Before understanding the reform efforts of Isaac Mayer Wise, one must first grasp the roots of the Reform movement and its ideal. Reformed Judaism came to being in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The uprising had spread democratic ideals to much of Europe, and nineteenth century Germany could hardly escape its reach (Rosenburg 159). Led by the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the original reform movement appears to have had two goals. First was social equality. The Jewish people had caught the spirit of democracy and wanted citizenship and civil rights in the German states (Lazerwitz et al. 16). They therefore sought to change “those aspects of contemporary Jewish life that…prevented the individual Jew from gaining acceptance as a Jew within the larger society” (Raphael 5). Secondly, some Jews, especially those educated and of the upper-class, felt the need to abandon certain traditional practices that had become in their eyes “anachronistic, burdensome, and without meaning” (5). Typical reformers wanted changes in order that “the spirit of the law, rather than the letter [would dominate]” (4). They began by modifying worship guidelines, requesting that parts of the service be recited in the vernacular rather than the traditional Hebrew (Lazerwitz et al. 16). This eventually led to ideological transformations as well (Rosenburg 159).
Reform ideals spread through the upper classes of Europe and made their way to America specifically with the immigration of the German Jews (Lazerwitz et al. 16, 17). The first purely American attempt at reform occurred in 1824 in the congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. Many members requested that the prayers and scripture be repeated in English after being recited in Hebrew. In addition, they had a desire for musical changes, such as the addition of an organ. Outraging some, these dissenters created a Reformed Society of Israelites, which eventually disbanded in 1833 (Glazer 35, 36). It would be another thirteen years before the arrival of the man who could assure that their desires come to fruition.
As Isaac Mayer Wise became increasingly oriented in the United States, he grew aware of the melancholy state of American Judaism. He observed that the congregations manifested those negative elements of Judaism that were under attack in Europe (Glazer 32). For example, he noted that his first American congregation, Beth-El, practiced their Judaism as “a matter of rote” (Temkin 51), something he sought seriously to address. In the beginning, Wise did not desire any “radical changes in ideology or practice” (123). His notions were centered purely in returning Judaism to the “simplicity and brevity” of its earlier days and “[purging] it from the accretions of the centuries” (Blau 35).
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