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Seminary of Unimaginable Ironies
A conversation with HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson on how America’s first rabbinic college has continuously reinvented itself

1895 Rabbi Isaac M. Wise with the HUC class (l. to r. Morris Newfield, Seymour Bottigheimer, George Solomon), Cincinnati. 1975 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Relgion rabbinical ordination class outside Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati. 2010 HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson offers a blessing to the newly ordained rabbis in Los Angeles.

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What inspired Isaac Mayer Wise to establish a rabbinic seminary?

When Isaac Mayer Wise arrived from Germany in 1846, he discovered a still nascent but burgeoning Jewish community. It is difficult for us, living in 2011, to imagine the literally virgin soil that marked American Jewish life only 70 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At the end of the Colonial Period, probably no more than 3,000–5,000 Jews, mostly Sephardim, lived in what would become the United States. Between 1815 and 1881, approximately 225,000 Jews came to America—almost all German speakers from Central Europe, Wise among them. In this era of Germanic Jewish hegemony (the Germans outnumbering the Sephardim by about 80 to 1), not a single national Jewish organization or seminary existed in America. American religious life—Jewish and Christian—was organized around congregations, not communal structures, as in Europe. Each community existed independently with virtually no formally trained clergy; in 1855, for example, only seven ordained rabbis served all of North America.

Recognizing that American Judaism could not realize its potential without professional leadership, Wise decided, in the 1850s, to create a rabbinical school. His initial attempt failed because of lack of financial support, but that did not deter him. He learned from the experience, and was better prepared when he tried again two decades later.

Wise's initial approach to Judaism was nothing like the Reform Judaism of today. At the time, Jewish denominationalism in the contemporary sense did not exist. He dreamed of creating a distinctly American kind of Judaism that would encompass a multiplicity of Jewish perspectives and practices. The name of the prayer book he published in 1857, Minhag America, reveals a great deal about what he envisioned. The name minhag, meaning "custom" or "tradition," had been classically employed to describe Jewish prayer books for different communities, such as minhag Ashkenaz (the Ashkenazi custom), minhag Polin (the Polish custom), etc. By placing "America" in the title of his prayer book, Wise was making the case that Jews in the United States—no less than Jews in other times and places—had the right to fashion a uniquely American Judaism—an admixture of the old and the new. To advance this vision, he created journals, such as Die Deborah in German and The American Israelite in English, which contributed to his becoming the most prominent rabbi in the U.S.

Wise was now ready to revisit his plan to establish America's first rabbinical seminary. To avoid the pitfalls of his earlier attempts, he conceived of creating an organization of congregations to sustain the enterprise; and in 1873 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) was formed for this singular purpose. Wanting the college to accommodate the full gamut of American Judaism, he sent invitations to every congregation in America, from the most traditional to the most radical. Thirty-four congregations responded in the affirmative, and in 1875 the Hebrew Union College (HUC) opened its doors in Cincinnati.

Why did Wise choose "union" in naming the UAHC and HUC?

The word "union" had a double meaning. First, the Civil War had just been fought to preserve the Union; and second, Wise wished to instill unity among all Jews in the United States, preparing both Orthodox and Reform rabbis to serve the broad spectrum of American Jewry. As he saw it, his modern rabbinical seminary would combine the best fruits of contemporary scholarship with traditional Jewish learning.

That is also why Wise purposely did not use the word "Reform" in naming his institutions. His aspiration was to create an American Judaism—an irony, given that he ultimately became identified as the father
of Reform Judaism.

What foiled Wise's plan for an American Judaism?

By 1883, the year of Hebrew Union College's first graduating class, Wise realized that his dream of a nondenominational, unified American Judaism would not happen. The number of Yiddish-speaking Jews streaming in from Eastern Europe would soon surpass the number of German Jews in America, and the cultural gaps between the two groups—in religious practice, language, education, social status, and acculturation to Western norms—were too wide to be bridged.

To celebrate HUC's first class, a meal was served to rabbis present from every sector of American Judaism. Many guests, including the keynote speaker, stormed out in disgust as the food appeared—shrimp, soft-shell crabs, half-shell clams, and non-kosher meats! Many historians contend that the "Treifa Banquet," as this incident came to be called, was a caterer's error, but it may have been intentional, or at least, fortuitous. After all, Wise had the opportunity to apologize publicly for this offense to the more traditional, kosher-observant guests, yet he chose not to. Therefore, regardless of who was at fault for the menu, it appears that Wise decided to use the event to send a message that Judaism was not going to be defined by "archaic" dietary prohibitions. Indeed, two years later, a group of influential Reform rabbis issued the Pittsburgh Platform, proclaiming, "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress, originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation."

What was the Hebrew Union College of the late 1800s like?

Interestingly, all the students were college graduates, which Wise required—despite the fact that during this period high school graduation was not a universal practice; as late as 1910, fewer than 10% of Americans graduated from high school. Younger students attended McMicken College, forerunner of the University of Cincinnati. Another entrance requirement—according to the catalogue—was the mastery of a minimum of 150 pages of Talmud!

Instruction was in English, but the curriculum was modeled on that of the modern German seminary, covering a wide variety of subjects from philosophy to rabbinic literature to history, the latter undergirding the whole curriculum. After all, Reform Judaism taught that Judaism was a constantly evolving religion in which eternal elements of ethics and values were passed down from one generation to another, and only the ritualistic forms embodied in these values were changing from generation to generation. Study of Judaism's evolution from the biblical to the contemporaneous period thus demonstrated the truth that Judaism was in a constant state of historical flux and development.

Nonetheless, Wise, a traditionalist at heart, insisted that the entirety of the first five books of Moses were delivered by God at Mount Sinai, and he strictly forbade the teaching of biblical criticism at HUC! Notably, Rabbi Louis Ginzberg was invited to teach at the College, but when Wise learned that Ginzberg believed in the documentary hypothesis—the view that the Torah is an edited compilation of texts from different writers—he promptly rescinded the invitation! Ginzberg went on to become arguably the world's greatest Talmud scholar, teaching at the (Conservative Movement's) Jewish Theological Seminary, where he served the remainder of his career. When Wise was succeeded by Kaufmann Kohler, one of Kohler's first acts was to introduce biblical criticism into the curriculum, in accordance with his belief that Judaism is "a universal religion allied with progress."

That is a fascinating irony.

Here is another irony. HUC President Kaufman Kohler—the individual who, having authored the Pittsburgh Platform, would do more than anyone to create a denominationally distinct Reform Judaism in America—had studied in a German yeshiva under Samson Raphael Hirsch, the architect of modern Orthodox Judaism. At the time, modern Orthodox leaders were vitriolic in criticizing Reform Judaism. But in embracing a modern Orthodoxy, Hirsch had demonstrated to Kohler that reform in Judaism was possible!

Wise and Kohler disagreed about biblical criticism. On what ideas did they agree?

They agreed on Zionism. Like Wise and other 19th century reformers, Kohler believed that a specifically Jewish homeland in Palestine was the very antithesis of "a universal religion allied with progress." Any emphasis upon Jewish peoplehood was not to be tolerated. So fierce was Kohler's anti-Zionism, he would not allow modern Hebrew literature to be taught at the college, and he forced off the faculty any professors sympathetic to the Zionist cause.

Were any Reform leaders of the period pro-Zionist?

The majority of Reform leaders shared Kohler and I.M. Wise's views, but others, such as Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise (no relation), became champions of Zionism. In 1922 Stephen S. Wise founded a rival seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR) in New York City, to train a cadre of non-Orthodox rabbis who would be completely committed to Jewish nationalism. Through the very power of his personality, Wise assembled a faculty that reflected his transdenominational vision of Judaism, with some Orthodox scholars serving as professors. Two-thirds of JIR's graduates became Reform rabbis, most of the remaining third became Conservative, and eight actually became Orthodox.

In 1950, however, a year after Stephen S. Wise's death, JIR—unable to sustain itself without an endowment—merged with HUC, by now headed by the great biblical archeologist and lover of Israel,
Rabbi Nelson Glueck.

How did HUC change by having a president with strong ties to Israel?

Glueck established a foothold for the College in Israel in 1963 by obtaining prime property on the border between east and west Jerusalem to be used solely for an archeological school. But after Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, the HUC-JIR Board of Governors, at Glueck's urging, re-envisioned the Jerusalem campus as an ideal living laboratory for learning Hebrew and experiencing a Jewish cultural renaissance, and made it a base for all first-year rabbinical students. Today, not just rabbis but all first-year HUC rabbinical, cantorial, and education students spend their first year of study in Israel. I believe their familiarity with the reality of Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral homeland has had a revolutionary impact in instilling in them the understanding that there are many contours of Jewish peoplehood.

If you consider today's Israel-study requirement against the historic backdrop of Kohler's dismissal of every faculty member sympathetic to Zionism at the beginning of the 20th century, you have a stunning example of institutional evolution in keeping with the notion of ongoing change and adaptation that is a hallmark
of Reform Judaism.

What other shifts happened in the succeeding years?

In the 1960s, a time of growing ethnic pride, social activity, and spiritual revival in North America, many HUC-JIR students began experimenting with religious ritual, observing Jewish dietary laws, and wearing kipot and tallitot. While some observers characterized this as a return to traditionalism within the Reform Movement, I think it is overly simplistic to say that the students' aim was a return to tradition for its own sake. Rather, in a society characterized by great demographic mobility and a sense of "homelessness," many people were searching for Jewish meaning and a sense of rootedness, leading to what sociologist Peter Berger has labeled a "heretical imperative"—a world in which people embraced options that would have been unthinkable in a past generation. Today as well, returning to ritual has allowed students to reclaim their ethnic identity and to engage in spiritual quests.

Some of the students also demanded that their education be oriented toward life. They wanted to understand how a particular Jewish teaching would contribute to the religious and spiritual lives of the people whom they would serve. At first, some of our professors opposed this move toward applied learning. Our faculty has always been highly academic in orientation, for without Jewish knowledge, there can be no Jewish authenticity. In time, though, our professors also understood the importance of finding ways to make Jewish teachings meaningful for Jews and Jewish communities. We now ask students to weigh these larger questions of meaning through various programs that explore the relationships among healing, religious sensibility, and spiritual renewal.

What was the impetus for ordaining Sally Priesand, the first woman to become a rabbi in North America?

Actually, there was no formal decision to ordain Sally when she enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati and then took five years of classes in the rabbinical program with the hope that she would be allowed to become a rabbi. Inasmuch as she was completing the same course of study that her male classmates had, Glueck expressed his intention to ordain her, but he died before she could complete her studies. In 1972, when she finished her coursework, his successor, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, proceeded with her ordination.

Ordaining Rabbi Priesand had a major impact on the development of North American Jewry, tapping into the potential of half the Jewish population to serve our people both professionally and publicly. In the 40 years since, we have ordained approximately 600 women, and currently half of our rabbinical students and almost three-quarters of our cantorial and education students are women. Moreover, women serve as two of our deans, the director of the graduate school, and directors of our rabbinical schools in Los Angeles and New York. And many of our women graduates have gone on to make significant contributions. Take, for example, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, an HUC-JIR faculty member who previously studied at the College with Professor Tamara Eskenazi, the first woman HUC-JIR appointed to teach Bible. Eskenazi and Weiss have edited and co-edited respectively The Torah: A Women's Commentary, published by Women of Reform Judaism and the URJ Press, an innovative work that has included women's voices in the weekly worship life of hundreds of thousands of people in Reform synagogues.

Gottschalk's impact was therefore immense in this and other arenas, such as his initiating a program ordaining Israeli Reform rabbis on Israeli soil. His successor, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, expanded this initiative, and during the past decade nearly 70 Israeli Reform rabbis (as well as dozens of Israeli education students in conjunction with the Melton Centre at Hebrew University) have received degrees on our Jerusalem campus.

Under your leadership, students across Jewish denominational lines are learning together.

Yes. Today, the overarching challenge faced by all Jewish denominations is the same: to create a Judaism that will be vital, joyful, and relevant to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-generation Jews who are no longer compelled to identify as Jews and who have myriad options for living a meaningful life. The unifying forces of past generations, such as social antisemitism and automatic affiliation with Jewish organizations, are no longer at play in keeping Jews involved in the Jewish community. While significant distinctions between Reform, Conservative, modern Orthodox, and Reconstructionist attitudes remain, the elements that bind us—our shared emphasis on Torah learning and desire to have Judaism speak in meaningful cadences to contemporary Jews—are more powerful than those which divide us. Where we are able to work together, we choose to do so. Two examples: Our Schusterman Rabbinical Fellows program brings future leaders of the Conservative and Reform Movements together for three years of formal study with the goal of creating a cadre of American rabbis who share a broad vision of dynamic communal leadership; and an HUC-JIR and Jewish Theological Seminary transdenominational program trains educators of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox synagogue schools in leadership, Judaic knowledge, and pedagogy.

As we move in the direction of transdenominational partnerships, we come closer to Isaac Mayer Wise's dream of an American Judaism than we have since he arrived on these shores.

How do you think Wise would respond today to the institutions he created?

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Menachot) in which Moses views Rabbi Akiba's academy and is perplexed by what he sees. Upset by hearing Akiba expound on a teaching that seems entirely unrelated to the tradition Moses himself had taught, he asks God to explain. God says, "This is the Torah of Moses," and Moses is satisfied with that answer.

The author of this legend understood that the Judaism of the rabbis was far removed from that of the Bible—and accepted that such an evolution was a legitimate, natural outgrowth of a living, dynamic tradition.

If Isaac Mayer Wise were to see HUC-JIR students studying in Jerusalem, our professors teaching practical rabbinics with an emphasis upon spiritual practice and meaning, and many students embracing traditional rituals, he would likely question: Is this the Reform Judaism that I knew and helped to create? However, I think he would also be comforted in the same way that Moses was said to be comforted by God. He would understand that Judaism is an evolving tradition and that our Movement still adheres in spirit to his annunciation that we serve the broadest possible swath of American Jews. Indeed, the framework that emerged out of the vision he put forth has proven genuinely enduring.


Post Your Views
  1. If the "elements that bind [the different Jewish movements] are more powerful than those which divide us," how might Jews of different denominations work together to strengthen Jewish life in North America?
  2. Would breaking down barriers between the different Jewish movements be a positive development in the evolution of Judaism in North America? If yes, what might the breakdown of further barriers require? If no, why not?
  3. Rabbi Ellenson says that "we have come closer to Isaac Mayer Wise's dream of an American Judaism" than ever before. Do you think we should reenvision our Movement's scope—and its name—to encompass the majority of liberal Jewry in North America? If yes, what would you call this Movement? If no, why not?
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