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Isaac Mayer Wise

Isaac Mayer Wise was an American Reform rabbi, editor, and author.

Background

  • 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.

  • Education

    • 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, however there is debate as to whether he was an ordained rabbi at all. It was even a source of controversy with his intellectual rival, Rabbi David Einhorn. In 1843 he was appointed rabbi at Radnitz (now Radnice, by Pilsen), Bohemia, where he remained for about two years.

    Career

    • 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. His was the first Jewish congregation in the United States to introduce family pews in the synagogue. Wise introduced other innovations, including confirmation, a mixed-gender choir. and counting women in forming a minyan or religious quorum.

      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.

      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.

      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 1883 banquet for this first graduating class became known as the Trefa Banquet because a number of non-kosher foods were served; Wise was probably not responsible for the decision, but refused to condemn it, and criticism from him and his movement of what he called "kitchen Judaism" spurred the splitting-off of Conservative Judaism from Reform.

    Works

    Views

    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.

    Connections

    • Wise was married twice. His first wife was Therese Bloch, sister of Edward H. Bloch, the founder of Bloch Publishing Company. They had 10 children eight of whom were living at the time of his death: Emily Wise May; Leo Wise; Dr. Julius Wise; Ida Wise Bernheim; Isidor Wise; Helen Wise Molony; Iphigene Miriam Wise Ochs, married to Adolph Ochs; and Harry Wise. She died in 1874. In 1876, he married Selma Bondi; they had four children: Elsie Corrine Wise; Rabbi Jonah Bondi Wise; Regina Wise May; and Isaac M. Wise.

      Wise had no close relation to Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise.
    • father: Leo Weis
    • mother: Regina Weis
    • spouses: Therese Bloch
    • Selma Boudi
    Isaac Wise
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    Born March 29, 1819
    Died March 26, 1900
    (aged 80)
    Nationality
    Ethnicity:
    • July 23, 1846
      Rabbi, Congregation Beth-El of Albany
      New York, United States