Kashruth & Reform
To the Editor:
. . . The Central Conference of American Rabbis (C.C.A.R.) was not, as John J. Appel says, an organization of conservative Reform rabbis set up by Isaac Meyer Wise’s “critics” in some sort of opposition to Wise [“The Trefa Banquet,” February]. It was set up in 1889 by Wise himself, and by about thirty other Reform rabbis, most of whom were Wise’s former students, still somewhat under his influence. He had repeatedly endeavored to set up just such an organization in previous years . . . but had been frustrated by the hatreds that Reform rabbis bore for each other in those days. . . . The college’s graduates, former students of Wise, were easily persuaded to set up the C.C.A.R., and other Reform rabbis soon joined. . . . Naturally, Wise made himself the head of the C.C.A.R. and remained so until the day of his death. . . .
Among Mr. Appel’s other doubtful statements is his conclusion that Wise “probably” did not know what was on the menu. Wise’s own word on this point is of little value because he was not a very truthful man. He was, indeed, as the author says, a good politician and organizer and precisely for that reason he would have been very sure to inquire about the menu. Apart from that, his position in Cincinnati Reform was so dominant that he would have been automatically consulted about the kashruth of the food to be served at such an important gathering as the Highland House Affair.
Mr. Appel says further that Wise “has hitherto been considered as a moderate reformer” (Mr. Appel’s italics). By whom? Wise’s own followers at Cincinnati naturally express this view, but, as far as I am aware, no impartial scholar uninfluenced by Wise’s vagaries has ever done so. Nor is this surprising. After all, the man set out consciously to lead the Jewish people down a path which obviously ended up nowhere but in Christianity—where, of course, many Reform Jews have now arrived. He devoted all his time and all his very great energy to this work, undeterred by setbacks, for a period of no less than fifty-five years.
Thirdly, Mr. Appel announces that Reform Judaism has changed, . . . mentioning that a Reform dinner which he attended was kosher . . ., but I am afraid that he has been taken in. The Reform rabbis . . . have recently taken to the occasional token adoption of some superficial Jewish habits (for instance yarmulkas and kosher catering) when they are in the presence of other Jews . . . although at home they would not dream of observing kashruth. This is a tactical shift only. While it is certainly possible that the fundamental aim of Reform Judaism has also shifted, there is, as far as I know, no hard evidence that the aim is different today from what it was in the days of Wise, Lilienthal, and Einhorn. . . .
Flushing, New York
Mr. Appel writes:
The role of I. M. Wise as leader of the C.C.A.R. is not the subject of my essay. Mr. Marks may be right when he sees the organization as the tool of Wise and many of its members subservient to his views. Other students of the group disagree. One well known historian described Wise’s leadership to me as comparable to the position of a man who had “rebellion on his hands but put himself at the head of the rebellious troops.” I am not qualified to settle this dispute. I admit that my use of “conservative Reformers” as a label for the rabbis who formed the Central Conference of American Rabbis is ambiguous because it doesn’t mean today what it meant in 1889. . . .
Mr. Marks writes that Rabbi Wise would automatically have been consulted about the kashruth of food to be served at an important gathering of supporters of the Hebrew Union College. Of course. My article quotes from one of Wise’s editorials which implies that he was consulted and recommended strict compliance with the dietary laws. But it is possible that after Wise was consulted, someone gave orders which resulted in the substitution of trefa for the kosher dishes Wise was assured had been specified. Let me confess that I was tempted to share Mr. Marks’s doubts concerning Wise’s candor in this affair. I searched, fruitlessly it turned out, in many newspapers and documents to prove or disprove the man’s public utterances. That he kept kosher in his own home is a well-established fact. What I finally found, and published, does not, I submit, give anyone the right to assert as proven fact that Rabbi Wise lied when he denied advance knowledge of the gustatory ambush prepared by the Cincinnati hosts. If Mr. Marks feels less restraint in this matter than I did, he should at least not confuse his own deductions or surmises with what can be documented as established historical fact.
Mr. Marks reads more into my last statement, “Times do change—and so does Reform Judaism,” than the context of the statement warrants. My article does not address itself to the question of whether the fundamental aims of Reform Judaism have shifted decisively since the days of Wise, Einhorn, and Lilienthal. It deals with the tactics, not the strategy, of some leaders of Reform Judaism. . . .
When I refer to Wise as a moderate Reformer I may be adopting the Cincinnati party line. Yet to assert, as Mr. Marks does, that Wise consciously led Jews down a path “which obviously ended up nowhere but in Christianity” is silly rhetoric and bad history. I am now studying the subject of conversion to Christianity, and find that if there’s one thing the Christian missionaries were agreed upon, it was that Reform Jews made the worst prospects of all for conversion. . . . I agree with Mr. Marks—vide my next-to-last paragraph—that those who have dubbed Wise a moderate minimize a very strong doctrinaire streak in his philosophy. But I part company with him when he tries to turn my article into an excuse for attacking historians who describe Reform Judaism sympathetically as the dupes of “Wise’s vagaries.” . . .
Mr. Marks is right when he notes that 19th-century Reformers, including Wise, were frequently contemptuous of many Orthodox Jewish practices and wished to align their Judaism with the ideology and practice of liberal religion like Unitarianism or Universalist Christianity. That they took an uncompromising and extreme position against Jewish nationalism is a well-documented historical fact and undoubtedly accounts for the failure of Reform to attract the Jewish masses after 1900. Many Reform rabbis today are well aware of this and will hardly be upset by Mr. Marks’s observation that the re-introduction of kosher catering and the wearing of yarmulkas are merely “superficial Jewish habits” having no profound religious or ethical significance.