Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Scandals of Yesteryear

All this back and forth about Jews and Christmas reminded me of this weird moment in American Jewish history almost ninety years ago:

Wise Unwise?

Throughout the land headlines blared RABBI WISE SAYS JEWS SHOULD ACCEPT JESUS. As the implication of those words sank in, Jews became excited and commenced to flay famed Manhattan Rabbi Stephen S. Wise right and left. The Agudath Harabonim* issued an edict against him. Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, professor of the Talmud at the New York Jewish Theological Seminary, declared: "Rabbi Wise does not represent the beliefs of a majority of Jews."

At length someone troubled to discover that Rabbi Wise had actually only said that modern Jewry must accept Jesus as a great Jewish teacher and indorse His ethical code. Later the Rabbi explained, that he had used the words "accept Jesus" in the sense of "accept Jesus as a man and a Jew." He said: "There is no question of embracing Christianity save by Christians.

For close to three weeks, Wise was bashed in synagogues across the country, traditionalist Jewish newsapers, and public rallies and press releases. Rabbi Louis Silver called his remarks heretical, and the Young Israel of Brooklyn passed a resolution condemning them as "a grave threat to Judaism."

Mizrachi and Agudath Harabonim went even further:

[Wise] has on several occasions preached publicly against the divine authority of the Bible. Because of this, he from our point of view a priori considered harmful to be placed at the head of a national Jewish movement. As a rabbinical body, we were dissatisfied with his election to the chairmanship of the UPA. Being, however, devoted to the reconstruction of Palestine, we kept silent, with pain in our hearts, and hoped that at least [while chairman] he would feel his responsibility to the Jewish community and consider their holy feelings and not offend them.

It is most regrettable that... last Sunday he preached on a subject which threatens to tear down the barrier which has existed between us and the Christian Church for over 1,900 years-- which may drive our children to conversion.

Dr. Wise's...[words] are a maneuver towards baptism, a wide opening of the doors of the churches for the youth.

(NY Times, Dec 29, 1925)

Mizrachi and Agudath Harabonim demanded Wise's resignation from the (then) United Palestine Appeal (Keren Hayesod), a 5 million dollar charity and the leading Zionist fundraising organization of the day.

And yet, as the scandal dragged on, cooler heads gradually prevailed. Not only did Wise have the backing of his Reform allies, his eloquence (and the truth about what he actually said coming to light) slowly convinced enough moderates to shift their support. Individual Orthodox rabbis and shuls started standing up for him, and the Rabbinical Assembly of JTS eventually backed him as well. Though Wise offered his resignation from UPF within a few days of Agudath and Mizrachi's criticism, many urged him to reconsider and the heads of UPF's board to reject it.

By the second week of January, Wise's resignation had been rejected and it was Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, President of Agudath Harabonim and the leader of the attacks on Wise in the first place, who wound up being forced out of the Executive Board of Mizrachi, going over to Agudath Israel (which would, in turn, start its own break-away fund to support Israel).

In many ways, the Wise Christmas scandal was a major watershed for American Jewish history in the early 20th century, where the divisions of the three movements were brought to a head once more. Of course we had already had the infamous "Trefa Banquet" in 1883 which helped convince more traditional Jews that the radical Reformers were not interested in maintaining a Jewish status-quo (and helped create the impetus for JTS), but the Wise scandal solidified the lines in the sand for the Conservative and Orthodox movements.

Recall that originally, JTS was created for the purposes of consolidating the Orthodox and the center-right moderates in opposition to Reform, and that for many years the seminary operated as a home for a kind of centrist Orthopraxy in America. However, the Agudath Harabonim had been created in 1902 to provide an Eastern European, essentially Haredi perspective and to increase its domination over the concept of what it would mean to be "Orthodox" in America. In fact, the Agudath would not even allow JTS graduates (or graduates from Western European schools, such as the Hildesheimer Seminary) to be members. By narrowing what "Orthodox" could legitimately mean, Agudath pushed Conservative Judaism and JTS further to the center simply by virtue of not being Haredi.

This background helps explain some of the back-and-forth among individual Conservative rabbis and congregations as they tried to decide where they came down on the issue of the Wise scandal, not only over the details, but also politically, over whether they would dare to challenge the Agudath Harabonim.

One outspoken defender of Wise was Rabbi Solomon Goldman, who had been a student at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva before going on to JTS. Earlier in 1925, Goldman, whose first pulpit was at an Orthodox shul in Cleveland, got involved in his own controversy when he suggested abolishing the mechitzah. He, too, was made to answer to the Agudath Harabonim. Except, even more so than Wise, Goldman essentially told Agudath to jump in a lake. Other notable Conservative rabbis who joined Goldman included Louis Schwefel, Norman Salit, and Leon Spitz, all of whom had began as "modern" Orthodox rabbis and for whom the Wise moment was a wakeup call that while they could not consider themselves Reform, there was no place for them with the Agudath Harabonim.

The 1925 scandal helped crystallize where Reform was, where Orthodoxy had decided to go, and left the Conservative movement to try to define itself by where it wasn't (the more things change...). By 1928, In just a few years, Yeshiva College would be established and all three movements would have their own separate seminaries.

In many ways, the battle of the last weeks of 1925 was the last moment for the three movements to show that they could hold their noses and unite for a common cause, supporting the pre-state construction of Israel. When Agudath Harabonim split and started their own fund, it was the definitive end to the idea that America could support a unified, if fractious, concept of a big-tent Jewish community.

While ultimately the break constituted individual victories for the movements' right to define themselves (and paved the way for, eventually, an American Modern Orthodoxy that was closer to what JTS had envisioned in the first place), I can't help but wonder if the Jewish people simultaneously lost something important that day, if only in concept. Maybe true unity is a pipe dream, but I'd like to think that at least today we recognize that there are issues that we can (or should) agree on and which trump the ongoing denominational infighting.

Now that all the Jewish movements have a place at the table (at least in America), do you think there is a greater willingness (or openness) to work together? Or has increased power just strengthened different denominations' desire to expand their reach? What ramifications does this have for countries where Orthodox Judaism has preferred or "official" status and other movements are at a disadvantage? What can we learn from this?

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