Isaac Mayer Wise
(1819 - 1900)
Bohemian born, Isaac
Mayer Wise received a traditional Jewish education in Prague and Vienna, and absorbed Western
culture as well. A job as teacher and rabbinic functionary in a small
Bohemian town did not offer much of a future for this enormously
energetic and gifted man, so he set out for the New World. After his
arrival in New York in 1846, a rabbinic career in Albany, New York,
and then for almost half a century in Cincinnati, Ohio, provided Wise
with extraordinary opportunities. In 1854, the year he arrived in
Cincinnati, he founded the weekly The Israelite, and for many
years thereafter wrote most of its articles, as well as historical
and polemical works and popular novels. In post-Civil War America, he
was the best-known Jew and a well-regarded leader in American liberal
religious circles. He believed that in time Judaism would become the religion of all enlightened men, but first it had to
be modernized, democratized, and most important of all, Americanized.
Wise was a leading exponent of a moderate, pragmatic Reform
Judaism, responsive to the exigencies of contemporary American
life. His signal contribution was the institutional structure he
bequeathed to Reform Judaism by founding its Union of American Hebrew
Congregations, Hebrew Union College, and the Central Conference of
In 1883, as president
of Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College, Wise
invited both traditionalists and reformers
to celebrate the rabbinical seminary's first
graduating class and the tenth anniversary
of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
To the surprise and chagrin of the more traditional
attendees, the banquet fare included a variety
of forbidden foods, horrifying some guests
and causing many to walk out. The banquet is
now commonly referred to as the “The Trefa (unkosher)
has come to symbolize the rift between the
reformers and the traditionalists that only
grew more pronounced in the years that followed.
While Leeser still awaits a published biography, Wise has been the beneficiary of
three, and a book of Reminiscences as well. One can, however, become
acquainted with Wise through a few citations from works of his found
on the Library's shelves.
History of the Israelitish Nation, Albany,
The nations of antiquity rolled away in the
current of ages, Israel alone remained one indestructible edifice of
gray antiquity... preserved by an internal and marvelous power. It
saw the barbarous nations pour their unnumbered hosts into the Roman
empire, and made its home on the Thames, the Seine, the Ebro, the Po,
and the Danube. It flourished with the Saracens, and suffered in the
obscure and fanatical days of the Middle Ages. It saluted joyously
the dawning light of science, art, civilization and justice, and
cheered vehemently the birth of liberty and independence in America,
and the resurrection of the European nations. The history of this
nation is an important chapter of universal history, and as such
alone it deserves careful examination.
History of the Israelitish Nation,
Isaac M. Wise's first published book, comprises the history of
the Jewish people from Abraham to Solomon and is meant to be
“a political history of the Israelitish nation.” it was
widely attacked by the Orthodox for having strayed from the
traditional conception and depiction of the biblical period in
Isaac M. Wise, History of the Israelitish Nation, Albany,
1854. General Collection.
History of the Hebrews Second Commonwealth,
The book before you claims to be the first of this
kind written from a democratic, free and purely scientific standpoint
... It is the history of a people, and not of rulers and battles, the
history of the life and growth in politics, religion, literature,
culture, civilization, commerce, wealth and influence on other
I have written this history with the proud feeling
that man is better than his history, in which the onward march of
enlightenment and humanization is so often interrupted by barbarous
multitudes ... Had the Hebrews not been disturbed in their progress a
thousand and more years ago, they would have solved all the great
problems of civilization which are being solved now under all the
difficulties imposed by the spirit of the Middle Ages. The world is
not yet redeemed.
Hymns, Psalms & Prayers, Cincinnati,
Dispersed as the house of Israel is in all lands,
we must have a vehicle to understand each other in the house of God,
so that no brother be a stranger therein; and this vehicle is the
Hebrew [language] ... the Hebrew sounds are sacred to the Israelite;
they are holy reminiscences of his youth, which can as little be
replaced to him in another language, as the Psalms of David can be
fully reproduced in any other tongue.
The Origin of Christianity, Cincinnati,
Among the other sources which the author
consulted, it is chiefly the Talmud and other rabbinical scriptures. He undertook the task of translating
several hundred talmudical passages for this work, all rendered from
the originals, and hopes to have expounded numerous passages in the
New Testament, which are otherwise unintelligible. He hopes still
more to have opened an entirely new avenue of research to Christian
theology and criticism ... without the Talmud, a perfect
understanding of original Christianity is almost impossible, as the
candid reader of this book will undoubtedly admit, after a careful
perusal of it.
“On the Russo-Jewish Question,” by D. I.
M. Wise, in M. G. Landsberg, History of the Persecution of the
Jews in Russia, Boston, 1892.
Russia contains one fourth of the inhabitants of
all Europe, and one half of the entire number of Israelites. In the
same proportion Russia is the misfortune of Europe and the
Israelites.... The most admirable class of people in all Russia are
the Jews, for most of them can read and write, and ninety per cent of
the other Russians are analphabets ... It is more than marvellous, it
seems miraculous, that the Russian Jew preserved that intellectual
and moral force which he possesses, surrounded as he was by rank
demoralization, and down-trodden for centuries.
Isaac M. Wise called this book, The Cosmic
God, “the first fruit of my independent research in
science and philosophy.” It had its origin in a series of
lectures delivered in the fall and winter of 1874-75, at B'nai
Yeshurun, Cincinnati, where he had served as rabbi since 1854.
The book, “conceived in sorrow, composed in grief and
constructed at the brink of despair,” is dedicated to the
memory of his wife Therese, who had died after a two-year illness
Isaac M. Wise, The Cosmic God, Cincinnati, 1876, Albany,
1854. General Collection.
The Cosmic God, Cincinnati, 1876.
This book, conceived in sorrow, composed in grief,
and constructed at the brink of despair, contains my mind's best
thoughts, and my soul's triumph over the powers of darkness. My wife,
my dearly beloved companion in this eventful life ... was prostrated
with an incurable disease ... I prayed, I wept, I mourned, I
despaired ... I was drifting and whirling in a roaring current of
lacerating contradictions, tormenting self-accusations bordering on
Ruthless attacks upon my character, of restless
assailants ... embittered by joyless days. My energies failed.
Insanity or suicide appeared inevitable ... Once, at the midnight
hour ... I opened the Bible [and] read: “Unless thy law had been
my delight, I should long since have been lost in my affiction”
[sic] (Psalm 119:92).
It struck me forcibly. “There
is the proper remedy for all afflictions.” When
those ancient Hebrews spoke of the law of God,
they meant the whole of it revealed in God's
words and works. Research, science, philosophy,
deep and perplexing, problems most intricate
and propositions most complicated, I thought,
like the rabbis of the Talmud, must be the proper
remedy for all maladies of the heart and reason.
I plunged headlong into the whirlpool of philosophy,
and, I believe, to have found many a gem in
the fathomless deep. But the costliest of all
gems I found is a calm and composed mind, a
self-relying conviction. I found myself once
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of
the Library of Congress,
of Congress, 1991). Portrait faces the
title page of Isaac Mayer Wise's The Cosmic
God (Cincinnati, 1876). It portrays Wise
at age fifty-six, the year he opened the rabbinical
seminary he founded and headed till the end
of his life, the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati,
Ohio. General Collection. Section on the “Trefa
Banquet” from From
Haven to Home.