Wise, Isaac M.

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WISE, ISAAC M. (18191900), pioneer and leading organizer of American Reform Judaism. Born near Eger, Bohemia (now Cheb, Czech Republic), Isaac Mayer Wise led an impoverished childhood. He received a traditional Talmudic education, which, though irregular, gave him an extensive acquaintance with rabbinic literature and an appetite for wider knowledge. In 1846, after holding a minor rabbinical position in Radnitz, he left for America.

Essentially Wise was an autodidact. He appears to have imbibed Mendelssohnian ideas in Europe, but on his arrival in New York there was nothing to distinguish him from conventional Orthodoxy. The mainspring of his Reform inclinations, which surfaced in America, appears to have been a sense of the needs of Judaism in the New World. He became the rabbi at a synagogue in Albany, New York, and not only instituted reforms there but began to write and lead efforts designed to bring direction to the scattered elements of American Jewryto formulate a particularly American Judaism. A quarrel within his synagogue over certain of these reforms led to his being forcibly ejected from his position in 1850; he thereupon started his own congregation. In 1854 he moved to Cincinnati, where he remained until his death. During the course of his lifetime Wise was twice married; he had ten children with his first wife and four with his second.

In Cincinnati, Wise started a weekly, The Israelite (later renamed The American Israelite ), which was quickly followed by a German periodical for Jewish women, Die Deborah. He wrote voluminously: history, theology, poetry, catechisms, and liturgical writings issued from his pen. Wise's overriding concerns were to provide the American Jewish community with a synod that would set qualifications for American rabbis and to establish a college that would train them and legitimize changes in ritual. This program incurred the suspicion not only of Orthodox Jews but also of the more doctrinaire Reform Jews, and it led to violent polemics with his colleagues.

Nevertheless, as a result of Wise's propaganda the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was established in 1873 in Cincinnati, and in 1875 the union opened Hebrew Union College, with Wise as its president. His energy, resilience, and single-minded devotion to his tasks nursed the college through a difficult beginning, and when in 1889 the Central Conference of American Rabbis was established Wise became its president. His place in the history of American Judaism rests on his intuition of the needs of an as yet inchoate community and his persistence in bringing his ideas to fulfillment.


Heller, James G. Isaac M. Wise. New York, 1965.

Knox, Israel. Rabbi in America: The Story of Isaac M. Wise. Boston, 1957.

Philipson, David. Reform Movement in Judaism. 2d rev. ed. (1931). Reprint, New York, 1967.

Temkin, S. D. "Isaac Mayer Wise and the Civil War." American Jewish Archives 15 (November 1963): 120142.

Wise, Isaac M. Reminiscences. Translated by David Philipson. Cincinnati, 1901. Covers the period between 1846 and 1857.

New Sources

Wolf, Alfred. "A Newly-Discovered Letter by Isaac M. Wise." Journal of Reform Judaism 37 (1990): 18.

S. D. Temkin (1987)

Revised Bibliography