Wise, Isaac Mayer

views updated May 29 2018

Isaac Mayer Wise

BORN: March 29, 1819 • Steingrub, Bohemia

DIED: March 26, 1900 • Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

rabbi; editor; write

"Had the Hebrews not been disbursed in their progress a thousand and more years ago, they would have solved all the great problems of civilization."

Isaac Mayer Wise was one of the most well-known Jews in the United States during the nineteenth century. He was a rabbi, a person trained in Jewish law and tradition who is often the head of a synagogue, a Jewish house of worship. He was also an editor and the author of several books and plays about Judaism. He created three religious organizations: the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; the Hebrew Union College, of which he served as president; and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He is regarded as a major figure in the development and organization of Reform Judaism in the United States. Reform Judaism believes that the Torah, the Jewish holy book, was written by several authors, rather than just one. Its followers do not adhere to many of the commandments, or laws, laid out in the Torah, unlike some other branches of Judaism.

Birth and early life

Isaac Mayer Weiss was born to Leo Weiss, a schoolteacher, and Regina Weiss on March 29, 1819, in Steigrub, a town in Bohemia. Bohemia was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but later became a part of the Czech Republic. As a youngster Weiss was a gifted student who showed interest in a range of subjects. His father tutored him in Jewish scripture, collectively known as the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, and the Talmud. The Talmud consists of traditions that explain and interpret the first five books of the Jewish scripture, which are referred to as the Torah.

By the time Weiss was nine, his father had taught him all he could, so Weiss then studied with his grandfather for three years. After his grandfather died, he went to the city of Prague, the capital of the modern-day Czech Republic, and enrolled at a yeshiva, or Jewish school. He then studied at a well-known rabbinical school, where Jews prepare to become rabbis, in the town of Jekinau. Weiss next attended the University of Prague for two years and the University of Vienna in Austria for one year. In 1842, at age twenty-three, he was ordained, or officially made, a rabbi. He married Therese Bloch two years later, and the couple eventually had ten children. A later marriage produced four more children.

A controversial rabbi

Weiss first served as a rabbi in Radnitz, Bohemia, but he found the environment there unpleasant because of the discrimination against Jews in the region. Discrimination is unfair treatment against a person or group because of differences such as religion and other characteristics. During this period European Jews were the victims of widespread religious intolerance and prejudice, or mistreatment. They were typically regarded as outsiders in the largely Christian communities. Weiss believed that the United States held the promise of more religious freedom, so he left Bohemia for and arrived in New York City on July 23, 1846. At this point he changed the spelling of his name from Weiss to Wise. He accepted a job as rabbi at an Orthodox temple in Albany, New York, where he remained for four years. Orthodox Judaism is a traditional form of the religion, based on a strict interpretation of the Torah.

Wise quickly became known as a highly controversial figure within his congregation. Orthodox Jews strictly follow the traditions and laws of Judaism. Wise, however, had already concluded that some of these traditions and laws no longer made sense in modern life. He introduced a number of reforms, which many members of the congregation resisted. A congregation is a group of worshippers who, in this instance, are members of the same synagogue. Wise ended the practice of chanting both prayers and readings from the Torah, the central part of the Orthodox service. He also formed a choir made up of both men and women and ended the practice of women and children sitting in different pews from men. He substituted confirmation, a ceremony marking the completion of a young person's religious training, for the bar mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish boys. Many members of Wise's congregation found these and other changes disturbing.

In 1850 Wise ordered the members of the congregation's board to close their businesses on Saturday, which is considered the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest. One of the board members, however, refused to follow the order. Many feared that the board member, whose preaching was popular, would be dismissed. The congregation became evenly split between supporters and critics of Wise. The board met and voted to fire Wise, but he refused to go. On the next Sabbath, a fight broke out in the temple between Wise and the board president. A riot eventually erupted among the congregation, and the police had to restore order.

After these events Wise resigned and started his own temple in Albany, New York, and his supporters from the previous temple followed him. Indeed, many welcomed his reforms, and his congregation grew rapidly. He remained in Albany until 1854, when a congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio, invited him to become their rabbi. He accepted and remained at the Cincinnati temple, Beth Jeshurun (also Yeshurun), for the rest of his life. This congregation, like his first Albany congregation, was somewhat traditional. Still, Wise introduced his reforms, though more slowly and tactfully than he had in the 1840s, and again his congregation grew rapidly. Under Wise's leadership, the congregation constructed an immense temple in the 1860s that remains in use in the twenty-first century.

Wise and Reform Judaism

Wise had both an impressive talent for organization and a great desire to unify Judaism in the United States. In the 1850s he began to use this talent and desire to complete several large projects. He created a Jewish prayer book and formed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Hebrew Union College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Over time he emerged as the major spokesperson for Reform Judaism in the United States.

The prayer book

In 1847 Wise was asked to become a member of an advisory board. This board was to make recommendations on various matters to Jewish congregations throughout the country, although it would not have power over them. At one board meeting Wise submitted a copy of a prayer book he had compiled. He was troubled by the common practice of rabbis compiling their own prayer books for use with their congregations. He wanted Jewish congregations in the United States to adopt a common prayer book used by all.

No action was taken on Wise's proposal until 1855. That year a committee was formed to edit Wise's prayer book, nearly all of which he had written himself. The book was then published as the Minhag Amerika. Although Wise had attempted to find a balance between traditional and more modern Jewish religious practices in the book, many Orthodox congregations in the East and Northeast areas of the country still found it departed from tradition too much, and they would not use it. Some Reform congregations, on the other hand, did not adopt the book because they found it to be too traditional. Other than these few exceptions, the prayer book became widely used, primarily in the South and West, and represented a first step towards the greater unification of American Judaism.

Denominations of Judaism

In the modern era Judaism consists of three major denominations, or subdivisions: Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is the most traditional in its practice of the religion. Orthodox Jews believe that God gave Moses the Torah, part of the Jewish Old Testament, and that Moses the Torah, part of the Jewish Old Testament, and that Moses was the Torah's only author. They also believe that the 613 mitzvoth, or commandments contained in the Torah, must be followed by Jews everywhere.

Reform Jews, in contrast, are less traditional and do not strictly follow all of the mitzvoth. They do not accept that God gave Moses the Torah. Instead, they believe that several different authors wrote the Torah. Reform Jews do retain the culture of Judaism and many of its values, ethics, and practices.

Conservative Judaism was established in an attempt to bridge the divide between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. Conservative Jews believe that God did reveal. The Torah to Moses, but that human authors recorded and transmitted it, so it contains elements from these authors as well as from God. Conservative Jews believe that Jewish law should be followed but that it should change and adapt to the surrounding culture.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations

Wise believed that Judaism in the United States was generally too disordered. Each congregation throughout the vast and still-growing country was taking its own direction. There was no unity in Jewish thought and teaching. As early as 1848 Wise proposed the formation of a union that would have some authority over Jewish congregations throughout the nation. For more than two decades he tried to convince others of the importance of such a union, mostly through the newspaper he founded in 1854, the American Israelite, which remains in publication in the early twenty-first century.

His goal was accomplished in 1873, when the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was formed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Wise avoided using the word reform in the name of the union because he still felt that Orthodox and Reform Jews could be united. Wise believed that Jews could enjoy religious freedom in the United States that they could not enjoy anywhere else in the world. For this reason in particular he wanted to see a strong and united American Judaism.

Hebrew Union College

Wise was also behind the formation of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He believed that too many rabbis leading American congregations were not knowledgeable enough in Jewish law and tradition. For many years he published articles in the American Israelite calling for the establishment of a rabbinical school. Such a school would provide the intense training and education that Wise thought rabbis needed. Hebrew Union College opened its doors in 1875, with Wise acting as president.

In 1883 the college graduated its first class, and a banquet was held to celebrate the event. Wise was disappointed when the Orthodox rabbis in attendance walked out because the food served did not conform to the strictest Jewish dietary laws. Believing that Wise's college was simply too liberal, or accepting of practices that did not strictly follow traditional practices, a group of these rabbis formed the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a more conservative school. At this point Wise realized that his hopes of unity among American Jews would never be fulfilled. From this point until his death, he was a major spokesman for Reform Judaism.

Wise played a dominant role at a conference of Reform rabbis held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1885. This group issued the Pittsburgh Platform, a document that defined Reform Judaism in the United States. The document noted that Judaism was not a nationality but a religion. It also claimed that nothing in Jewish belief was at odds with the discoveries of science. The platform called for the elimination of Jewish dietary laws and distinctive Jewish dress. The platform was also anti-Zionist, meaning that it opposed the formation of a Jewish state or homeland.

Central Conference of American Rabbis

A final major accomplishment of Wise's was the formation of a central ruling body for American Judaism. Again, he had campaigned for such a body for years, but relations between his followers and more Orthodox rabbis from the East were strained, making it difficult to reach an agreement. Finally, in 1889 the Central Conference of American Rabbis was formed. Wise served as president of this organization for the final eleven years of his life.

Wise and American politics

Wise was outspoken on a variety of political issues, especially those affecting Jews. He had seen firsthand the discrimination against Jews that existed in Europe, and he wanted to ensure that American Jews did not suffer in the same way. In 1856 the governor of Ohio issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation to the "Christian people" of Ohio. Wise immediately reminded the governor that the people of Ohio were neither Christian nor Jewish but free and independent. In 1862 Wise challenged General Ulysses S. Grant's (1822–1885) order that all Jews be discharged from the army department that he headed. Wise also fought efforts to bar Jewish (and Catholic) chaplains from serving with troops during the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery). He openly opposed a U.S. treaty with Switzerland because he believed that the Swiss government discriminated against American Jews living there.

Wise was criticized for not taking a stand on the issue of slavery, which dominated political discussion in the 1850s and led to the Civil War. Some American rabbis defended slavery, citing passages from Jewish scripture that they believed supported the practice. Other rabbis strongly opposed it. Wise did not adopt a clear position. Many of those who subscribed to the American Israelite lived in the South, where slavery was widespread, and he may have feared offending his readers by opposing it. He may have also believed that stating a position on slavery would cause further divisions among American Jews.

Major works

In addition to all his other activities, Wise was also an author. Early in his career he wrote eleven novels, in English and in German, as well as two plays, both in German. Some of his novels were serialized, or published in parts over an extended period of time, in the journals that he edited. The earliest, published in 1854, was The Convert. This was followed by The Catastrophe of Eger, The Shoemaker's Family, and Resignation and Fidelity, or Life and Romance, all three of which were published in 1855. He published several other novels later in the 1850s.

Wise also wrote about history, theology (the study of religion), and Judaism. Some of his major works on these subjects include The History of the Israelitish Nation from Abraham to the Present Time (1854), The Essence of Judaism (1861), The Origin of Christianity, and a Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (1868), Judaism, Its Doctrines and Duties (1872), The Cosmic God (1876), and Judaism and Christianity, Their Agreements and Disagreements (1883). Many of these books remain in print in the early twenty-first century.


On March 24, 1900, Wise preached his last sermon at his temple. That afternoon, he suffered a stroke. Soon thereafter he slipped into a coma and died on March 26. As Wise was perhaps the most prominent Jew in the United States, his passing was widely noted, and his funeral in Cincinnati was a major public event. His legacy has since survived. The course of American Judaism was profoundly influenced by the efforts and beliefs of Isaac Mayer Wise.

For More Information


Temkin, Sefton D. Isaac Mayer Wise: Shaping American Judaism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Wise, Isaac M. Judaism, Its Doctrines and Duties. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.


Adler, Cyrus, and David Philipson. "Wise, Isaac Mayer." JewishEncyclopedia.com. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=214&letter=W (accessed on May 26, 2006).

Brody, Seymour. "Isaac Mayer Wise." Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewish-virtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/IWise.html (accessed on May 26, 2006).

"Judaiac Treasures of the Library of Congress: Isaac Mayer Wise." Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/loc/Wise.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Wise, Isaac Mayer

views updated Jun 08 2018


WISE, ISAAC MAYER (1819–1900) U.S. Reform rabbi, architect of Reform Judaism in America. Wise was born in Steingrub, Bohemia, and studied at yeshivot in Prague and Vienna. In 1843, he became the rabbinical officiant (Religionsweiser) in Radnitz, Bohemia. Disillusioned about career prospects for Jews in central Europe, he emigrated to the United States in 1846. He became rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Albany, n.y., introducing reforms such as mixed seating, choral singing, and confirmation. In 1847, he joined a *bet din in New York, presided over by Max *Lilienthal, and conceived the idea of its authorizing a single ritual for the American Jewish community. The attempt proved abortive; but in 1848, he issued a call for a meeting the following year to establish a union of congregations. Again the attempt failed, but Wise persisted in advocating the idea. Meanwhile, he was earning a reputation as a writer, contributing regularly to Isaac *Leeser's Occident and the New York Jewish weekly, Asmonean. In 1850, as Wise pondered accepting the position of rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, disagreements among the members of Beth El over Wise's reforms caused a split in the congregation that erupted into an actual melee at Rosh Hashanah services; Wise and his followers left to form a new congregation, Anshe Emeth, the first synagogue in the United States to be established with mixed seating from the outset.

In 1854, Wise became rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he remained for the rest of his life. Within a few months of his arrival, he began to publish a national weekly, The Israelite, later renamed the *American Israelite, and a German supplement Die Deborah. By the end of the year, he had founded Zion College, which combined Hebrew and secular studies. In 1855, he issued a call for a synod that would be the guiding authority of American Judaism, and succeeded in organizing a rabbinical conference, which met that year in Cleveland. The conference agreed to call a synod and adopted a platform that recognized the Bible as divine and declared that it "must be expounded and practiced according to the comments of the Talmud." The Orthodox, as represented by Isaac *Leeser, were at first satisfied, but soon grew suspicious of Wise's intentions. Moreover, the Cleveland Platform was scathingly attacked as treachery to the cause of Reform by David *Einhorn, a radical Reformer from Germany who had just become a rabbi in Baltimore. The plan for a synod collapsed.

Wise nevertheless went ahead with some of the projects discussed at Cleveland. In 1856, he published Minhag America, a prayer book that modified traditional Hebrew ritual. Despite repeated setbacks, Wise always returned to his advocacy of a union of congregations, a common prayer book, and a college to train American rabbis. He expounded his ideas not only in his writing but in repeated visits to the scattered Jewish communities of America. The recriminations over the Cleveland Conference, and then the Civil War, deferred practical action. The establishment of the *Board of Delegates of American Israelites (1859) and Maimonides College (1867) by traditionalist forces aroused his sarcastic hostility.

Wise showed no sympathy for the Abolitionist agitation which preceded the Civil War. He venerated the American Union and was prepared to tolerate slavery rather than contemplate its dissolution. During the Civil War, he joined the "Copperhead" Democrats and even accepted their nomination to be a candidate for the Ohio State Senate, until his congregation forced him to withdraw from the race. After the Civil War, Wise renewed his push for a union of congregations. He attended the 1869 rabbinical conference in Philadelphia organized by Einhorn (see *Reform Judaism), but distanced himself from its resolutions, fearing that their radical standpoint would put an end to the dream of a comprehensive union of American synagogues under his leadership.

The next few years were punctuated by fierce exchanges between Wise and the more Germanic and radical Reform eastern rabbis – who refused to attend rabbinic conferences organized by Wise in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and New York. In 1873, lay leaders in Cincinnati closely associated with Wise succeeded in forming the *Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a loose confederation of congregations primarily from the South and West. Wise was particularly focused on one of the uahc's objectives – the establishment of a rabbinical college. In 1875, he was appointed the first president of *Hebrew Union College. The famous treife banquet served on the occasion of the first ordination of huc rabbis ended all hope for a unified American Judaism. The observant stormed out and, for a time, there was only Reform Judaism and everybody else. (More than 125 years later, at the inauguration of David Ellenson as president of huc, a kosher meal was served, a mark of significant transition within Reform Judaism.)

For the remainder of his life, Wise labored in the interests of the college. He was devoted to his students, earning their affection in return. He ordained more than 60 rabbis and continued to lead them as the founding president of the *Central Conference of American Rabbis, a position he held from 1889 until his death. During his lifetime, when it came to key developments in the shaping of the Reform movement's ideology, Wise was relegated to a secondary position: the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 (see *Reform Judaism) was the work of Kaufmann Kohler, and the Union Prayer Book was based on Einhorn's Tamid rather than Wise's Minhag America. On another front, the influx of a large community of eastern European Jews thwarted his prediction that Orthodoxy would not survive on American soil; with that reality, Wise's vision of a singular American Judaism was doomed, and the basic pattern of denominational Judaism established. But Wise's foresightedness and tenacity in laying its three institutional cornerstones earned him the title "founding father" of the indigenous Reform movement in America – and insured that his legacy, rather than the short-lived victories of his radical Reform rivals, would ultimately prevail. (His strident opposition to political Zionism also influenced the Reform movement for nearly half-a-century; eventually, however, Reform Judaism joined the Zionist fold.)

Although known more as a leader than a scholar, Wise did write a number of books: History of the Israelitish Nation (1854), Minhag America (1856), Minhag America (1866), The World of My Books (n.d.), Selected Writings of Isaac M. Wise, with a Biography (ed. Philipson and Grossman, 1900, rev. 1969), and Reminiscences (ed. David Philipson, 1901, rev. 1945).


Kerry M. Olitzky, Lance J. Sussman, Malcolm H. Stern, Reform Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1993).

[Bezalel Gordon (2nd ed.)]

Isaac Mayer Wise

views updated Jun 11 2018

Isaac Mayer Wise

Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), American Jewish religious leader, was the builder of Reform Judaism in the United States.

Isaac M. Wise was born on March 29, 1819, in Steingrub, Bohemia. He attended various traditional Jewish schools in Bohemia, studied at the Universities of Prague and Vienna, and was ordained a rabbi in 1842. After several years as rabbi in the Bohemian town of Radnitz, he emigrated to the United States in 1846. His first pulpit in America was Temple Beth El in Albany, N.Y., where he served from 1846 until 1854, when he became rabbi of Congregation Bene Yeshurun in Cincinnati. He held this post until his death on March 26, 1900.

Reform Judaism

Wise's greatest achievement was the establishment of the three key institutions of Reform Judaism in America. In 1873 he founded, and was elected president of, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the organization of Reform Jewish congregations in the United States. Feeling that a rabbinate trained in America could best serve American Judaism, Wise founded in Cincinnati in 1875 the Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical seminary. He served as its president and as a professor of theology for the rest of his life. In 1889 he founded the main organization of American Reform rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and served as its president for 11 years. These three organizations provided the structure for Reform Judaism in America.

Wise's philosophy of moderate Reform Judaism affirmed the historicity of the revelation at Sinai and the divine origin of the Ten Commandments. The latter was for him the basis of Judaism as a universal, rational religion whose destiny was to be mankind's universal religion. Wise accordingly proceeded to "reform" American Jewish ritual and ceremony, removing many of the features of rabbinic Judaism and formulating a new synagogue liturgy (Minhag America) in 1857. Influenced by the universal ideals of American nationalism as well, Wise became an outspoken opponent of the Zionist movement.

His Writings

In addition to his ministerial and organizational labors, Wise was a prolific writer. He edited (1854-1900) the weekly publication Israelite (later American Israelite), and he published in it numerous articles on Jewish theology and history as well as novels in serial form. The Israelite served Wise not only as a platform for expounding his views on Judaism but also as a vehicle for defending Jewish rights. He wrote a number of books on Jewish theology, including The Essence of Judaism (1861), Judaism, Its Doctrines and Duties (1872), and The Cosmic God (1876). In addition he published works on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity: The Origin of Christianity, and A Commentary to the Acts of the Apostles (1868), The Martyrdom of Jesus of Nazareth (1874), Judaism and Christianity: Their Agreements and Disagreements (1883), and A Defense of Judaism versus Proselytizing Christianity (1889). Among his works on Jewish history and literature were The History of the Israelitish Nation from Abraham to the Present Time (1854), The History of the Hebrews' Second Commonwealth (1880), and Pronaos to Holy Writ (1891).

Further Reading

The most comprehensive work on Wise is James G. Heller, Isaac M. Wise: His Life, Work, and Thought (1965), a lengthy study published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. A shorter, more popular work is Israel Knox, Rabbi in America: The Story of Isaac M. Wise (1957).

Additional Sources

Temkin, Sefton D., Isaac Mayer Wise, shaping American Judaism, Oxford England; New York: Published for the Littman Library by Oxford University Press; Washington, DC, USA: Distributed in the U.S. by B'nai B'rith Book Service, 1992. □

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