Fleischer, Charles

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FLEISCHER, CHARLES (1871–1942). U.S. rabbi. Fleischer, who began his career as a Reform rabbi articulating the ideal that American Jews could be both Americans and Jews, later developed a new American religion based upon the ideals of democracy. Born in Breslau, Germany, in 1871, Fleischer came to America at the age of nine. He moved to the Lower East Side, received his B.A. from the City College of New York in 1888, and advanced degrees from Hebrew Union College and the University of Cincinnati in 1893. He served as an assistant rabbi in Philadelphia until 1894, when he was named rabbi of Temple Israel in Boston. He remained at this post until 1911, and the following year founded the nonsectarian Sunday Commons, which he led from 1912 to 1918. Fleischer moved to New York in 1922, where he served as a newspaper editor, radio commentator, writer, and lecturer. During his tenure at Temple Israel, Fleischer introduced Sunday services (1906), and shared his pulpit with Unitarians, Trinitarians, and social reformers. He believed that ethics should be based on reason, rather than the fear of God, and that Judaism should strive to combat social problems. He often spoke to New England's Jewish and non-Jewish groups about Jewish-Gentile relations. Throughout his career, Fleischer struggled with his Jewish and American identities. Early on he possessed a pluralistic vision, believing that American Jews could be both Jews and Americans at the same time. But as early as 1902, Fleischer began to suggest that America should move beyond religious sectarianism, and that democracy itself was "potentially a universal spiritual principle, aye, a religion." In 1908 he advocated intermarriage, and when he left Temple Israel in 1911, he declared, "I am henceforth beyond… sectarianism."

True to his word, Fleischer founded the nonsectarian group Sunday Commons. He now argued that Jewish and Christian worship ran counter to universal values, and American religion should be based upon the values of heroes like Abraham Lincoln and texts such as the Declaration of Independence. Seventeen hundred people attended his services in their early years, where "aspirations" became a substitute for prayer.


A. Mann, "Charles Fleischer's Religion of Democracy," in: Commentary 17, no. 6 (June 1954); "Dr. Chas. Fleischer, Editor and Lecturer," in: New York Times (July 3, 1942), 17.

[Michael Cohen (2nd ed.)]