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Wise, Isaac Mayer


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.)]

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