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Isaac Mayer Wise, Pluralism, and his “Declaration of Independence”

Posted on Tuesday, July 02, 2013 by Rabbi Zev Eleff

On this Independence Day, it seems, we might consider what “union” might look like in the twenty-first century by revisiting a troubling period in American Jewish History. Isaac Mayer Wise served as president of the November 1885 Pittsburgh Conference, where eight pillars of “progressive religion” formally separated their movement from traditional American Jews. While Wise was well-known for offering compromises and seeking the middle-ground, this would no longer do for many American rabbis. Consequently, the Conference’s organizers, Kaufmann Kohler and Emil G. Hirsch—two sons-in-law of Wise’s longtime adversary, David Einhorn—thought it best to simultaneously grace their elder with all-due-respect and make it known that they were the ones truly in charge of this pivotal moment in Reform Judaism’s history.

Before his trip, Wise questioned whether he should attend but decided in the end that “silence is a crime when speech on behalf of principles in necessary.” He had championed “union” throughout his rabbinic career—a word that figured prominently in the name of his rabbinical school and synagogue organization—and believed that his presence in Pittsburgh might help bridge factions. His plan did not work. Never too theologically consistent but never too radical either, Wise quickly withdrew his support for what had happened in Allegheny City's Concordia Club House, just a few miles outside of Pittsburgh.2 It is therefore surprising that the best biography of Wise claimed that he “lauded” the Conference “as a Declaration of Independence.”3 Similarly the leading historian of Reform Judaism recorded Wise as celebrating what Reform leaders had achieved in Pennsylvania.4

That Wise described the Pittsburgh Conference in Jeffersonian rhetoric is undeniable. Yet, the intent of his clever phrase has been long misunderstood.5 The full and official conference proceedings were never published because, according to Wise, “a committee appointed to publish the proceedings neglected its duty.”6 Instead, Kohler published a “one-sided” account in his newspaper, which was then republished by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1923.7 Accordingly, the earliest record of Wise’s “Declaration” was printed in a local Pittsburgh paper and republished in Wise’s own newspaper just days after he returned to his hometown of Cincinnati. The report first documented the “Declaration of Views,” read aloud by David Philipson. The next portion is most relevant to our present discussion:

Dr. Wise rose and said solemnly: “Gentlemen, what is it you desire to do with this declaration of independence?”

Rabbi A. Moses, of Louisville:
“I hail with great joy this able and wonderfully liberal declaration. The platform is admirable and I accept it with both hands and I move its adoption by this meeting.” Dr. Wise then put the question and the platform as a whole was accepted unanimously, with the understanding that it should be subjected to careful examination by the Conference, sentence by sentence.8

The local reporter well understood that Wise’s expression was one of remorse, stated and intoned with “solemnity.” Upon reviewing the outcome of those meetings, Wise knew that his quest to forge a united American Jewish religious community had failed. The revolution caused by the Pittsburgh declaration of independence from all other interpretations of Judaism had alienated all those to the right of them; the Orthodox and moderately liberal could never accept the decisions of the Pittsburgh Conference. The editors of the religiously conservative Jewish Messenger understood it that way, as well. They believed that Kaufmann Kohler and his circle had gone too far with denying a personal messiah, the authority of the Talmud and the biblically ordained dietary laws. After observing the public back-and-forth between Wise and others in the weeks after the Pittsburgh affair, the Messenger grieved that Wise had underestimated the fissures wrought by the Conference. In the newspaper’s estimation, Wise’s “‘Declaration of Independence’ may prove more serious than he and his friends imagine.”9

The combination of his acceptance of an irreparably disjointed American Judaism and the attacks unleashed by his rightwing opponents pushed Wise to temporarily lend support to the Pittsburgh Platform. “We,” he wrote in solidarity with the other members of the Pittsburgh Conference, “are the orthodox Jews in America, and they were the orthodoxy of former days and other countries.”10 Wise’s change of heart confused matters, particularly for traditionalist leaders who by January 1886 separated Wise’s “Declaration” from its original intent. Now, his words stood for Reform Judaism’s claim to self-evident Americanism: “Dr. I.M. Wise started the theory recently that they who had enunciated the ‘Declaration of Independence,’ as embodied in the Pittsburg [sic] resolutions, were the only real genuine, Simon-pure, dyed-in-the-wool Orthodox Jews.” 11

Several months later, leading traditionalist Alexander Kohut grouped Wise and radical reformers together in what he termed the “Declaration of Independence school.”12 It mattered little to Kohut and his supporters that Wise had in the meanwhile separated himself from the Pittsburgh Conference and rededicated himself to locating points of agreement between all of America’s Jews. In time, the “Declaration of Independence” had gained such a reputation that even Wise accepted the revised interpretation.13 He, then, along with so many others contributed to the distortion.

Despite this, tensions in our present day American Judaism require that we reconsider Wise’s original intent, which was to try to bridge factions and keep Jewish movements unified.

Rabbi Zev Eleff is a Wexner Graduate Fellow Alum, Class 22, and a  doctoral candidate at Brandeis University. He has published more than a dozen books and articles in the field of American Jewish history.  Zev can be reached at eleff@brandeis.edu.

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1 Max B. May, Isaac Mayer Wise: Founder of American Judaism, a Biography (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916), 307.
2 Isaac M. Wise, “A Record of American Judaism for A.M. 5646,” American Jews’ Annual (1886-1887): 62-66.
3 Stephen D. Temkin, Isaac Mayer Wise: Shaping American Judaism (Oxford: Littman, 1992), 289.
4 Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 269.
5 For one exception of this trend, see Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 150.
6 Wise, “A Record of American Judaism,” 64.
7 Jonathan D. Sarna, “New Light on the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885,” American Jewish History 76 (March 1987): 358.
8 “Tuesday—Second Day,” The American Israelite (November 20, 1885): 8.  
9 “Editorials,” Jewish Messenger (November 27, 1885): 4.
10 “The Theory, the Practice, the People,” The American Israelite (November 27, 1885): 4.
11 “Approaching Christianity,” American Hebrew (January 29, 1886): 178. See also, “The Latest Moses,” American Hebrew (January 22, 1886): 162.
12 Alexander Kohut, “Which is Right?,” American Hebrew (June 25, 1886): 99.
13 “On the Conference,” The American Israelite (August 15, 1895): 4.