Biography of Isaac Meyer Wise

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Isaac Meyer Wise (1819-1900)


There can be no doubt that the founder of American Reform Judaism was Isaac Meyer Wise. He was born in Steingrub, a small town in Bohemia. There he received the traditional Jewish education in a “cheder”, i.e. a one room schoolhouse, from which he graduated into a “yeshivah” i.e. a rabbinical college. It is unclear whether he was ordained a rabbi, because he did not earn a degree from the University of Vienna, which was a prerequisite for ordination in the Austrian Empire at that time. Bohemia was then a part of that empire. It is certain, however, that he functioned as a rabbi in the United States, which he entered in 1846.

In those days, American congregations were largely run by a “chazzan”, i.e. a cantor or singer. There were some preachers who spoke at various synagogues on a circuit basis. Wise was one of these. Because his oratorical skills were exceptional, he was elected rabbi of a congregation in Albany, from which he was dismissed for criticizing Jews who worked on the Shabbat. Unwilling to accept this dismissal, Wise came to that synagogue just the same and got involved in a fistfight with the president. He was arrested. Nevertheless, he had supporters who founded a new congregation in which Wise made a number of changes, including mixed seating for both sexes, organ music and eliminating prayers hoping for the building of a third temple or the restoration of the Judaic monarchy.

Wise believed that he could develop a new American form of Judaism which would apply to all Jews and make American Jews equals of all other citizens. To that end he left Albany and accepted a pulpit at the B’nai Yeshurun congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. It should be remembered that many Germans, including Jews, had settled in Cincinnati at that time.

In Cincinnati, Wise published a new prayer book  This prayer book eliminated references to any ceremonies or beliefs he considered antiquated or unreasonable in the light of the current thinking. He also eliminated any references to a return to Zion, which he thought would endanger the rights of American Jews as citizens of the U.S.A.

In 1855 Wise called for a meeting of all American rabbis in Cleveland in the hope of organizing a uniform American Judaism devoid of denominational differences. In that he did not succeed, as those who disliked his reforms stayed away either because they wanted even greater and more radical changes or because they viewed his changes as offensive to tradition.

In 1873, Wise called another meeting in the hope of uniting all American Jews. This failed again, but led to the formation of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now called the Union for Reform Judaism. This came about because those in attendance were mostly from the midwest and reform minded while the orthodox from the east coast did not attend.

By 1878 more than 100 congregations had affiliated with the UAHC, including Temple Emanu-El in New York.

In 1885 the reformers met in Pittsburgh and there formulated the so-called Pittsburgh platform, which ended all efforts to unite all American Jews, as that statement separated Reform Judaism from orthodox and conservative Judaism ipso facto.

Wise also founded the Hebrew Union College in 1875. That was merged with the New York based Jewish Institute of Religion in 1950. This institution was headed by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, born in Hungary and in no sense related to Isaac Meyer. Both men were named Weiss in Europe.

The HUC-JIR includes Rabbinical studies, Cantorial studies, Jewish Education studies, Jewish Communal Service studies, Continuing Education and Youth Studies and undergraduate as well as graduate programs. It is a major American intellectual center and is regarded throughout the world as one of the prime achievements of the American Jewish community.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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