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Biography of Isaac Mayer Wise

Name: Isaac Mayer Wise
Bith Date: March 29, 1819
Death Date: March 26, 1900
Place of Birth: Steingrub
Nationality: American
Gender: Male
Occupations: religious leader
Isaac Mayer Wise

Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), American Jewish religious leader, was the builder of Reform Judaism in the United States.

Isaac M. Wise was born on March 29, 1819, in Steingrub, Bohemia. He attended various traditional Jewish schools in Bohemia, studied at the Universities of Prague and Vienna, and was ordained a rabbi in 1842. After several years as rabbi in the Bohemian town of Radnitz, he emigrated to the United States in 1846. His first pulpit in America was Temple Beth El in Albany, N.Y., where he served from 1846 until 1854, when he became rabbi of Congregation Bene Yeshurun in Cincinnati. He held this post until his death on March 26, 1900.

Reform Judaism

Wise's greatest achievement was the establishment of the three key institutions of Reform Judaism in America. In 1873 he founded, and was elected president of, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the organization of Reform Jewish congregations in the United States. Feeling that a rabbinate trained in America could best serve American Judaism, Wise founded in Cincinnati in 1875 the Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical seminary. He served as its president and as a professor of theology for the rest of his life. In 1889 he founded the main organization of American Reform rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and served as its president for 11 years. These three organizations provided the structure for Reform Judaism in America.

Wise's philosophy of moderate Reform Judaism affirmed the historicity of the revelation at Sinai and the divine origin of the Ten Commandments. The latter was for him the basis of Judaism as a universal, rational religion whose destiny was to be mankind's universal religion. Wise accordingly proceeded to "reform" American Jewish ritual and ceremony, removing many of the features of rabbinic Judaism and formulating a new synagogue liturgy (Minhag America) in 1857. Influenced by the universal ideals of American nationalism as well, Wise became an outspoken opponent of the Zionist movement.

His Writings

In addition to his ministerial and organizational labors, Wise was a prolific writer. He edited (1854-1900) the weekly publication Israelite (later American Israelite), and he published in it numerous articles on Jewish theology and history as well as novels in serial form. The Israelite served Wise not only as a platform for expounding his views on Judaism but also as a vehicle for defending Jewish rights. He wrote a number of books on Jewish theology, including The Essence of Judaism (1861), Judaism, Its Doctrines and Duties (1872), and The Cosmic God (1876). In addition he published works on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity: The Origin of Christianity, and A Commentary to the Acts of the Apostles (1868), The Martyrdom of Jesus of Nazareth (1874), Judaism and Christianity: Their Agreements and Disagreements (1883), and A Defense of Judaism versus Proselytizing Christianity (1889). Among his works on Jewish history and literature were The History of the Israelitish Nation from Abraham to the Present Time (1854), The History of the Hebrews' Second Commonwealth (1880), and Pronaos to Holy Writ (1891).

Further Reading

  • The most comprehensive work on Wise is James G. Heller, Isaac M. Wise: His Life, Work, and Thought (1965), a lengthy study published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. A shorter, more popular work is Israel Knox, Rabbi in America: The Story of Isaac M. Wise (1957).
  • Temkin, Sefton D., Isaac Mayer Wise, shaping American Judaism, Oxford England; New York: Published for the Littman Library by Oxford University Press; Washington, DC, USA: Distributed in the U.S. by B'nai B'rith Book Service, 1992.

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