Isaac Mayer Wise
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The son of Rabbi Leo Wise, a school-teacher, Isaac received his early Hebrew education from his father and grandfather, later continuing his Hebrew and secular studies in Prague. He may have received the hattarat hora'ah from the Prague bet din, composed of Rabbis Rapoport, Samuel Freund, and E. L. Teweles, or from Rabbi Falk Kohn. In 1843 he was appointed rabbi at Radnitz (now Radnice, by Pilsen), Bohemia, where he remained for about two years.
Move to the United States
Wise emigrated to the United States in 1846. He arrived in New York on 23 July, and in October was appointed rabbi of the Congregation Beth-El of Albany. He soon began agitating for reforms in the service, and his was the first Jewish congregation in the United States to introduce family pews in the synagogue. A mixed choir, and confirmation were also among the innovations introduced by Wise, who even went so far as to count women in forming a minyan or religious quorum.
Minhag America Prayer-Book
In 1847, at the suggestion of Max Lilienthal, who was at that time stationed in New York, a bet din was formed, which was to act in the capacity of an advisory committee to the congregations of the country, without, however, exercising hierarchic powers. As members of this bet din, Lilienthal named Wise and two others, besides himself. At a meeting held in the spring of 1847 Wise submitted to the bet din the manuscript of a prayer-book, to be titled the Minhag America, and to be used by all the congregations of the country. Nothing definite was done in the matter, however, until the Cleveland Conference of 1855, when a committee consisting of Wise, Rothenberg and Isidor Kalisch was appointed to edit such a prayer-book. This book appeared under the title Minhag America, and was practically Wise's work; it was adopted by most of the congregations of the Western and Southern states. So pronounced was Wise's desire for union, that when in 1894 the Union Prayer Book was published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, he voluntarily retired the Minhag America from his own congregation.
As early as 1848 Wise issued a call to the "ministers and other Israelites" of the United States, urging them to form a union which might put an end to the prevalent religious anarchy. His call appeared in the columns of The Occident, and was ably seconded by its editor, Isaac Leeser. Wise suggested that a meeting be held in the spring of 1849 at Philadelphia, to establish a union of the congregations of the entire country. This meeting did not take place; but the originator of the idea never ceased advocating it, especially after he had established his own newspaper, The Israelite (July 1854, restyled The American Israelite in July 1874), in the columns of which he tirelessly expounded his views upon the subject. His persistence won its reward when in 1873, twenty-five years after he had first broached the idea, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was organized at Cincinnati.
Problems in Albany, move to Cincinnati
In 1850, a fistfight between Wise and the synagogue's president caused a split in the Albany community, and the consequent formation of a new congregation, the Anshe Emeth, by the friends and supporters of Wise. Wise remained with this congregation until April 1854, when he became rabbi of the Bene Yeshurun congregation of the Lodge Street Synagogue of Cincinnati, Ohio, where he officiated for the remaining 46 years of his life. Wise was above all an organizer, and called numerous institutions into being. He organized the building of the Plum Street Temple in 1866. The temple, noted for its architectural grandeur, was renamed the Isaac M. Wise Temple in his honor.
Hebrew Union College
Earnest as he was in proclaiming the necessity for union among the congregations, he was equally indefatigable in insisting upon the pressing need of a theological seminary for the training of rabbis for American pulpits. In his Reminiscences he gives a vivid picture of the incompetency of many of the men who posed as spiritual guides of the congregations during the early days of his residence in the United States. He had scarcely arrived in Cincinnati when, with his characteristic energy, he set to work to establish a college in which young men could receive a Jewish education. He enlisted the interest and support of a number of influential Jews of Cincinnati and adjacent towns, and in 1855 founded the Zion Collegiate Association. The venture, however, proved a failure, and the society did not succeed in opening a college. Not daunted, Wise entered upon a literary campaign, and year in and year out he presented the subject in the columns of The American Israelite. His indomitable perseverance was crowned with success when, on 3 October 1875, the Hebrew Union College opened its doors for the reception of students, four of whom were ordained eight years later.
The first outcome of Wise's agitation for union among the Jews was the Cleveland Conference held in 1855, and convened at his initiative. This conference was unfortunate, for, instead of uniting the rabbis of all parts of the country in a bond of fellowship, it gave rise to strained relations between Wise and his followers on one side, and prominent rabbis in the eastern part of the country on the other side. These differences were partly removed during the rabbinical conference of Philadelphia (1869), which Wise attended. The New York conference of 1870, and the Cincinnati conference of 1871 were efforts in the same direction; but a controversy ensuing from the latter served only to widen the breach. Yet was the great "unionist" not discouraged. He continued agitating for a synod which was to be the central body of authority for American Judaism. In 1881 he submitted to the meeting of the Rabbinical Literary Association a report urging the formation of a synod; but the matter never passed beyond the stage of discussion. However, he lived to see the establishment of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889, which was the third enduring offspring of his tireless energy and unfailing perseverance. During the last eleven years of his life he served as president of the conference which he had called into existence.
Besides the arduous labors that the organization of these national institutions entailed, Wise was active in many other ways. In 1857, when a new treaty was to be concluded between the United States and Switzerland, he visited Washington as chairman of a delegation to protest against the ratification of this treaty unless Switzerland should cease its discrimination against American Jews. In his own city, besides officiating as rabbi of the Bene Yeshurun congregation and as president of the Hebrew Union College, he edited the "American Israelite" and the "Deborah," served as an examiner of teachers applying for positions in public schools, and was also a member of the board of directors of the University of Cincinnati. He traveled throughout the United States, lecturing, dedicating synagogues, and enlisting the interest of the Jewish communities in his plans and projects.
Isaac Mayer Wise offered innovative and influential views of the founding figures of Christianity as part of a program to defend Judaism against the inroads of Christianity while refusing to demonize it. He was amongst the earliest Jewish scholars to reclaim Jesus as a Jew, and, more controversially, to suggest that Paul was in fact the Talmudic figure, Acher.
Isaac Mayer Wise has been criticized for his attitude toward slavery.
In an article from 1864, Isaac Mayer Wise wrote, "We are not prepared, nobody is, to maintain it is absolutely unjust to purchase savages, or rather, their labor, place them under the protection of law, and secure them the benefit of civilized society and their sustenance for their labor. Man in a savage state is not free; the alien servant under the Mosaic law was a free man, excepting only the fruits of his labor. The abstract idea of liberty is more applicable to the alien labor of the Mosaic system than to the savage, and savages only will sell themselves or their offspring. Negro slavery, if it could have been brought under the control of the Mosaic or similar laws, must have tended to the blessing of the negro race by frequent emigration of civilized negroes back to the interior of Africa; and even now that race might reap the benefit of its enslaved members, if the latter or the best instructed among them were sent back to the interior of Africa."
Though, this quote is taken from an article where Wise opened stating, "It is evident that Moses was opposed to slavery..." The article itself, titled On the Provisional Portion of the Mosaic Code, with Special Reference to Polygamy and Slavery defends the Mosaic form of slavery as found in the Hebrew Bible while at the same time offering certain criticisms.
Wise was the author of the following works:
- The History of the Israelitish Nation from Abraham to the Present Time, Albany, 1854
- History of the first commonwealth of the Israelite, Cincinnati, 1860
- The Essence of Judaism, Cincinnati, 1861
- The Origin of Christianity, and a Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 1868
- Judaism, Its Doctrines and Duties, 1872
- The Martyrdom of Jesus of Nazareth: a Historico-Critical Treatise on the Last Chapter of the Gospel, 1874
- The Cosmic God, 1876
- History of the Hebrews' Second Commonwealth, 1880
- Judaism and Christianity, Their Agreements and Disagreements, 1883
- A Defense of Judaism vs. Proselytizing Christianity, 1889
- Pronaos to Holy Writ, 1891
In his early years he wrote a number of novels, which appeared first as serials in The Israelite, and later in book form; these were:
- The Convert, 1854
- The Catastrophe of Eger
- The Shoemaker's Family
- Resignation and Fidelity, or Life and Romance
- Romance, Philosophy, and Cabalah, or the Conflagration in Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1855
- The Last Struggle of the Nation, 1856
- The Combat of the People, or Hillel and Herod, 1858
- The First of the Maccabees
He wrote also a number of German novels, which appeared as serials in the Deborah; among these may be mentioned:
- Die Juden von Landshuth
- Der Rothkopf, oder des Schulmeisters Tochter
- Baruch und Sein Ideal
In addition to all these works Wise published in the editorial columns of The Israelite numerous studies on various subjects of Jewish interest. He even wrote a couple of plays, "Der Maskirte Liebhaber" and "Das Glück Reich zu Sein".
During his lifetime Wise was regarded as the most prominent Reform Jew of his time in the United States. His genius for organization was of a very high order; and he was masterful, rich in resources, and possessed of an inflexible will. More than of any of his contemporaries, it may be said of him that he left the imprint of his personality upon the development of Reform Judaism in the United States.
- Wall of the Historically Noteworthy, jewishgen.org
- Sommer, J. G. Kingdom of Bohemia, vol. 15, 1847
- Wlaschek, R. M. (1997). Juden im Böhmen [Jews in Bohemia] (in German). ISBN 9783486562835.
- Grace, Kevin (4 January 2012). Legendary Locals of Cincinnati. Arcadia Publishing. p. 31. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
- Langton, Daniel (2010). The Apostle Paul in the Jewish Imagination. Cambridge University Press. pp. 77–79.
- The Israelite 11, no. 26 (23 December 1864): 204.
- Wise, Isaac Mayer (1889). A defense of Judaism versus proselytizing Christianity.
- Wise, Isaac Mayer (1874). The martyrdom of Jesus of Nazareth: a historic-critical treatise on the last chapters of the Gospel.
- Wise, Isaac Mayer (1872). Judaism: its doctrines and duties.
- Wise, Isaac Mayer (1868). The origin of Christianity: and a commentary to the Acts of the Apostles.
- Wise, Isaac Mayer (1891). Pronaos to Holy Writ: establishing on documentary evidence, the authorship, date, form, and contents of each of its books, and the authenticity of the Pentateuch.
- Wise, Isaac Mayer (1854). History of the Israelitish nation: from Abraham to the present time, Volume 1.
- Wise, Isaac Mayer (1876). The cosmic God: A fundamental philosophy in popular lectures, Volume 3.
- JewishEncyclopedia, by Cyrus Adler & David Philipson
- Bibliography: I. M. Wise, Reminiscences, transl. from the German and ed. by David Philipson, Cincinnati, 1901;
- Selected Writings of Isaac M. Wise, with a biography by David Philipson and Louis Grossmann, ib. 1900;
- The American Israelite, 1854–1900, passim, and the Jubilee number, 30 June 1904.
- Isaac Mayer Wise Digital Archive at the American Jewish Archives
- Works by Isaac Mayer Wise in the German Union Catalogue
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.