God in America
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Interview: Lance Sussman

Lance Sussman

Sussman is the rabbi of the Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pa. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted May 27, 2009.

How would you characterize religion in America in the 1870s?

Religion in America in the 1870s was a very different period than where we are today. The country had come out of the Civil War, had suffered immense casualties, which actually deepened spirituality in the country. How we mourn in America was deeply changed because of the Civil War.

“Wise ultimately believed … that Reform Judaism would not only be the vanguard of Judaism, but it would be the religious vanguard of the United States itself.”

That was then followed by a very different expression of religion in this country in the 1870s. It began to shift, in my opinion, from the heart to the head and became a very heady type of religiosity which emphasized reason and emphasized contemporary culture, and remarkably, given that they had come out of the Civil War, became very, very optimistic. And a great faith developed in progress. So it was a very different moment.

Is there an intellectualism that's happening?

There were a number of theories, paradigms of thought, which were beginning to flow together by the 1870s. One was the old line of rational religion that the Unitarians had emphasized. It combined with Darwinism at that point, that suggested not just evolution and adaptation, but they added to that this concept of progress. And then finally, it wasn't new, but there was the spread and deepening of biblical criticism, which challenged the authority of the biblical text itself. And that led to a re-evaluation of how many great theologians and theorists of religion understood religion. And it ceased to be understood in these very liberal circles as a phenomenon from heaven and began to be understood as a human response, as a part of culture, not as something that was superimposed by divine force on culture.

Who is Isaac Mayer Wise?

Isaac Mayer Wise is known today as the shaper of the Reform movement in Judaism in the United States, really in North America. He was a character. He was not a man of deep learning. It's not that he had been to the best rabbinic schools and universities in Europe; he hadn't. But he was full of energy, and he was full of confidence. He came to America to make something of himself. He fits to the American landscape perfectly. He's going to do something here. He's going to create something very, very special.

He comes to America, and he wants to be the captain of the Jewish ship. And he launches a remarkable career in which he tried to combine his view of what Reform Judaism is all about and how it's going to work in American culture, which he believes is really kind of God's sandbox; that God is particularly interested in America and what's happening here, and he's trying to draw those two things together.

[How educated was Wise?]

Wise did not have a great education, but he knew how to read, and he was energetic, and he read widely, not always deeply. But he was alive to the issues of his day, and he informed himself. So yes, he was an educated man, and he wrote. He was so prolific. It didn't always systematize, it didn't always reconcile, but he was busy. He was at work.

What ideas was he exposed to in Europe? Was he already a rabbi in Europe?

Wise was not technically a rabbi and technically was not a doctor. In that period in America, before the development of professionalization and professional schools, people rabbinized themselves; they doctorized themselves. He was in that category. But he had the intellectual material, so he could wear those titles, although they were never officially conferred upon him. He was a licensed religious practitioner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- it's some low level of government-approved work -- and he worked in small villages in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was not recognized nor trained as a full rabbi.

What ideas was he reading and hearing about in Europe about Judaism?

Wise came to America in the 1840s. The Reform movement in Judaism had already gone through several stages of development. It had started earlier in the 19th century and was working mostly on liturgical reforms, kind of on the surface. In the next generation, rabbis who also trained in universities began to root it in theory, in the contemporary philosophies of the day, Hegelian philosophy and other great German philosophies of the period. The rabbis came together in Germany in conferences to debate the issues of the day, whether it was practice or whether it was belief. Wise attached himself to those debates so that he knew about them firsthand. He was not one of the primary players; he didn't have the education. He wasn't invited into that club. But he was certainly aware of where the Reform movement, which was very small, although it had a good brain trust, was beginning to go. And he brought that with him here to America.

What are his motivations for coming to the United States? What does he think America promises for him?

It's not clear as to exactly why Isaac Mayer Wise left Europe. It could be that he espoused liberal views which were not acceptable in the Age of Metternich, [1815-1848]. It's also possible that he overreached and was officiating at ceremonies where he really didn't have proper license. Something was not working out in Europe. Maybe it was just lack of a future that pushed him out. And he came here with the idea of becoming part of the vanguard of Jewish religious leadership in this country. By the time the boat arrived in New York, he was already ready to go.

Does Wise think America has a special place in God's eyes?

In Wise's eye, America was Zion. The Hebrew word Zion has to do with promised people and promised land. The Jews, the Israelites, are not the only people that have thought that way over time. Certainly the British believed that as their empire grew that they really were the chosen of God. And the same kind of feeling developed among Americans, particularly in the 19th century. Manifest destiny, for example, might be some sort of expression of that. Among Jews who came here, like Wise did in the 1840s, America offered all types of opportunities, and it also officially had broken down the obstacles. So it was almost a messianic experience for him to come here.

When he gets here, is he surprised by what he finds in the Jewish community?

I don't think that Isaac Mayer Wise was often surprised. I think he was simply ready. From a European point of view, America was a frontier. The great centers of Jewish life were in Europe, and from a Jewish European point of view, America was a very distant frontier. It hadn't been developed. There wasn't a rabbinic school here. There were no rabbis of great learning here.

[What does Wise do when he arrives in America?]

When Wise arrives here in the 1840s, it's not so much a question of thinking; it was a question of doing. It was a new country, it was a society that was building its basic institutions, and he was eager to jump into the fray and be part of that building process.

He goes to a rabbi who was already in New York, a man by the name of Max Lilienthal, and asks him to help him to find work. Lilienthal sends him to Albany, N.Y. Albany was perfectly positioned for Wise. It was up the Hudson River, and it was the connecting point for the Erie Canal, which was bringing all the goods of the American bread basket to the Port of New York. It had a big, bustling, but still largely unharnessed Jewish community. And that's where he began to ply his trade as a rabbi in this country.

Were American Jews practicing a very traditional Judaism?

There were different types of Jews in America at the point that Isaac Mayer Wise arrives. There was the old Sephardi community, the Spanish-Portuguese Jews who had come here in the colonial period, and they pretty much stuck to themselves at this point. Then there were the German Jews, who had been coming in ever increasing numbers since the end of the War of 1812. The ones who came early had already begun to Americanize, and the ones who were just arriving brought with them their cultural luggage.

The majority of American Jews practiced Judaism very lightly. The burden here was making a living and finding one's way in this new land. When they went to synagogue, the majority practiced a kind of traditional, almost rural German type of Judaism. There was some Reform activity here as early as the 1820s that had begun in Charleston, S.C., and was just beginning to spread to other places exactly at the moment when Isaac Mayer Wise arrived here.

What kinds of changes does Wise make as a rabbi in Albany?

Remember, he wasn't a rabbi, but he portrayed himself as a rabbi, and in fact helped define what a rabbi would be in this country. Wise put tremendous importance and tremendous emphasis on preaching. He believed that the mark of a rabbi was a preacher, not necessarily a scholar, not necessarily a jurist, as many rabbis were in Europe, but somebody who got up in front of the congregation and preached. And that's what he wanted to do, and in many ways that was the first innovation that he sought to institute once he came here. He was not the first, but he was very capable, and he moved the ball down the field.

What other kind of changes did he put in?

Well, one leads to another. He wanted to preach, and one of the big issues was preaching on the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, our New Year's and our Day of Atonement. Both of those holidays have very long services, and preaching is problematic because the services are already several hours long. He insisted on preaching. And he got up to preach on the morning of Rosh Hashana, early in the 1850s in Albany, and was blocked by the president of the synagogue, a man by the name of Louis Spanier. Now remember, America was a frontier society. The president of the synagogue said, "Rabbi, you can't talk." The rabbi said: "I'm going to speak. I have my sermon ready." And a fight erupted. And the fight spread from the bima, the altar, down into the congregation, to the point where the police had to come.

Wise knew the next day he was out of a job. [He] started his own congregation. His followers bought a church. The church had family pews. In family pews, men and women sit together. Inadvertently, his insistence on preaching, which was a reform, led to mixed seating of men and women sitting together, only because they couldn't afford new furniture, so they simply put everybody together. Once the pattern was established literally on the ground, it began to spread for ideological purposes.

He consistently was in favor of increasing the place and scope of activity of women in the synagogue. So in that sense, he really was a reformer consistent with other reform movements in this country at that time.

He also travels and observes how people are practicing Judaism in America?

Wise traveled a great deal in this country. In part that was made possible because at the moment when he arrived, the railroads were being built, so people really could move around in a different way than they ever had before. I don't know if he actually traveled around to observe as much as to lead. He became a leader. He was called on frequently to be part of services, to dedicate new synagogue buildings. Remember, this is a period of immigration. Population's growing. New people need new synagogues. So he became a spokesman and a symbol. So he went around, and as he did, he spread his message.

He also wrote an English version of the prayer book?

Isaac Mayer Wise wrote his own prayer book. It's a combination in title of Hebrew and English, called Minhag America, the "American Way of Prayer," and it reflected what was perhaps his deepest hope for American Judaism; that is, that American Jews -- Sephardi Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Southern Jews, Northern Jews -- could all be united under a single banner; that there would be a singular expression of Judaism in this country that would be consistent with the culture of the country and, of course, led by Isaac Mayer Wise.

Is that connected to this vision of America as a chosen place?

I would say, broadly. And you needed rabbis. And therefore you needed to train rabbis. So to create this American Judaism, you needed American-trained rabbis, and he became passionate about creating a school to train rabbis who would lead and unite American Jews.

How does he begin to set that up?

He works on it from the moment he leaves Albany into Cincinnati, and the way he does it is by helping to create a union of congregations. He was hoping that actually synagogues would come under one umbrella. It ultimately becomes Reform Judaism as a kind of American Jewish denomination. He had to bring the congregations together, and then by pooling their resources, they could support a rabbinic school, which he named the Hebrew Union College, and [which] he opens in Cincinnati in 1875.

Is Wise a radical?

He, in his own time, would not have understood himself as a radical. He probably understood himself as part of the middle. There were the traditionalists, let's say, to the right, to use that language, who were led by Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia. Then on his left were the radical reformers, people such as David Einhorn, and also in Philadelphia, like Leeser at a certain point, and then Wise was in the middle. Wise was hoping that he could unite all three sectors of American Jewish life -- and if he couldn't unite all three sectors, at least two of the three -- and become the dominant expression of Judaism in this country.

I don't believe Wise himself is a radical reformer. He's a centrist within the context of the Reform movement. He believed that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. He opposed Darwinism. He opposed biblical criticism. He was surfing American culture. He believed that American culture is what was moving Judaism and religion along, although he actually took a stand against most of the really new ideas that were out there in the intellectual aspects of religion.

So how do you separate culture and theory in American Jewish practice?

In America, practical, I believe, takes precedence over the philosophical and the theoretical. There are trained rabbis, like an Einhorn, who will articulate a very deep philosophy of Judaism; they'll know their principles, and then they'll act accordingly. Wise is adapting, kind of Darwinian himself. And he's looking at culture, which is part of the belief of modernist religion, that culture itself is an expression of the will of God. And by understanding culture, contemporary culture, you understand what God wants of us. And he was very much convinced of that.

Is this also about some sort of assimilation to this intensely Christian country?

Wise is not an assimilationist. Assimilation means loss of identity. What he believes in and I would say what Reform believes in broadly is acculturation. That is, you can adapt the culture of Reform Judaism, the externalities of Reform Judaism, to contemporary America and then still be true to the ideological core of the movement, but without necessarily dissolving Jewish identity and Jewish community. That being said, people like Wise ultimately believed -- and this is totally remarkable by today's standards -- that the direction in which Judaism was going and the direction that America was going in would ultimately converge and that Reform Judaism would not only be the vanguard of Judaism, but it would be the religious vanguard of the United States itself. He had a messianic view of Reform Judaism in America: that America would become much more Judaic or Mosaic, depending on how you want to put those words.

How would you describe his personality?

Isaac Mayer Wise as a person must have been incredibly energetic. I don't think he could wait for the morning, so to speak. He was a builder and a mover. He had his own ideas. They were specific to the time and place. He believed that he had a purpose, and the purpose was to unite American Jews under the banner of a Wise-style Reform Judaism, an America Judaism. He didn't always use the word "Reform." It was the Hebrew Union College. It wasn't the Institute for Reform Rabbis. It was the Hebrew Union College, bringing together "all the Hebrews in America" in union, to train rabbis.

Did people like him? Did he have an attractive personality?

I think when you're that strong a personality, yes, many people will be attracted to your charisma; that there's a magnetic quality. On the other hand, when you're that strong, you're going to drive other people away. And he was a fighter. When he was criticized, he didn't say, "I'm sorry." He pushed harder. He pushed his line harder. I would describe him as irrepressible and tenacious. He had a powerful desire to succeed, to move his ideas along, to build his institutions, and nothing could stop him. He could lose a battle, but he would never concede that he would lose a war.

He took on President Grant. Grant had a misstep during the Civil War and exiled Jews from his military district in the northern part of what had been the Confederacy. It was the only time in American history that happened. When Grant ran for president, it was very controversial in the Jewish community. He actually garnered the majority of American Jewish support, but not Wise. Wise was against him, and he didn't retreat from that. He did that over and over again.

Wise's reforms take off, not just in his congregation but in others?

Wise's reforms do catch on in America. His prayer book was quite popular. There were many prayer books. We have to remember that there weren't yet many national Jewish organizations. There were no Jewish denominations, so to speak, before 1873. Individual rabbis wrote their own prayer books for their congregations, and sometimes smaller congregations would follow along. Wise wrote a prayer book in the 1850s, and it probably was the most widely followed prayer book in the country, at least among the larger synagogues.

What are other Jews in America thinking about?

Isaac Mayer Wise was in the middle of a religious spectrum among Jews in this country throughout his career. There were traditionalists to one side, and there were truly radicals to the other. So if for a moment we think about who were the traditionalists, they were a mixed group of people, again, not organized yet in any national way. You had the old Sephardic community that pretty much stuck to themselves. Then you had traditionalists among the German Jews who had come to America, and they were of different shades. ...

One of the things that Wise could not anticipate was that traditional Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, could rebound in this society. He believed that American culture was incompatible with a European-style Jewish Orthodoxy and that that population would morph into Reform in this country and follow his style of Judaism. He couldn't imagine that they could hold their own in this country. They would be overwhelmed by an American cultural tidal wave.

And was he right?

He was totally wrong. He was totally wrong. He couldn't understand it. He was in a bubble, and he couldn't see outside the bubble.

Leading up to 1883, is ritual an important aspect of Jewish practice?

Ritual is central to Judaism. Ritual is the script of Jewish life, both in the synagogue and in the home. In the period after the Civil War, in general, I would say that the place of ritual in American religious culture diminished. War has a spiritualizing effect. Nevertheless, ritual is very important in Jewish life. You can theorize about Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, all you want, but at a certain point, you have to light the candles. So for the community in general, how they expressed their Jewishness is through some level of observance.

Where do food laws come in?

... The Bible, the Torah specifically, speaks in great detail about what foods are acceptable, fit -- kosher -- and which are unfit -- treyf -- foods. Leviticus 11, for example, is a catalog of the foods that you can eat and the foods that you can't eat. There are other sources as well, but that's a core passage. Jews have distinguished themselves from other communities by having their own food customs which have the weight of tradition behind them. It's not just that these are things that people like to eat or don't like to eat. They're actually told by Scripture, the same power that created the universe said to you, "You cannot eat the meat of a swine."

What other food laws are there?

The food laws in Judaism are quite complex. There are several different categories. First of all, the strongest prohibition, I would say, is the prohibition on the eating of pork, any kind of pork product. Also all forms of seafood are excluded, that you cannot eat anything that has a hard shell on it, and there are specific criteria that if you eat a fish, any kind of fish has to both have fins and scales, or the fish itself is not considered acceptable.

Then the rabbis add to that the separation of milk and meat, that there is a verse in the Torah that says you cannot boil a kid in its mother's milk, and they said that is not just a detail, but that is actually an illustration of a larger law that milk and meat can't be eaten together. They had to make a decision at some point as to which way they would put poultry. Would that be in the fish category, or would that be in the meat category? And the custom was very early on that chicken was going to be considered a meat and not a fish, so you couldn't eat fowl and cheese together as well.

And then beyond that are all the laws of Passover. For the holiday of Passover in the spring, there are yet other rules that nothing which is leavened can be eaten. It is so powerful that some of its detractors refer to it as kitchen Judaism, gastronomical Judaism, where you don't worry about all the other rituals, the theories and ideas of Jewish life, but you keep your kitchen kosher. And we see that in this country as well, gastronomical Judaism.

If these laws come from Torah, does it mean that God has said not to eat these?

Whether you believe God tells you what you can eat or not depends on your overall theology of Scripture. If you believe that the Torah was mostly divinely revealed to Moses, then you have no choice but to obey those commandments, those laws, those mitzvot. There's no room for negotiation. You can try to figure out what different food products are made out of, but you ultimately cannot change the standard which is set by God.

If you then shift to the area where Isaac Mayer Wise is, and that is that part of the Torah is revealed, that there is a connection between heaven and earth but it's limited to the Ten Commandments, and it's mostly about the ethical laws, then food becomes a cultural item, and it is subject to some negotiation. It's why ultimately many Reform Jews took the position that they wouldn't eat pork, but they will eat shellfish, although both are prohibited by the text of the Bible. If you believe that all of the food laws are culture, or you believe that the text in no way was revealed, then you can say the food customs of ancient Israel were specific to an ancient tribal people living in the desert, living in mountains. If the Jews had come from Japan, well, then I guess we would all be eating shrimp, and they would relativize and culturalize, if there is such a word, the food practices of the Jewish community.

Does your feeling about food come down to how you believe or read the Torah?

How people practice culinary culture in the Jewish community can come from one of two sources. I would say for the majority it's family practice. If you come from a kosher home, you're going to eat kosher food, if you maintain it. If you have your adolescent rebellion, well, you might break with it. But it becomes part of family. It becomes part of your basic psychology that you keep a kosher home. Your food becomes your identity. And I would say, for the majority, that's the reason that they keep it.

Others who are more ideological would come to the conclusion that it was given by God, and therefore we have to obey it.

A third strategy develops, I would say later, after the time of Isaac Mayer Wise, who couldn't fathom this, that keeping kosher was good, sociologically speaking, for the Jewish community, because if we all agree to keep kosher, then we're going to have to separate ourselves at least this much from our non-Jewish neighbors, and kashrut, the keeping of kosher food practices, will help maintain the sociological boundaries of the Jewish community. Wise could never have imagined that kind of thinking.

In 1883, what kind of community has Wise established in Cincinnati?

Wise leaves Albany, N.Y., in the 1850s. He goes to Cincinnati. Cincinnati at that time was a gateway city to the Midwest. The Ohio River goes all the way down to the Mississippi, so it connects to the very center of the country. It was a booming metropolis at the point when Isaac Mayer Wise arrived there. It was also a major place of settlement for German Jews who were coming during that period. So at the time, it was a cutting-edge place.

So he goes to Cincinnati. He becomes the rabbi of a congregation there, [and] he builds it up. They build a tremendous synagogue on Plum Street, right across from City Hall and the main Catholic church in town. They prosper during the Civil War, and he is able to use his place in Cincinnati to help bring together synagogues particularly from the Midwest -- the Midwest was his place, so to speak -- to form the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. And that organization was going to be the patron of the Hebrew Union College, which was really one of the great goals of his life, to begin to create these American-trained rabbis who could lead Judaism into the 20th century.

In July 1883, the first class of rabbis graduates. How important is this moment?

Isaac Mayer Wise opened the Hebrew Union College in 1875. It was not the first rabbinic school to open in this country. There had been earlier attempts. There had even been a rabbinic school in Philadelphia, Maimonides College, that had graduated a few rabbis. This time, however, there was denominational support. This time it looked like it was sustainable. So it was a great moment. And what he did is, he brought together the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, his rabbinic school community of the Hebrew Union College, and a group called the Rabbinic Literary Association, which brought rabbis from a broader ideological spectrum. He brought them all together to Cincinnati to be part of and to witness the ordination of the first four rabbis from his seminary, his new-style rabbinic school. This was a big event, not just for Isaac Mayer Wise but for Judaism in America, because now it looked like we were going to have a permanent supply of homegrown rabbis.

So this is an event of unification of Jews in America?

It was meant to be exactly that; that it was showing that different parts of the Jewish community, different regions of the Jewish community, could work together and that Cincinnati and Isaac Mayer Wise and Hebrew Union College [were] going to show the way. This was his crowning moment.

That night, there's a big banquet at a fancy hotel?

The Highland House Hotel. The service itself was a magnificent affair. The room was decked out in flowers. There was musical accompaniment, mixed choirs. It was very grand, very, very grand. They all then went up to Mt. Adams, which is a hilltop community in Cincinnati overlooking the Ohio River, a very beautiful place and very dramatic. And there, in one of the best venues in Cincinnati, they were going to have a banquet to celebrate the ordination of these four rabbis.

This period was the Gilded Age. It was an age of tremendous excess. There were huge banquets to demonstrate the capacity to pull all this together. You had the beginning of refrigeration so you could bring exotic foods into play. The banquet in Cincinnati, the Highland House banquet, was going to be magnificent. It was going to be part and parcel of this new American excessive culinary culture. It was going to be second to none, the best. The best kind of menu would be French-styled. It would basically follow some kind of French list of different courses and wines, multiple courses, all served in great abundance. And topping the list would be seafood.

So what was on the menu at this banquet?

So the menu begins with clams, littleneck clams, an American delicacy. And then from there, they begin to roll out other things: crab and shrimp and lobster bisque and beef that is in a cream sauce, and finally, in terms of the entrées, pigeon and frogs' legs. I probably would have went home a little hungry myself that night in terms of the different things that were there, but this was considered the very top of cuisine at the time. They had a first-class caterer who was well known in the Jewish community. He was the caterer for the downtown Jewish businessmen's eating club. And from their point of view, in my opinion, it was an unremarkable menu in the sense that the same types of foods were also being served at other great Jewish banquets of the period.

When other Jewish organizations, for example, B'nai B'rith, would meet in Cincinnati, this is what they served. When several of the rabbinic students who were ordained were married a few weeks later, it was a very similar menu. In that regard, it was unremarkable, and it was part of Isaac Mayer Wise's problem in understanding the political problem he had. But he had just-ordained rabbis, and he had invited traditionalists from other parts of the country who were still observant. And ultimately their parties were horrified that Wise literally trampled on the laws of kashrut in front of the religious leadership of the American Jewish community.

The menu violated every single prohibition in Leviticus 11, with one exception; that is, they did not serve pork. From the point of view of Isaac Mayer Wise, his caterer, Gus Lindeman, and the lay sponsors and others, what they served was a Jewish fare because it didn't have pork. In other parts of the community that were more traditional, the pork-alone prohibition was insufficient. That is not the guidance of the Torah. It's an adaptation, and ultimately it was disrespectful.

How did the traditionalist rabbis respond?

One of the ordainees of the class of '83, David Phillipson, wrote a memoir once he had retired from the pulpit. And in his memoir, written many years later, he wrote that some of the rabbis stood up and protested in a demonstrative way and that the evening was disrupted. Research has shown that that was not necessarily what happened; that maybe two rabbis slipped away, that there were no vigorous protests. And it really wasn't until reports of this Highland House dinner, later known as the "trefa banquet," hit the Jewish press in the East Coast that the trouble began. Those who opposed Wise and those who opposed Reform Judaism saw this as their moment, as a rallying call, that Wise's union and Wise's college could not represent their religious goals.

How could Wise in Cincinnati be so oblivious to attitudes on the East Coast?

Wise is in a bubble. Wise is sitting in Cincinnati. Everything is going right for him at this point. For decades he had struggled to unite congregations, to create a rabbinic school. Now it's all working, and this is the great crowning moment. Furthermore, culinary culture had changed. In the world in which he lived, the eating of certain prohibited foods was not considered to be a violation of tradition; that these were cultural items, not deeply principled religious things; and that letting them go was part of the natural course of things at the time.

Furthermore, he knew that within the traditional community, that there were rabbis who violated the laws of kashrut. There were various scandals along the way of Jewish religious leaders being observed eating nontraditional food and having all types of problems in their own career. He put it all together and decided: Look, this is beginning to fade away. It's not a big deal. Let's just move forward. Later, some people alleged that he did it on purpose. I don't think he was malicious in that sense. I think he was in a bubble, and he couldn't fathom that Jewish tradition and Jewish Orthodoxy still had muscle. He couldn't see it.

Has he misjudged his own role and the American Jewish community at large?

I think Wise was not able to read the whole landscape. I think he missed both the level of opposition to him on the left and the right. On the right, he violated kashrut. There was nothing they could do or say with Wise anymore after that point. They had to go their own way. They had to build their own schools and their own institutions.

He also had enemies to his left among the more radical reformers, who also used this as a moment to seize opportunity and say: "Look, Wise is undisciplined. He's not trained. He's not a theoretician. Let's move it forward now on our own terms." And ironically, what the trefa banquet does is it not only crystallizes opposition in the traditional community against Wise, but I think in a certain sense it also helps to crystallize opposition to Wise in the more radical community. They don't break away. Rather, they do what the old Communists used to say: Bore from within. And they actually, within a generation, will take over the generation that Wise created.

So he creates the union, he creates the Hebrew Union College and other national structures after his own ideology, but then when he hands it off generationally, it will go to his radical opponents, the Einhorn camp. David Einhorn was his main nemesis among the radicals. And he had competent followers, and also his sons-in-law were competent, trained rabbis. Kaufmann Kohler, who was Wise's successor at HUC, is a son-in-law of Einhorn, and he is a radical. When those rabbis sit down just two years after the trefa banquet in Pittsburgh in 1885 to write their platform they have a plank in there which basically says all of the kosher laws, all such practices were local and temporal to ancient Israel and no longer necessary, so that the door then opened even for the consumption of pork. …

What is Wise's reaction to the reaction?

The ordination of the four rabbis was a peak moment in Wise's life. It brought together so many of his dreams. And then hundreds of people, leaders in the Jewish community, came to Cincinnati to see him at his moment of glory. In the middle of that, a controversy develops.

I think it is a normal human thing not to be able to digest criticism at the moment when you're in your glory. It's just too good. You're at the top of your game, and if somebody has a complaint like "I didn't like the food," it's like having a wonderful wedding or a wonderful bar mitzvah, and the kid did a great job, and somebody didn't like something about the food, you go, "Eh, it's no big deal." That was his first reaction. He pushed it aside.

Once the criticism began to appear in print from the newspapers, the Jewish newspapers in the East, then he had to react in a different way. And he was a fighter. He didn't take criticism. "That's what you're going to criticize me about? I created a national structure for Judaism in this country. I have ordained competent rabbis. You're worried about shrimp? How can you be worried about shrimp?" he said. "You're a hypocrite if you worry about shrimp. I know that some of your own people are doing this. This is a political problem for you. This isn't a religious problem. Leave it alone." And they came right back at him, and he just dug his heels in deeper and deeper. It cost him dearly.

Students didn't know if they wanted to go to his college. Enrollment went down. And in subsequent years, the number of ordainees -- only had four to start -- went down. So it became actually a very dangerous moment. It doesn't take a big crack to sink the boat. He had a hole in the side of his boat, and he needed to patch it up, and it took him a while to understand that.

What are the traditionalists saying to him about his idea of Judaism?

The traditionalists are saying to Wise, their criticism is, if we can't trust you with something as basic as food, how are we going to trust you with other things? How do we know you're going to educate your rabbis in a way in which they will faithfully lead our congregations in this country and beyond? We can't trust you because you are not sold yourself on the ideas of Judaism, the Torah and the God-given mitzvot.

The traditionalists, as their opposition mounted against Wise, understood that this was their opportunity to build their own institutions based on their values, not on his; that his values were no longer trustworthy. Therefore they determined they needed to break away from him.

Why is this banquet important?

The trefa banquet became important, in my opinion, in the history of Judaism in this country, because it was a crossing in the road. There was a fork in the road at this point. The more traditional community realized that they needed to build their own institutions. So in the wake of the trefa banquet, the forces which ultimately would organize the Jewish Theological Seminary began to coalesce. They realized that they're going to have to take things into their own hands. At the same time, the radicals among the reformers recognized that Wise was not as ideologically pure as they were. They also pressed their case.

So the trefa banquet marks a moment in American Jewish life in which the vague clusterings that existed in the 19th century begin to give way to the tracks that would become denominational Judaism in America in the 20th century; that a Reform movement would develop which was a combination of moderate and radical Reform; and that the traditional camp would then develop and split into the Conservative group, which becomes the new middle-of-the-road part, and then various types of Orthodox, principally East European.

Even with these breaks, is there always a unifying feeling among Jews in America because they're a minority?

The trefa banquet was not equal to the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century. The Jews not only maintain a religion, they also maintain an ethnic identity. The connections among people along the ethnic lines are very strong and very pliable. Even though they might deeply disagree with one another with respect to practice and theology, they're still tied together from an ethnic point of view.

Furthermore, there's anti-Semitism. Even if there are centrifugal forces in the Jewish community which are pulling people apart from one another, there are also external forces that remind you that you belong to a specific community. One of the other ironies of the trefa banquet is that although it is a kind of celebration of how American Judaism can be, it also takes place at that moment when anti-Semitism begins to increase in this country. And the Jewish elite that were supporting Wise begin to be displaced by a growing structural anti-Semitism. Jim Crow mostly hurt and deeply hurt the integration of African Americans, but the principle of Jim Crow spread to other communities. Jews who had been welcome in certain circles before the Civil War were less and less welcome once Jim Crow became institutionalized across the country.

What does the banquet say about the ascent of modern religion in the U.S.?

The trefa banquet was an attempt to make a statement about how Judaism and the best of American culture could combine with one another. It was modernist in the sense that it was willing to override traditional practice with modern practice. So it was a statement about a kind of what Wise would have understood to be a uniquely American expression of Judaism.

Why does it become known as the trefa banquet?

The events of July 11, 1883, can be called different things. The "trefa banquet" is used because it it's colorful. It uses the word "treyf," was controversial. "Treyf" means "unfit," but it doesn't really reference whether or not something is edible. I also describe it as the Highland House affair, and I do that purposely because in no sense am I interested in taking an anti-Reform position. So "trefa banquet" is loaded. It can be used ideologically within the community to color Reform a certain way, and that's a messy business, internal business of community politics.

How does Protestant America influence Judaism in America in this time frame?

The trefa banquet, I would say, reflects the influence of all different aspects of American culture. The specifically Protestant aspect perhaps would be the decrease of ritual; that what religion is really about is the word and preaching and ethics, and not the ringing of bells and other types of ritual. So in that sense, it did reflect a kind of a Protestantization, but it reflects other things -- class and other aspects -- as well.

What is the most important thing to take away from the banquet in Cincinnati?

In looking back at the trefa banquet, I think it's important to understand Wise in his time and his place. He'd come to this country almost 40 years earlier. He had struggled to build a rabbinic school. That meant organizing the American Jewish community on a national basis. He did it, and in that sense paved the way for others to do the same, and to strengthen the American Jewish community and to give it the tools it needs to sustain itself over time into the present. So in that sense, it really was a great achievement.

That's the part of it that I would take away: more the success of the college than the particular menu that evening to celebrate. That was reflective of the time and place and banquets and what people ate at that moment. Those things change over time. Ironically, today many people in the Reform movement are gravitating back toward kashrut. Whether it's for spiritual purposes or ethical purposes or environmental purposes, they're playing with it again. Food is so fundamental to who we are, it can be spiritualized.

I want to add about Isaac Mayer Wise that even though this was so controversial, and he ended up in very rough water, he remained beloved among many Reform Jews in this country in particular. He went on to ordain 60 rabbis. They were "his boys," as they would have said at that time. When he died in 1900, it was a time of very deep mourning for the Reform movement. He had created the Reform movement out of chaos. He had educated what were really very young boys and given them lives and careers as rabbis, and they were very much attached to him, soul to soul. So even though this was a mixed moment, it didn't mean that affection for him diminished among his supporters.


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Published October 11, 2010

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