This Day in Jewish History / Isaac Leeser, Towering Figure of 19th Century U.S. Judaism, Is Born

Leeser was a prolific teacher, author, translator and leader of the 'regeneration' of American Judaism in the mid-1800s.

David Green
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David Green

December 12, 1806 is the birthdate of Isaac Leeser, the German-born religious leader whose work as a congregational minister, author, translator and publisher made him a towering figure in the “regeneration” – the term he preferred -- of American Judaism in the 19th century.

Leeser was born in Neuenkirchen, Westphalia (today a region in northwest Germany), where he enjoyed both general schooling at the gymnasium in Muenster and a traditional Jewish education. By the time he was 14, both of his parents had died so in 1824, he joined a maternal uncle in Richmond, Virginia, where he quickly became competent in English. For the next five years, he worked for his uncle’s business while volunteering as a religion teacher at a local synagogue and preparing articles defending Judaism in the press.

In 1829, an article he had written in the London Quarterly brought Leeser to the attention of Philadelphia’s Sephardi synagogue Mikveh Israel, which invited him to replace its newly deceased hazzan. Until then, the role of cantor in American synagogues had been to serve as Hebrew prayer leader and officiate at life-cycle events, but Leeser had more ambitious ideas. Influenced by Protestant ministers both in Germany and in the United States, he pushed for the right to preach sermons to congregants and to do so in English, rather than in the mother tongues that most of them still spoke at home. It took 13 years for Mikveh Israel to formally accept his sermons, which were often of a moral nature, as a regular event.

There were many other ways that Leeser, while strong on tradition, was intent on acclimating American Jews to their new environment. Beyond his insistence on using English for sermons and in congregational publications (though not in prayers), he also pushed for greater decorum within the synagogue – a regular rotation of aliyot to the Torah, rather than auctioning off of the honor, limiting the presence of small children at services, and other “aesthetic” measures, plus an end to the practice of excommunication.

More significantly, it was Leeser who prepared the first Jewish, English-language  translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). Until then, Jews who wanted to read the Bible in the vernacular were largely limited to the Protestant King James version, with its Christian interpretation, its different division and the inclusion of the New Testament. He wrote, edited or translated more than one hundred Jewish books – including “The Law of God,” a Hebrew-English edition of the Pentateuch in five volumes, -- and published, from 1843 until his death, an influential monthly journal, The Occident, America’s first magazine for a general Jewish audience.

Leeser called for the establishment of what today we would call Jewish day schools, where Jewish children would receive both general and Jewish education, including Hebrew study. Leeser also went along with the idea of Sunday schools, based on the Christian model, which offered weekly or twice-weekly inoculations of Jewish learning, mostly conducted in English. Though limited in their effectiveness, these schools were inclusive of girls and they provided young people with the tools to resist the efforts of Christian missionaries. Leeser was also one of the founders of the first rabbinical seminary in the United States, Maimonides College in Philadelphia, which opened in 1867 but had to shut down six years later.  

Isaac Leeser wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, suggesting that it would be “highly expedient to have a Jewish chaplain appointed by the President of the United States,” to tend to sick and dying Union soldiers. As a result, the first Jewish rabbi to serve as a military chaplain was appointed.

Leeser retired from the pulpit of Mikveh Israel in 1850, but when a new Sephardi synagogue, Temple Beth-El Emeth, opened in Philadelphia seven years later, he accepted the position of rabbi, and served in it until his death, on February 1, 1868.

Isaac Leeser wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to advocate for a Jewish chaplain in the military, a request which was granted.Credit: Wikimedia