Sulzberger, Mayer

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SULZBERGER, MAYER (1843–1923), U.S. jurist and communal leader. He was born at Heidelsheim, Germany, and was to remember the cries of the mobs that were part of the anti-Jewish movement that followed the Revolution of 1848. His father, a ḥazzan and teacher, immigrated to the United States in 1849 and settled in Philadelphia. Sulzberger studied law in the office of Moses A. *Dropsie, was admitted to the bar in 1865, and became one of the leading lawyers of Philadelphia. He was elected a judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1895. In 1909 President William Howard Taft wished to appoint him U.S. ambassador to Turkey but Sulzberger preferred to remain a judge. He served until 1915 when, by this time president judge of the Court of Common Pleas, he refused to run for reelection so that he might devote himself to his Hebrew studies. However, he was a member of a commission to revise the constitution of Pennsylvania in 1920. As a judge he impressed the lawyers practicing before him not only by his legal learning but by his impatience with words that lacked substance. He regarded judicial precedents as "more or less tentative hypotheses," to be followed only when they were socially serviceable and to be ignored or set aside when they led to conclusions at war with new social needs.

In 1906 he helped organize, and was the first president of, the *American Jewish Committee. As its president, he helped bring about the abrogation of the commercial treaty between the United States and Russia because of Russia's refusal to recognize U.S. passports when issued to Jewish citizens. He was also a founder and the first president of the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Philadelphia, a vice president of the Philadelphia Jewish Hospital, which his father had helped found, and a trustee of the Baron de Hirsch Fund. Although he believed in making Ereẓ Israel a place of refuge and a home for Jews, he was not a Zionist and did not believe in a Jewish state.

While still in his early twenties, Sulzberger had helped Isaac *Leeser in the publication of The Occident and American Jewish Advocate and, after Leeser's death in 1868, he continued its publication for a year. He was one of the founders of the *Jewish Publication Society of America and, for many years, chairman of its Publication Committee. He helped reorganize, in 1901, the *Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and was a governor of *Dropsie College in Philadelphia. He had been secretary of the board of trustees of Maimonides College, the first Jewish seminary in the United States (1867–73), and was a trustee of *Gratz College from its foundation. He was also one of the original members of the *American Jewish Historical Society. Among his other communal activities was that of trustee of the Jefferson Medical College. He collected an important library of Hebrew books and manuscripts and in 1902 presented this to the Jewish Theological Seminary as the nucleus of its library. Sulzberger lectured on Hebrew jurisprudence and government at Dropsie College and at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The lectures, based principally on a study of the text of the Bible, were published as The Am Ha-Aretzthe Ancient Hebrew Parliament, a Chapter in the Constitutional History of Ancient Israel (1909); The Policy of the Ancient Hebrews (1912); The Ancient Hebrew Law of Homicide (1915); and The Status of Labor in Ancient Israel (1923). His conclusions in the lectures (so he wrote in the preface to the last of these publications) may at first sight seem "bizarre" and "will scarcely meet with ready acceptance since they depart from notions very generally entertained," but their object was to stimulate the students to follow them "without preconceived opinions," and also to stimulate research. It was in this last volume that he pointed out that "a great movement for the protection and improvement of the laboring mass was initiated in Israel more than three thousand years ago, and continued to promote its life and literature, becoming indeed a part of the mental condition of the people."


M. Ben-Horin, in: jsos, 25 (1963), 249–86; 27 (1965), 75–102; 30 (1968), 262–71; Addresses Delivered in Memory of Mayer Sulzberger (1924); L.E. Levinthal, Mayer Sulzberger, P.J. (1927); M. Davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism (1963), 362–5; A. Marx, Essays in Jewish Bibliography (1947), 223–38; S. Solis Cohen, in: ajyb, 26 (1924–25), 382–403; L.E. Levinthal, in: University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 75 (1926–27), 99–121, 227–46; A. Friesel, Ha-Tenu'ah ha-Ẓiyyonit be-Arẓot ha-Berit ba-Shanim 18971914 (1970), index.

[Charles Reznikoff]