The unsung rabbi who helped turn American Judaism into liberal

October 19, 2022

Publicly engaged rabbis and a Judaism committed to social justice and Zionism – these are the legacies of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.

Although little known today, Wise was one of the most prominent rabbis in the United States in the first half of the 20th century and had a profound influence on shaping the political liberalism practiced by American Jews today. .

In his new book,We Shall Anew: Stephen S. Wise, the Jewish Institute of Religion, and the Reinvention of Liberal American Judaism“, Shirley Idelson, associate professor of the practice, credits Wise with imbuing American Judaism, the Reform movement in particular, with three core values:

  • tikkun olam (fixing the world, although Wise didn’t use that term).
  • Zionism and support for the State of Israel.
  • Klal Israela belief in the kinship and common destiny of the Jewish people (“all Israel” in Hebrew).

Wise worked closely with Louis Brandeis to rally American support for Zionism, advocated for women’s suffrage and labor rights, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the 1930s, he became one of the first and most outspoken Jewish American leaders to demand that the US government confront Hitler and help Jews suffering under Nazi tyranny.

In her book, Idelson, the Leon A. Jick director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, focuses on the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR), a Wise pluralist seminary founded in 1922 to train a new generation of rabbis. Based in New York, the JIR trained nearly 200 rabbis, numerous community leaders and outspoken political activists, before merging in 1950 with Hebrew Union College.

TJE spoke with Idelson about Wise’s transformative effect on American Jewry and his legacy.

First of all, can you tell us a bit about Wise’s background?

Born in Hungary in 1874, Wise immigrated with his family and grew up in New York. Descendant of several generations of rabbis, he decided in his youth to become a rabbi himself.

Unable to find a rabbinical school in the United States that reflected his vision, he traveled to Vienna where Adolph Jellinek, a prominent liberal rabbi, took Wise under his wing and in 1893 gave him a private semikhah (ordination).

In 1898, Wise attended the Second World Zionist Congress, where hearing Theodore Herzl turned out to change his life. From then on, Wise would work tirelessly to support efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In 1900 Wise accepted the call to a congregation in Portland, Oregon, where he developed a national reputation as a politically progressive rabbi. A few years later, when New York’s prestigious Temple Emanu-El invited him to consider becoming their rabbi, Wise made one request: the freedom to say what he wanted from the pulpit.

The Emanu-El board had long had the right to review the rabbi’s sermon before it was preached, and they weren’t about to change. Wise refused to back down, making national headlines.

In 1907 he founded his own congregation in New York, the Free Synagogue, which represented free dues, free pews (no seats reserved for the wealthy congregants), and a free pulpit (freedom of speech for the rabbi) .

What was Reform Judaism like in the United States before Wise?

In the mid-19th century, a handful of German immigrant rabbis introduced Reform Judaism to the United States. The early rabbis preached ethical monotheism, emphasized the rational and the scientific, and generally avoided the idea of ​​a Jewish nation or Zionism. My own view is that as Jewish American immigrants living in a climate of widespread anti-Semitism, they did not want anyone to question their loyalty to the United States.

Additionally, in response to anti-Semitism, many German-American Jews avoided the headlines. Prominent secular reformist leaders Louis Marshall and Jacob Schiff, for example, provided considerable assistance to Jews around the world, but preferred to work behind the scenes.

It was a very different approach than the Eastern European Jews who came here.

Yes. By the 1920s, more than a million Jews from Eastern Europe had come to New York. And you could say that these Eastern European Jews, now the dominant presence in American Jewish life, approached Judaism in a much more direct and public way. In doing so, they posed a serious challenge to German-American Jews.

Whereas Wise welcomed these Eastern European Jews into his Free Synagogue movement?

Yes. He greatly valued pluralism, as part of his commitment to klal yisrael.

What makes JIR unique in the way it educates and trains rabbinical students?

JIR welcomed all perspectives and encouraged faculty and students alike to freely express their views. In its pluralistic approach, I see JIR as a precursor to the non-denominational Jewish seminaries we see today, including Newton’s Hebrew College.

Additionally, JIR rabbis often focused on Judaism’s prophetic teachings regarding social and economic justice, and many were active in the Zionist movement. Many served as US military chaplains during World War II.

JIR could have ordained the country’s first female rabbi but did not. What happened?

From its foundation, JIR admitted women, but not as candidates for ordination. In 1923, Irma Lindheim, a prominent American Zionist who had studied at the Institute, applied to enter the rabbinical program. The JIR faculty initially said no, but eventually voted in favor of admitting women to the rabbinical program.

But instead of ordering Lindheim, Wise and the faculty used stall tactics, saying they needed more time, better housing, etc. Lindheim left school in 1925 and became president of Hadassah, the Zionist women’s organization. She then moved with her five children to a kibbutz in Palestine.

In 1918, Wise founded the American Jewish Congresswho later actively pressured the Roosevelt administration to take a tougher stance against Hitler.

Yes, and it was another way for Wise to challenge the American German Jewish elite. Rejecting calls for a low-key approach to Hitler, Wise sounded the alarm and organized mass protests, including a huge rally in Madison Square Garden after Hitler seized power in 1933, despite opposition from prominent Jewish leaders. Indeed, at times, by doing all he could to stop Hitler, he found himself more allied with the Orthodox Jewish world than with the Reform or Conservative movements.

Why do you think Wise matters today?

Many of the issues Wise grappled with in his rabbinate remain relevant – women’s rights and pluralism within the Jewish community; the need for Jewish voices for racial, social and economic justice; the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and debates around Zionism; and the rise of virulent anti-Semitism, racism and authoritarianism across the world, which threaten us all.

In creating JIR, Wise sought to nurture a young generation of leaders capable of making the world a better place. We must do the same today.