Felix Adler (1851-1933)

The Humanist, September-October 2011 | Go to article overview

Felix Adler (1851-1933)


The self is precious on its own account. The nonself, the other, equally so. A virtuous act is one in which the ends of self and of the other are respected and promoted jointly.

--Felix Adler An Ethical Philosophy of Life (1918)

Felix Adler was born on August 13, 1851, in Alzey, Germany. In 1857 his family immigrated to New York where his father Samuel Adler became the head rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a landmark of Reform Judaism.

Felix graduated with honors from Columbia University in 1870 and went on to study philosophy at Heidelberg University, preparing to succeed his father at Emanu-El. After returning to the United States in 1873 he was asked to deliver a sermon to his father's congregation. His address, titled "The Judaism of the Future" proposed a radical new interpretation of Judaism--one without superstition that focused on human ethics. He was asked directly if he believed in God, to which he responded, "Yes, but not your God."

With his career as a rabbi over before it began, Adler took a teaching position at Cornell University. His unorthodox worldview soon brought criticism, and in 1876 he left amid controversy. At an invited lecture to discuss his creedless ethical movement, Adler said it proposed "entirely to exclude prayer and every form of ritual ...to occupy that common ground where we may all meet, believers and unbelievers ... Diversity in creed, unanimity in the deed" That same year he founded the New York Society for Ethical Culture (NYSEC), reportedly with a $400,000 grant from John D. Rockefeller Jr.

In a speech at the founding ceremony, Adler pronounced: "There have been no direr wars than religious wars, no bitterer hates than religious hates, no fiendish cruelty like religious cruelty ... and for what? Are we any nearer to unanimity?"

Adler and his movement were more concerned with the morality of life on Earth than in the unknown that may come after, and his dedication to secular ethics often led to activism. …

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