Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900)

The architect of American Reform Judaism

Isaac Mayer Wise [was a] Reform rabbi and pioneer of Reform Judaism in America. Although Wise received, in his native Bohemia, a good grounding in the traditional Jewish sources, he was largely self-educated in the more modern Jewish thought and the general culture of his day.

In America, Wise Soon Flew Solo

In 1846, Wise left for America, serving, at first, as rabbi to an Orthodox synagogue in Albany [New York] in which he attempted to introduce certain reforms contrary to the wishes of the congregation [including a mixed choir, confirmation, and German and English hymns]. Such was the opposition to Wise’s reforms that the president of the congregation came to blows with him on Yom Kippur.

Wise left his post to found a synagogue on his own. [This synagogue, Anshe Emeth, featured, under Wise’s leadership, the first family pew. Mixed seating spread quickly in American Reform Judaism but did not catch on until much later in the European Reform movement.]

Dreams of Judaism as the American Faith

In 1854, Wise became a Reform rabbi in Cincinnati, which city, through his efforts and strong and stubborn personality, became the home of American Reform. It was the dream of Reform as suited to life in the New World that inspired Wise, unlike the Reformers in Germany, whose aim it was to accommodate Judaism to Western life and civilization in general, rather than to a particular country. At one period in his career, Wise became so convinced that a moderately reformed Judaism would prove attractive to all reasonable people that he forecast in fifty years Judaism would overtake Christianity to become the religion of America as a whole—a nonsensical dream, of course, but indicative of Wise’s reforming zeal and broad, though fanciful, vision.

Steps Forward and Back to American Custom

Wise wished to establish what he called a Minhag America (“Custom of America”), a uniform ritual for all American Jews. He wrote extensively on his favorite topic, meeting, however, opposition both from the Orthodox and from the more radical Reformers. The latter believed Wise to be too traditional in his approach and he was indeed averse, for example, to biblical criticism being applied to the Pentateuch.

Wise was instrumental in forming the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [in 1873], and in 1875 the Hebrew Union College, of which he became president. The College was intended to be a general school of learning in which Orthodox as well as Reform rabbis would be trained but when, at the banquet to celebrate the ordination of the College’s first rabbis, non-kosher food was served [including several shellfish dishes and mixtures of milk and meat], the traditionalists would have nothing further to do with the College. This led eventually to the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary for the training of Conservative rabbis, and to the creation of the third denomination in American Jewish life, Conservative Judaism.

[In 1899, a year before his death, Wise lead the Reform rabbinate in establishing the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an umbrella organization for Reform rabbis in the United States.]

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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