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September 12, 1969 - Image 50

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1969-09-12

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Friday, September 12, 1969
THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS-51
Story of Turbulent Era: U.S. Reform. Ilabis
Recalls Their First 'Meeting 100 Years Ago 11
Happy Holiday

By BERTRAM WALLACE KORN attempt to find areas of agreement of the state in regard to both mar-

Editors Note: Dr. Bertram W. Korn.
rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth
Israel in Philedelphla, was, in its early
days. associate director of the American
Jewish Archives. The Archives, on the
Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union
College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Is
under the direction of Dr. Jacob R.
Marcus, professor of American Jewish

history.)

* •

This fall marks the 100th anni-
versary of the meeting in Phila-
delphia of the first American Re-
form rabbinical conference. From
Nov. 3-6, 1869, 15 rabbis, all of
them immigrants from Europe. dis-
cussed and argued over a series of
theological and ritual matters of
importance to them and to their
fellow Jews.
That the meeting was held at all
was a deep significance. It was an
admission that all hope had been
abandoned for the formation of a
transsectarian rabbinical associa-
tion which would bring together
rabbis whose positions ran the
gamut from orthodox to traditional
to moderate to liberal to radical.
One such gathering which had been
held in Cleveland in 1855 under the
leadership of Rabbi Isaac Mayer
Wise was followed by bitter at-
tacks and recriminations. The
Philadelphia sessions, called at
the bequest of Rabbis Samuel Adler
of Temple Emanu-El and David
Einhorn or Adath Jeshurun Con-
gregation, both of New York City,
and both radicals, were an indica-
tion that many if not most of the
Reform leaders were unwilling to

and compromise with their Con-
servative colleagues.

All of these sessions were held
in the home of Rabbi Samuel
Hirsch of Keneseth Israel Con-
gregation of Philadelpiha, pos-
sibly the first and only American
rabbinical convention to have its
business conducted in a private
home. Hirsch was elected presi-
dent, but he withdrew from the
position when he found that he
had voted with the minority on
a theological matter. He was suc-
ceeded by Adler, who served as

vice-president.
Adler's replacement in that office
was James h. Gutheim, also of
Temple Emanu-El. Rabbis Bern-
hard Felsenthal of Zion Congrega
tion, Chicago, and Moses Miel-
ziner of Anshe Chesed Congrega-
tion, New York, were the secre-
taries. Isaac Mayer Wise of Cin-
cinnati served as acting president
for a time during Adler's absence.
Rabbis from Albany, Baltimore,
Detroit, Selma and St. Louis were
also in attendance.
The language of the meetings was
German, and the final record of the
proceedings was published in Ger-
man, but extensive reports were
printed in English in the Jewish
Times of New York and the Israel-
ite of Cincinnati.
The pronouncements of the con-
ference were divided into three
categories. The first, religious prin-
ciples, included opposition to the
idea of the restoration of a Jewish
*************
HOLIDAY GOOD CHEER
state, to the perpetuation of distinc-
r****
tions between Cohanim and other
Jews, and to the belief in resur-
rection, and support for the con-
.5
* cept of the mission of Israel, for
II
the belief in immortality of the soul
33 Vernier Rood
. *
*
and for worship in the vernacular.
it
Grosse Pointe Shores
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*
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cision, the status of the uncir-
cumcized son of a Jewish mother
as a Jew was declared to be
unconditional.

The mood of the convention was
vigorous and resolute. The rabbis
had no doubts about their author-
ity, although Mielziner did indi- ,
cate that he was not authorized to
speak for his congregation and
would not bind them to accept the '
decisions of the rabbis.
r Rabbi David Einhorn, the most
outspoken radical reformer in
America. believed that "the con-1
gregations in general are not yet
mature enough to rise to the
heights of Judaism." He meant
that the average Jew was still too
sentimental about traditional cus-
toms, too attached to the past to be
intellectually free. Wise tried at the
very end of the convention, to
steer his colleagues toward the pro-
gram which he had been advocat-
ing for 20 years: "a congregational
meeting, the founding of a semin-
ary, the providing of Bibles and
schoolbooks . . ." But Einhorn's
view won out when the matter
was put to a vote: the laymen
were not to be involved in these
discussions.
The radical in the East, under
Einhorn's leadership, were content
to continue discussing theories and
rituals, in German, and to an-
nounce their views to their lay
followers. Wise and other moder-
ates in the mid-West and South
were passionately convinced that
the survival of Reform, indeed of
all American Judaism, depended
upon the organization of a congre-
gational union and the establish-
ment of a rabbinical seminary.
Other meetings of rabbis were held
in the following years. but they did
not lead to anything significant.
The first real American rabbinical
organization was created many
years later, in 1889. Its numbers
were flushed out by the rabbis who
had been educated at the Hebrew
Union College which Wise opened
in 1875, two years after the forma-
tion of the Union of American He-
brew Congregations which he and
the lay leaders of Cincinnati
called into being in 1873—four
years after he realized that his
distinguished Reform colleagues
did not have the vision to do this.
Perhaps the reason was so simple
that no one realized it: their Ger-
man predecessors had not organ-
ized a congregational union or es-
tablished a rabbinical seminary.

One curious fact about the
Philadelphia meeting — in stark
contrast to any rabbinical assem-
bly of our day—is that neither
Einhorn—who had been the great
Jewish champion of abolitionism
in the Civil War period—nor any-
one else, said anything about
social, political or economic con-
ditions in the United States, or
about anti-Jewish prejudice, or
the relations between Judaism
and Christianity.

The debates seem to have been
conducted in a religious vacuum.
They might just as well have taken
place in Frankfurt or Leipzig. But
this was itself a sign that the lead-
ership of Reform Judaism had a
lot to learn in future years before
it was free of its European origins
—a pattern which was to repeat
itself generation after generation
in the development of the Conser-
vative and Orthodox movements in
the United States.

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