Isaac Mayer Wise (March 29, 1819 - March 26, 1900) was a leading nineteenth century American rabbi, editor, educator, and author, widely recognized as the founder of Reform Judaism in the United States. A skilled and energetic organizer, Wise established numerous institutions, most notably the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Hebrew Union College, and the National Conference of American Rabbis.
Born in Bohemia, Wise was educated in Prague and Vienna, receiving his rabbinical degree at 23 and serving as a rabbi in Randnice in today's Czech Republic before emigrating to the United States in 1846. An early supporter of reforms such as mixed-gender seating during synagogue services, he faced trouble in his first congregation in Albany, New York, and then established a new reformed synagogue there before moving to Cincinnati, where he would serve for the rest of his life.
In addition to his successful ministry as rabbi to Cincinnatti's Bene Yeshurun congregation, Wise organized numerous national conferences designed to unite the Jewish synagogues of America. He was a prolific writer and editor, publishing numerous books and editing leading Jewish intellectual journals. Although he failed in his dream of uniting American Jews in a single body, he succeeded in founding the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today called the Union for Reform Judaism) in 1873, the Hebrew Union College as a theological seminary for the training of American rabbis in 1875, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis as a unifying body of Reform Jewish clergy in 1889. All of these institutions remain important intellectual and administrative centers of Reform Judaism today.
The oldest son of Regina and Rabbi Leo Wise, Isaac was born in Steingrub (now Lomnička), Bohemia. He received his early Hebrew education from his father, who was a school-teacher, and his grandfather, a physician. A brilliant student, he studied Talmud and the Hebrew Bible at various schools, later continuing his Hebrew and secular studies in Prague and the University of Vienna.
Wise received his rabbinical degree at the age of 23 from the Prague bet din. At 25, he married Therese Bloch, who would become the mother of his ten children. In 1843, he was appointed rabbi at Radnitz (now Radnice, near Pilsen), where he remained for about two years.
In 1846, Wise emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York on July 23. In the following October, he was appointed rabbi of the Congregation Beth-El of Albany, New York and immediately began working for reforms in the synagogue service. His was the first Jewish congregation in the United States to introduce family pews, a radical break with the custom of separate seating for men and women. He also eliminated the chanting of prayers and the traditional Torah reading in Hebrew. A mixed choir and the institution of confirmation were among the other innovations introduced by Wise. He even went so far as to count women in forming a minyan, or religious quorum.
Such reforms, coupled paradoxically with his insistence that his synagogue board members close their places of business on the Sabbath, did not sit well with the more conservative members of the congregation, however. In 1850, a fistfight between Wise and the synagogue's president turned into a major disturbance and caused a split in Albany's Jewish community. Wise's supporters then formed a new congregation, Anshe Emeth, in which his reforms were accepted. He remained with this congregation until April 1854, when he became rabbi of the Bene Yeshurun congregation of Cincinnati, Ohio, where he would remain for the remaining 46 years of his life.
Although far from a traditionalist in matters of Jewish law and custom, Wise did not go so far as some reformers in his attitude, especially in his early years. He thus faced opposition both from traditional Jews and radical reformers. He nevertheless worked tirelessly for unity.
Wise was deeply inspired by the potential of America, not only as a religious haven for Jews, but as a workshop in which an entirely new religious culture could emerge. Unlike European Jewish reformers, he did not envision Judaism conforming to mainstream Gentile culture so much as he hoped for a reformed Judaism that could inspire America and the world. He even believed during one phase of his career that the new Judaism would make many Gentile converts and overtake Christianity as America's most popular faith.
As a believer in the universal mission of Judaism—and living before the horrors of the Holocaust—he strongly opposed Zionism, believing it was the mission of Jews to serve and transform their countries, not establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Paralleling this attitude, he was a courageous exponent of equal treatment for Jews in the political arena. He was also devoted to education, both religious education for the Jewish community and secular public education for all people.
In 1847, Wise became part of a four-person bet din (rabbinical court) which attempted to serve as an informal advisory committee to the Jewish congregations throughout the United States. At a meeting held in the spring of 1847, he submitted to the bet din the manuscript of a new prayer-book, to be entitled the Minhag America. As with many of Wise's proposals, the Orthodox strongly criticized it for being too liberal, while some in the Reform movement felt it was far too traditional. After a conference in Cleveland in 1855, an edited version of the work was adopted by most of the congregations of the western and southern states.
As early as 1848, Wise issued a call to the "ministers and other Israelites" of the United States urging them to form a union which might put an end to the prevalent religious anarchy in the Jewish community. His call appeared in the columns of the Occident, the leading Jewish journal of the time, and was seconded by its editor, Isaac Leeser. Wise suggested that a meeting be held in the spring of 1849 at Philadelphia to establish a union of the Jewish congregations of the entire country.
This meeting did not take place, but Wise continued tirelessly advocating it, especially after he established his own weekly newspaper, The Israelite (July 1854), renaming it The American Israelite in 1874. He also founded Die Deborah as a German language sister publication.
Wise's persistence in calling for a union of Jewish congregations finally achieved its goal in 1873, 25 years after he had first broached the idea, when the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was organized at Cincinnati, including 34 congregations from throughout the nation. However, despite Wise's efforts to present a moderate program and avoid the "reform" label, the UAHC never succeeded in bringing in substantial numbers of Orthodox congregations.
Earnest as he was in proclaiming the necessity for union among the congregations, Wise was equally energetic in insisting on the need of a theological seminary for the training of rabbis for American pulpits. In his Reminiscences, he gives a vivid picture of the incompetency of many of the men who posed as spiritual guides of the Jewish congregations during the early days of his residence in the United States. He had scarcely arrived in Cincinnati when he set to work to establish a college in which young men could receive a Jewish theological education. He enlisted the interest and support of a number of influential Jews of Cincinnati and adjacent towns, and in 1855 founded the Zion Collegiate Association.
The venture, however, proved a failure, and the society did not succeed in opening a college. Not daunted, Wise launched a literary campaign to gain support for the idea. As with his plan for a union of American Jewish congregations, he pushed his proposal for a seminary in the columns of his publications. His perseverance in this matter was likewise crowned with success when, on October 3, 1875, the Hebrew Union College opened its doors for the reception of students, four of whom were ordained eight years later.
His hopes for the seminary as a unifying force in American Judaism, however, would not be fulfilled. In 1883, at the banquet celebrating of the first graduating class of rabbis from HUC, a major schism erupted when it was learned that those in charge of the menu planned to serve shrimp, a non-kosher food. This event intensified the brewing conflict between the radical and conservative reformers and further alienated the Orthodox from Wise's program.
Wise later presided at a conference in Pittsburg which produced the so-called Pittsburg Platform, outlining the basic principles of Reform Judaism. It characterized the Bible as "reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age" and explicitly called for a rejection of those laws which have a ritual rather than moral basis, including the kosher dietary and ritual purity laws. The UAHC adopted the platform, but the more traditional rabbis, even among the modernist Jews, could not go along with its abandonment of so many aspects of Jewish law. As a result, in 1887, the Jewish Theological Seminary was founded as the intellectual center of Conservative Judaism and in competition with Hebrew Union College, thus formalizing the split between the main factions of non-Orthodox American Jews.
The first outcome of Wise's agitation for union among the Jews had been the Cleveland Conference of 1855, convened at his initiative. This conference failed in its goal of uniting the rabbis of all parts of the country in a bond of fellowship, giving rise to strained relations between Wise and his followers on one side and prominent rabbis from the eastern part of the country on the other. These differences were partly settled during the rabbinical conference of Philadelphia (1869), which Wise attended. A New York conference of 1870, and a Cincinnati conference of 1871 were efforts in the same direction. However, a controversy ensuing from the 1871 meeting served only to widen the breach.
Forever the unionist, Wise was not discouraged. He continued agitating for a synod which was to be the central body of authority for American Judaism. In 1881, he submitted to the meeting of the Rabbinical Literary Association a report urging the formation of a council, but the idea was not adopted.
Despite the disappointment of the split with the future Conservative Judaism that emerged after the Pittsburg Platform was adopted at the conference of November 1885, Wise lived to see the establishment of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889. It would become one more enduring offspring of his tireless energy and unfailing perseverance. During the last 11 years of his life he served as president of the conference, making him, in effect, the founder of Reform Judaism in the U.S. His commitment to union was such that in 1894, when the Union Prayer-Book was published by the CCAR, he voluntarily retired the Minhag America from his own congregation.
Besides the arduous labors that the organization of these national institutions entailed, Wise was active in many other ways. In 1857, when a new treaty was to be concluded between the United States and Switzerland, he visited Washington as chairman of a delegation to lobby against its ratification unless Switzerland would cease its discrimination against American Jews. In 1856, he protested against a state Thanksgiving proclamation, addressed to the “Christian People" of Ohio. He insisted that in the eyes of the government, Ohioans should be considered “neither Christian nor Jewish… but a free and independent people.” In 1862, when General Ulysses S. Grant issued an order expelling Jews from his department, Wise swiftly opposed the move, and during the Civil War he fought against a ban against Jewish and Catholic chaplains serving in the Union army. On the issue of slavery, however, he had taken no previous public stand.
In Cincinnati, besides officiating as rabbi of his congregation and as president of the Hebrew Union College, he edited the American Israelite and the Die Deborah. Nor were his activities limited to the Jewish community. He served as an examiner of teachers applying for positions in public schools and was also a member of the board of directors of the University of Cincinnati. He also traveled throughout the United States, lecturing, dedicating synagogues, and enlisting the interest of the Jewish communities in his plans and projects.
Wise was the author of the following non-fiction works in English:
In his early years Wise also wrote a number of novels, which appeared first as serials in the Israelite and later in book form. These were:
He wrote also a number of German novels, which appeared as serials in the Deborah. He even wrote two plays: Der Maskirte Liebhaber and Das Glück Reich zu Sein.
During his lifetime, Wise was regarded as the most prominent Jew in the United States. He possessed a genius for organization and immense spiritual and intellectual resources, as well as a determined and often inflexible will. More than any of his contemporaries, he left the impress of his personality on the development of Judaism in the United States.
Wise's three great achievements—the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Hebrew Union College, and the CCAR—still exist and thrive today as the intellectual and administrative centers of Reform Judaism. The Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, which he organized in 1866, is noted for its architectural grandeur, and was renamed the Isaac M. Wise Temple in his honor. Numerous other Jewish institutions are also named for him.
This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
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