URJ Ten Minutes of Torah: Seminary of Unimaginable Ironies by David Ellenson

Seminary of Unimaginable Ironies
by David Ellenson

This conversation with HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson has been adapted from the Summer 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. To read the full article: reformjudaismmag.org.

What inspired Isaac Mayer Wise to establish a rabbinic seminary?
When I. M. Wise arrived from Germany in 1846, he discovered a still nascent but burgeoning Jewish community. At the end of the Colonial Period, probably no more than 3,000–5,000 Jews, mostly Sephardim, lived in what would become the United States. Between 1815 and 1881, approximately 225,000 Jews came to America—almost all German speakers from Central Europe, Wise among them. Not a single national Jewish organization or seminary existed in America. American religious life—Jewish and Christian—was organized around congregations, and each community existed independently, with virtually no formally trained clergy; in 1855, for example, only seven ordained rabbis served all of North America.

Recognizing that American Judaism could not realize its potential without professional leadership, Wise decided to create a rabbinical school. His initial attempt failed because of lack of financial support, but that did not deter him.

Wise dreamed of creating a distinctly American kind of Judaism that would encompass a multiplicity of Jewish perspectives and practices. The name of the prayer book he published in 1857, Minhag America, reveals a great deal about what he envisioned. The name minhag, meaning “custom” or “tradition,” had been classically employed to describe Jewish prayer books for different communities, such as minhag Ashkenaz (the Ashkenazi custom), minhag Polin (the Polish custom), etc. By placing “America” in the title of his prayer book, Wise was making the case that Jews in the United States had the right to fashion a uniquely American Judaism—an admixture of the old and the new. To advance this vision, he created journals which contributed to his becoming the most prominent rabbi in the U.S.

Now revisiting his plan to establish America’s first rabbinical seminary, Wise conceived of creating an organization of congregations to sustain the enterprise; in 1873 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) was formed for this singular purpose. He sent invitations to every congregation in America, from the most traditional to the most radical. Thirty-four congregations responded in the affirmative, and in 1875 the Hebrew Union College (HUC) opened its doors in Cincinnati.

Why did Wise choose “union” in naming the UAHC and HUC?
First, the Civil War had just been fought to preserve the Union; and second, Wise wished to instill unity among all Jews in the United States, preparing both Orthodox and Reform rabbis to serve the broad spectrum of American Jewry.

That is also why Wise purposely did not use the word “Reform” in naming his institutions. His aspiration was to create an American Judaism—an irony, given that he ultimately became identified as the father of Reform Judaism.

What foiled Wise’s plan for an American Judaism?
By 1883, the year of Hebrew Union College’s first graduating class, Wise realized that his dream of a nondenominational, unified American Judaism would not happen. The number of Yiddish-speaking Jews streaming in from Eastern Europe would soon surpass the number of German Jews in America, and the cultural gaps between the two groups—in religious practice, language, education, social status, and acculturation to Western norms—were too wide to be bridged.

To celebrate HUC’s first class, a meal was served to rabbis present from every sector of American Judaism. Many guests, including the keynote speaker, stormed out in disgust as the food appeared—shrimp, soft-shell crabs, half-shell clams, and non-kosher meats! Many historians contend that the “Treifa Banquet,” as this incident came to be called, was a caterer’s error, but it may have been intentional, or at least, fortuitous. After all, Wise had the opportunity to apologize publicly for this offense to the more traditional, kosher-observant guests, yet he chose not to. Therefore, regardless of who was at fault, it appears that Wise decided to use the event to send a message that Judaism was not going to be defined by “archaic” dietary prohibitions. Indeed, two years later, a group of influential Reform rabbis issued the Pittsburgh Platform, proclaiming, “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress, originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

A lot has happened in the succeeding years. Over 130 years later, under your leadership, students across Jewish denominational lines are learning together.
Yes. Today, the overarching challenge faced by all Jewish denominations is the same: to create a Judaism that will be vital, joyful, and relevant to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-generation Jews who are no longer compelled to identify as Jews and who have myriad options for living a meaningful life. While significant denominational distinctions remain, the elements that bind us—our shared emphasis on Torah learning and desire to have Judaism speak in meaningful cadences to contemporary Jews—are more powerful than those which divide us. Where we are able to work together, we choose to do so. Two examples: our Schusterman Rabbinical Fellows program, which brings future Conservative and Reform Movement leaders together for three years of formal study; and an HUC-JIR and Jewish Theological Seminary transdenominational program training educators of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox synagogue schools.

As we move in the direction of transdenominational partnerships, we come closer to Isaac Mayer Wise’s dream of an American Judaism than we have since he arrived on these shores.

Post Your Views: http://www.reformjudaismmag.org/thinktank

Please share your ideas about North American Judaism and have them considered by the Reform Think Tank, which is imagining the future direction of our Movement.

1. If the “elements that bind [the different Jewish movements] are more powerful than those which divide us,” how might Jews of different denominations work together to strengthen Jewish life in North America?

2. Would breaking down barriers between the different Jewish movements be a positive development in the evolution of Judaism in North America? If yes, what might the breakdown of further barriers require? If no, why not?

3. Rabbi Ellenson says that “we have come closer to Isaac Mayer Wise’s dream of an American Judaism” than ever before. Do you think we should reenvision our Movement’s scope—and its name—to encompass the majority of liberal Jewry in North America? If yes, what would you call this Movement? If no, why not?


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