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Morais, Sabato


MORAIS, SABATO (1823–1897), U.S. minister-ḥazzan as his position was defined and founder of the *Jewish Theological Seminary. Morais, who was born in Leghorn, Italy, received his early Hebrew education from teachers in his community. At the age of 22, he applied for the position of assistant ḥazzan at the Spanish and Portuguese (Bevis Marks) congregation in London and in 1846 he became director of that congregation's orphan school. During his five years in England he learned much about Jewish life in an Anglo-Saxon environment, and established a friendship with Moses *Montefiore and the Italian patriot Mazzini. In 1851 he arrived in the U.S. to become ḥazzan of Mikveh Israel congregation, the oldest congregation in Philadelphia (and one that exists until this day), succeeding Isaac Leeser. He was a pioneer in introducing adult education classes and supplemental religious schooling. He had a discretionary fund for the distribution of money to the poor. He served in this position until his death, 47 years later. He opposed slavery during the pre-Civil War period, much to the consternation of some of this congregants. He strove to unite the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi elements in the congregation, and later to help the Russian Jewish immigrants. Morais influenced many young men who became leaders of American Jewry, including Cyrus *Adler, Mayer *Sulzberger, and Solomon *Solis-Cohen. He was, in the words of Pamela Nadel, "a founder or a supporter, of nearly every Philadelphia philanthropy and institution," at a time when Philadelphia was a source of enormous Jewish creativity.

He had a deep love for Jewish music and a great interest in Jewish scholarship, especially in Sephardi studies. He translated a work of S.D. Luzzatto and rendered the writings of other Italian Jewish scholars into English. He was involved in the revival of Hebrew and wrote prose and poetry and encouraged others to write in Hebrew. He published a commentary on the Book of Esther and translated Jeremiah that was the initial draft used in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society edition of the Bible. In 1887 he received an honorary LL.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, the first Jew to receive this distinction. He was a professor at Maimonides College, one of the early attempts to create a rabbinical seminary, from 1867–1873; many of its graduates later supported the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Morais was neither an original thinker nor an incisive expositor but his earnestness and breadth of outlook enabled him to rally the forces of tradition that defined itself as "other than Reform" at a time when the drift was predominantly in the direction of Reform. At one stage he showed a readiness to cooperate with I.M. *Wise in the work of Hebrew Union College, but the radical nature of the Pittsburgh Platform (1885) convinced him that a separate institution to train rabbis on Conservative lines was needed. He was the prime mover in the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1887) and was president of its faculty until his death, commuting from Philadelphia to New York. He helped shape the institution along the lines of the Breslau Seminary, meaning that candidates for the rabbinate would have both a secular and a religious education.


M. Davis, in: ajhsp, 37 (1947), 55–93; idem, in: Sefer ha-Shanah li-Yhudei Amerikah (1945), 574–92; idem, Emergence of Conservative Judaism (1963), index; P. M Nadell, Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1988).

[Jack Reimer /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

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