LEESER, ISAAC (1806–1868), was an American rabbi, writer, and leader of Jewish traditionalism. Born in Neunkirchen, Westphalia (Prussia), Leeser was orphaned at an early age. He received his secular education at a Gymnasium in Münster, and his religious tutelage from Benjamin Cohen and Abraham Sutro. At the age of eighteen he joined his uncle Zalman Rehiné in Richmond, Virginia, where he began to prepare for a business career and assisted the local religious functionary, Isaac B. Seixas. An article he published in defense of Judaism brought him to public attention and resulted in an invitation to occupy the pulpit of Philadelphia's congregation Mikveh Israel in 1829. During the next forty years he was the most prolific American Jewish writer and the most creative communal architect.
Leeser's Instruction in the Mosaic Law (1830) was followed by The Jews and Mosaic Law (1834), "a defence of the Revelation of the Pentateuch"; Discourses, Argumentative and Devotional (1837), "delivered at the Synagogue Mikveh Israel"; and The Form of Prayers according to the Custom of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, 6 vols. (1837–1838), edited and translated by Leeser, as was The Book of Daily Prayers … according to the Custom of the German and Polish Jews (1848). An edition of the Pentateuch in 1845 was followed by a translation of the entire Hebrew Bible into English in 1853, the first to be done by a Jew. In 1867 his collected sermons and essays, Discourses on the Jewish Religion, were published in ten volumes. His chief literary monument is The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, which he edited for twenty-five years (1843–1868).
Leeser inspired the establishment of the first Jewish Sunday school in America (1837), helped establish the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia (1848), and founded and headed the first rabbinical seminary in the New World, Maimonides College (1867). "His far seeing vision," Mayer Sulzberger wrote in 1868, "years and years ago projected a Hebrew College, a Jewish Hospital, a Foster home, a Union of Charities, a Board of Delegates of American Israelites, an Educational Society, an American Publication Society."
Religiously, Leeser was a staunch traditionalist who resisted and battled the rising Reform movement. His Orthodoxy, however, kept him neither from fully partaking of world culture nor from introducing the English sermon. Both Conservative and modern Orthodox Jews claim him and acknowledge his influence.
Davis, Moshe. The Emergence of Conservative Judaism. Philadelphia, 1963. See pages 347–349.
Korn, Bertram W. "Isaac Leeser: Centennial Reflections." American Jewish Archives 19 (November 1967): 127–141.
Morais, Henry Samuel. Eminent Israelites of the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia, 1880. See pages 195–201.
Seller, Maxine S. "Isaac Leeser's Views on the Restoration of a Jewish Palestine." American Jewish Historical Quarterly 58 (1968): 118–135.
Whiteman, Maxwell. "Isaac Leeser and the Jews of Philadelphia." Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 48 (1959): 207–244.
Sussman, Lance Jonathan. Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism. Detroit, Mich., 1995.
Abraham J. Karp (1987)