Isaac Mayer Wise




             For realizing his goal of forming a clerical synod, Wise became “the leading spirit” behind 45 years of conferences (Philipson and Grossman 70).  Through his publications, he would call together rabbis, asking them to join him in achieving an objective.  When he had received enough support, generally that of 25 congregations, a conference would be scheduled.  Of the many he attempted to convene, though, only a few came to substance; of these, four stand out as significant.  

The first of such conferences took place in Cleveland, Ohio in 1855.  Its purpose was “’to prepare the way for future synods’” (Philipson and Grossman 71).  During this convention, Wise felt it necessary to put aside his reform motives for the promotion of unity.  Indeed, no reforms were brought up or voted upon, but those present did “[feel] obligated” to specify “points on which they unanimously agree as the leading principles of the future synods” (72).  These included declarations that “the Bible…is of immediate divine origin and the standard of our religion,…The Talmud…must be expounded and practiced according to [its] comments,…[and] The resolutions of a synod in accordance with the above principles are legally valid” (72).        

            Wise continually encountered resistance to proposed conferences and struggled to amass support enough to assemble one.  It would be sixteen years before another convention of worth took place under his leadership, this time in his hometown.  The debates at this Cincinnati event centered around both the intended seminary and Union (Temkin 240).  Much progress was made that caused Wise to be more hopeful about the fulfillment of these two of his life goals.  

            The next monumental gathering occurred in Pittsburgh in 1887.  This conference focused on Biblical interpretation, leaning toward the liberal (Temkin 289-291).  Those in attendance “adopted a Declaration of Principles,” “[stating] that Judaism is…evolutionary and progressive…[changing] in every age according to the ‘postulates of reason’” (Philipson and Grossman 75; Raphael 17).  The proceedings of this conference seemed to condone and embrace much that was contrary to Wise’s lifetime positions.  For example, “the idea of a single theological framework for American Judaism disappeared” (Temkin 294).  Wise’s realization of his goals, however, was soon to be ameliorated. 

A conference held in Detroit, Michigan in July of 1889 “capped the structure” of the reform movement (Glazer 42; Philipson and Grossman 76).  At this conference was established the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), a structured group of reformed clergy, that was indeed the culmination of the organization of the Jewish ministry (Philipson and Grossman 70).  Wise described the essence of the group as “independent…self-governing Judaism in accordance with the freedom and the liberalism of this country” (79).  Within the CCAR, “toleration of differences [became] indispensable” (78).  In spite of, or possibly on account of, their diversity of thought, the organization did work together for positive means.  They published the Union Prayer Book, which came closer than anything to becoming the book of common prayer for the Jews.  Wise’s support of a national liturgy is manifest in that he willingly gave up his desire that his Minhag America become this customary prayer book (77).  This Union Prayer Book “supplied a long-felt want for a national ritual,” and “with [its] publication…worship services became overwhelmingly standardized” (Philipson and Grossman; Raphael 37).  In addition to producing this liturgical text, the CCAR defined Judaism as a religion rather than a nation and “rejected…the notion of a messianic return to Palestine” (Handlin 111).  More than anything, though, “the Central Conference provided a useful annual meeting for a widely scattered rabbinate” (Temkin 304).


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