Isaac Mayer Wise and Me

by Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Last Shabbat, we commemorated the birthday of someone very special. A red-headed and red-bearded rabbi, a scholar, a prince of the Reform Movement who is inarguably one of the most important Reform rabbis — nay, one of the most important rabbis, period — of North America.

Amazingly, I’m not speaking about myself (though last Shabbat was my birthday, too), but rather of Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Reform Movement we take for granted, who was born March 29, 1819. Wise was a great publisher of scholarly texts, a Jewish paper, the American Israelite, still published today, and founded the Hebrew Union College, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. While one could argue that there might have been Reform without Wise, it would not have been the Movement we know and love today.

If Wise could see today, what would he think of his Reform Judaism, or of the Jewish world in general? There are some things that would surely delight him.

An advocate of youth engagement who did away with the bar mitzvah and replaced it with confirmation, and started Hebrew Union College originally as a high school and college program, Wise would be thrilled to see the myriad camps and youth groups, the energy put into reviving Jewish education and making it meaningful for a new generation. He would love social media: without a doubt, Wise would be tweeting away his thoughts to his public, blogging rather than publishing a newspaper. He would appreciate our prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah, as his own siddur, Minhag America, is actually not so different, with Hebrew and English options, running commentary, and the option of making the service more or less traditional.

And as someone who was politically active, and believed firmly that Judaism would be the religion of all enlightened folk, he would be proud of the fact that so many of our values are a part of the warp and woof of our society, proud of the work of the Religious Action Center, American Jewish World Service, and the host of other Jewish organizations advocating for human dignity and freedom in America and abroad.

And, likewise, Wise should take some measure of pride at our place in history. While, without a doubt we wring our hands over population surveys and demographic studies, as the Economist pointed out this past summer, never in Jewish history has there been so much vitality or creativity in our people — in social justice, in music, the arts, scholarship, worship, education, Israel and international engagement, the contemporary Jew has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to involvement, with a myriad of choices and opportunities to enrich and enliven his or her Judaism, should he or she choose.

Yet, there are some things that would give Wise pause, and not the ones you might imagine. While he would be proud of the growth of his institutions—the scholarship of the College, the number of synagogues and individuals who call themselves Reform, the diversity and creativity of the Movement’s membership—he would still be disappointed. For Wise wasn’t interested in creating a Reform Movement, a separate stream of Judaism. Wise wanted to reform Judaism, to create an American Judaism that responded to the exigencies of modern reality, that was welcoming and embracing, moderate and pragmatic, democratic in nature that spoke to all Jews in the New World. There is a reason his congregational organization was called the “Union of AMERICAN HEBREW Congregations”; when we changed our name, we gave up hope on Wise’s vision, that there could ever be a unified American Judaism.

And yet, we find again and again that Reform is on the right side of history—with egalitarianism, interfaith engagement, social action, Human and Civil Rights, LGBT issues, we find the other Jewish movements playing catch-up to us. And even as we “become more traditional” (or, as my teacher Shelly Zimmerman put it, “become more playful with tradition,” it is in the way Wise would have wanted, in a fully American fashion. Whether it is the wearing of ritual garb, the increase in Hebrew in our liturgy, use of music, or more recently the exploration of Jewish sacred eating, including kashrut, the Reform Movement explores the issues through thoughtfulness, an invitation for self-exploration, a deepening of personal meaning, pragmatism, and finally, adopts the practice in a fully modern expression. While there has never been one American Judaism, we can take pride in knowing that ours is, perhaps, the most American expression of our faith — one that cedes ultimate authority, besides the Almighty, to the individual alone.

In 1876 in his book The Cosmic God, Wise wrote:

“I opened the Bible [and] read: ‘Unless thy law had been my delight, I should long since have been lost in my affliction.’ It struck me forcibly. ‘There is the proper remedy for all afflictions.’ When those ancient Hebrews spoke of the law of God, they meant the whole of it revealed in God’s words and works…Research, science, philosophy, deep and perplexing, problems most intricate and propositions most complicated…”

In a world where we’re too often given the false choice of faith versus reason, where the idea of moderate or liberal religion seems oxymoronic, Wise reminds us that faith and reason, spirituality and liberalism, go hand in hand. In a world where we strive for democratic ideals expressed deeply and spiritually, and where we expect our Jewish values to be realized in modern and universal terms, Wise is there, urging us on. The world Isaac Mayer Wise knew is a world quite foreign to us, and vice versa, but on his birthday, we are reminded that his legacy is one that enriches us today, one that saw our tradition not narrowly, but as the means of enlightenment and redemption for the world.

Rabbi Yair Robinson serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE.

Originally published at A Good Question!