Isaac Mayer Wise and Isaac Leeser were the two leading religious leaders of American Jewry in the 19th century, each of whom, in his own way, sought to strengthen Jewish life, increase Jewish practice, and address in a meaningful way the tremendous scarcity of Jewish resources and education.
The Reform Wise’s goal of building a single American Judaism and the Orthodox Leeser’s general interest in promoting Jewish unity motivated them for a time to seek concurrence, but the relationship effectively ended when Wise reneged on promises he made to Leeser during the 1855 Cleveland Conference.
Leeser (1806-68), an Orthodox rabbi, author, translator, editor, and publisher, was a pioneer of the Jewish pulpit in the United States; founded the Jewish press in America; wrote the first Jewish English translation of the Bible; translated the siddur; and promoted the first congregational union, the first Hebrew Day Schools, the first Hebrew college, and the first Jewish publication society in America. His newspaper, The Occident, acquired a national and international reputation, and Maimonides College, of which he was president, paved the way for future Jewish colleges in the United States.
He was the rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue of Philadelphia and a traditionalist who was intensely opposed by Reformers.
Wise (born “Weis”), the founder of Reform Judaism in North America and its predominant figure, is best known for: (1) issuing the Reform siddur (in 1857), which quickly became ubiquitous in American Reform synagogues; (2) establishing the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (in 1873) as a forum for rabbis and congregations to air and resolve their differences; (3) founding the Hebrew Union College (in 1875) for the education and training of American Reform rabbis; and (4) founding the Central Conference of American Rabbis (in 1889) to consolidate the American rabbinate into one large body, which later became the undisputed voice of the Reform “rabbinate” in America.
Wise is also well-known for his liberal theology and lack of fidelity to Torah-true law and tradition, as the Reform Movement he led instituted transformations of fundamental Jewish principles by promoting a “universalist” (as opposed to Jewish) worldview of G-d, rejecting the Oral Law, abandoning any belief in, or aspiration for, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, eliminating the “cult” of biblical animal sacrifice, and discarding all belief in the Messiah and Resurrection.
Substantive innovations implemented by Wise and his Reformers include abolishing the observance of the second day of Jewish festivals; eliminating the distinctions between kohanim (priests) and other Jews; counting women in forming a minyan, allowing men and women to sit together in “family pews,” abolishing the bar mitzvah and replacing it with a “confirmation” ceremony also open to girls, and establishing synagogues with mixed-sex choirs and choral singing in German and English.
Wise’s arrogance extended to publicly proclaiming that the attraction and popularity of Reform Judaism was such that it would soon surpass Christianity and become the dominant American theology. He also predicted the imminent demise of Orthodox Judaism in America which, as we know, is thriving 150 years later.
Most notoriously, Wise decided that married Jews only require a civil divorce should they decide to end their marriage, not a halachic get. Although many prominent Reform leaders rejected his view, it was formally adopted at the Philadelphia Conference (November 3-6, 1869). In this rare and historic May 18, 1853 correspondence to Leeser, Wise writes:
It is a good while since I had the pleasure to write to you, and for this time I commence my short communication with my best thanks for your kind support of my undertaking to write the history of our nation. You remember that you suggested the idea to me while staying in Philadelphia. My opposition to the proposed conference of the clergy is by no means a whim or a desire for disputes; it is my sincere conviction resulting from sad experience that the majority of our ministers are unfit for higher endeavors and the minority has no influence. Annexed you receive an extract of one of the European letters on the Cleveland Get-affair, which I dislike to publish on account of disliking to stir up again an unprofitable controversy; which I send you to convince you that Isidor Kalisch knows what he is about. If you are not in the habit of reading the Asmonean I would call your attention to two articles of mine, Bath Kol and The Biography of Hillel, and give me your opinion about it. I cannot make progress in science, since none thinks it worthwhile to oppose or even to analyze my compositions. If you have to offer remarks on the subject I would [be] glad to see them in private or public writing. When will your Bible appear? Be careful in the Prophets [(Hebrew verse): “so that you will not open a mouth…”] I for my part and desirous to have a good translation into which I may look without finding obnoxious remarks on every page…
The “Cleveland Get Affair,” which Wise declines to discuss, involved a dispute that arose in April 1852 over whether Mr. Joseph Levy, a synagogue teacher who was not a rabbi, was authorized to grant a divorce under Jewish law and whether, under the doctrine of dina d’malchusa dina (“the laws of the secular authorities are binding”), such a divorce was effective if the American civil court didn’t rule on its legal merits.
Isidor Kalisch (1816-86), then rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, was an ultra-Reform rabbi, far to the left of Wise and a staunch opponent of Orthodoxy in general, and Leeser in particular. He undoubtedly took the position that Joseph Levy, a “man of the people” with “evident respectability” who “reads rabbinical books,” was not disqualified from granting a get. (The issue became entirely moot when the Reform Movement declared at the Philadelphia Conference that no get is required at all.)
Wise’s comment regarding his “undertaking to write the history of our nation” is a reference to his very controversial History of the Israelitish Nation (1854), published a year later, in which he infuriated Orthodox and traditional Jews by eliminating all references to miracles and Jewish religious doctrines.
It is undisputed that, unlike Leeser, Wise was an academic and rabbinical fraud. He had little formal Jewish learning; he used the title “D.D.” even though he was never awarded a doctorate, and there is no record of his ever receiving semicha (rabbinical ordination). In fact, Wise conspicuously snubbed Leeser when the latter challenged him to disclose the source of his alleged ordination.
When a reader of Wise’s The Israelite – a weekly English language publication which he launched in 1854 – demanded an explanation for his wretched silence in response to Leeser’s challenge, Wise had the gall to respond that even were he to dispatch his diploma to Leeser for inspection, Leeser would be unable to read the Hebrew. This from a man who preached that it was a serious mistake to emphasize Hebrew at the expense of American English, the lingua franca. The absurdity – indeed, the loathsomeness – of Wise’s response can only be truly understood by appreciating the depth of Leeser’s Jewish scholarship.
Wise was also a vociferous anti-Zionist who strongly opposed “the colonization of Palestine,” which he characterized as “a romantic idea inspired by religious visions without foundation in reality.” He denounced Herzl and the First Zionist Congress, characterizing the dream of a Jewish state as “a thoughtless Utopia which is to us a fata morgana, a momentary inebriation of morbid minds, a prostitution of Israel’s holy cause to a madman’s dance of unsound politicians.”
He went so far as to characterize prayers for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael as “sinful and un-Jewish.” Passion for the Zionist idea only extended to making Eretz Yisrael a convenient dumping ground for Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States, whom he characterized in The Israelite as “that half-civilized orthodoxy which…gnaws the dead bones of past centuries.”
The founding document of the Reform movement, approved as the 1885 Declaration of Principles at the Pittsburgh Conference – which Wise considered to be the “Jewish Declaration of Independence” – stated: “we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine…nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” As such, it is not surprising that Wise and the Reform Movement, who engaged in a defamatory campaign to smear and disparage the Zionist movement, were historically both anti-Israel and anti-Zionist.
Wise’s guiding principle was unification of all American Jews, and his greatest dream was to construct and sustain a new and convergent “Judaism” that would adapt authentic Judaism to contemporary American “realities.” Of course, this was an unqualified delusion from the start, as no rational person could have believed that Orthodox Jews and their leaders would abandon the true Judaism of their fathers to embrace Wise’s sacrilege, but he didn’t let the “realities” of centuries of Jewish fundamental beliefs, traditions, and practices interfere with his fantasy.
Wise’s first major step in destroying his own vision for a harmonized American Judaism came in 1855 when, at a meeting intended to demonstrate the unity of American Judaism, he announced his intention to write a Reform “siddur,” which he disingenuously called Minhag America (“American Custom”). Issued in 1857, it eviscerated the traditional siddur through modifications of, and omissions to, the centuries-old accepted text.
The Reform “siddur” succeeded in unifying American Jews only to the extent that it was attacked from all sides; the traditionalists, including particularly Isaac Leeser, were enraged by Wise’s gumption in undertaking to unilaterally revise a critical sacred text, and the radical Reformers protested that Wise had not gone far enough to adapt and modernize textual prayer.
Wise permanently extinguished any hope of unity between traditional Jews and Reform Jews with his infamous “Treif Banquet” in Cincinnati in July 1883, at which 200 distinguished guests celebrating the “ordination” of the first four graduates of the Hebrew Union College were served, among other delicacies, little neck clams on the half-shell, shrimp salad, and ice cream and cheese following the treif meat courses. (Wise sarcastically referred to Jews who still followed the laws of kashrut as engaging in “kitchen Judaism.”)
This notorious Treif Banquet was instrumental in hardening positions and dividing American Judaism into organized movements, each asserting its right to define Jewish law and establish proper religious practice.
Born in Steingrub, Bohemia, Wise (1819-1900) lived in Prague and Vienna and studied in various yeshivot. The ideas of the secular enlightenment also influenced him in his early years. He fled the Hapsburg Empire for New York in 1846, where the free atmosphere of America further influenced his anti-religious direction.
His first American position was rabbi of the Orthodox Beth El in Albany, where he ignored both the traditions and the wishes of his congregation by introducing non-halachic reforms. When the synagogue trustees discharged him, he refused to go.
The situation came to a head one Rosh Hashanah when the Torah was being removed from the ark and Wise physically attacked Louis Spanier, the president of the congregation, who sought to remove the canned Wise from leading services. The ensuing battle escalated to the point where the local sheriff had to clear the synagogue, lock the doors, and take away the keys.
Wise left Beth El to create a synagogue on his own, Anshe Emeth, where he began to implement many of his anti-halachic changes. He ultimately went to Cincinnati’s Congregation B’nai Yeshurun in 1854, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In the final analysis, Wise’s legacy consists of a pyrrhic victory that resulted in monumental damage to Judaism and to the Jewish people. Although he succeeded in establishing the basic institutions of Reform Judaism and transforming it into the dominant American Jewish denomination (as measured by followers), he was destined to fail in his efforts to forge a modern form of Judaism under whose umbrella all American Jews would be united.
Much more importantly, his propagation of an inauthentic Judaism led to countless generations and millions of Jews being lost to the Jewish nation through assimilation and intermarriage.