The Trefa Banquet
On Wednesday evening, July 11, 1883, some two hundred persons gathered for dinner at the Cincinnati Highland House, a hilltop resort and restaurant overlooking the Ohio river and the Kentucky hills. Sponsored by a group of Cincinnati Jews who preferred to remain anonymous, the event was meant to honor the delegates to the eighth annual council meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College. Among the guests were members of Cincinnati’s Jewish upper class as well as non-Jewish judges, clergymen, and professors from the local university. The Cincinnati Enquirer described the affair as a “Jewish Jollification”; in American Jewish history it has become known as the “trefa banquet,” an important link in a chain of events that was finally to lead to a break between Reform and Conservative Judaism.
For the account of what happened that July summer night, historians have to a large extent relied on the memoirs of David Philipson, one of the four young men ordained as rabbi at Cincinnati’s Plum Street Temple on the afternoon of the same day. In My Life as an American Jew (published in 1941), Rabbi Philipson recalled that after the guests had been seated, the invocation spoken, and the waiters signalled to serve the first course, “terrific excitement” broke out among the diners, seated under the gas lights of the Highland House banquet hall. “Two rabbis rose from their seats and rushed from the room. Shrimp had been placed before them as the opening course of the elaborate menu.”
According to Rabbi Philipson, the “orthodox Eastern press rang the changes on the ‘trefa banquet’ week in, week out,” and the event furnished the opening for. the movement that culminated in the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the establishment of the Conservative wing in the American synagogue. He explained the incident as the failure of a Jewish caterer to provide a strictly kosher meal, though he had been explicitly instructed to do so. And this, by and large, has become the standard explanation found in the standard histories of American Judaism.
Convinced that the event warranted re-examination, and not satisfied that a caterer’s whim or oversight was responsible for the “trefa banquet,” I determined to piece together whatever data could be located about this controversial dinner. In the course of my investigations, I discovered a complete version of the bill of fare served that night. Following is the menu for the “trefa banquet” exactly as it appeared in the pages of the Cincinnati Enquirer for July 12, 1883. (I have retained misspellings or printer’s errors.)
Little Neck Clams (half shell)
Fillet de Boef, aux Champignons
a l’Amerique, Pommes Duchesse
Salade of Shrimps
Sweet Breads a la Monglas
Petits Pois a la Francaise
Poulets a la Viennoise
Vinaigrette Pommes Pate
Grenouiles a la Creme
Vol au Vents de Pigeons,
a la Tyrolienne
Salade de Saitue
G. H. Mumm Extra Dry
Bouchies de Volaille, a la Regeurs
Olives Caviv, Sardeiles de Hollands
Brissotins au Supreme Tomatoe
Assorted and Ornamented Cakes
Fromages Varies Fruits Varies
I was persuaded of the accuracy of the Enquirer’s account after collating it with several partial versions of the menu which appeared in American, English, and German-Jewish newspapers at the time. My researches also disclosed that the meal was supervised by Gus Lindeman, purveyor of food and drink for the Allemania Club, whose membership was composed of Cincinnati’s wealthiest German Jews—among them those who arranged and paid for the Highland House dinner.
The menu shows that Little Neck Clams rather than shrimp, as Rabbi Philipson thought, had the distinction of first offending those diners who observed kashruth. Nor did clams constitute the only violation of kashruth; the menu included soft-shell crabs, shrimp salad, frogs’ legs, and milchig desserts (ice-cream and assorted cheeses) served after the meat courses. Even a cursory knowledge of what hotel men call “mass feeding procedures” should convince anyone that this array of ritually forbidden dishes for an important ceremonial dinner was not simply the result of a caterer’s oversight.
If it was not, how then is the “trefa banquet” to be explained? The investigation inevitably leads to the words and deeds of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, at that time president of the Hebrew Union College, and—according to his contemporary detractors—the “Pope” of American Reform Judaism. The Highland House dinner certainly lent substance to the charge made by rabbis of conservative bent that Wise was encouraging the abrogation of traditional observances.1 I must therefore emphasize that I found no evidence to show that Rabbi Wise knew in advance of the plans by the Cincinnati Banquet Committee to serve trefa food. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that he was too good a politician and organizer to condone plans that were certain to offend the influential Orthodox element among the members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the supporters of Hebrew Union College. My own conclusion is that the trefa banquet was deliberately arranged, probably without Rabbi Wise’s knowledge, by some of his supporters among Cincinnati businessmen.
But one cannot leave it at that. The fact is that whether or not Isaac M. Wise knew of the banquet committee’s plans—and he disavowed any knowledge—he refused to condemn what was unquestionably an affront to the sensibilities of those guests who observed kashruth. Moreover, in the months following the Highland House dinner, he shifted from a weak defense of the anonymous hosts to an intemperate attack on the practice of kashruth as such. His reactions to the “trefa banquet” constitute an essential part of the story and deserve further attention.
Rabbi Wise’s first response was to pronounce both the Council meeting and the dinner an unqualified success. He expressed himself to this effect in two weeklies edited by him, the American Israelite and the German-language Die Deborah. (Both papers furnish important evidence for his and his supporters’ views; a study of Die Deborah is especially revealing because of Wise’s habit of treating it as his personal mouthpiece and holding forth in it with less restraint than in its English-language equivalent.2)
It soon became evident, however, that the matter was not to rest there. One of the first public intimations that the harmony of the Cincinnati proceedings had been marred by the “trefa banquet” appeared in the “religious news” section of the New York Herald on July 22, 1883. An anonymous report, signed “Historical Platform,” deplored the fact that the Cincinnati meetings had accomcomplished little except to promote fraternity, that the Hebrew Union College did not prepare its students satisfactorily for the rabbinate, and that the “rabbis and laymen, assembled for a Jewish interest, instead of rising in a body and leaving the hall, sat down and participated” in a trefa dinner. Subsequently, the Philadelphia Jewish Record and the American Hebrew also took up the issue.
When his eastern critics thus began to demand an explanation of and apology for the Highland House affair, Wise begged to be excused from further discussions. In the American Israelite for August 3, 1883, he wrote that he did not wish “to belittle a number of generous and hospitable gentlemen” on account of their caterer’s error, and he asked his critics to remember that the American Hebrew’s religion “centers not in kitchen and stomach.” He concluded:
The fact is that the said chief cook, himself a Jew, wool-dyed, was placed there to bring before the guests a kosher meal. So it was understood in Cincinnati all along, and we do not know why he diversified his menu with multipeds and bivalves. If any of the committee gave him such orders, they are responsible to those who appointed them, not to us, not to any newspaper, not to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, none of whom had anything to do with the entertainment given to the guests connected with the Council.
Such an explanation inevitably failed to conciliate his critics. Two weeks later, Wise admitted in the Deborah that “because the Cincinnati Banquet Committee allowed a few dishes to be served which are forbidden according to Jewish ritual law,” those who applaud liberal thoughts now “make a great to-do” because “liberal thoughts appeal to reason” but “liberal actions come in conflict with unthinking prejudice.”
In Wise’s opinion, the issue of the “trefa banquet” was merely a pretext for striking at the Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In responding to what he considered the real issue, he soon abandoned all talk of a caterer’s oversight, and transformed the Highland House Dinner first into a test case of liberal convictions and gradually into an act of assertion of the “new” Judaism. Thus in Die Deborah of November 2, 1883, Wise insisted that further explanations of the “trefa banquet” were unnecessary because the large majority of American Jews were indifferent to dietary laws, and because Orthodox Jewish customs “cheapened” Judaism before the public.
The most outspoken exposition of this point of view came from the Denver correspondent of Die Deborah, one Rabbi Schreiber, who coupled it with a slashing attack on the “open and hidden enemies” of Wise, the College, and the Union. Dr. Schreiber described Wise’s critics as “ignorant fanatics” and the Cincinnati dinner as a fitting occasion to declare “publicly and emphatically” that “kitchen Judaism” should be relegated “to the antique cabinet where it belongs.” Why should a dozen men whose religion depended upon abstention from oysters and lobsters decide what others, who liked these dishes, should eat? Who forced them to eat trefa dishes when so many fine kosher foods had also been available? The “humbug” of the dietary laws must go, for they “promote clannishness, Jewish exclusiveness, even fanaticism” and they make Judaism “ridiculous, Lilliputian, demeaning.”
Nor was the counterattack limited to words. When the Free Sons of Israel, a fraternal order, met for a week-long convention in Cincinnati in March 1884, about five hundred delegates assembled at Eureka Hall for a dinner catered by Gus Lindeman, whose previous “error” had not diminished his popularity. Rabbi Wise, a member of the order, reproduced the full menu in the American Israelite and noted that it was “printed on a silk scroll, similar in form to that upon which the Jewish law is written.” Readers of the Deborah were reminded that everything consumed at Eureka Hall was kosher “except the oysters.” That same month Grand Lodge No. 4 of Kesher Shel Barzel, another fraternal order, met in Cleveland and dined on oysters, lobsters, and similar delicacies. Continuing its offensive, the Israelite reprinted this menu as well, and reminded its readers that it was not by accident that members of both orders had consumed oysters on the half-shell.
“Ebn Samiel,” the Israelite’s Chicago correspondent, predicted that the serving of oysters in Cincinnati would “undoubtedly become occasion for new assaults” against the president of Hebrew Union College. In the name of Chicago Jews, he offered to take the blame for this “second mortal sin against the Jewish stomach” on the grounds that the convention’s presiding officer had been from Chicago, and Chicago Jews had been the first to entertain Jewish conventions at non-Jewish hotels. Why feign compliance to dietary laws in public when no one observed them privately? “The new Judaism has a right to assert itself,” he concluded. “And in the very publicity of such occasions, we want to show our face.”
In April 1884, Wise’s quarrel with his critics led to his censure by Congregation Rodef Sholem of Philadelphia. A “memorial” adopted at a general meeting and sent to the Executive Board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, accused him of lacking “scholarly earnestness, dignity and respect for the worth and character of others,” and asserted that his public utterances as president of Hebrew Union College gave “grounds for alarm concerning the example set to its students for the ministry.” The indictment singled out an American Israelite editorial of July 27, 1883—concerning the “trefa banquet”—and objected to the “low tone” of Wise’s remarks about rabbis and the Jewish press.
Eventually, the charges were referred to a committee of five, appointed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The committee rejected the complaints as attempted censorship of a newspaperman’s “forcible and vigorous” prose and cleared Wise by noting that his labors entitled him to warmest support, high esteem, and personal respect. Though the editor of the American Hebrew (July 18, 1884) called the committee’s report a “whitewash” of Wise, the latter informed the readers of Die Deborah that the “crusade” against him had ended with his exoneration. In point of fact, the schism between Wise and his critics was in no way mended by his “exoneration.” In this connection, it suffices to cite three important dates from the historical record. In 1885, a group of Eastern Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and successfully challenged Rabbi Wise’s leadership; in 1887, the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York was established as a rival rabbinical training school to the Hebrew Union College; and in 1889 the Central Conference of American Rabbis—an organization of conservative Reform rabbis—was set up.
Such, then, were the after-effects of the “trefa banquet.” Returning now to the event itself, we may note that the whole rancorous feud over the observance of the dietary laws occurred at a time when many American Jews had already ceased to observe kashruth. Among other things, the Highland House dinner is a nearly perfect expression of the assimilationist tendencies among American Jews in the 19th century, especially among German Jews. So strong was the propensity of the members of the Banquet Committee to regard conformity to Gentile norms as an unquestioned virtue, that they deliberately chose to make an issue of serving trefa food in public. It must be admitted that their choice showed a good deal of sociological awareness, for the adoption of the majority culture’s food customs has always been one of the first and most significant means of a minority group’s assimilation. Conversely, the retention of food preferences and prohibitions continues even today to provide a ready index for the degree of cultural pluralism that is to be found on the American scene.
Yet for all their assimilationist yearnings, the wealthy Cincinnati Jews who arranged the Highland House Dinner chose to remain Jews. Therefore, they required an appropriate theological justification for abrogating kashruth, and this is precisely what Rabbi Wise provided for them. One of his biographers has concluded that Wise’s method of interpretation of the Pentateuch probably gave him sanction for whatever he wished to advocate respecting the dietary laws. According to this approach, oysters, apparently the high-status food for 19th-century American Reform Jews—today it has been replaced by the shrimp cocktail—could be (and were) proved to be both kosher and trefa by Rabbi Wise at different times in his long career.3
Rabbi Wise’s own motives in all this are not clear. He himself remained an observer of kashruth, and we do not know whether he approved of the actions of his congregants, or whether he merely felt constrained to defend his employers. What is clear, however, is that he used his considerable talents to furnish a rationalization for those who found kashruth a burden. Thus, at the conclusion of a series of lectures on “Dietary Laws and Sanitary Measures” in 1883, he said:
Whoever wants to be more or most conscientious in these matters, and surround these Mosaic laws with the rabbinical “fences” is certainly doing right if he is conscientious in the matter, and thinks he does all that in order to worship God and obey his laws. But he who does not submit to all those ordinances, and is guided by the simple directions of Moses in this matter, is certainly no sinner, and may be a true and faithful son or daughter of the Covenant. There is a law which stands higher than all dietary laws, and that is “Be no fanatic,” which translated in our vulgar language would sound somewhat like this: “Be intelligent, and allow your reason to govern your passions, propensities and superstitions.”
A study of the “trefa banquet” inevitably leads to a somewhat altered portrait of Rabbi Wise, who has hitherto been considered as a moderate Reformer. At least in this affair, he fought back stubbornly, tactlessly, and with a zeal seemingly out of all proportion to the cause at issue. His editorials reveal a man apparently neither caring for nor understanding the deep hold of traditional practice on his fellow Jews, a doctrinaire Reformer zealous to bring Judaism into line with American customs and apparently blind to the fact that attacks on others’ habits and preferences are bound to create controversies which appeals to reason cannot resolve.
All this was long ago, as the following incident will make clear. In March of 1965 I presented a paper on the “trefa banquet” at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Jewish Historical Society in Cincinnati. Greeting the delegates at a dinner meeting, Dr. Nelson Glueck, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, remarked that the repast about to be served, though catered, was strictly kosher. Times do change—and so does Reform Judaism.
1 On this point, see The Emergence of Conservative Judaism by Moshe Davis, 1963.
2 This tendency has been analyzed in an excellent article by Professor Joseph Gutman, “Watchman on the American Rhine: New Light on Isaac M. Wise,” in the October 1958 American Jewish Archives.
3 See D. Wilanski, Sinai to Cincinnati, 1937.