Friday, April 12, 2013

Isaac Leeser and the making of American Judaism by Lance J. Sussman

Lance J. Sussman's study of Isaac Leeser's life introduces Leeser as a visionary of American Jewry and ardent defender of "Shulchan Aruch" Orthodoxy against Reform.

The life of Reverend Isaac Leeser was really an adumbration of the present structure of American Judaism.  Leeser sensed correctly the needs of the emerging Jewish community of the USA.  He understood the need for Jewish education for children and adults, the need for a structure that would unify the greater Jewish community; he saw the need for a Jewish press and the need for a Jewish ministry of rabbis.  Leeser also experienced the common present-day tension between congregation and minister over expectations and salary negotiations.

Leeser was the first to preach in English on a regular basis on the Sabbath to the chagrin of his congregation.  His decision was solely to enable understanding and not to encourage a reform to synagogue practice. (At the same time in Europe, the permission of preaching in the vernacular was being discussed because of the concern that perhaps such a practice was assimilation in disguise)  Leeser was not a Talmudist; he concentrated on Biblical exegesis and philosophic ideas.  He started a school in his home that peaked at 16 students but failed since he could not convince his synagogue (Mikvah Israel of Philadelphia) of the necessity.  Eventually, Rebecca Gratz initiated the first Jewish Sunday School system with the support of Leeser.

In the first quarter of the 19th century there was a dearth of ordained rabbis (Leeser was not an ordained rabbi, but rather a Ba'al Tefillah, one conversant in leading the prayers and was engaged as a Hazzan).  The reverend help found the advanced school for the training of rabbis called the Maimonides school -unfortunately, it too was short lived due to lack of funding.  In order to educate (without the vehicle of schools) Leeser founded the first Jewish publication society and edited The Occidental: the Jewish Advocate, a periodical that commented on the current Jewish issues and events.

With the growth of more and more synagogues since immigration rose exponentially, Leeser saw the need to communicate and organize with other Jewish communities.  He saw the need of a present day Orthodox Union.  He translated the Torah and prayer book into English.  His prayer book could be seen  through the 1940's!

As a former congregational rabbi, I could relate to the Hazzan's grief when he failed to persuade his congregation of the need for a school or that he wanted to preach (without their permission) on a particular topic.  His salary negotiations, I could recognize as authentic.

The author points out that there is some discrepancy about labeling Leeser Orthodox.  Some say that he really was the progenitor of Conservative Judaism because he seemed to accept integrating into the larger society and seemed accepting of Zunz's scientific methods.  Leeser was clearly Orthodox, however, according Sussman because he never turned away from the authority of Jewish law and its Shulcan Aruch.  He constantly attempts at proving that the Rabbinic understanding (as in Rashi's Peshat) was undoubtedly correct.

Dayschool Education, a Rabbinate with its own school, a Press,  a federation or Union were issues that Isaac Leeser fought for and lost in his lifetime, however, all of those ideas comprise the make-up of present day American Jewry.

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