Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) was a visionary American rabbi, author, translator, editor, publisher, educator, pioneer of the Jewish pulpit in the United States, and founder of the Jewish press in America who single-handedly provided American Jews with many of the basic religious texts, institutions, and conceptual tools they would need to create the religious and cultural foundation of the American Jewish community.
He is perhaps best remembered for his publication The Occident, which acquired a national and international reputation and is broadly recognized today as the single most important historical record of Jewish life in the Western Hemisphere during the mid-19th century. He was the founder and promoter of essentially every Jewish American national enterprise, including the first congregational union; the first Hebrew day-schools; the first Jewish publication society; the American Jewish Bible Society; the Hebrew Education Society; the Philadelphia Jewish Hospital; and the Jewish Foster Home of Philadelphia.
Maimonides College, which he established and served as president, became the first rabbinical seminary in America and paved the way for future Jewish colleges in the United States.
However, he was first and foremost a Torah-true Jew; a defender of traditional Judaism in general and long-established synagogue practices in particular; and a vehement opponent of the Reform movement. Moreover, even pre-Herzl he was an early advocate of modern Zionism and a strong supporter of Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael.
In the correspondence exhibited here, signed at “New Orleans, Tebeth 10, 5627 (Dec. 18)” , Leeser pens a beautiful statement of his belief in Hashem and of his love of Judaism which reads in part:
To Ada Jacobs, the tree of Israel was planted in ancient days by the hand of the one who created the world. Its branches are now wide spread, and under its shadow many nations have sought refuge, since our moral laws have been adopted by many as their guide. That which has ever distinguished us is the moral excellence which alone is owing to the spirit which has been bestowed on us. Our sons should therefore be true to the cause which looks to them for its defenders, and our daughters should be distinguished by that modesty which heightens natural beauty and with that meekness which enhances the counsels of wisdom. I…never seek shelter under any other tree than the one planted by God….
Orphaned at age 14 and raised by his devout grandmother, who greatly influenced him, Leeser emigrated from Germany to America three years later, arriving at Richmond (1824). In 1828 he published a response an anti-Jewish attack in the London Quarterly that received wide circulation and attracted the particular attention of the Jewish communities in Richmond and Philadelphia; it was later published in book form as The Claim of the Jews to an Equality of Rights. Later that year, he was appointed chazzan at the prestigious Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. Though the responsibility of chazzanim in America at that time was only to lead the congregation’s prayer services, Leeser sought to expand his role to include the pulpit, and he broke tradition on June 2, 1830 by delivering an English sermon. He thereafter became the first American Orthodox rabbi to deliver weekly divrei Torah (sermons) in English, which led the way to the weekly sermon becoming one of the standard duties of congregational rabbis in America.
Recognizing the scarcity of books on Judaism and Jewish practice in America, Leeser translated Johlson’s Instruction in the Mosaic Religion (1830) for “the instruction of the younger…of Israelites of both sexes, who have previously acquired some knowledge of the fundamental part . . . of their religion.”
When he failed to receive a publication offer, he decided to publish it himself. He also self-published Torat ha-Elokim, a five-volume Hebrew-English edition of the Torah that, as the first such Jewish publication in the United States, became the standard Bible for English-speaking Jews during the nineteenth century. He later published Biblia Hebraica, a Masoretic Hebrew edition of all 24 books of the Tanach that featured a traditional Jewish interpretation and became beloved as “The Leeser Bible.”
Other works of this prodigious author include The Jews and the Mosaic Law (1833). Portuguese Prayers (with Leeser’s English translation, 6 volumes, 1837); Hebrew Spelling-Book (1838), the first Hebrew primer for children in the U.S.; The Inquisition and Judaism (1860); and Collected Discourses (10 volumes, 1867). His translations include Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and Joseph Schwarz’s Geography of Palestine.
His principle interest, however, was providing Jewish children with a Jewish education, and he is credited with the establishment of the Jewish Sunday School as an institution. Thus, for example, as to his Catechism for Younger Children (1838) – which he dedicated to Rebecca Gratz, the famous Jewish educator and civic leader then serving as superintendent of the Sunday-School for Religious Instruction of Israelites in Philadelphia – he wrote:
If any event in my life can afford me some degree of satisfaction, it is the consciousness of having added one contribution . . . to satisfy the demand for information in the ways of the law of God. And it will be to me a far greater gratification than any public applause, could I be convinced that the thoughts offered in this guide to the young Israelites has led a few as sincere worshippers to the house of our God.
As early as 1835, Leeser advocated for the establishment of a Jewish day school, which led the way to the founding of the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia (1846), chartered for “the establishment of a school or schools within…Philadelphia, in which are to be taught the elementary branches of education, together with the sciences, and modern and ancient languages, always in combination with instruction in Hebrew language, literature and religion.”
Leeser was also one of the first to lead the crusade for religious minority rights in America. In the 1840s and 1850s, he used his Occident and American Jewish Advocate to alert the Jewish community to rising threats to their religious freedom and to drive them to fight for their constitutional rights. He served as vice president of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, the first American body dedicated to Jewish defense.
Leeser was also responsible for the appointment of the first Jewish chaplain in American history when, writing to President Lincoln as secretary of the Board of Ministers of the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, he successfully argued that many of the Jews serving honorably in the Union army would be brought to Philadelphia hospitals in need of both physical and spiritual care and deserved a chaplain of their own faith.
Upon receipt of John Hay’s letter on behalf of the president asking the board to select a proper person to serve in that capacity, the board chose the Reverend Jacob Frankel of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, who was commissioned on September 12, 1862, becoming the first rabbi to serve as a U.S. military chaplain.
After retiring from Congregation Mikveh Israel in 1850, Leeser traveled over 5,000 miles across the U.S. visiting Jewish communities, giving Torah lectures, and organizing for Jewish causes. He later assumed the rabbinic leadership of the newly formed and prestigious Congregation Beth-El-Emeth in Philadelphia, a position he held until his death. His ultimate legacy may perhaps have been best expressed by Bertram Korn, an American historian and rabbi who in 1975, as rear admiral in the U.S. Navy chaplain corps, became the first chaplain ever to receive flag rank in any of the U.S. armed forces): “Practically every form of Jewish activity which supports American Jewish life was either established or envisaged by this one man.”