Latest update: September 23rd, 2012
The founding of the Har Sinai Verein marked the beginning of the emergence of the Reform movement as a major force among American Jewry during the nineteenth century. The Reform movement eventually launched an all out attack on traditional Judaism, and Rabbi Rice became an eloquent defender of Orthodoxy.
As one of the few Orthodox rabbis in America, [Rabbi] Rice emerged as an important defender of tradition in the face of religious Reform. Criticizing Reform clergy, [Rabbi] Rice excommunicated Isaac M. Wise, a leading Reform clergyman, for questioning aspects of the traditional Jewish belief of messiah and resurrection. While his polemics against Reform failed to curtail the growth of Reform Judaism in America, his remarks reflected the concerns of Orthodox Jews regarding the preservation of Jewish tradition in America.2
Rabbi Rice became a close friend of Isaac Leeser, the Philadelphia chazzan who was in the forefront of everything Orthodox in the United States during the nineteenth century.3 In addition to writing articles that Chazzan Leeser published in his monthly Occident and Jewish Advocate, Rabbi Rice urged him to undertake an authoritative English translation of the Bible, pointing out that the German translations then available did not appeal to the English-speaking Jewish youth of America. The result was a magnificent piece of work written in accordance with Orthodox Judaism that became a standard for decades.
Rabbi Rice was instrumental in the creation of what became known as the Lloyd Street Synagogue. Completed in 1845, it was the first Jewish house of worship built in Maryland. Isaac Leeser, who was present at the synagogue’s dedication, described in detail the synagogue as well as the dedication ceremonies. He wrote in part:
The ark is a semi-circle, reached by a flight of steps of the same form, on the plan of the Synagogues in New York. Over the ark is a circular window laid out in the shape of the so-called “Shield of David” [Magen Dovid] furnished with colored glass of various tints.4
Problems, Resignation, and Return
In 1862 the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation found itself without a rabbi, and Rav Rice was asked to again become its spiritual leader. He agreed, but refused half the $1,000 yearly salary the congregation offered him. Unfortunately, he did not serve very long in this position, since he passed away on October 29, 1862.
. Abraham Rice’s place in the history of American Judaism is secure. The courage and dauntlessness with which he defended the principles of historic Judaism give him a unique place among the pioneers of Orthodoxy in America. His consistent and uncompromising stand in matters of Jewish theology were the strongest factor in stemming the tide of Reform. His devotion to the study of Torah and his depth of talmudic learning made it possible for [halachic] Judaism to gain a foothold on American soil, where for centuries Jewish life was spiritually barren and Torahless. His dedication to Jewish education and his personal instruction of many a youth in this community were responsible for a new generation of enlightened laymen to be raised up who changed the entire physiognomy and religious climate of the Jewish community of Baltimore.8
8 Ibid., page 119.
Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at email@example.com.
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