Four Rabbis in Search of American Judaism
Commentary on a History of Boston's Temple Israel
Temple Israel in Boston has enjoyed a succession of notable rabbis in its one hundred years of existence: Solomon Schindler, Charles Fleischer, Harry Levi, Joshua Loth Liebman, and today, Roland B. Gittelsohn. Nathan Glazer here describes the changing religious character and thinking of Temple Israel’s rabbis and finds in them an “almost perfect paradigm of Jewish religious development in America.”
It seems to have become a custom among American Jews for the larger congregations to publish books to mark the celebration of their fiftieth, seventy-fifth, or hundredth birthday. In 1954 Temple Israel of Boston celebrated its centenary and, following this pattern, brought out Growth and Achievement: Temple Israel, 1854-1954 (edited by Arthur Mann and printed for the Board of Trustees of Temple Adath Israel by the Riverside Press in Cambridge). Growth and Achievement at first glance looks like many other such books: it is privately published, a picture of the present building of the congregation is stamped in gold on the cloth cover, the frontispiece shows another view of the building, and portraits of the various rabbis of Temple Israel are scattered through the text.
But there the resemblance ends. The members of the congregation charged with the responsibility of producing a memorial volume apparently decided to forego honoring past and present trustees and presidents, and to commission a serious historical study. Their commemorative volume is almost unique among books of this kind in that it has been written, for the most part, by professional historians. The book is introduced by Oscar Handlin; there are brief chapters on the Jews of the United States and Boston in 1854 by Bertram W. Korn and Lee M. Friedman; a longer chapter by Moses Rischin sketches the history of the congregation; and then follow four chapters on the rabbis of Temple Israel by Arthur Mann which form a major contribution to the history of Jewish—and American—religious life.
It would probably not be wise for other congregational histories to concentrate on the rabbis; but Temple Israel has had for rabbis over the past seventy-five years a group of men who, either because of real distinction, or a remarkable capacity to grasp and mirror the contemporary religious situation among Jews, form an almost perfect paradigm of Jewish religious development in America; and this account of the major rabbis of Temple Israel is consequently also an account of American Jewish religious thinking.
The story begins with Solomon Schindler, who fled from Germany in 1871 for political reasons—he was a school teacher and had denounced Bismarck—and who, faced with the necessity of earning a living, became a rabbi, a calling he had been trained for but had no interest in following. He came to Temple Israel in 1874 and found that the liberal atmosphere of Boston, and the desire of his congregation to “modernize” Jewish religious practice, gave him a perfect field for working out his own ideas. The first step was simple—Schindler made Temple Israel, until then a standard German Jewish Orthodox synagogue, a Reform temple, bringing it in line with a tendency which, at that time, seemed close to unifying all of American Jewry under Reform.
Schindler passionately embraced American ideas, and soon showed the kind of amazing competence and confidence in becoming an American that we find in so many immigrant intellectuals of the 19th century. Thus Schindler, who had arrived in this country at the age of twenty-nine, wrote a sequel, in English, to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and his sermons were reprinted in a Boston newspaper—and used to drum up circulation! We are reminded of Isaac Mayer Wise devouring American culture in the State Library at Albany twenty-five years before, and of Francis Lieber, who became editor of the Encyclopedia Americana almost on his arrival in America. This kind of intellectual adaptation and assimilation is almost inconceivable today—either because the immigrant intellectuals are different, or because America is different.
Schindler rejected all supernatural ideas, any idea of the special truth of Judaism, any idea of revelation, and by the end of his tenure at Temple Israel was not even using the guarded language that, one suspects, concealed for many 19th-century reformers the fact that they did not believe in God. He preached the coming of the universal religion of reason and science.
One is always astonished to read of these radical positions taken up by 19th-century Jewish Reform rabbis scarcely a generation removed from the ghetto. For the Christians there was, after all, a long tradition of rationalism, and the naturalistic religions of the 19th century could be seen as the final consequence of centuries of religious and philosophical thought. But the Jews found it possible to leap immediately from medieval ritualism—there is no other name for the Judaism of the 18th century—to the acceptance of the most advanced ideas. Perhaps, indeed, the emphasis on ritualism and the shunning of all religious thought, at least as the West understood it, was just what made possible this radical leap. If one has no ideas in particular about God or revelation, it is probably easier to think anything of them. In any case, Schindler’s congregation did not balk at his lectures (they were hardly sermons) in which he expounded his ideas. Religious (or anti-religious) ideas, even in those days, could not, it seems, arouse a Jewish congregation.
When Schindler went on to advocate intermarriage (why should believers in reason preserve meaningless separation?), to espouse national socialism (the ideas of Edward Bellamy), and to unveil his agnosticism, the congregation found that matters had gone too far. As Dr. Mann sums it up: “The [congregants] wished to retain their Jewish identity; Schindler wished to destroy it”; and further, “[they] did not wish to revolutionize society; they wanted to belong to it.” One may hazard the guess that intermarriage (and perhaps socialism) really shocked them, while agnosticism only made them fear the censure of non-Jewish Boston.
The next rabbi, Charles Fleischer, recapitulates, with an interesting fin-de-siècle variation, the story of Solomon Schindler. Fleischer was also an immigrant from Germany, but he had arrived here very young and received his entire education in this country. A graduate of Hebrew Union College, he came to Temple Israel at the amazingly early age of twenty-three. His patron saint, we are told, was Emerson. To Schindler’s rationalism and naturalism, Fleischer added a kind of pale aestheticism: the second time around at Temple Israel the enlightenment ideas of Schindler seem to have lost some of their rough-hewn simplicity. He became a leading figure in Boston, and moved steadily closer to the line that divided Jews, not from Christians, but from other lovers of reason.
Fleischer participated fully in the intellectual, social, and cultural life of New England, counting in his circle such community leaders as President Eliot of Harvard and important magazine editors. As rabbi, he used his pulpit to introduce reformers, inaugurated Sunday services as a permanent feature in his temple, and was the first to exchange pulpits with Unitarian and Trinitarian clergymen. In everything he did, he seemed to reject “the parochialism of race and religion.”
In 1911, there were exciting moments at Temple Israel. Schindler, who had spent the previous twenty years as a socialist propagandist, now reappeared in the pulpit of Temple Israel, at the age of seventy—we must imagine him with his prophet’s beard—to announce he had been converted to traditional Judaism, and to denounce the changes he had started at Temple Israel almost forty years earlier. Fleischer defended himself; more than that, he stated openly and unequivocally that he no longer saw any reason for the separate existence of Jews or Judaism. That year he left to form the Boston Sunday Commons, a kind of humanist church, and in 1922, he left with his wife, the former Mabel R. Leslie, for New York, where he joined the editorial staff of Hearst’s Evening Journal.1
For the next thirty years there were no adventures in religious thinking for Temple Israel (and indeed, for American Jewry in general; the radicalism of 19th-century Reform has not been equaled since within Judaism). Harry Levi, the next rabbi, was born in the United States of immigrant Polish parents. “For the first time,” writes Dr. Mann, “Boston’s Reform synagogue had a pastor of the flock rather than the creator of an intellectual system. . . . He did not, like Fleischer or Schindler, shock or startle or develop the desire to be different from his congregants. . . . Even in physical appearance—of average height and build, bespectacled, dignified and restrained—[he differed] from the intense-looking, bearded Schindler, and the almost excessively handsome Fleischer. Temple Israel’s rabbi was like most native, middle-class, American men.”
Rabbi Levi, one gains the impression from Dr. Mann’s account, also settled, at least temporarily, the conflict between the traditional conception of the Jewish rabbi—as expounder of the Jewish Law—and the Western Christian idea of the pastor or minister by adopting almost completely the latter role; and beyond this he had taken on a completely new role—that of Jewish representative to the Gentiles. Here we must point to a rather subtle but extremely important difference between the relations with Gentiles of Rabbis Schindler and Fleischer and Rabbi Levi. To some extent, Rabbis Schindler and Fleischer also represented the Jews. But far more important to the image they presented to Boston was the role they assumed as free intellectuals. They enjoyed freedom to participate fully in Boston’s intellectual life, even while they were rabbis, because the Jewish community itself was still uncertain about just what a modern rabbi should be.
By Rabbi Levi’s time, the congregation knew that their minister’s task was to stand at the head of his community and subordinate his personal views to the community’s best interest. In the time of Rabbis Schindler and Fleischer, the bewildered laity, listening to lectures, had chafed under the intellectual demands of its rabbis; now, it is the rabbi who, if he has any ideas, chafes under the restraint put on him by his congregation, and finds it better to develop his ideas in private. Having lost the habits of obedience inculcated by observance, having developed a middle-class self-confidence, the contemporary Jewish congregation does not often stand for uncomfortable talk from the pulpit.
From 1911 to 1939 Temple Israel was happy in its possession of Rabbi Levi. Meanwhile, the American Jewish scene was quite transformed under the impact of the immigration and acculturation of millions of East European Jewish immigrants. Reform was utterly strange to them, and the best Reform could hope for was to maintain its positions or, here and there, retreat in good order. In time the newcomers or their children would be ready for Reform. By that time Reform itself had bent under the pressure, and one found fewer Sunday services, more Hebrew in the service, a greater acceptance of Zionism, and the idea that the Jews were a people.
One might think, in this context, that Temple Israel’s next rabbi, Joshua Loth Liebman, author of the best-seller Peace of Mind, was quite unrelated, in his passion for psychotherapy, to what was going on in American Jewish life. But I think not. By 1939, the process of religious development, which had been halted by the mass immigration of elements that had first, so to speak, to be brought up to date before they could get into the argument, was ready to get under way again. The intellectual problems with which the 19th-century reformers had wrestled, dormant for forty years while the immigrant Jews were being acculturated, began to recover their urgency. Most briefly put, the problem was: if one accepts a naturalistic, rational, and liberal outlook, as the great mass of modern Jews do, what is one to do with the Jewish religion? What is one to think of the Law, which, as every Jewish child is supposed to learn, Moses handed down to us?
The answer of 19th-century Reform was bold and consistent: the Law is the work of men, not God, the modern age speaks with the voice of God as emphatically as did antiquity. But the danger of this answer was soon made clear; it left no reason to remain a Jew, and two successive rabbis of Temple Israel came to this conclusion.
The answer of the 20th century, which came in a number of forms, of which Rabbi Liebman’s marriage of psychotherapy with religion was one, was more evasive: true, the Law is the work of men, and revelation is continuous (which, one suspects, means not that God speaks to the modern age but that one is permitted to doubt whether he ever spoke to former ages); but religion stores up wisdom, and the Jewish religion more than any other. As Rabbi Liebman wrote in Peace of Mind, “By religion I mean the accumulated spiritual wisdom and ethical precepts dating from the time of the earliest prophets and gradually formulated into a body of tested truth for man’s moral guidance and spiritual at-homeness in the universe.”
In effect, Rabbi Liebman’s was one of a number of efforts to suggest a role for the Jewish religion in a non-believing age: it would express the liberal and ameliorative outlook of American Jews. While some rabbis spoke of Judaism’s contribution to mental health, others spoke of Zionism, liberal politics, culture, civil liberties and civil rights, and so on. Judaism was to become “contemporary” through the rabbis’ expressing the enlightened opinions of the age. Everywhere it could be heard that Judaism was democracy or liberalism or what have you.
But inevitably all these answers, satisfactory as they might be for some time and some people, are shown to be intellectual evasions. Judaism is a religion, not a compendium of sound ideas. And, having reached a point where most of the social and economic problems of American Jews are relatively minor, and where even Zionism no longer offers much meat for sermons, we are right up against the naked question of religion again—just as the Jews of America were in 1874, when Rabbi Schindler first came to Temple Israel.
And perhaps we should not be surprised to find that Rabbi Gittelsohn, the present leader of Temple Israel, is as sensitive to the intellectual atmosphere as his predecessors were. He writes, in the concluding chapter of this volume: “. . . The synagogue has outgrown some of its previous roles in American life. It is no longer an essential center for the social and communal activity of the American Jew. . . . Nor is the synagogue any longer an exclusive sponsor even of Jewish education. . . . Nor . . . is the synagogue as greatly needed now as it once was to provide general cultural opportunity. . . . If [it] is less indispensable than before in these respects, it is far more essential in providing a functioning religious orientation for its members.”
We seem, in American Judaism, to stand again where Schindler and Temple Israel stood eighty years ago. Many things have changed, but one big thing remains the same—the intellectual challenge presented to American Jews by their age-old religion. It will be interesting to see just where Temple Israel will have arrived fifty years from now.
1 See Arthur Mann’s fuller treatment of Fleischer in his article “Charles Fleischer’s Religion of Democracy” in the June 1954 COMMENTARY.