, Hebrew Union College graduated its first four rabbis, who would bring Wise’s vision to life in their own congregations. Two years later, in 1885, the CCAR set forth their governing principles in a manifesto known as the Pittsburgh Platform, the major statement of the basic tenets of Reform Judaism. Today Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordains rabbis, cantors, and trains Jewish educators, and communal service professionals. HUC’s program includes its schools of Graduate Studies, Education, Jewish Non-Profit Management, sacred music, Biblical archaeology and an Israeli rabbinical program.

During Isaac Mayer Wise’s lifetime, more than 60 rabbis were ordained, and by this time HUC had its own building, a respectable library of 10,000 volumes, and a faculty of nine. Today, HUC’s Klau library on the Cincinnati campus houses one of the world’s most extensive and comprehensive compilations of Hebraica and Judaica. Its 465,000 volumes comprise the largest collection of printed Judaica in North America, and its collection is second in size to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. Its rare book room include books printed before 1501, a unique Chinese-Hebrew collection and the negatives of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Wise died just 3 days short of his 81st birthday on March 26, 1900. At the time of his death, he was still actively teaching at HUC and preaching in the synagogue. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise devoted his life to his vision that Judaism is a progressive faith that has always embraced change and adaptation. He advocated that Judaism is not a fixed and static tradition frozen in time, but one that is dynamic and progressive even as we commit to following the path of Torah and mitzvot, as a record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God. As we celebrate his 200th birthday, we say Yom Huledet Sameach, Happy Brirthday, and Zichrono Livracha, his memory, his aspirations, energy, and his guidance are a blessing to the world.


Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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