Isaac Mayer Wise

April 06, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Tazri·a/Shabbat HaHodesh

Of all of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s considerable gifts to consider on this week of his 200th birthday, perhaps the most legendary was his ability to take a right hook to the chin. The son of an impoverished Bohemian schoolmaster, Wise immigrated to America in 1846, and by the time of his passing in 1900, he had become the chief architect and dominant voice of American Reform Judaism – if not American Judaism as a whole. As the historians tell it, Wise was a sort of Jewish Alexander Hamilton: an “uncommon man,” possessing a manic self-confidence, able to express himself effectively in writing, lectures, and sermons; a more than able polemicist, filled with boundless energy, political savvy, and a knack for controversy. (Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, pp.239-40) Above all, Wise loved America and the freedom it granted to Jews as a place to create an American brand of Judaism unburdened by the state control and rabbinical hampering of the Old World.

Soon after his arrival, Wise was elected rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Albany, where he introduced a series of reforms including a mixed choir, confirmation ceremony, and hymns in English and German. Tensions spiked as Wise quarreled with the cantor, Veist Traub, who also served as the local butcher. Wise declared Traub’s meat treif after having witnessed Traub visiting saloons, drinking, and playing cards. Things came to a head on September 6, 1850, two days before Rosh Hashanah, when Traub, together with the synagogue president Louis Spanier, informed Wise of the board’s decision that he was discharged of his rabbinic duties. In order to understand what happened next, you need to know that in those days, in that synagogue, honors like opening the ark, being called to the Torah, and so on, were sold off. Unbeknownst to Spanier, Wise’s supporters hatched a plan to purchase the honor of opening the ark on Rosh Hashanah morning. Wise arrived in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah in his rabbinic garb, and at the moment of Sulzer’s Ein Kamokhah, stepped up onto the bimah and approached the ark to remove the scrolls. At that moment Spanier rose up, stood in Wise’s way, and cold-clocked the rabbi with his fist, knocking Wise’s hat off his head. A brawl broke out on the bimah, where the factions were quickly joined by members of the choir. Albany’s sheriff was called in, congregants spilled onto the streets, the synagogue doors were locked, and Wise was arraigned on that Day of Judgement before the not-so-heavenly municipal court of Albany. Unrepentant, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Wise conducted services in his home with his supporters, the first service of what would become the breakaway congregation of Anshe Emet, which would be led by Wise until he left for Cincinnati in 1954. Happy Birthday, Rabbi Wise!

It is a great story – “The Brawl on the Bimah,” “The Slugfest of Yontif” – a true tale from the frontier days of American Jewry. In retrospect, many say Wise had it coming – he was an opportunist with a “penchant for self-aggrandizement”; it was just a matter of time before someone would take him down a peg. Others, more sympathetically, note that Wise had recently suffered the unimaginable, burying his two-year-old daughter Laura, a loss which left him with an understandably short fuse. Still others, with an eye for the inner workings of synagogue life, note that Wise was a man of ambition, who in the preceding months was publicly offered, accepted, and then declined a position at a synagogue in Charleston – a flirtation that presumably left a bad taste in the mouth of many of his congregants, including, I imagine, his synagogue president. Given that Wise went on to found and lead the three major institutions of the Reform Movement that continue to this day – the umbrella Union for Reform Judaism; the seminary for Reform rabbis, Hebrew Union College (HUC); and the union of Reform rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) – it is no wonder that this colorful incident continues to be studied and debated today.

So when I picked up Steven Weisman’s new book The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion, I was not surprised that this incident featured prominently. What was surprising, however, was the cause that Weisman tags as the instigating factor for the fisticuffs in Albany: Jewish theology, specifically, the doctrine of the coming of the messiah.

By way of background: Jews have long believed in the coming of the messiah – heralding a future era when the House of David will be restored in Jerusalem, the Jewish people will return to Israel, and the nations of the world will turn to Israel’s God as the one true God. It is what we pray for three times a day in the Aleinu. It is a belief the Talmud deems to be a litmus test for entry into the world to come. It is one of Maimonides’s thirteen essential principles of faith (ani ma’amin b’emunah sh’leimah b’vi·at ha-mashiah). It is the vision which the prophet Ezekiel describes in this morning’s haftarah – a future redemption to mirror the Passover redemption. Most of all, it is the hope that has sustained our people throughout Jewish history in times of oppression, exile, and persecution. One day we will be returned to our land and be restored as a unique nation. There are details yet to be figured out, like how Israel’s already clogged highways will handle the demographic challenge of thousands of years of Jews coming back to life, but it is fair to say, more or less, that the messianic idea sits at the very foundation of Jewish belief.

But Wise didn’t think so, and more significantly, was not afraid to say so. In fact, on his visit to Charleston, Wise was present at a debate on whether it was appropriate for Jews to still believe in the coming of the messiah to deliver them back to Palestine, and he publicly and dramatically denied and disavowed this principle of faith. As news of Wise’s heresy spread, Spanier, the president of the Albany synagogue, obtained an affidavit from three Orthodox leaders calling into question whether a rabbi who denied the messiah was fit to serve a Jewish congregation. Spanier’s objections were only hardened when members of the congregation called on Spanier to suspend Wise from his rabbinic duties until it could be ascertained for certain whether Wise had in fact denied the messiah. The investigation plodded on until two days before Rosh Hashanah and came to a head at a fateful synagogue board meeting when Spanier submitted his report concluding that (while undecided on charges of obstruction of justice), Wise was indeed in sufficient doctrinal breach to be relieved of his duties. Which, according to Weisman, is the theological backdrop for the altercation that was to come.

It is an interesting theory, thoroughly researched and well written by Weisman, but it ultimately brings us back to that simple but not-so-simple question of “So what?” So what if Wise did or did not believe in the messiah? Why would any theological issue, and this one in particular, divide a congregation and prompt such an unseemly incident? At first blush, the coming or non-coming of the messiah is hardly a matter with real world implications. None of us, after all, will ever know for sure who is right. You believe in what you believe, I’ll believe in what I believe. At the end of days, we’ll have a laugh about it. Why not just let well enough alone?

The answer, I believe, is that at stake was not so much the promise of the messiah but the promise of America. Wise envisioned the growth of a Minhag America, as his prayer book was called, reflecting a universally accepted American Judaism. Wise doesn’t fit neatly into a box. Yes, he introduced music into the service, but he also defended Shabbat. Yes, he encouraged women’s participation, but he opposed critical scholarship of the Bible. He was at times bold and innovative and at times moderate and traditional. The power of his vision was pinned to a denationalized Judaism in which Jews could exist proudly and confidently alongside their American brothers and sisters of other faith traditions. It was a vision that stood in sharp opposition to a belief in a personal messiah whereby Jews longed for a return to their national homeland. Wise couldn’t believe in the messiah because to do so meant that America was not home. It was under Wise that Judaism was transformed in America from a national identity tied to a land into a denationalized religious community – a vision altogether contrary to that held by traditionalists like Spanier and others.

For Wise, Albany was only the beginning. Wise may have been knocked on his back that Rosh Hashanah, but in the years to come he would pick himself up and then some. It was under Wise’s leadership that in 1885 the Reform movement drafted the Pittsburgh Platform, a document that declared that Reform Jews “consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine . . . nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” It was Wise, who, in the summer of 1897, the same summer in which Herzl’s first Zionist congress took place, as the leader of the Reform movement, flatly rejected Zionism, stating: ”It can make no difference to us . . . what particular spot of the earth’s surface we occupy. We want freedom, equality, justice and equity to reign and govern the community in which we live. This we possess [in America] in such fullness, that no State whatever could improve on it. That new messianic movement [Zionism] over the ocean does not concern us at all.” (CCAR 1897). For Reform Jews of Wise’s era, America was their Zion; to be a Zionist was a retreat from the American dream. To hope, long, and pray for a messianic restoration to the Land of Israel was to deny the promise of being a Jew in America.

A whole lot has changed since that historic fight in Albany in 1850 and since Wise passed away in 1900. Since the Balfour Declaration, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the establishment of the Jewish state, the anti-Zionism and non-Zionism once espoused by the Reform movement have become altogether passé. For better, and horrifically, for worse, the argument for a Jewish state has become self-evident. Every Reform platform since Pittsburgh has become progressively more strident in its commitment to the state and land of Israel, even, most recently, encouraging Aliyah – emigration to Israel – a call to action that probably made Wise turn over in his grave. This past week Hebrew Union College appointed a new president, Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, a leader of impeccable credentials whose stature comes from, among other things, a stated and sustained commitment to Israel. Much has changed since Wise – for the Jews, for the world, and for the relationship between the Jews and the world.

And yet, we would do well to ask if we, as contemporary American Jews, are not still asking the same questions as the American Jews of Wise’s era. You may or may not hope for messianic redemption, but I imagine at your seder table this month you will say, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” How many of us really mean it? Wise may have been wrong in his stance against Zionism, but his read of American Judaism as a faith that seeks redemption by way of adherence to tradition and good works but not by way of longing for a return to Israel was altogether prophetic. We need look no further than Israel’s election this week – an election in which none of us in this room will be voting – as proof positive that our identities as Jews have sidestepped the age-old hope to be restored to our homeland. All of us in this room, myself included, are heirs to Wise. Until and unless we prove otherwise, the truth is that America, not Israel, is our Zion. This is a truth that Wise well understood and was willing to fight for. Depending on your wiring, it is a truth that lands softly without incident, or, maybe, like a sharp right hook to the jaw. It is a truth, nevertheless, that explains American Jewry, our relationship with Israel, and the challenges we face in world Jewry today. May we all be the Wiser for it.