More Ashes on Fire

More Ashes on Fire

America produces more ashes on fire than anywhere else in Jewish experience other than Israel. The ideas and ideals of these American Jewish experimental rabbis still smoulder. Our character studies here consider the progenitors of the American Reform and Conservative movements as we now know them.

American Reform


The ashes on fire in American Reform are based on a struggle with tradition. Modernity is strongly valued by American Reform, but there have always been traditionalists. Leeser was among them, but for the times his innovations frightened Orthodox thinkers, who branded him radical. His innovations do not frighten us today, even among the Orthodox. I.M. Wise, however, was radical for his times and remains radical for ours also. He would not recognize the modern Reform movement.

Isaac Leeser was a significant American Jewish educator and disputant of Isaac Meyer Wise. He arrived in America from Prussia (presently in modern day Germany) in 1825. He attended gymnasia. He was ordained by Rabbi Benjamin Cohen (a Prussian rabbi and mystic) and Rabbi Abraham Sutro (Chief Rabbi of Paderborn). Leeser prepared for a business career (with his uncle Zalman Rehine) in Richmond, Virginia. On arrival he also assisted in the rabbinate of Isaac B. Seixas, who later became rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City.

In 1829 Leeser became rabbi of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia after an article he published to defend Judaism brought him to public attention. Leeser maintained his rabbinate there for life. His first book, Instruction in the Mosaic Religion, established his reputation as an educator and American Jewish religious leader.

Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) was a leading American rabbi during the 19th century. He advocated formation of, and subsequently led, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (presently the Union of Reform Judaism) in 1873, the Hebrew Union College (presently Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) in 1875, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889 – all of which remain essential organisations of the American Reform movement. Wise came to America in 1846 from Bohemia (presently part of the modern Czech Republic) because his rabbinate was affected by the tremendous restrictions in place against establishing Jewish communal organisations. Jewish communities could not be established throughout much of Europe without government approval. This was frequently denied, especially if an established synagogue or school was already in place.

Wise was traditionally ordained but was innovative and opposed by more traditional rabbis. His ordination was attested to by Samuel Freund (Av Bet Din in Prague at the time) and Solomon Judah Rappaport (Rabbi of Prague and an adherent of the historical-positive school). He was also university educated, somewhat unusual at the time for rabbis.

Wise’s American rabbinate began in 1846 at Congregation Beth El in Albany, N.Y. America’s ashes on fire were initially lit by him: he instituted choral singing, mixed seating, and confirmation in place of bar mitzva. These innovations were harder to brand as radical in America; even so, Wise was dismissed on erev Rosh Hashana 5612 (1850) by the congregation’s Board meeting in ad-hoc session. His followers established him in a new congregation, Anshé Emet.

Wise went to Cincinnati in 1854 as rabbi of Beth Eichim and established tenure there. His effort to create a single American congregational organization proved impossible because Orthodox rabbis would not participate. Wise continued to advocate a congregational union, a book of common prayer, and a college to educate and train American rabbis. He achieved his unity goals in 1873, when delegates from 34 Reform congregations met in Cincinnati to form the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Two years later, the first American Jewish seminary – Hebrew Union College – was formed by the UAHC. Wise was installed as President. He also edited the Union Prayer Book, which was approved by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889 for use by American Reform congregations.

Conservative Judaisms


The Jewish Theological Seminary was incorporated in 1854 but did not function as a rabbinical school until 1886. JTS was inspired by the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, which was animated by Zecharias Frankel, a traditionalist motivated by scientific ideas; he called his approach “positive-historical.” In the previous unit we met Sabato Morais, who led the first re-organization of JTS into an “orthodox” rabbinical school. The Conservative movement’s ashes on fire were his to light. We now meet Solomon Schechter, who led the second re-organization of JTS into a school training rabbis able to serve “catholic Israel.”

Ashes on Fire & “catholic” Israel

Solomon Schechter favoured the term “catholic” Israel, by which he meant to say that halacha, the entire scope of Jewish tradition, forms in response to how people behave. This is not untraditional: Talmudic discussions are constructed around every conceivable human behaviour, whether mundane or refined.

Solomon Schechter was the first prominent American Jewish religious leader of the 20th century. He led the 1902 reorganization of the Jewish Theological Seminary, with intent that JTS stress scientific scholarship and traditional Talmud study. These were not contradictions in terms for Schechter, who was from a Chabad Chasidic family in Romania. The common Chasidic way values emotion, but the Chabad tradition strongly emphasizes intellect. Schechter obtained his modern rabbinics background from the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin and learned Semitics at the University of Berlin.

Schechter was appointed tutor in Semitics, lecturer in Talmudics, and reader in Rabbincs, all at Cambridge University (from 1882) and professor of Hebrew at University College, London, in 1899. His academic success was assured by his discovery of the geniza of the Cairo synagogue, which stored many fragments of early Jewish documents (including a document later rediscovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947). He also edited a previously unknown version of Ben Sirah and published a critical edition of both the A and B Versions of Avot de Rebbe Natan, an early aggadic Gemara of the aggadic Mishna Pirqé Avot.

Schecter’s stature attracted many outstanding scholars to JTS, which in this second reorganization came to define a conservative approach to tradition: we conserve tradition, however, we do not preserve it, and the ashes on fire this lights remains the hallmark of modern Conservative Judaism.

America’s most influential rabbi of the 20th century, Mordecai Kaplan (who eventually founded the Reconstructionist movement), was in the first graduating class under Schechter’s reorganisation. Kaplan ranks among the most important Jewish religious figures in history. He is first among the three original “American” Jewish religious educators we’ll consider in the next unit.

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