Isaac Mayer Wise




             Most of Wise’s reforms sprang from his major dissimilarity with traditional, later known as Orthodox, Judaism.  Their differences were rooted in issues of practicality (Philipson and Grossman 63).  He felt that many of the practices of conventional Judaism had become outdated and therefore focused his initial stage of reform on the modernization of worship (Glazer 39).  In modifying the liturgical style, he was adamant in regards to a congregation’s use of the language of the country.  Still wanting Jews to remain true to their faith, he proposed that “[the] main portion of divine service must be in Hebrew,” but insisted upon “the balance of prayers, hymns, instructions and admonitions…[being recited in] the vernacular” (Temkin 218).  He felt that the services had become unnecessarily long and so shortened the prayers (Rosenburg 160).  In addition, he eliminated extra prayers and poems that were customarily inserted on special occasions (Temkin 50, 51).  Wise also abolished the “second days of the festivals, except for Rosh Hashana,” which in 1873 Reformed Jews eventually agreed to give up (110).  Furthermore, in regards to liturgy, he re-established the use of a choir and instrumental music, especially the organ, and abolished the chanting of prayers by the rabbis (77, 78). 

Wise’s reforms also targeted the personal behavior of the Hebrew people.  He denounced the need for ritual dress, including the covering of the head in worship (Rosenburg 160; Temkin 110).  Moreover, he “abandoned the Jewish dietary laws” so characteristic of the religion to that point (Lazerwitz et al. 16).  Another change came in the way Jews viewed circumcision.  The procedure that represented the covenant which God had made between Himself and the Hebrew people had become, in Wise’s eyes, rather ritualistic.  Wise proposed that this act not be viewed as necessary for initiation into the Jewish community.  Though the proposition was at the time voted down, by 1895 it had been embraced (Philipson and Grossman 73, 74).  Additionally, Wise addressed the traditional separation of men and women during worship and allowed their heterogeneous seating, establishing family pews (Temkin 77, 78).  

Along with the reforms in liturgy and mannerisms came a changing ideology.  No longer did all Jews claim a belief in the “bodily resurrection of the dead” (Rosenburg160).  Nor did the hope for a Davidic Messianic king survive in the reformers’ beliefs.  It was replaced with the anticipation of a “’messianic age’…when peace and human brotherhood” would prevail (160).  In addition, Reformed Jews began to understand their scriptures in a more scientific light, and “the doctrine of  ‘progressive revelation’ came to replace the belief that God had revealed Himself for all time to Moses” (161).  Wise rejected also the goal for a Jewish reclamation of the Holy Land (Lazerwitz et al. 16).  The Reformer had opinions on the Talmud and other non-Biblical writings as well.  He saw these not as his Orthodox counterparts did, instead recognizing their fallibility because of their “human origin” (Temkin 87). 

 In opposition to rabbis of similar cultural origin, Wise felt there existed a strong need to Americanize Judaism (Blau 32, 33).  Reformed Jews were glad to finally be accepted as citizens; they wanted to do nothing to hint at their separate nationality.  In the words of Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, they wanted to be “Jews but not too ‘Jewish’” (139).  Along these lines, reformers implemented modifications to bring the Jews toward “conformity to the norms of the largely white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant society” (Lazerwitz et al. 15).  For instance, though Wise never blatantly supported this position, in the end, reformers succeeded in shifting the observance of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.  Additionally, the daily study of the scriptures was abandoned for the more mainstream, weekly Sunday school program (17). Wise even went so far as to “propose that a distinctive American version of the traditional liturgy and ritual was called for” (Blau 33).  He assured its establishment by creating his American version of the Hebrew prayer book, the Minhag America.

 Though later in his life he tended to exaggerate their immediacy, it is generally thought that Wise’s reform policies matured rather slowly and “[took] place quietly” (Raphael 13).  Wise himself spoke of congregation B’nai Jeshurun:  “’I recognized that all things would turn out right if I would be content to make haste slowly’” (Temkin 109).  In addition, he was initially viewed as moderate to traditional in regards to his reform platforms (Raphael 13, 14).  There were Wise’s contemporaries who stood on either side of his position; Isaac Lesser, the traditionalist “orthodox irreconcilable,” and the extreme radical reformist David Einhorn gave him grief all along the way (Philipson and Grossman 61, 72).  His congregations too did not accept his ideas with outright enthusiasm.  In fact, in April of 1849, the members of his Albany synagogue issued a contract specifying his duties in an attempt to limit his reform intentions (Temkin 46-48).  This opposition at times took Wise by surprise:  “An idealist, dreamer and enthusiast I had shaped all things as they ought to have been…I was…convinced that everyone thought and felt just as I did” (48).


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