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Four Founders: 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 American Rabbis.

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) Banquet,” and 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, 1854.

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 Jewish history.

Isaac M. Wise, History of the Israelitish Nation, Albany, 1854. General Collection.

History of the Hebrews Second Commonwealth, Cincinnati, 1880.

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 nations ...

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, 1868.

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, 1868.

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 in 1874.

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 self contempt.

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 more.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library 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.