Adler, Felix

views updated May 18 2018


ADLER, FELIX (18511933), social, educational, and religious reformer; founder of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Born in Alzey, Germany, Adler came to the United States at the age of six when his father, Rabbi Samuel Adler, accepted the country's most prestigious Reform pulpit, at Temple Emanu-El in New York. By example and instruction his parents fostered his passion for social justice, religious sensibilities, and Jewish education. After graduation from Columbia College in 1870, he returned to Germany to study at the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums with Abraham Geiger in order to prepare for a career in the Reform rabbinate. When the school's opening was delayed for almost two years, Adler immersed himself in university studies, first at Berlin and then at Heidelberg, where he received his doctorate in Semitics summa cum laude in 1873. His formative German experiences precipitated an intellectual break with Judaism: After his exposure to historicism, evolution, critical studies of the Bible, anthropology, and Neo-Kantianism, Adler's belief in theism and the spiritual uniqueness of Judaism was undermined. Kant's analysis of ethical imperatives lent authority to Adler's new faith in a moral law independent of a personal deity, and the German industrial order, with its attendant socioeconomic problems for labor and society, along with Friedrich Lange's proposed solutions, brought into focus the major ills of industrial society that Adler came to address in America throughout his life.

Upon his return home, it was expected that he would eventually succeed his father at Emanu-El, but his one sermon on October 11, 1873, alienated some of the established members. Adler's admirers, however, sponsored him as nonresident professor of Hebrew and Oriental literature at Cornell between 1873 and 1876, and they then served as the nucleus of a Sunday lecture movement that he inaugurated on May 15, 1876. The following February this movement was incorporated as the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

To Adler, this society represented a religious organization that transcended creeds and united people in ethical deeds; it was dedicated to the inherent worth of each individual, to personal and communal ethical growth, and to the application of an ethical perspective to every social context. Over the years, the society served as Adler's platform not only for philosophical conceptualizations but also for concrete social reforms. In the late 1870s he established the first free kindergarten in New York, the first district nursing program, and a workingman's lyceum; in 1880 he organized a workingman's school (later the Ethical Culture School), and in 1891 he founded the Summer School of Applied Ethics. Adler was also intimately involved in tenement housing reform and good-government clubs and served as chairman of the National Child Labor Committee from 1904 to 1921. He launched the Fieldston School in 1928.

As an intellectual, Adler enjoyed the esteem of his peers and accumulated impressive scholarly credentials: He founded the International Journal of Ethics (1890), was appointed professor of political and social ethics at Columbia (1902), and delivered Oxford's Hibbert Lectures (1923), published as The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal (1924). Nevertheless, the fundamental intellectual effort of his last yearsthe philosophical justification of his ethical ideal of a spiritual universehad negligible impact. Where this was attempted, as in An Ethical Philosophy of Life (1918), it was dismissed as an example of Neo-Kantian religious idealism. Indeed, his earlier, less abstruse worksCreed and Deed (1877), Life and Destiny (1903), The Religion of Duty (1905), The World Crisis and Its Meaning (1915)were far better received.

In his day, Adler was publicly lauded as prophet, social visionary, and apostle of moral justice even by the Jewish community he had left. Yet toward the end of his life he was intellectually alienated from his own organization, and in the early twenty-first century most Ethical Culture members know him only as their movement's founder.

See Also

Ethical Culture.


The fullest biography is Horace L. Friess's Felix Adler and Ethical Culture (New York, 1981). Friess (Adler's son-in-law) presents the full scope of Adler's activities combined with personal memories of the man and an insightful analysis of Adler's intellectual evolution and his final ethical position. My own study From Reform Judaism to Ethical Culture: The Religious Evolution of Felix Adler (Cincinnati, 1979) analyzes Adler's religious departure from Judaism, its causes, and its repercussions for both Adler and the American Jewish community. It treats the Jewish reaction to Adler and to the Ethical Culture Society and uses Adler as a model by which to understand new models of Jewish apostasy in modern Jewish history. Robert S. Guttchen's Felix Adler (New York, 1974) presents a very useful analysis of Adler's concept of human worth and his educational philosophy. The book is prefaced with a perceptive biographical sketch of Adler by Howard B. Radest. The latter's own book, Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States (New York, 1969), furnishes further information on Adler.

Benny Kraut (1987)

Adler, Felix (1851-1933)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Felix Adler (1851-1933)

Founder of the ethical culture school


A Tradition of Philanthropy. Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi at Manhattans Tempie Emanu-El, grew up accompanying his mother as she visited and helped impoverished New York families. As a young professor of religious history and literature at Cornell University, however, he carme to believe that private charity alone could not alleviate the position of the perishing classes driven to mob action by starvation and idleness. Adler believed that philanthropy had to penetrate to the root itself and help the poor to help themselves. The depression of 1873 and the bloody riots that were its urban aftermath convinced Adler that It is necessary to resort to radical measures, if we wish to help the poor. Education is the only accepted means of doing this, and therefore, all who have given the subject of human misery careful thought unite in the opinion that educationthe best and most thorough educationis what we preeminently need.

Free Kindergarten. Adler founded the Ethical Culture Society in 1876, a movement devoted to the belief that man must develop morally and aesthetically as well as logically if he is to be truly educated. In 1878, at age twenty-seven, he and his friend Alfred Wolff distributed handbills through New Yorks poorest areas announcing the opening of a free kindergarten, the first in the city. Eight children appeared on opening day at the converted dance hall on West Sixty-fourth Street that housed the school. Soon eighty children were enrolled under the tutelage of Miss Fanny Schwedler, the schools originai teacher. The kindergartens stafl provided a full-service philanthropic institutionwashing, feeding, often clothing the children. Their mothers were also helped. The kindergarten worked closely with the district nursing service and a volunteer ladies committee in meeting home problems.

The Workingmans School. In 1880 Adler established the Workingmans School in New York, an institution to model innovative techniques far superior to what he called the revolting practices of the day. Adler condemned the common schools, saying they were organized as a combination of the cotton mill and railroad with the model State-prison. . . . From one point of view the children are regarded as automatons; from another, as India rubber bags; from a third, as so much raw material. They must move in step, and exactly alike. Adler was determined that this new institution should have meaning and interest at its center. The ethical ideal of progress was to pervade every course of study. History, for example, was to be taught as the sweep of civilizations advance in the direction of democracy, liberty, equality, and fraternity, not the serving up of dry facts hardly connected among themselves. Science was to be the study of the facts of nature through firsthand contact whenever possible. The reading tastes of the students were to be watchfully cultivated and composition taught as art with little pieces complete in meaning produced regularly in both narrative and descriptive formats. Students were encouraged to observe, to reason independently, and to refer, whenever possible, to original writings as support for their reasoning. The school flourished, and in the 1890s its name was changed to the Ethical Culture School and it was moved to a site on Central Park West, where a special laboratory, food study, and cooking were introduced. On 27 December 1891 a reporter from the New York Tribune wrote, Eureka! I have found it at last! A school where children actually like to go. A school where the shiftless boy with the good memory does not stand higher than the painstaking boy who may possess ten times his mental powers. ... A school which teaches the eye and the ear and educates the fingers while it is expanding the brain. The opportunities at Adlers school, including classes small enough to encourage individuality, stood in strong contrast to the meager opportunities and huge classes of the city schools in the 1880s.

Effects. In 1888 Adler helped organize a society for the scientific study of children, a group that became the Child Study Association in 1907. Furthermore, Adlers school became a model for other schools. In the 1890s the American education establishment felt the stirring of the New Education, a movement based on the idea of correlating studies around a central core, usually history, literature, or nature study. Along with the cores carme an injunction to relate the subjects of the curriculum, to make them meaningful. Students would be taught in a manner that interested them, because the subject matterà significance would be clear. The Ethical Culture School served as an example of how this theory could be translated into action. Although Col. Francis Parker and John Dewey are perhaps better known as the founding fathers of progressive education in America, Felix Adlers contribution was to illustrate how a school could provide a cooperative social enterprise in connection with an ethical end in education.


Felix Adler, Creed and Deed (New York: Putnam, 1877), p. 63;

Robert Holmes Beck, American Progressive Education: 1875-1930 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1965), pp. 1651.

Felix Adler

views updated May 21 2018

Felix Adler

Felix Adler (1851-1933), American educator and social reformer, was one of the creators of the Society for Ethical Culture, a liberal religious movement in the United States and Europe. The motto of the society was "Deed not creed."

Felix Adler was born on Aug. 13, 1851, at Alzey in the Rhineland, Germany. He was the son of a rabbi. The family emigrated to the United States when Felix was 6. Adler graduated from Columbia College, New York, with highest honors in 1870. He prepared for the rabbinate in Berlin and Heidelberg, receiving a doctorate summa cum laude from the latter university in 1873. His exposure to biblical criticism, however, and growing concern with earthly human problems led him to renounce his rabbinical office upon his return to America. He soon became affiliated with the Free Religious Association, a group whose transcendentalist leanings had attracted the aging Ralph Waldo Emerson, and ultimately Adler succeeded the association's founder, Octavius Frothingham, as president. But in 1876 Adler and his friends formed a new group, the Society for Ethical Culture.

The Ethical Culture movement, which eventually spread abroad to London, Berlin, and Vienna, became Adler's main enthusiasm. His major writings expressed the society's philosophy: Creed and Deed (1877), The Religion of Duty (1905), An Ethical Philosophy of Life Presented in Its Main Outlines (1918), and The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal (1924). Drawing upon Immanuel Kant's moral imperative (which stated that a man must treat his fellowmen as ends in themselves, not means), Adler contended that each man achieves individual excellency only through involvement in experiences which develop the excellencies of other men. Adler believed that a man's deeds, rather than his religious creed, are the essence of the religious life. The philosophy of Ethical Culture drew upon Judaism, Christianity, Emersonian transcendentalism, and socialism.

Adler lived according to his philosophy. Involved in education, he founded the free Workingmen's School in 1880 and other progressive schools and took part in projects leading to the establishment of the Child Study Association in 1907. In social work he participated in innovations in district nursing, cooperative workshops, settlement houses, and political reform clubs. He also served on governmental committees concerned with slum housing, vice, and child labor. From 1902 to 1933 Adler was professor of social and political ethics at Columbia University.

Adler married Helen Goldmark in 1880; they had five children. On April 24, 1933, after a short illness, Felix Adler died. A dedicated reformer who sought to advance ethics as the basis for human and social fulfillment independent of theism, he succeeded in inspiring a movement which has carried on his devotion to ethics in action.

Further Reading

Part 1 of Adler's An Ethical Philosophy of Life Presented in Its Main Outlines (1918) is autobiographical. Material may also be found in The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ethical Movement, 1876-1926 (1926); Horace J. Bridges, ed., Aspects of Ethical Religion: Essays in Honor of Felix Adler (1926); and Henry Neumann, Spokesmen for Ethical Religion (1951). David Saville Muzzey, the noted historian, includes a brief sketch of Adler in Ethics as a Religion (1951).

Additional Sources

Friess, Horace Leland, Felix Adler and ethical culture: memories and studies, New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Guttchen, Robert S., Felix Adler, New York: Twayne Publishers 1974.

Kraut, Benny, From Reform Judaism to ethical culture: the religious evolution of Felix Adler, Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1979. □

Adler, Felix

views updated Jun 08 2018


ADLER, FELIX (1851–1933), U.S. philosopher and educator. Adler was born in Germany, the son of the Reform rabbi Samuel *Adler. He studied at Columbia University and preached as a rabbi at Temple Emanu-el in New York, but was too rationalistic to accept Judaism in any traditional sense. In 1874 he accepted a professorship in Hebrew and Oriental literature established at Cornell. Two years later he founded the Society for Ethical Culture, which advocated an ethic apart from any religion or dogma. The Society gained support mainly among intellectuals in America and abroad. Adler worked for various social causes such as maternal and child welfare, vocational training schools, medical care for the poor, labor problems, and civic reform. In 1883 he founded the first U.S. group for child study. Adler was appointed professor of social ethics at Columbia in 1902. His main writings include Creed and Deed (1877); Moral Instruction of Children (1892); Prayer and Worship (1894); An Ethical Philosophy of Life (1918), which is partly autobiographical; and The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal (1924; The Hibbert Lectures). He was an editor of the International Journal of Ethics.


H. Simonhoff, Saga of American Jewry from 1865–1914 (1959), 178–85; H. Cohen, They Builded Better Than They Knew (1946), 32–40; H. Neumann, Spokesmen for Ethical Religion (1951), 3–62.

[Richard H. Popkin]

Adler, Felix

views updated Jun 08 2018

Adler, Felix (1851–1933) US ethical philosopher, b. Germany. Like Kant he stressed the importance of the individual, and believed that ethics need not be founded on religious or philosophical beliefs nor assume the existence of a supreme being. In 1876 he founded the Society for Ethical Culture, the forerunner of the international Ethical Movement. Among its aims were the economic, social and intellectual development of disadvantaged people. Adler also supported social reforms, such as improved housing and the abolition of child labour. His books include Creed and Deed (1877), The Moral Instruction of Children (1892) and An Ethical Philosophy of Life (1918).