Isaac Mayer Wise
Rabbi in America.
by Israel Knox.
Little, Brown. 173 pp. $3.50.
Rabbi in America is one of the volumes in the Library of American Biography series, edited by Oscar Handlin; and if, as one assumes, it is the only volume to be devoted to an American Jew, Isaac Mayer Wise was a good choice. He combines in his career two aspects of American Jewish life that are not ordinarily seen or considered together. One is the story of migration and adaptation to a new country; the other is the story of the creation of American Reform Judaism, which is the part of American Jewish life that is most decisively cut off from the immigrant past, and most clearly an expression of the conditions found in America. And thus, one might argue, Wise was a better choice than, let us say, Brandeis, in whose life we find none of the immigrant experience, or, perhaps, Abraham Cahan, who, despite his phenomenal abilities to assimilate a new culture, remained identified with the relatively unassimilated immigrant East European Jewish masses until the end of his life.
But of course any biography, even of the one Jew to be included in the Library of American Biography, involves more than the selection of a suitable symbol; the man himself interests us, and we look forward to the illumination of a career that seemed to be characterized by enormous energy and a remarkably low degree of introspection and self-knowledge. We are first amazed, in any contact with the career of Wise, at the energy—the speed with which, barely arrived in this country, he threw himself into organizing conferences, writing prayer books, traveling to meet people who shared, or might share, his views; and later, the energy with which he edited two weeklies, ran a large congregation, conducted lower and higher schools, wrote books, and finally brought into existence the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Hebrew Union College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
All this is well told in Israel Knox’s account. Wise himself has done such a good job in telling the story of his early years in America that any biographer must feel a heavy burden upon him to do as well with the rest. I must say I hoped for more color and more detail—sheer detail—in this biography. Details pique one’s curiosity—but one gets few of them here. What was the nature of the contacts that led Wise, a few years after he arrived in America, to an introduction to President Taylor, and, a few years after that, to the offer from President Fillmore of a position in the Library of Congress? One suspects that Wise was more interested in politics than we would conclude from anything Knox tells us. There is an interesting chapter on the parallels and differences between Wise’s views and those of liberal Protestant theologians of the mid-19th century. And yet one hears almost nothing of any contact—through personal meetings, letters, books. After all, there were not enough Jews in Albany when Wise arrived—and perhaps not enough in Cincinnati, either—to keep him from making non-Jewish friends. But one hears little of this, too.
Details of Wise’s personal life, which are unfortunately given in a perfunctory and official manner, might have helped illuminate this remarkable man, who was so clear and direct in action, and who was so confused and confusing in thought (despite Mr. Knox’s really excellent summary of his views and beliefs, this impression remains). The Halachah was important; yet only the Ten Commandments need be observed. The Bible must be the basis of Judaism, and the Talmud must be discarded because of its legalism; yet the legalism of the Bible was, if anything, more repugnant to 19th-century man than that of the Talmud. Judaism was based on reason; yet the Biblical miracles took place. We live in an age of science and progress; yet Moses wrote the Bible.
Knox has seized on one element in Wise for emphasis and exposition, and indeed it was an important one for the future history of American Judaism; resisting the radical reformers who in their consistency were willing to discard everything in traditional Judaism and build up religion from reason alone, Wise managed to maintain a link, even if a weak one, with the historical past. It is this link that in a later time, when 19th-century enlightenment was to seem very far away, was strengthened in Reform so as to bring it closer to the main body of Judaism. From a historical point of view, I would agree that this is most important in Wise: it is indeed this element that permits a man like Israel Knox, who is close to the Yiddish-secularist tradition in Jewish life, to feel so sympathetic to Wise.
From the point of view of the reader interested in Wise as a man, however—and any reader of a biography cannot help but become involved with the man—one would have wished that the personal bases of Wise’s confused yet so fruitful intellectual positions could have been further developed. From this book, and other sources on Wise, one gets the impression of a man who did not examine his own positions intellectually, and indeed did not look into his own life very deeply. One suspects that he, like some other men of action, is the last man in the world one would have chosen for the purposes of a serious conversation, or as a friend. A hint of this would have improved a very worthwhile and useful introduction to Wise’s career and thought.