Who Was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise?
THOUGH LITTLE KNOWN TODAY, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE was a giant in American Jewish life in the years prior to (and to a lesser extent during) World War II--he died in 1949. Wise was the son and grandson of prominent rabbis in what is now known as the Conservative movement. Though born in Budapest, Wise came to America as an infant. As a young man he studied at Columbia University and then at the newly re-formed Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. Like the seminary in Breslau that Leo Baeck had studied at, JTS in New York sought to study Judaism scientifically, to link its ancient texts with historical and sociological study and to understand the purpose of Judaism in the past and how to adapt those purposes to the modern world. Though today we know the JTS as the seminary of the Conservative movement, when Wise studied there Conservatism as a formal religious denomination did not exist, and so it is not surprising that Wise launched his career as a Reform rabbi.
OVER A NEARLY 50 YEAR RABBINICAL CAREER Wise became one of the most prominent names in American Judaism. He was a tireless spokesman for the working man. He eliminated the need for people to pay outrageous sums to join congregations, for example, when he formed New York’s Free Synagogue, an important site of Jewish thinking and exchange in the early twentieth century. He was a founding member of the NAACP. Of equal note, Wise was a Zionist in an age when Reform Jews were actively non-Zionist both in the pews and the pulpit.
WISE'S ZIONIST ACTIVISM, and his belief that in America, democracy, and not wealth and elitism, should help steer the Jewish community, moved him to lead the American Jewish Congress, an organization that claimed to speak for the American Jewish community. The Congress was formed as a counter to what was then, and likely still is, the more powerful American Jewish Committee. In Wise’s day what distinguished the Committee and the Congress was leadership structure—the Committee was undoubtedly led by the nation’s wealthiest and most influential Jews, where by contrast the Congress was more broadly representative of the Jewish population in America—and their stands on Zionism.
IN NUMEROUS STUDIES AND DISCUSSIONS, much has been made of Wise’s failure to speak more forcefully for the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. As the head of the Jewish Congress, Wise called on the suspension of aid to the Jewish ghettos during the war for fear that the Nazis would intercept such aid and use it on their own behalf. He dismissed Hitler’s final solution as mere propaganda and bluster. In fairness to Wise, though, who could have known the extent of Hitler’s evil prior to the liberation of the camps? And yet, to be clear,Wise organized widespread and important protests against the Nazi threat. Indeed, it was at such a rally that a young Isaiah Zeldin first met Rabbi Wise, a meeting which would influence the naming of Zeldin’s temple in Los Angeles almost thirty years later. Wise’s interest in a more broadly democratic American Judaism, in social justice, and in the powerful support of a Jewish state in Palestine were all critical aspects of his intellectual and religious legacy and are important elements of mainstream American Jewish thought today.
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