This Day in Jewish History

1863: Prominent American Jew 'Sir Oracle' Is Born

Cyrus Adler was behind most important American Jewish institutions, for all that he didn't command much contemporary respect.

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September 13, 1863, is the birthdate of Cyrus Adler, the scholar and official who seems to have had a hand in the creation of most every American Jewish institution one could think of – and a few others as well. In addition, Adler had the distinction of being the first person to receive his Ph.D. in the field of Semitic studies in the United States.

Despite his many accomplishments, Adler had a reputation for self-importance and for dilettantism that have – perhaps unfairly – dogged his legacy.

Cyrus Adler was born in Van Buren, Arkansas, the third of the four children of Samuel Adler and the former Sarah Sulzberger. Samuel managed a nearby cotton plantation and also was a merchant. Soon after the birth of Cyrus, at the height of the U.S. Civil War, the family moved north, eventually settling, after the father’s death, in 1867, in Philadelphia, where his mother’s brother lived.

While his uncle David Sulzberger pushed him to train for the law, a cousin, Mayer Sulzberger, introduced Cyrus to the family’s fine library, sparking an early interest in scholarly studies. Already as a high school student, Cyrus volunteered to catalog the library of the Philadelphia rabbi and educator Isaac Lesser. Graduating in 1878, Cyrus delivered his class’ commencement address, on the subject of “Eccentricities of Great Men.”

A question mark of a man

Adler received his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, and then his doctorate, in Assyriology, at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, in 1887. As historian Jonathan Sarna noted, in a 1989 article in the journal American Jewish History examining Adler and his reputation - Adler was a diligent student, and this he may well have been conscious of the fact that hard work could make up for a lack of authentic genius.

As for his college classmates, they depicted him in their yearbook as a question mark, while offering following mock epigraph for him, "I am Sir Oracle, when I ope my lips let no dog bark."

Sarna tells us that Adler was very proud of his Ph.D., and always insisted on being referred to as “doctor,” if possible, with the word spelled out in full. But to be fair, his achievement was a significant one. He was the first native-born Jew to receive a doctoral degree at home in a field that was a close as possible at the time to Jewish studies.

For several years, he taught in the Semitics department at Johns Hopkins, and until 1908, when he moved back to Philadelphia, he also held various appointments at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington. There, he organized the United States exhibitions that would appear at several expositions in American cities, and also served as a curator of Semitics and archaeology.

It was in this capacity that Adler discovered what has been called the “Jefferson Bible,” a version of the New Testament edited by America’s third president, who cut and pasted the Christian Bible in order to assemble a book that delivered what he understood to be the doctrine of Jesus. The volume was notable for Jefferson’s having elided all the references to Jesus’ divine attributes or any miracles.

In 1905, Adler married Racie Friedenwald, of Baltimore, and three years later, he resigned from the Smithsonian to become the first president of the newly established Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, in Philadelphia (which today is the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania). This marked a move away from scholarly studies in the direction of the administrative work that marked the rest of his career, during which he helped to establish many institutions that are still active today.

These included the Jewish Publication Society of America, where he also chaired the committee that undertook the first Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible; the United Synagogue of America, the lay organization that oversees the Conservative movement; the Jewish Welfare Board; the American Jewish Committee, which he represented at the Paris Peace Conference, in 1919. Although Adler was ambivalent about the nascent Zionist movement, he was also on the board of the Jewish Agency, which was founded in 1929.

Americanizing Jewish scholarship

Adler also edited the American Jewish Yearbook during its first seven years, was an editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia, and edited the Jewish Quarterly Review.

From Sarna’s point of view, Adler helped bring about both the professionalization and Americanization of Jewish scholarship in the United States. Even if Adler’s dream of the establishment of a “Jewish Academy of America” never came to fruition, he was responsible for the creation or leadership of numerous less comprehensive institutions that together could be the component parts of such a body

“Had Adler done no more than develop, Americanize, and professionalize Jewish scholarship,” writes Sarna, “his place in American Jewish history would certainly have been secure,” before going on to point to the communal organizations he also helped to establish. He was “American Jewry’s first great ‘scholar-doer,’” concludes Sarna, himself one of the most visible Jewish academics in the United States today.

Cyrus Adler died on April 7, 1940, seven years after poor health forced him to largely retire from public life. He and his wife Racie had one child, Sarah.