This Day in Jewish History |

1851: A Maverick Social Activist Is Born

Felix Adler had a lasting influence on American society by introducing a wide range of social reforms, which he saw as the true calling of religion.

David Green
David B. Green
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Felix Adler, son of a Reform rabbi and founder of the Society for Ethical Culture.
Felix Adler, son of a Reform rabbi and founder of the Society for Ethical Culture.Credit: Wikimedia
David Green
David B. Green

August 13, 1851, was the birthdate of Felix Adler, the German-born ethicist and political activist who was groomed to follow in the steps of his Reform rabbi and scholar father, and instead turned left and founded a secular philosophy he called Ethical Culture.

Felix Adler was born in Alzey, Germany. When he was 6, the family emigrated to the United States, after his father, Samuel Adler, a Reform rabbi, accepted an offer to take over the pulpit at Temple Emanu-El, the flagship of the Reform movement in New York. Felix attended Columbia University, and after graduation returned to Germany, to study at his father’s seminary in Berlin and at Heidelberg University, in preparation for becoming a rabbi himself. At Heidelberg he came under the influence of neo-Kantism, in particular the idea that morality could be determined outside of a religious context.

In 1873, after his return to America, Felix Adler gave a sermon at his father’s synagogue, on “The Judaism of the Future.” It was intended to be a trial balloon for his intended succession to Samuel Adler’s pulpit. Things did not turn out that way, however, and the following year, Samuel Adler was succeeded not by his son but by his deputy, Richard Gottheil. Felix’s address was memorable in that he did not mention “God” in it, although it’s not clear that it is what torpedoed his chances of taking over from his father. Historian Jacob Rader Marcus has suggested that it may just have been that the congregants didn’t like the idea of the father foisting the son upon them. In any case, Felix Adler did not pursue rabbinical ordination, and in 1874, with the help of wealthy members of Emanu-El, he took a teaching job in Hebrew and Oriental literature at Cornell University.

Adler’s theology was not well received by the Cornell administration – though he was popular with students -- and after two years, the school refused to continue accepting the money that was paying his salary. He found himself invited to return to Emanu-El to deliver a series of Sunday lectures on his views on religion and society. By 1877, Adler had incorporated an organization to advance the philosophy he was in the process of developing. He called that organization the Society for Ethical Culture.

Central to Ethical Culture was the belief in the importance of “deed, not creed” – that good works were the basis of the good life. At a time when American society was becoming rapidly industrialized and urbanized, Adler became deeply involved in matters of social reform – reform of schools, labor laws, housing, medical care.

The Brooklyn headquarters of the Society for Ethical Culture, the movement Adler founded in 1877. Credit: Wikimedia

As Jacob Marcus wrote in his “United States Jewry, 1776-1985,” Adler, “in his desire to help… reached out in all directions, aiding Negroes, attacking corruption in government, urging arbitration in the clothing industry, seeking legal aid for the poor, and publishing a magazine on ethics. To reach his goals he erected social-welfare agencies of his own.”
Although Ethical Culture meant to take the God out of religion, it did not give up the trappings of religious life, specifically Reform. It held Sunday services with sermons, and had its own ritual music. In a sense, Ethical Culture took the rational philosophy of Reform Judaism to its next logical level, removing any pretense of belief in a supernatural first cause. But in terms of its membership and sensibility, it remained very Jewish. And it received support, both financial and moral, from the membership of Temple Emanu-El.

Over the next quarter-century, the Society for Ethical Culture helped to found one reform movement after another. It organized a nursing department for the City of New York and a kindergarten for the children of working poor. (Ironically, that kindergarten eventually evolved into the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, which is today a network of exclusive New York prep schools, with fees close to $40,000 annually.) Adler was one of the founders of what became the American Civil Liberties Union, and was on the first executive of the National Urban League, a civil-rights organization. The Tenement House Building Corporation created by Adler actually built low-cost housing on the Lower East Side and rented it out to recent immigrants.

In 1902, Adler was appointed a professor of political and social ethics at Columbia University, a position he held until his death, 31 years later. Although his movement never became very large, it did have a lasting influence on society. This was not only through the various progressive causes it embraced that truly ushered in reform in so many different realms of American life, but also in the ethical ideal it introduced, one that justified itself not by claiming a divine origin, but by the social good it meant to accomplish.

Adler was married to the former Helen Goldmark, herself the daughter of prominent European-born Jews. Although a suffragist, Goldmark did not believe in complete female parity with men in society, and thought that a woman’s most important role was as a mother. She and Adler raised five children, and she worked to establish standards for child-rearing that would turn it into a science.

Felix Adler died on April 24, 1933, at the age of 81. Helen Goldmark Adler died in March 1948.

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