More Ashes on Fire

New Traditions Form

The rabbis surveyed above (in More Ashes on Fire) represent broadly different ideas about tradition. Leeser, Wise, and Schechter were each traditionally ordained. But what do we mean by tradition — and what did they mean by tradition?

Why New Traditions Form

New traditions form because old explanations no longer answer new questions. Leeser, Wise, and Schechter set the stage for an evolution of Judaism in America that no one anticipated. These rabbis were at odds within their own movements: Leeser opposed Wise within Reform; Schechter was opposed by traditionalists in JTS, an issue still current within the modern Conservative movement.

The new traditions represented by Leeser, Wise, and Schechter inform the rabbis we consider here. Each is an iconoclast; each confronted America differently, yet they all knew that a general education was essential to succeed in America. Stephen S. Wise was a Reform rabbi, yet opposed to many Reform perspectives; he claimed there were two types of Reform rabbis: those who knew Hebrew (the ones he taught) and those who knew ethics (the ones taught by Hebrew Union College). An early social justice warrior, Wise was motivated by Jewish traditional mores such as chesed (kindness) and din ve’cheshbon (public accountability).

Mordecai Kaplan was fascinated by American mores rather than explicitly Jewish ones, and this meant he disputed both Orthodox and Conservative perspectives — in spite of holding both Orthodox and Conservative ordinations. Kaplan sought to create explicitly new traditions rather than interpret older traditions in a new light.

Revel was also fascinated by American mores, especially the lure of advanced education. Revel was a philosopher, itself an innovation for an Orthodox rabbi, but the enduring new tradition he established for American Orthodox Jews was a secular university under Orthodox Jewish auspices. The more fervent Orthodox Jews would not acccept this new tradition for decades but they eventually had no choice.

Stephen S. Wise

Stephen S. Wise (1874-1949) was prominent as a Zionist, uncommon at the time among Reform Jews. Thoroughly educated in America, Wise obtained degrees from City College of New York and Columbia University. He was ordained by JTS before Schechter’s reorganization and served rabbinates in New York City and Portland, Oregon. In 1907 he established the Free Synagogue (Frei Schul), where he remained the rest of his life. He formed the Jewish Institute of Religion (which later merged with Hebrew Union College) in 1922 to train rabbis, educators, and community workers. Wise was an activist and worked for labour reform, world peace, and refugee relief. Wise’s commitment to Zionism and activism made him politically active at the highest levels of the US government. He lobbied Woodrow Wilson to support the Balfour Declaration and Franklin Roosevelt to actively fight Nazism. Wise constantly lobbied for Zionism inside the Reform movement. Wise felt Zionism was becoming too militant after Israel declared independence in 1948. He served as special representative of the Jewish Agency to the 1945 U.N. Conference in San Francisco; he testified before the Anglo-American Commission in 1946 (established in 1945 by the United States and the United Kingdom to review the issue of Jewish immigration to Israel).

Mordecai Kaplan

Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) received a traditional Jewish education in Vilna and immigrated to America in 1889. He graduated from City College of New York, and was ordained in he first graduating class of JTS after the reorganization under Schechter. He obtained smikha also from Ytzhak Yaqov Reines, founder of Mizrahi. Kaplan also had a master’s degree from Columbia University. Kaplan was adamant that American Jews needed new traditions when the older ones offered no solutions. He summarized his attitude to new traditions by saying Halakha has a vote, not a veto.

Kaplan termed his philosophy Reconstructionism; his book Judaism as a Civilization changed how even fervent traditionalists understand Judaism in a modern context. Among the new traditions he helped establish are the creation of Jewish religious movements: he co-founded Young Israel, the original advocate of Modern Orthodoxy in America (with Israel Friedlander, who was also an early faculty member of JTS); he invented the Jewish Center – a single place in which one could obtain education in beliefs, practices, language, culture, literature, ethics, art, history, social organization, symbols, and customs. Kaplan, however, rejected three fundamental Jewish tenets: the nature of God; chosenness,(the notion that there is a specific Jewish mission); and the messiah. The siddurim he edited were radical restatements of Jewish tradition from his sociohistoric perspectives.

Orthodox institutions Kaplan had been involved with removed him from their rosters and he is nowhere identified in Young Israel’s publications or histories. The model synagogue from which Young Israel evolved, and its constitutional assertion that Young Israel foster “Ameircanism” are Kaplan influences. The idea of new traditions evolving in the framework of a Jewish civilization isolated Kaplan from the deeply traditional but highly rational rabbinic faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at which he taught for 60 years.

Bernard Revel

Bernard Revel (1885-1940) came to America from Lithuania in 1906. He enrolled in the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) in New York. He studied also at Temple University in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania and New York University before obtaining his PhD in 1913 from Dropsie University in Philadelphia, where he was the first graduate. His dissertation refuted the prevalent scholarly notion that the Qaraim were a continuation of the Tzaduqim. He was especially interested in the development of halakha but also pursued studies in other fields. He became president in 1915 of RIETS. During his presidency RIETS established a yeshiva high school, merged with the Teachers Institute, and in 1928 he established Yeshiva College. These institutions became the basis of Yeshiva University (YU), the first Jewish university in America which combined academic scholarship and traditional Torah education. Consisting of a liberal arts program in conjunction with historical Jewish studies, YU graduated its first class in 1932. Revel began a graduate program in Jewish and Semitic studies in 1935, which soon expanded into a full graduate school. Yeshiva University is the oldest and largest university under Jewish auspices in America. It has professional schools in medicine, social work, and law. RIETS remains among the leading America rabbinical seminaries.
The next four religious leaders uniquely present Jewish religious leaders from vastly different halachic perspectives. We’ll learn of them in the next section. New Traditions Rabbi Stephen S. Wise New Traditions Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan New Traditions Rabbi Benard Revel