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Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Rice’

The Controversial Mordecai Moses Mordecai

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Introduction1
 
   The first ordained rabbi to settle in America, Abraham Rice did not arrive here until 1840. Before then, few men with anything more than a rudimentary Torah knowledge resided in America. One exception was Mordecai Moses Mordecai.
 
   “Mordecai Moses Mordecai was born on January 16, 1727, in the Lithuanian town of Tels [also written Telz, Telshi]. His father was evidently a rabbi, Moses, son of Mordecai. The majority of Jews in Northern Europe had no family names at this period, and were known simply by a patronymic. On his arrival in America, our Mordecai discovered a Moses Mordecai, from Bonn, Germany, residing in eastern Pennsylvania. Probably to avoid confusion, our subject styled himself with his father’s and grandfather’s names as Mordecai Moses Mordecai, usually adding ‘of Telz.’”
 
   At the time Lithuania was one of the major centers of Torah scholarship in the world. Therefore, it is not surprising the Mordecai received a comprehensive Torah education, “but there is no evidence to show that he achieved ordination. On the contrary, he would have signed himself ‘Rabbi’ had he been so entitled. He left his birthplace in northwestern Lithuania to become the first known Jew from his area to arrive in North America.”
 
   In 1760 Mordecai married Zipporah de Lyon of Easton, Pennsylvania. Zipporah’s father, Abraham de Lyon, and grandfather, Dr. Samuel Nunez, were among the original Jewish settlers of Savannah, GA. Mordecai and his bride settled in Lancaster and lived there for about ten years. However, by 1770 they had taken up residence in Baltimore. Mordecai became a distiller, but apparently was not particularly successful in this endeavor. 
 
   “By 1782, the British raids on the coastal cities had caused many patriot citizens [among them the Mordecais] to flee to Philadelphia for safety. The city’s Jewish population was enlarged by refugees from Newport, New York, Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah. A long-deferred project came to fruition when thirty-six heads of families signed themselves as agreeable to building a synagogue [which was named Congregation Mikveh Israel]. Mordecai M. Mordecai was among the signers.
 
   “At long last his rabbinic training could be put to use. He was assigned the important task of writing letters in Hebrew to the more established Sephardic synagogues of London and Amsterdam for approval of the architectural design, since this had ritual significance. Mordecai also penned a Hebrew letter to the thriving congregation in Paramaribo, Surinam, seeking a contribution. The overall appeal brought contributions from sixty-one individuals.
 
   “Mordecai must have been elated when he was chosen by the congregation as one of three experts in traditional Jewish law to rule whether the congregation’s minister, Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, might perform a marriage between Jacob I. Cohen and the widow of the above-mentioned German Moses Mordecai. The problem arose from the fact that the bride-to-be had been born Elizabeth Whitlock, a Christian; and, despite the fact that she had been converted to Judaism in her native England prior to her first marriage, her fianc? was a Cohen.”
 

   Mordecai and another member of this group rightly voted against this marriage, since the Torah prohibits a kohen from marrying a gayarus. Based on this, the congregation’s board of directors forbade their chazzan, Reverend Gershom Seixas, to perform the marriage. Nonetheless, on August 28, 1782 the couple was married without the participation of the chazzan in a ceremony held outside of the synagogue but in the presence of three of the congregation’s leaders. Mordecai took this as a personal affront. “The day before the wedding, Mordecai had received a rude shock when his application to become shammash [sexton, a position requiring some ritual knowledge] found him an unsuccessful candidate.”

 

Confrontations with Congregational

Authorities2
 
   “In 1784 [Mordecai] found himself in trouble with the congregational authorities. A niece of his in Easton, Judith, the daughter of Myer Hart, had fallen in love with a Christian, Lieutenant James Pettigrew, and they had been married by an army chaplain in May 1782, without her father’s knowledge or consent. Thereupon he had closed his door to her, but, with a child on the way, the girl’s mother was anxious to effect a reconciliation between the father and his daughter, so she asked her brother-in-law Mordecai, ‘a man who is well learned in Jewish law,’ to come to Easton to help settle the family problem.
 
   “What happened thereafter became a matter of serious contention. Only one fact was agreed upon – that the father had become reconciled.
 
   “Barnet Levy, also a brother-in-law of Mordecai and a resident of Easton, being in Philadelphia one day, told some members of Mikveh Israel, including the parnass Simon Nathan and Benjamin Nones, that he had been present when Mordecai remarried the couple according to Jewish law, and that he, Levy, had actually signed the ketubah, or marriage contract, as a witness. Mordecai was ordered to appear before a congregational court to answer the charge, and was found guilty of performing an act contrary to Jewish law.”
 
   Mordecai indignantly protested and wrote a letter to the vice president and the Adjunta of the congregation challenging their actions. He gave a number of reasons why he felt that what the congregational court had done was invalid.
 
   However, this was not the only controversy Mordecai was embroiled in with Congregation Mikveh Israel. A certain Benjamin Moses Clava, who was not a member of the congregation, died on March 14, 1785. He had been married to a gentile woman by a Christian minister. Despite this, “a year before, fearing that he was about to die, he called in several Jews and recited the Viddui, or confession of faith. The question was: should he, or could he, be buried according to Jewish custom?
 
   “One group in the congregation at first insisted upon a Din Torah, or legal interpretation, from Holland. But another group, somewhat more realistically, felt that an immediate decision would have to be made. After all, the corpse could not be kept unburied until an answer came from abroad. Consequently, the decision was left up to a panel of experts, consisting of Carpeles, Josephson and Moses D. Nathans. It was their judgment that Clava should be buried in a corner of the cemetery, without ritual washing, without a shroud and without a ceremony.
 
   “In spite of the fact that disobedience to this judgment would bring upon the transgressor exclusion from the religious functions of the synagogue, Mordecai M. Mordecai once again opposed his judgment against that of the congregation. He not only attended the body to the grave, but washed it and clothed it.”
 
   In an attempt to resolve these matters, the congregation sent a letter to Rabbi Saul Lowenstamm of the Ashkenazic Community of Amsterdam, Holland, asking him to rule on the matter. Unfortunately, Rabbi Lowenstamm’s answer, if there was one, has not been preserved.
 
   As a result of these actions Mordecai Moses Mordecai became persona non grata to the power structure of the Jewish community of Philadelphia. No further mention is made of him in the congregational records.
 
   Once the Revolutionary War ended many of the Jews who had come to Philadelphia to escape the British left the city. Mordecai apparently went to Richmond, Virginia, because his name appears on the list of the founders of Richmond’s Congregation Beth Shalome, which was established in 1789. In 1799 Mordecai was residing in Baltimore where he operated a distillery.
 
   “Mordecai had passed his eightieth birthday when on March 4, 1807, he had the joy of performing the marriage of his granddaughter Judith Russell to Isaiah Nathans of Philadelphia. The American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia calls him ‘Rev. Mordecai M. Mordecai of Richmond, formerly of this city.’
 

   “Mordecai’s death came on January 19, 1809. The Baltimore papers took no note of the event, but The Republic and Savannah Ledger, of Savannah, Georgia, where his son Samuel and several Russell grandchildren were living, in its issue of February 9, 1809, paid him this tribute:

 

     Died at Baltimore on 19th, Mr. Mordecai M. Mordecai aged 83 years, an old and respected inhabitant of that city. This gentleman acquired at an early period of his life the sincere esteem of many of his fellow citizens being one of the patriots who fought and bled in the glorious struggle for the independence of this country. In a private capacity Mr. Mordecai distinguished himself as a tender husband, fond father, and faithful friend. He has left 26 children and Grand children and many acquaintances mourn his loss.”3

 

1 All quotes in this section and the next are from “Two Jewish Functionaries in Colonial Pennsylvania” by Malcolm H. Stern, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); September 1967-June 1968; 57, AJHS Journal. This article is available online at www.ajhs.org/scholarship/adaje.cfm.
 
2 All quotes in this section are from The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson by Edwin Wolf and Maxwell Whiteman, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1957, pages 128-131 unless otherwise noted.
 
3 “Two Jewish Functionaries in Colonial Pennsylvania.
 
 

   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 llevine@stevens.edu.

 

Abraham Rice: The First Rabbi In America (Part II)

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Last month we discussed how Rabbi Abraham Joseph Rice came to America in 1840 and became the rav of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (Congregation Nidchei Yisroel). Rav Rice was the first ordained Orthodox rabbi to settle in North America.
Not long after Rabbi Rice became the spiritual leader of Nidchei Yisroel, he faced opposition from those who wanted to introduce various reforms. In 1842, some of those who felt Rav Rice was too extreme in his insistence on maintaining halachic standards left his congregation and founded the Har Sinai Verein (Society). The first Rosh Hashanah services held by this congregation featured hymns sung to the accompaniment of an organ. This temple became the first lasting Reform congregation in America.

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.

 

His most unique contribution, however, was his defense of Orthodox Judaism in America. Where there were so few real scholars, it was easy for pseudo-intellectuals to misinterpret the basic principles of Jewish theology and thus pave the way for the spokesmen of Reform Judaism. This state of affairs was very painful to Rabbi Rice, and he went out of his way to challenge these “erroneous doctrines” as he called them, and to set the record straight .1

            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.

 

Leading Posek

Rabbi Rice was one of the few men in America during the mid-nineteenth century qualified to deal with halachic issues. He received inquiries from Jewish communities throughout the country on many matters. Given his personal modesty, he was reluctant to assume responsibility for making decisions on important religious matters. He realized, however, that the people had virtually no one else to turn to.
His detailed responsa were written in the typical style of the poskim of his time. Asked about the use of West Indian esrogim, he replied in the affirmative. He dealt with the kashrus of the food additive shortening and the oils used in its manufacture; the proper way to write gittin in U.S. cities where a get had never been written before; the drawing of blood from animals immediately before shechita (this was thought at the time to have a beneficial effect on the meat), and many other issues.

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:

 

We will merely state for the information of our readers who doubtlessly feel an interest in the completion of the first house ever erected especially for our worship in Maryland, that its Eastern Front is ornamental with a Doric portico, through which is the entrance into the main building. A flight of steps on each side leads into the gallery which runs along the west, north and south sides. The main body is divided into two aisles, furnished with pews, in place of open seats, which struck us as something unusual in our Synagogues.

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

 

The synagogue contained a mikveh as well as an oven for baking matzos.

Problems, Resignation, and Return

   The new synagogue proved to be both a blessing and a curse. It attracted people who were influenced by the Reform movement. At first these people demanded some minor innovations, but, as time went on, they pushed for more and more changes. There were constant conflicts and dissensions.
Rabbi Rice refused to compromise when it came to halacha. He viewed minor attempts to introduce ritual changes as the first steps on the path toward a total break with Orthodoxy, and he was not wrong.5 In 1849 things got so bad that, much to the shock of many synagogue members, he resigned as spiritual leader of the congregation. “I resigned because as a private citizen I expect to have greater influence with my congregation. And I shall always be ready to fight the battle of the Lord.’ “6
Despite the fact that Rabbi Rice no longer held a formal rabbinical position, he continued to have considerable influence over Baltimore Jewish life due to his religious scholarship and piety.
“In 1851 he organized a small congregation where he officiated as rabbi and chazzan without compensation and where he felt spiritually at home. The group consisted of a number of pious and learned people who venerated their teacher and appreciated his piety and his dedication to the study of Torah.”7

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.

 

Legacy

. 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

 

1 “Rabbi Abraham Rice of Baltimore, Pioneer of Orthodox Judaism in America” by Israel Tabak, Tradition, 7, 1965, page 111.
2Orthodox Judaism in America, A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook, byMoshe D. Sherman, Greenwood Press, 1996, page 17.
3 See “Isaac Leeser: Architect of Traditional Judaism in America” by Yitzchok Levine, front-page essay, The Jewish Press, June 22, 2007
4 Occident, Volume III, N. 8, November, 1845, pages 362-363. The entire article is available at www.jewish-history.com/Occident/volume3/nov1845/baltimore.html 
5 The Lloyd Street Synagogue eventually became a Reform temple. The building was later sold to St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church (1889-1905), one of the first Lithuanian “ethnic” parishes in the U.S. Between 1905-1963, it was occupied by Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh, one of the leading Orthodox congregations of the East European immigrant community. The building was restored from 1963 to 1965, and is no longer used as a place of worship, but open as a historic site. www.nps.gov/nr/travel/baltimore/b30.htm 
6 Tabak, page 108.
7 Ibid.,  page 110.

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 llevine@stevens.edu.

Abraham Rice: First Rabbi In America (Part I)

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009
   The first Jews arrived in North America in 1654. What is not so well known is that the first qualified rabbi to settle here, Rabbi Abraham Rice, did not arrive until 1840. One might refer to the first 186 years of American Jewish history as the “Reverend and Cantorial Age,” since such men, as well as some laymen who possessed better than average Jewish educations, served as the leaders of the various Jewish communities during that period.

   The lack of qualified Orthodox rabbis during these early years created all sorts of problems in religious matters such as marriage, conversion, divorce, kashrus, etc.

 

And even half a century after the arrival of the first rabbi in 1840, a prominent American rabbi said about the condition of the American rabbinate that, “Here a man qualifies himself, ordains himself; he is his own college, his own professor, his own diploma. He is what he claims to be.”1

 

Abraham Joseph Reiss (son of Meir) was born in either 1800 or 1802 in Gochsheim, Germany, a provincial town near Wurzburg. When he was about a year and half old he fell and injured his leg; he would limp for the rest of his life.
He received an intensive Jewish education and eventually studied at the Wurzburg Yeshiva headed by Rabbi Abraham Bing. Rabbi Rice received semicha from Rav Bing and later continued his studies at the yeshiva of Rabbi Wolf Hamburger in Furth.

At the age of thirty he became a Talmud instructor in the yeshiva in Zell, where in the mid-1830s he met and married Rosalie Leucht. In 1840 Rabbi Rice, his wife, and his sister sailed from Hamburg on the Sir Isaac Newton, arriving in New York on July 25, 1840.

 

Soon after his arrival in the United States, he followed the advice of his friends and settled in Newport, R. I. He heard about the historic Congregation of Newport, the first Congregation that was founded in Colonial days and became famous as a result of the visit of George Washington. It was that Congregation which received the historic letter from the first President in which he said that “the children of the stock of Abraham” may happily live in this land “by right” and not by sufferance. Rabbi Rice soon learned to his deep disillusionment that in spite of the historic Synagogue, the Jewish community in Newport had dwindled to a handful of people, and there was little prospect of rejuvenating this Congregation.2

 

Rav Rice then returned to New York where he met Aaron Weglein, a landsman of his who was president of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (Nidchei Yisroel), which had been founded in 1829. Weglein, realizing his congregation had the opportunity to obtain the services of a real rabbi, and the first rabbi in the country at that, invited Rabbi Rice to become the spiritual head of his shul. Rav Rice and his family arrived in Baltimore in late August 1840.

 

Rabbi Rice and His Congregation

   At first glance Rabbi Rice and Congregation Nidchei Yisroel seemed to be the perfect match. Many of congregants were from Bavaria, as was the rabbi. The synagogue was Orthodox and so was the rabbi. Rabbi Rice considered it his mission to strengthen Orthodoxy in America, and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was proud of its observance of Jewish religious tradition.

However, Rabbi Rice soon found himself at odds with many of those who davened in his shul.

 

The misunderstandings began with the question of Sabbath observance. True, the Baltimore Jews were Orthodox and would have loved to observe the Sabbath as befits traditional Jews. Peddlers, however, very often found it impossible to keep the Sabbath or, for that matter, kashrut. There were also members of the congregation who surreptitiously – and some even quite openly – kept their stores open on Saturdays.3

 

New immigrants began to arrive in Baltimore during the 1840s, and many of them were not fully observant. Still, they wanted to be called to the Torah when they came to shul. The problem of giving aliyos to those who were not Shomer Shabbos became a source of serious irritation between the rabbi and many of his congregants.
   Refusing to accept these double standards, Rabbi Rice at first directed that those who did not keep Shabbos should not be given aliyos. But he had not taken into account how many of his congregants did not keep Shabbos. The minutes of some of the shul meetings relate that even some of the officers of the synagogue were charged with doing business on Shabbos. In addition, aliyos meant donations, and these played a crucial role in the finances of the synagogue.
Rabbi Rice was forced to rescind his original directive. Instead, he allowed non-Sabbath observers to be called to the Torah but forbade the answering of “amen” to their blessings. One can well imagine the congregants’ response to this.

Some wanted other changes and Rav Rice often found himself and his commitment to Orthodoxy under attack.

 

An uneasy peace prevailed in the congregation. Two years after [Rabbi] Rice’s arrival in the city, however, a minor revolt of great historic significance broke out. To a funeral service for a member of the congregation, one Jacob Ahrens, at which the rabbi officiated, came friends of the deceased who were members of Masonic and Odd Fellows lodges to which Ahrens belonged. These gentlemen performed at the grave certain rites customary in their societies. The rabbi remonstrated there and then. In protest against [Rabbi] Rice’s action, some members left the congregation and formed the Har Sinai Verein, which was destined to become the first lasting Reform congregation organized in Baltimore and, indeed, in the United States.4

 

Things deteriorated to the point where Rabbi Rice wrote the following despairing letter to his former teacher, Rav Wolf Hamburger:

 

I dwell in complete isolation (obscurity) without a teacher or a companion in this land whose atmosphere is not conducive to wisdom; all religious questions (shaalos) are brought to me for solution. I have to carry the full load on my shoulders and have to assume the authority to render decisions in Halachic questions in both private and public matters.

And one more thing I wish to disclose to you my revered master and teacher … and my soul weepeth in the dark on account of it, namely, that the character of religious life in this land is on the lowest level; most of the people are eating non-kosher food, are violating the Shabbos in public … and there are thousands who have been assimilated among the non-Jewish population, and have married non-Jewish women. Under these circumstances, my mind is perplexed and I wonder whether a Jew may live in a land such as this .5

 

Despite all this, Rabbi Rice was able to make some sort of peace with his situation and accomplish much for Orthodoxy.

(To be continued)

 

1. The Making of an American Jewish Community, by Isaac Fein, the Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971, page 54.

2. “Rabbi Abraham Rice of Baltimore, Pioneer of Orthodox Judaism in America,” by Israel Tabak, Tradition, 7, 1965, page 101.

3. Fein, page 55.

4. Ibid. page 56.

5. Tabak, pages 102-103.

 

 

Dr. Yitzchok Levine formerly worked as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/abraham-rice-first-rabbi-in-america-part-i-2/2009/11/04/

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