A rabbi both revered and divisive

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Pillar of Fire coverPillar of Fire: A Biography of Stephen S. Wise, by A. James Rudin. Texas Tech University Press, 2015, 409 pages. $39.95.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Post Office forwarded international mail addressed to “Rabbi USA” to Rabbi Stephen Wise.


That decision, by the forerunner of the Postal Service, was based on reality, explains author A. James Rudin. “No other rabbi before or since Wise has dominated the American and international scene with such passion and power,” he writes. He was the acknowledged leader of the American Jewish community and “a major figure in American politics,” possessing “… an abundance of physical stamina, political talent, public relations skills, and religious passion.”

Wise founded the Free Synagogue in New York, the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Institute of Religion (Wise’s New York rabbinical school which in 1948 merged with the mainline Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College) and the World Jewish Congress. He was a confidant of presidents, took part in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 at the end of World War I and was a leading Zionist who vigorously fought other liberal rabbis and his own Reform movement, trying to sway their non- or anti-Zionist attitudes.

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Wise was undoubtedly revered among progressive Jews, but his status among their traditional and Orthodox counterparts surely was less lofty. After all, the rabbi ignored kashrut, appeared in synagogue sans kippah, referred to rabbis as “ministers” and, in effect, jettisoned Shabbat, holding his main prayer service on Sunday morning at Carnegie Hall — all actions that would be rejected even by most 21st-century Reform Jews.

Although Wise was an important leader, the author fails to make clear why he decided to retell the rabbi’s story some 65 years after his death. In his brief introduction, Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, indicates that he studied at the HUC-JIR New York seminary, which Wise had founded, and felt “a connection” to Wise for having helped establish the principle of an independent pulpit for clergy. He also credits his biographical subject for being “an inspiration” for his and other’s work in the fields of social justice and interreligious relations, and for transforming liberal Jews like him into Zionists.


Writing this biography, the author says, is his way of repaying the intellectual debts he owes to Wise.

That may justify the writing of this book, but I’m not sure it provides a very strong incentive to read it.

The book is comprehensive, maybe too comprehensive. In part, this is because Rudin goes off on so many historical tangents. It also is repetitive, with the author sometimes using the same terminology the second time around.

And, despite his power and influence, Wise was a controversial, even divisive, figure. Yes, “Rabbi USA” was a confidant of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (In private, the author tells us, FDR called Wise “Stevie” and the rabbi referred to Roosevelt as “the Chief” or “the Skipper.”) Yes, he was an acknowledged leader of the American Jewish community. Yes, he remade the landscape of that community, founding or helping to found several important national organizations.

Nonetheless, after he had achieved his fame, he failed to convince his “buddy” Roosevelt to act decisively in the three areas most important to the rabbi and to the Jewish people: allowing more German Jews to enter the United States during the run-up to the Holocaust; acting to stop, or at least slow down, the Nazis’ murder of European Jews; and supporting Jewish national ambitions in the land of Israel.

In his youth, Wise had been an iconoclast, “a lonely Zionist among Reform rabbis … a dynamic force for social justice, democracy, liberty, and freedom; and a champion of the free pulpit,” Rudin writes. But as he grew older, he became “what he had once so fearlessly attacked as a young man: a Hofjude or court Jew, the quintessential frequently obsequious representative of the Jewish establishment.”

Wise’s defense of Roosevelt’s policy of doing nothing to sabotage the Nazi murder machine and his biting criticism of Jews who protested that policy in retrospect seem especially lamentable.

America in the 1930s and ’40s was probably too traumatized by the Great Depression and too anti-Semitic to open its gates to Jewish immigrants or risk losing pilots and planes to bomb Auschwitz. But Wise was a rabbi. As such, he had a moral obligation to publicly oppose FDR’s policies, even if such opposition may have been futile and cost him access to the president.

As Rudin concludes, because the rabbi was a trusted leader, the Jewish people expected much from him. “Did they receive that kind of selfless leadership from Stephen Wise during their darkest moment in history? The answer is no.”

Whatever his shortcomings and failures, Wise is owed an incalculable debt by the Jewish people for his constant struggles with his fellow Reform movement leaders over Zionism. In so doing, he laid the foundation for a change of heart among those leaders that was to come when the cost of Jewish statelessness was made wrenchingly clear by the Holocaust.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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