The Two Wise Men of American Reform Judaism

By every account, Stephen Samuel Wise was a giant in American Judaism. Born in Budapest in 1874, Wise came to this country with his family when he was seventeen months old. The son and grandson of rabbis, Wise decided at an early age to continue the family’s rabbinic legacy. However, Wise differed from his forebears; because of his secular education and American upbringing, Wise forsook their traditional approach and embraced religious liberalism.

The Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati seemed the logical choice for a young man seeking a liberal rabbinic education in the early 1890s. After obtaining his undergraduate degree at Columbia in 1892, Stephen planned to begin doctoral studies at Columbia in the field of Semitics. He wanted to pursue rabbinic training but did not want to interrupt his doctoral studies. So, with the typical boldness that he showed throughout his life, Stephen wrote to the elderly and by then legendary Isaac Mayer Wise (no relation) in August 1892, seeking permission to enter the rabbinic program at HUC in absentia.

Though Stephen’s original letter has been lost, the elder Wise’s response is on file at the American Jewish Archives and is the only known correspondence between the two founders of today’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In his handwritten letter dated September 4, 1892, Isaac M. Wise reluctantly agreed to Stephen Wise’s request but stated,

My private opinion, however, is that it would be much better for you if you would reverse the order [of your studies] to get permission from Columbia to make your post-graduate studies for the degree you seek “in absentia” and come here [Cincinnati] to make your rabbinical studies regularly. You can not do the amount of work in “Rabbinica” by private tuition which you can do here. Your main object however is the “Rabbinica” which I think should now occupy your main attention, and the work for the Dr. Ph. [Ph.D.] as any other degree be done simultaneously. But as your father seems to think otherwise and your taste runs in the same direction, I submit and registered you in absentia for the year any how.

The upshot of this was that Stephen did not follow through on what he himself had proposed. After consulting his father, rather than beginning either course of study he immediately went to Europe, where he soon received private ordination from Adolf Jellinek, a liberal rabbi in Vienna. When Stephen returned to New York in the spring of 1893, he became assistant rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, largely due to his father’s influence. He then also began his doctoral studies at Columbia, where he received his degree in 1901.

It is unfortunate there is no further record of this episode from either side. It would be fascinating to learn Stephen Wise’s reasons for not pursuing his studies at HUC or to know Isaac Mayer Wise’s reaction both to the young man’s brash proposal and his sudden change of plans. It is no secret that Stephen harbored a general resentment against the Hebrew Union College, particularly for what he called a “deep-seated intolerance of Zionist advocacy” among HUC faculty and administration in its early years. He also considered that New York far surpassed Cincinnati as the center of American Jewish life.

Writing in his autobiography about his 1922 decision to found his own rabbinic seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion, Wise stated, “Cincinnati…had somehow ceased to be the large and vital Jewish center it had been in the earliest days of its great founder, Isaac M. Wise…With the passing of Isaac Wise, Cincinnati’s glory had largely departed. Only immovable buildings and local piety or patriotism had kept the college in Cincinnati.”

Criticizing also the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Conservative rabbinic seminary located in New York, Wise said that “both alike seemed to us committed to an un-catholic sectarianism, which in both cases seemed survival of yesterday rather than prophecy of tomorrow. Wherefore, the founding of the Jewish Institute of Religion, in a community that was itself a Jewish cosmos.”

People’s opinions of Wise’s comments directed at HUC, JTS and the city of Cincinnati depend on their location, both political and geographic. With Wise as its president, the JIR operated for more than twenty-five years and welcomed a diverse mixture of students and scholars. The Jewish Institute of Religion purposely reflected the changing demography of the American Jewish community, which resulted from the massive influx of East European immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.┬áIn 1950, HUC and JIR merged. Thus the two Wises, different as they were and interacting only once that we know about, are forever entwined in American Reform Jewish history.