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People & Ideas: Isaac Mayer Wise

Isaac Mayer Wise

A leading 19th-century rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise was the father of Reform Judaism in the United States.

Born in Bohemia, which now occupies the western half of the Czech Republic, Wise emigrated to the U.S. in 1846. Appointed rabbi of a congregation in Albany, N.Y., Wise introduced changes in traditional Jewish rituals and practices. He replaced the male cantor with a mixed-sex choir; he advocated praying in English and German, instead of only in Hebrew; he encouraged men and women to sit together rather than segregating them.

Wise embraced liberty alongside change, linking the idea of America's providential destiny with that of the Jews. "Liberty is our place in history," he proclaimed, "our national destiny, our ideal, the very soul of our existence." Finding freedom in America, Wise said, allowed Jews to find their God-given destiny.

But not everyone shared his views. In Albany, Wise was dismissed by his congregation. He then founded a new congregation, Anshe Emeth -- the "People of Truth." Soon afterward, he traveled the East Coast -- New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. -- to spread his vision of American Reform Judaism.

In April 1954, Wise became rabbi of the B'nai Yeshurun congregation in Cincinnati. Here he pursued his driving vision: the establishment of a theological seminary to train American rabbis in the Reform tradition. In 1875, Wise founded the Hebrew Union College; its first class was ordained in 1883. To celebrate the occasion, Wise invited prominent rabbis, lay leaders and other guests, Jewish and not, to an elaborate banquet. But the event provoked controversy and coalesced Wise's more conservative opponents. In violation of Jewish dietary laws, the meal -- which would become known as the "trefa banquet" -- featured non-kosher foods, including clams, shrimp and meat served with a cream sauce. One editorial called the banquet "an unmitigated disgrace." Wise dismissed the criticisms as "kitchen Judaism."

But controversy did not curb his energy or ambition. In 1885 Wise presided over a gathering of Reform rabbis who set forth their governing principles in a manifesto known as the Pittsburgh Platform. Remarkable for its ecumenical and progressive spirit, the platform addressed the three main challenges of modern thought. On the question of the Bible, the platform stated that Scripture reflected "the primitive ideas of its own age." The platform also declared that scientific advances such as evolution were not at odds with the doctrines of Judaism. On the question of other religions, the platform referred to Judaism as "the highest conception of the God-idea," but it also acknowledged every other religion as "an attempt to grasp the Infinite." Christianity and Islam were praised for aiding "in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth." On the sensitive question of the Jewish homeland, Reform Jews concluded that the return was not literal, but eschatological.

Isaac Mayer Wise devoted his life to his deep-seated conviction that American Jews must not only accept change, they must also embrace it. He envisioned Judaism as a progressive religion that needed to be creatively adapted to modern culture, not a fixed tradition to be maintained. By the time of his death in 1900, Wise had left the imprint of his ideas, energy and ambition on Judaism in America.

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Published October 11, 2010

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