This Day in Jewish History

1819: The Founder of Reform Judaism Is Born

Isaac Mayer Wise rejected messianism, didn't feel the Talmud is binding and didn't shy from brawling to protect his view of the liturgy.

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March 29, 1819, is the birthdate of Isaac Mayer Wise, the central figure in the founding and organization of the Reform movement in the United States.

During his long life and career, Wise founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873), the Hebrew Union College (1875) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889) – the central institutions of what is today America’s largest Jewish denomination.

The son of Leo and Regina Weiss, Wise was born in Steingrub, Bohemia (today Lomnicka, in the Czech Republic). Leo Wise was a rabbi and teacher, and it was he who gave his son his initial training.

That was followed by education with his grandfather, a physician, and attendance at (though no degree from) the Universities of Prague and Vienna.

Ordained as a rabbi at the age of 23, Wise worked as a rabbi-teacher in Radnitz, Bohemia, for two years before leaving his homeland in 1846. In the interim, in 1844, he married Theresa Bloch, with whom he had 10 children.

Jews living in Bohemia were subject to numerous restrictions – they were limited in where they could live, were not permitted to own land, and had to pay special taxes. These were behind Wise’s decision to move to the United States.

Reaching New York City, Wise was almost immediately recommended for the position of rabbi at a congregation in Albany, New York, and the family moved there. Very quickly, he established himself as a prophet of religious reform.

As he wrote in his autobiography, years later, “The reforming spirit was innate in me…. I was an enthusiast on the subjects of America and freedom, and was convinced that every one thought and felt just as I did.” Attending a debate in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1850, Wise found himself confronted by a traditional rabbi, who asked him, “Do you believe in the personal Messiah? Do you believe in bodily resurrection?” To both questions, Wise responded emphatically in the negative.

Wise’s efforts to change the liturgy at his synagogue, among other changes, encountered resistance Two days before Rosh Hashanah in 1850, he found himself fired from Beth El synagogue. When he showed up nonetheless to lead New Year’s services, he ended up in a fistfight with the congregation’s president.

A short time later, Wise and his supporters founded a new congregation, Anshe Emeth – “people of truth.”

By the time Wise moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, then the third largest city in the United States, to take up the leadership of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun, he already was committed to the idea not of establishing a new denomination, but rather of uniting all of the country’s Jews in a single religious movement. This of course was never to happen. But what did emerge from Wise’s efforts were the beginnings of American Reform. He wrote a Reform prayer book, “Minhag America,” in 1847, and the following year called for the formation of a union of Reform congregations – an ambition that was realized only in 1873.

Later, when the Union Prayer Book was published, in 1894, he voluntarily retired his own volume from his synagogue.

One God, zero Talmud

On the ideological level, Wise laid out what he felt were the basic principles of Judaism as follows: Belief in one God, belief that man is created in the image of God and is accountable to God for his actions, and belief that the Jews were chosen by God to promulgate his truths. Beyond that, however, Wise preached that the rules and practices that derived from the Talmud were not binding on Jews, and wrote that “I must a thousand times pity” those who believed otherwise.

On the practical level, Bnai Jeshurun synagogue, where he remained until the end of his life, regarded men and women as equals – women were counted in a minyan, and seating was mixed. At the festive banquet to celebrate the ordination of the Hebrew Union College’s first class of rabbis, nonkosher food was served – including shellfish and a mixture of meat and milk – which immediately meant that traditional Jews would not be involved with the college.

On the question of slavery, Wise was equivocal: Though he found it distasteful, he wrote that “we are not prepared, nobody is, to maintain it is absolutely unjust to purchase savages, or rather, their labor.” Instead, he proposed the biblical injunctions related to the treatment of slaves, by which the servant “is a free man, excepting only the fruits of his labor,” as a model that might serve the United States.

Isaac Mayer Wise published a large number of books about Judaism and its beliefs and history, and also published a number of novels as well as a weekly Jewish journal, The Israelite. His dream of an American seminary was realized in 1875, with the opening of the Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati.

Wise died on March 26, 1900, in Cincinnati.