A Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise

A Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise

A Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise

A Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise

Synopsis

In the first half of this century, a talented and charismatic leadership restructured the American Jewish community to meet the demands and opportunities of a pluralistic, secular society. The work of this generation of titans still guides the current modes of American Jewish life. The last of these giants was the influential reformer Stephen S. Wise--a progenitor of American Zionism, creator of the American and World Jewish Congresses, and founder of the Jewish Institute of Religion. As rabbi of the Free Synagogue, Wise led the fight for a living Judaism responsive to social problems.

This engrossing study is more than a chronicle of an ethnic community's adjustment to a host society. Thanks to Melvin Urofsky's painstaking research, it succeeds in revealing the true story behind a legendary and controversial figure in American Jewish history.

Excerpt

In the first half of this century, a talented and charismatic leadership restructured the American Jewish community to meet the demands and opportunities of a pluralistic, secular society. To match the dynamics of the nation, men and women like Louis Marshall, Jacob Schiff, Henrietta Szold, and Louis D. Brandeis created new organizations and refashioned others, often in their own image. This generation of titans is now gone, but their work still guides the current modes of American Jewish life. Among them none articulated the belief that the destinies of the Jewish people and of the United States were inextricably interwined as did Stephen Samuel Wise.

A progenitor of American Zionism, creator of the American and World Jewish Congresses, founder of the Jewish Institute of Religion and, above all rabbi of the Free Synagogue, Wise carved a unique niche for himself at the interface of Jewish communal affairs and those of the broader society. His battles for a free pulpit, for a living Judaism responsive to social problems, for the right—indeed, duty—of rabbis to enter the lists of secular reform, set a pattern from which all American rabbis, those of his generation and their successors, have benefited.

Wise's life, however, is more than a chronicle of an ethnic community's adjustment to the host society. He had a singular vision in which the ethical teachings of the ancient Hebrew prophets merged with the Jeffersonian ideals of an egalitarian society. Jewish communal life could prosper in this land only if it adopted democratic practices, while the promise of America demanded that it adhere to the high standards of social justice elaborated so eloquently in Isaiah and Micah. For Wise, therefore, the battles for democracy in Jewish affairs and against antisemitism were part and parcel of his struggles in progressive and liberal reforms. a free pulpit, an enlightened rabbinate, a socially responsive religion went hand in hand with civic reform, wage and hours legislation, and fair treatment of minorities.

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