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From Sea to Shining Sea: Reform Judaism - Advocates and a Critic

The leading figure of the Reformed Society of Israelites was Isaac Harby (1788-1828), who led its secession from its mother congregation (Beth Elohim, Charleston, S.C.), prepared its prayer book, and gave voice to its philosophy and purpose in an address delivered before the Society on November 21, 1825. It can be found in A Selection from the Miscellaneous Writings of the Late Isaac Harby Esq., Charleston, 1829.

What is it we seek? The establishment of a new sect? No; never ... the abolition of the ancient language and form of Jewish worship? Far from it .... Every prayer, every ceremony, calculated to add dignity to external worship and warmth to true devotion was the ardent wish of members who compose your society. Our wish is to yield every thing to the feeling of the truly pious Israelite; but to take away everything that might excite the disgust of the well informed Israelite. To throw away rabbinical interpolations; to avoid useless repetitions; to read or chant with solemnity; to recite such portions of the Pentateuch and the prophets, as custom and practice have appointed to be read in the original Hebrew; but to follow such selections with a translation in English, and a lecture or discourse upon the law, explanatory of its meaning, edifying to the young, gratifying to the old, and instructive to every age and every class of society.

Be the promised land what it may ... yet are we contented ... to live in America; to share the blessings of liberty; to partake of and to add to her political happiness, her power and her glory; to educate our children liberally; to make them useful and enlightened and honest citizens; to look upon our countrymen and brethren of the same happy family worshiping the same God of the universe, though perhaps differing in forms and opinions.

We have here the earliest American expression of Reform Judaism - practical adaptation to the religious needs and sensibilities of the present and future generations of Jews who are at home in America. A generation later, when American Jewry was vastly increased and radically altered by the influx of Jews from Germany, Bernhard Felsenthal issued a call for the organization of a Reform Jewish congregation in Chicago, Kol Kore Bamidbar (A Voice Calling in the Wilderness), Chicago, 1859. Writing in German, and in a manner consonant with Jewish Reform in Germany, Felsenthal declared:

The sources of universal religious truths are: Nature about us-the universe; Nature within us-the life of the spirit and the history of mankind. The sources of specifically Jewish principles are the history of Judaism and its confessors....

The only dogma which we consider binding upon all our members is: Absolute freedom of faith and of conscience for all....

Every Israelite has the right and the duty to himself to search the sources of religious truth with the aid of his God-given intellect. For truth is not inculcated from without, but rather from within outward, shines the light of divine truth....

A religious law which is not rooted either in the spiritual or physical nature of man is binding only so long as it continues to exert a sanctifying influence on head and heart, on character or conduct....

The subtitle of Kol Kore Bamidbar (A voice calling in the wilderness) is “On Jewish Reform.” Bernhard Felsenthal, then serving as secretary of Chicago’s first Jewish Reform Society, called for religious reform in synagogue usage, liturgy, and ritual. He later became a leading Reform rabbi and one of America’s early Zionist leaders.

B. Felsenthal, Kol Kore Bamidbar ( A voice calling in the wilderness), Chicago, 1859. Hebraic Section.

Elijah M. Holzman, by trade a scribe, by avocation a satirical polemicist, makes Reform Judaism the target of his barbs in his twenty-eight-page pamphlet Emek Refa'im (Valley of the Dead), New York, 1865. It is the second Hebrew book, other than biblical or liturgical works, published in America, It may well be the first written here to be published, for the one that preceded it, a commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers, by an immigrant itinerant preacher, may well have been written in Europe. Not so this volume. Its theme is Reform Judaism in America; its villains are Rabbis Isaac Mayer Wise, Max Lilienthal, and Samuel Adler. The title is a play on the Hebrew words refa im which can also be read as rofim, doctors. He suggests that the rabbis who call themselves Doctors are the death of Judaism. In an English foreword, he synopsizes his argument:

A sect has arisen in Israel who attempt to form a new code for public worship, embracing instrumental and vocal music. Choristers composed of male and female voices, Israelites and non-Israelites, erasing the name Synagogue and substituting the word Temple. The whole of these changes emanating from men who call themselves Doctors, and who are in fact destroyers of all that is sacred; their lips move in sanctity, and deception is in their hearts.

The English synopsis does not begin to convey the rich scholarly satire of the Hebrew, which is full of biblical allusions, puns, irony, and word play. Though the author wrote that an English translation was "now in Press, and will shortly appear," no such edition appeared, for a successful translation would have been a tour de force of literary creativity.

Anti-Reform polemics in nineteenth century America took many forms; sermons, lectures, articles, editorials, debates -ideological and recriminatory. Surely one of the most interesting weapons forges is this small volume of scholarly satire, utilizing biblical verses and Talmudic logic shaped and twisted for thrust and parry to attack and ridicule - all for “the sake of heaven.” The author, a professional scribe with a penchant for waging “the battles of the Lord” is a skilled antagonist, his rapier thrusts now and again finding their marks. What gives this volume special bibliographic distinction is that it is the first Hebrew book published in America dealing with the contemporary scene.

Elijah M. Holzman, Emek Refa’im (Valley of the Dead), New York, 1865. Hebraic Section.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).