Pil­lar of Fire: A Biog­ra­phy of Rab­bi Stephen S. Wise

A. James Rudin
  • Review
By – March 18, 2016

Stephen S. Wise was the most promi­nent Amer­i­can Jew­ish cler­gy­man dur­ing the 1930s and 1940s, and, accord­ing to A. James Rudin, the pre­em­i­nent Amer­i­can Jew­ish leader of the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. He fre­quent­ly received let­ters deliv­ered by the Unit­ed States Postal Ser­vice from over­seas sim­ply addressed to Rab­bi, USA.” The sub­ject of sev­er­al books, No oth­er rab­bi before or since Wise,” Rudin writes, ever dom­i­nat­ed the Amer­i­can and the inter­na­tion­al scene with such pas­sion and pow­er.” Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Jew­ish lead­ers can still look to Wise as a mod­el of what gift­ed lead­ers can achieve and build: Jew­ish self-esteem, social jus­tice engage­ment, full par­tic­i­pa­tion as Jews in Amer­i­can soci­ety, and the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of reli­gious and com­mu­ni­ty life.”

Wise was a strong advo­cate of lib­er­al Judaism and looked askance at tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish prac­tices such as the dietary laws and obser­vance of the Sab­bath. Instead, he man­i­fest­ed his Jew­ish­ness by speak­ing out in behalf of a host of social and polit­i­cal caus­es, includ­ing oppo­si­tion to anti-Semi­tism, the lib­er­al­iza­tion of Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion laws, the strength­en­ing of labor unions, the abo­li­tion of child labor, women’s suf­frage, social secu­ri­ty leg­is­la­tion, sup­port for inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions such as the League of Nations and the Unit­ed Nations, civ­il rights for blacks, paci­fism and anti­mil­i­tarism, Pro­hi­bi­tion, the antitrust cam­paign, anti-colo­nial­ism, and par­tic­u­lar­ly Zion­ism. Par­tic­u­lar­ly notable was his sup­port for fac­to­ry leg­is­la­tion after the trag­ic Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry fire in New York City in March, 1911. Wise was also a pio­neer in fos­ter­ing Chris­t­ian-Jew­ish rela­tions and had an espe­cial­ly close rap­port with John Haynes Holmes, the min­is­ter of the Uni­tar­i­an Com­mu­ni­ty Church in New York City. 

Wise was also deeply involved in Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion­al life. It is unlike­ly, Rudin claims, that we shall ever again see such a cen­tral­iza­tion of per­son­al influ­ence and pow­er in a sin­gle rab­bi.” Wise was one of the founders of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress in 1918; he estab­lished his own rab­bini­cal sem­i­nary (Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion) in 1922 and helped orga­nize the World Jew­ish Con­gress in 1936. His most impor­tant orga­ni­za­tion­al con­tri­bu­tion was found­ing his own syn­a­gogue: in 1905 he was offered the pul­pit of Tem­ple Emanu-El in New York City, the most pres­ti­gious Reform con­gre­ga­tion in the Unit­ed States, but he turned it down after being informed that his ser­mons and civic activ­i­ties would have to be cleared before­hand with the congregation’s lay lead­ers. Instead, Wise launched his own free syn­a­gogue” in Man­hat­tan in 1907 which sub­se­quent­ly came to bear his name.

Wise strong­ly sup­port­ed the New Deal and revered Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, whom he referred to as the Chief.” This close asso­ci­a­tion with FDR — Wise met with Roo­sevelt thir­teen times between 1933 and 1945 — has been the most con­tro­ver­sial aspect of Wise’s career as a Jew­ish leader. Wise was con­tin­u­al­ly dis­ap­point­ed with the administration’s hes­i­tant poli­cies regard­ing the belea­guered Jews of Europe pri­or to and dur­ing World War II, but he hes­i­tat­ed to speak out pub­licly due to fear that this would for­feit what­ev­er influ­ence he might have had in the White House. Some his­to­ri­ans have described Wise as a Roo­sevelt lack­ey and claimed that his silence made him com­plic­it in the Holo­caust. Rudin, on the oth­er hand, believes Wise was more scep­ti­cal of FDR’s poli­cies regard­ing the Jew­ish cri­sis than his­to­ri­ans have assumed and ful­ly aware that he was being manip­u­lat­ed by the President.

The Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion was cre­at­ed as an alter­na­tive to Hebrew Union Col­lege, which had been estab­lished by Isaac May­er Wise (no rela­tion) in Cincin­nati in 1875. The JIR reflect­ed Wise’s sym­pa­thy toward Zion­ism, while the HUC reflect­ed the Reform movement’s scep­ti­cism toward Jew­ish nation­al­ism. The two insti­tu­tions merged in 1948, one year before Wise’s death, and sev­en years before Rudin began his rab­binic train­ing at HUC-JIR in New York City. 

The spir­it of Wise per­me­at­ed the merged insti­tu­tion dur­ing the six years Rudin was a stu­dent, and, not sur­pris­ing­ly, he shares Wise’s reformist the­o­log­i­cal out­look, his com­mit­ment to Tikkun Olam, his love of Israel, and espe­cial­ly his enthu­si­asm for Chris­t­ian-Jew­ish coop­er­a­tion. I owe Dr. Wise a great deal,” Rudin writes, and this biog­ra­phy is my way of repay­ing that debt.” Wise would have been pleased by the book since it is rel­a­tive­ly free of the crit­i­cisms that a more ana­lyt­i­cal and dis­pas­sion­ate his­to­ri­an would have offered. 

Relat­ed Content:

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions