Isaac Leeser: The Right Man at the Wrong Time

By: Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff

 Introductory Commentary by David Shasha

I recently prepared a special edition of the SHU devoted to the great American rabbis Sabato Morais (of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia) and Henry Pereira Mendes (of Shearith Israel in New York City) , founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America:!msg/Davidshasha/owdIgkaZHys/yoRvE37LOI4J

 In that special newsletter I included two series of articles from The Jewish Press presenting those great American Sephardic rabbis as compatible with Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

 But in spite of the attempt to align Morais and Pereira Mendes with Ultra-Orthodoxy, the articles did not try to obscure the nature of Sephardic tradition and its centrality not only in the work of the two men, but in the larger framework of American Jewish history.

 The following article, published by Rabbi Gil Student in his Hirhurim blog, does indeed present another seminal American rabbi, Isaac Leeser (who preceded Morais at Mikveh Israel), and attempts not only to eliminate this rich Sephardic heritage from the American Jewish context, but to also insult that tradition by stating the following:

 In Richmond, he was appointed Chazzan in the Sephardic synagogue, a rabbi-like position that required a man of Torah learning, something rare inAmerica at that time.”

 In the hierarchical system of the Ashkenazim the use of honorific titles is extremely important.  So we often find that iconic Sephardic figures like Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first American-born minister of Shearith Israel (beginning his ministry in 1768) and the first minister of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel (1780-1784), is demoted to some inferior figure which serves to demean his Jewish learning and his ability to lead a Synagogue.  He was one of fourteen ministers to participate in the inauguration of George Washington in 1789.

 For more on his exemplary accomplishments as one of the most important Jewish leaders in American history:

 Isaac Leeser is presented in the article solely as an Ashkenazi Jew who in passing is connected to a Sephardic Jewish community – left as some vague signifier – but who is in reality continuing the Ashkenazi heritage:

 “Leeser preached in English, which was a radical move. To my knowledge, he was the first Orthodox rabbi in America to break with European tradition and preach in English. It is interesting that his English is very Germanic, with long and complex sentences, but still the language of America. Once he started, other Orthodox rabbis followed suit.”

 Although he is adapting to the English language, Leeser’s work in the rabbinate is being analyzed from the perspective of how it fits into the Ashkenazi tradition.  Whether or not Sephardim in American Synagogues spoke in English is not seen as an issue.  The point serves to divorce Leeser from the American Jewish context in which he worked.

 In each of the examples that Rabbi Rakeffet provides in the article – from The Occident to Maimonides College to the struggle with Reform Judaism – Leeser was working from within the consensus that had previously been established by Sephardic leaders and religious figures beginning with Seixas who had created the template for American Judaism.

 Moreover, Leeser’s work in The Occident presented Judaism in a larger “Atlantic” context that has been exhaustively and brilliantly discussed by Arthur Kiron in his indispensable article “An Atlantic Jewish Republic of Letters?”!searchin/Davidshasha/kiron/davidshasha/QNhrNxo1SBQ/kfB2STquBdcJ

It is critical to understand that what Rabbi Rakeffet is doing here – and what we have repeatedly seen in the current Jewish discourse – reframes American Jewish history along strictly Ashkenazi lines.  The word “Sephardic” appears but once in the entire post and – more tellingly – the larger context of Sephardic culture in Charleston and Philadelphia is left out of the discussion.

 Leeser is then presented in the context of the internecine Ashkenazi denominational wars and amazingly the following statement can be presented without any sense of irony:

 “After his death, Leeser’s publishing enterprise became the Jewish Publication Society, which still operates today. He was the forerunner of Artscroll, Koren and all the successful Orthodox publishers.”

 The larger context of the JPS and its emphasis on the classical Sephardic tradition is left unspoken – as is the way the JTS and Maimonides College is presented – while the absurd claim is made that the JPS is somehow the precursor to Ashkenazi Orthodox book publishers.  The JPS was not founded to promote sectarian views of Judaism, rather the idea was to preserve the literary heritage of the Jewish past for educated Americans.

 When seen in light of the Sephardic tradition of Religious Humanism, a figure like Isaac Leeser and the work he did is perfectly intelligible and free of ambiguity or controversy.  Coming from the contentious cauldron of European Judaism with its factions and rivalries, Leeser learned to adapt to an already-existing Jewish system in America, a system founded and executed by Sephardic leaders and religious functionaries.  Leeser, of course, brought his own considerable energy and vision to the project and developed a rich resource base through his translations and editions of classical Jewish texts such as the prayer-book. 

 It is also worthy to note that Leeser worked closely with Grace Aguilar, perhaps the most important Jewish literary figure of the 19th century:!topic/Davidshasha/zWrk7XPeunk!searchin/davidshasha/leeser/davidshasha/XJHXIdGVlIs/PiN5qBv_N2AJ

 Aguilar was a pillar of the British Sephardic Jewish community and was instrumental in presenting traditional Judaism to the larger world.  Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, the Sephardim were open to the world without having to relinquish their Judaism.  The British example is rare in the Europe of that time, largely due to the centrality of the Sephardic model in its development.

 Michael Galchinsky has published an excellent anthology of Aguilar’s writings as well as an extensive study of British Jewish women’s writing:

 It is interesting to note that the Rakeffet article never mentions the standard academic work on Leeser by Lance Sussman that discusses many of these issues:

It also neglects to mention Rebecca Gratz and the work that she did in the area of Jewish education.  Gratz was a pillar of the Philadelphia community who worked with both Leeser and Morais:

 The principal aim of Rabbi Rakeffet here is to present Leeser in the tightly-constricted context of Ashkenazi Orthodox Judaism and leave out the larger historical-cultural context of the Sephardic Judaism that he actually worked in.

 It is well-nigh impossible to understand Isaac Leeser without making reference to the Sephardic tradition and the central role that it played in American Judaism in the 19th century.  It is the flexibility and intellectual openness of the Sephardic tradition that enriched American Judaism, until it was taken over by the Ashkenazi factions who broke its unity and undermined the synthesis presented by Religious Humanism; a Torah Judaism that was open to the outside world.  American Jewish factionalism is a product of this Ashkenazi contentiousness.

 Rakeffet’s ethnocentric Ashkenazi bias is sharpened in the following passage:

 “I believe he was influenced by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who also published a newsletter, Yeshurun, in which he reached out to the common people. Both Hirsch and Leeser recognized and utilized the power of the written word to strengthen tradition. R. Hirsch’s articles showed an openness to general knowledge and literature. Similarly, Leeser exhibited a worldliness in The Occident.”

 Rakeffet traces Leeser’s “openness” to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch rather than to Leeser’s Sephardic predecessors and the Sephardic Synagogues he ministered in.

 Rabbi David de Sola Pool has provided the details on this Sephardic tradition inAmerica in his two books – both currently out of print – on Shearith Israel:

So we have seen the way that Sephardic culture has been removed from the American Synagogue as well as from institutions like the JPS, JTS, andMaimonides College.  In relation to the latter, there is the absence of the Sephardi leader Moses Aaron Dropsie, who helped to found the college with Leeser and who served on its board of trustees.

 Maimonides College closed in 1873, and in 1907 a new institution named for Dropsie continued the teaching of academic Jewish studies at an advanced level:

 Arthur Kiron has written an excellent article on Dropsie’s life:

The Rakeffet article is thus an excellent example of the willful blindness of Ashkenazim who only seem to be able to see themselves when looking at Jewish history.  I have presented example after example of this sorry fact:!searchin/davidshasha/morais/davidshasha/rY6tsM-gviU/Ev9p-Fui3wgJ!searchin/davidshasha/sarna/davidshasha/65-pgkt2JH0/LY5iAJI9QeEJ!searchin/davidshasha/who$20owns$20jewish$20history/davidshasha/jriIOX1wkno/z70gAt_eluwJ!searchin/davidshasha/who$20owns$20jewish$20history/davidshasha/R9N5C04Rijw/XegOyrDBjx8J

In the attempt to combat this prejudice, I have presented resources that would allow us to better understand the centrality of the Sephardic heritage in American Judaism:!searchin/davidshasha/resources/davidshasha/MJ35YoKl4jI/Air9NGDONQsJ!searchin/davidshasha/a$20broken$20frame/davidshasha/yj_4nB1nWTk/PSVcxzqBsKEJ

 As we continue to see the collapse of the American Jewish community due to factionalism and assimilation, it would be helpful to restore the old Sephardic model of Rabbinic Humanism that was central to the work of someone like Isaac Leeser.  The continuing attempt to present American Jewish historical figures exclusively in terms of Ashkenazi Orthodox tradition is not only counter-productive to American Jewish continuity, but serves to distort the actual historical facts and context of the American Jewish experience.

 I have collected a number of important articles on Religious Humanism in a special edition of the SHU:!msg/Davidshasha/d9Q4PNeOS0U/L8JjvNmL0cIJ


I. Right Man, Wrong Time

Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) was a visionary, ahead of his time… to his frustration. The ultimate mazalis to be the right man in the right place at the right time. Whatever Leeser tried to do failed but eventually became standard. Sadly, he was at the wrong time but years later he was proven correct.

Leeser was born in Germany and orphaned at a young age. He received a good Torah education but was impoverished. His uncle brought him to Richmond, VA at age 18. He never married and often came into conflict with congregants, but enjoyed a long rabbinic career, even though he was never ordained as a rabbi. InRichmond, he was appointed Chazzan in the Sephardic synagogue, a rabbi-like position that required a man of Torah learning, something rare in America at that time. He had small pox in 1834 and his brother cared for him, eventually dying from the disease he caught from Isaac. This greatly impacted on Leeser, who reportedly carried a tinge of sadness with him all his life—never marrying, losing his brother and endlessly arguing with congregants.

Leeser was invited to become Chazzan in the prestigious Congregation MikvehIsrael in Philadelphia. However he left after a dispute with community leaders. A synagogue member was put in cherem, excommunication, by lay leaders of the community for reasons we do not know for certain but seem to be due to fighting with synagogue elders. Leeser was told to announce this cherem from the pulpit on three successive Shabbatot but he refused to do so. He was censured by synagogue leaders, who cut his salary in half as punishment. His supporters broke away in 1857 and founded a synagogue for him, Beth El Emeth, where he served for the rest of his life. As we will see, he was what we would call today an Orthodox rabbi, fighting for tradition when Reform was just starting. In return, many felt he was too “frum,” as we say today, too inflexible for the modern world.

Some scholarship has been written about Leeser. In my opinion, the best article is by Moses Isaacs and Nancy Klein in Guardians of Our Heritage, a volume R. Leo Jung edited. We will also discuss a study by a Conservative scholar, Moshe Davis, who in his book The Emergence of Conservative Judaism argues that Leeser was a forerunner of the Conservative movement. We will discuss why he is incorrect.

II. A Traditionalist Progressive

One of Leeser’s most important contributions was a monthly newsletter, The Occident, in which he eloquently and forcefully argued for tradition. The very title, Occident, implies a new world in contradistinction to what was left behind inEurope. I believe he was influenced by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who also published a newsletter, Yeshurun, in which he reached out to the common people. Both Hirsch and Leeser recognized and utilized the power of the written word to strengthen tradition. R. Hirsch’s articles showed an openness to general knowledge and literature. Similarly, Leeser exhibited a worldliness in The Occident.

He fought many of the battles that we take for granted today. In particular, he vigorously opposed any changes in synagogue practice. It may seem surprising at first, but Leeser was in favor, at least in concept, of what was called “MinhagAmerica.” He wanted a single nusach, prayer text, in America rather than allowing congregants to choose Nusach Sefard or Ashkenaz. He argued that if this is up to choice, there is no end to what will be decided by majority vote. If Isaac Mayer Wise’s “Minhag America” had been consistent with halacha, Leeser would have supported it.

Leeser also fought the long-standing battle for synagogue decorum. Christians attend short services and are quiet during the prayers. In contrast, Jews talked and acted disrespectful during the long prayer services. Leeser wrote in The Occident:

We regretted to observe in the place we attended that many spent the Kippur day in running in and out. I must pointedly condemn the practice of rounds of visits to various places of worship on that solemn day for such intrusion disturbs the devotion.

Time and again, Leeser raised the issue of lack of decorum and asked what can be done about it.

At that time, kosher supervision was not as significant a concern as it is today because food was largely homemade. It only revolved around issues like shechitah and matzah. But supervision of holy objects (tefillin/mezuzah) was a problem. Many salesmen made false claims about their merchandise’s origins. Leeser cried out about this problem. He accomplished little but foresaw a world in which standards and supervision were available, as they are today.

III. Innovations

However, Lesser also had an innovative side that caused some to claim he was a precursor to the Conservative movement. Moshe Davis makes this argument at length and I will cite some of his examples. He points out that Leeser retranslated the King James Version as the Jewish Bible, changing the Christian interpretations but keeping the core translation. In fact, all English translations followed this approach and were based on the King James Version until the new JPS translation in the 1960’s. The Leeser Bible was extremely popular. I remember that it used to be in every shul as the standard Jewish Bible. After his death, Leeser’s publishing enterprise became the Jewish Publication Society, which still operates today. He was the forerunner of Artscroll, Koren and all the successful Orthodox publishers.

Leeser preached in English, which was a radical move. To my knowledge, he was the first Orthodox rabbi in America to break with European tradition and preach in English. It is interesting that his English is very Germanic, with long and complex sentences, but still the language of America. Once he started, other Orthodox rabbis followed suit. Leeser also believed in speaking to women, inspiring them, caring for their religious well-being. He wrote in The Occident:

The females, too, belong to Israel. And they also must be taught that they may understand and observe the law…. There is so much given to women, especially the women of Israel, that we may freely say with a great writer of modern days whose name we do not remember, ‘that we are always what women make us.’ When the child first begins to think, it is his mother who infuses in his mind the first ideas. It is his mother who teaches him to lisp the first words. If he is able to learn something of God, it is his mother again who instructs him to serve the great Being who is the creator of all.

Isaac Leeser was the inspiration for women’s prayer books published inPhiladelphia, what we call today “techinot.” These are all now common activities among the Orthodox.

IV. Relations With Reformers

One of the most complex issues of the modern era, one that particularly vexed the Orthodox rabbinate in the twentieth century, is relations with non-Orthodox Jews and particularly the non-Orthodox rabbinate. The 1956 dispute over the Synagogue Council of America, which included synagogues and rabbis from all the movements, still resonated decades later. Leeser felt that there was no such thing as Reform Judaism, which at that time lacked any institutions and was more of a sentiment and mindset. To Leeser, Reform was a symptom of lack of knowledge, which can be resolved with education. Those of us who engage in outreach know that he was not entirely mistaken about this.

In the 1860’s, Leeser opened Maimonides College, the first American rabbinical school. At that time, all the clergy were imported from Germany, Hungary, and a handful from Eastern Europe. The 1870’s and 1880’s was different, when Eastern European Jews came to America in large numbers. But no one could predict that in the 1860’s. Maimonides College never succeeded. It had a handful of students and lasted only five or six years. It never got off the ground because the base was not there. The Reform movement began its rabbinical school in the 1870’s, JTS started in the 1880’s but in the 1860’s there was not enough interest in a rabbinical school. Surprisingly, Maimonides College joined forces with Reform. Leeser did not regard them as a separate movement. He said, “We should not hate our reformer brothers for their opinions since we should tolerate the sinner though we detest the sin.” Although, at that time, Reform was less extreme. Isaac Mayer Wise claimed to never leave his home in the morning without studying a page of Gemara. He even threatened to sue Leeser for calling him a “mechallel Shabbos,” a Sabbath desecrator.

In 1855, there was a conference on establishing a “Minhag America” which Leeser attended. As we explained, Leeser favored a unified and established prayer text. He hoped that Reform would compromise and they could all agree on a siddur for the sake of unity. But there was a limit to how much Reform would compromise—such as references to sacrifices and the return to the Land of Israel—and the experiment failed. He thought they all could agree on basic ideas but he was naïve. Around that time, Reform declared the second day of Yom Tov optional. Leeser tells the story that Isaac Mayer Wise got upset when people did not come to hisTemple for even the first day of Sukkot in 1855. Leeser responded triumphantly that when you abolish the second day of Yom Tov, people will not respect the first day either.

V. A Long Legacy

In his time, Leeser was known as a right-winger who refused to compromise on various synagogue issues, such as use of an organ and mixed seating. However, as mentioned, some later historians claimed he was a precursor of the Conservative movement. The term “Conservative” did not come into use until the mid 1910’s. JTS began in the 1880’s but did not call itself Orthodox for fundraising reasons. It used words like “tradition” and “commitment,” and differentiated itself from Hebrew Union College. As JTS developed, it became attached to Historical Judaism. The nineteenth century European scholars of Historical Judaism were personally observant but viewed the Oral Torah as a gradual moral development (e.g. Professors Frankel and Graetz).

The Jewish Encyclopedia, Universal Encyclopedia and his biographer, Moshe Davis, all attribute this affiliation to Leeser. But this is unfair. He was the first traditional rabbi with vision, with dreams, who saw what the world needed. He started a yeshiva, published English translations and attempted to make Torah accessible to all. He demanded synagogue decorum and acted to establish kosher standards. Every one of his dreams eventually came true. If he could only see what has become of Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and elsewhere, how the Torah thrives on the American scene.

This essay was adapted from the audio by R. Gil Student and reviewed by Rav Rakeffet.

 From Hirhurim blog, December 25, 2013



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