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Isaac Wolfe Bernheim: A Crusader for a Prophetically Universalist "Israelitism"

Klaus J. Herrmann
Summer 1996

The saga of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim is among America’s Horatio Alger stories. With $4 in his pocket, 19-year-old Isaac arrived in the U.S. in 1867.  

Born in a forlorn village of the then grand duchy of Baden in southwest Germany, he set to work peddling wares and notions to the farmers of Pennsylvania. Five years later, he and his brother opened a whiskey distillery in Paducah, Kentucky and moved it to Louisville a decade later. By 1903 this Bernheim Distilling Company was incorporated as a $2 million enterprise and much later on acquired by the Rosenstiel / Schenley interests, worth in the hundreds of millions.  

But business was hardly Isaac Bernheim’s only passionate interest. In 1903 he assumed responsibility for the construction costs of Hebrew Union College’s new library building, a bill that came to $50,000, On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Bernheim presented another $25,000 check to its librarian, Adolph S. Oko.  

After 1945, the building became the home of the American Jewish Archives, established by Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus who in November 1995 passed away as he approached the age of 100. That age record was not quite reached by Isaac Bernheim, who died in 1945 at 96.  

Aside from numerous donations to various charitable endeavors, Bernheim’s most notable contribution to Kentucky was his Bernheim Forest and Arboretum, some 13,000 acres 25 miles from Louisville, one of America’s greatest natural heritage areas that is visited by more than 30,000 people each year.  

More than anything else, Bernheim’s commitment to universalist and prophetic Reform Judaism was the dominant theme of his life. He served as the founding treasurer of the American Jewish Committee from 1906 to 1921. His best remembered activity was as trustee of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "I owe my inspiration to my two sainted teachers in Israel," he would say in his address to the World Union for Progressive Judaism at its first conference in Berlin in August 1928. "Rabbis Adolph Moses of Louisville and Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, the incomparable leaders of American Reform.... Their personalities and teachings formed me ... their spirit dominates my thinking and my being." Indeed, it was Bernheim’s impassioned belief and life’s work that radical reformatory change was needed in Judaism or, as he preferred to call it, Israelitism.  

The Sunday Sabbath  

Next to Isaac M. Wise it was Rabbi Adolph S. Moses who served as Bernheim’s role model. While Wise was always a man of conciliatory perception and relatively moderate views, Adolph Moses was not. He was actually a firebrand of a rabbi, one imbued with unquenchable demands for ever more reforming the congregation of Israel towards the prophetically universalist mission conferred upon it.  

Bernheim regarded his Louisville rabbi as his hero, but Adolph S. Moses was, in many respects, a genuine hero. He interrupted rabbinical studies in Breslau’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1859 to enlist in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s successful campaign for Italy’s unification. Four years later he again deserted his studies in order to join the Polish insurrection against the Czar’s oppressive rule. This time around, Moses’ luck ran out because the Czar’s troops took him prisoner and sentence was swiftly pronounced against all insurrectionists.  

Languishing in the Czar’s dungeons, Moses’ life was saved by Royal Prussian diplomats intervening in his behalf. In 1870 Moses bid farewell to Europe and assumed a Reform pulpit in Montgomery, Alabama, leaving for Mobile a year later and for Louisville in 1880, where he remained until his death in 1902. Moses was no ordinary congregational rabbi but an author and journalist of note. When those activities failed to satisfy his quest for new horizons, Rabbi Moses enrolled in the university’s School of Medicine while well into his fifties, graduating with the coveted Doctor of Medicine degree.  

There is no question that Bernheim’s militancy came about as a result of his rabbi’s preachments.  

Bernheim’s consistently reiterated demand for transferring the Jewish sabbath to Sunday clearly originated with Rabbi Moses’ practice at the Louisville temple. He followed the example of numerous Jewish theologians whose reformatory demands linked with economic necessities of the l9th century and well into the 20th, Thus, under Rabbi Samuel Holdheim’s guidance, the Berlin Reform congregation had transferred the sabbath day to Sunday as of the mid-1840s and this precedent caught fire with at least five major American Reform congregations and a few dozen smaller ones. Its major proponent, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch who preceded Adolph Moses in Louisville established Sunday morning worship to great success at the Chicago Sinai Congregation.  

Bernheim felt impelled to address conferences on Reform Judaism (or "Israelitism" as he vociferously championed) wherever the opportunity presented itself. He spoke to the 1918 convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the May 1921 UAHC conference and the April 1928 first international conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Berlin. The most explosive tumult Bernheim caused came with his proposals at the UAHC conference in Buffalo, N.Y. This carried over to his Berlin address seven years later, when he was literally prevented from continuing his address beyond the first few minutes. Bernheim’s words at the UAHC conference were subsequently published under the provocative title of: "The Reform Church of American Israelites."  

Conviction and Consistency  

The first of these proposals, the one concerning the transfer of the sabbath day, read as follows: "... the solution on our part of the question of the observance of the Sabbath Day can no longer be evaded or delayed. Our Reform congregations are divided on this vital principle and are acting independently of each other. This situation is intolerable and cannot endure.... Conviction, no less than consistency, should impel us to declare officially that the observance of the Sabbath Day of the Decalogue has become an economic impossibility and is no longer binding on us."  

It continues: "To adhere to a skeleton day of rest such as is now the rule in our Reform temples, where we thank God for the blessings of the Sabbath Day and then immediately thereafter proceed to resume our daily vocations, lays us open, and justly so, to the charge that we are materialists and that we are sacrificing a basic religious command for material gain. If the outside world is not to question our sincere devotion to our religious principles, we must be honest with our neighbors, with ourselves and with our God. The one day of rest ... essentially of Hebrew origin, the world looks askance at its desecration on the part of those who have been specifically charged to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy and will not condone the violation of the ancient Sabbath Day, nor will society tolerate a double standard in religion any more than it will tolerate a double standard of morality without exacting the price.... We (in the history of Reform in Israel) had the courage to break with the past for the sake of the present and the future. But we have not yet finished our work of emancipating the true spirit of our faith. The evil in the heart of Israel is that we do not observe our weekly day of rest as a holy day ... humanly speaking the masses of us cannot observe Saturday as a day of rest and worship. Weakly, we compromise by all of us resting on Sunday and a few of us worshiping on Saturday. This cannot but result in confusion.... What we need is ... to break with our weak-kneed truckling to mere tradition and BOLDLY DECLARE THAT AMERICAN ISRAEL WILL HENCEFORTH OBSERVE SUNDAY AS ITS DAY OF REST AND WORSHIP, IN GOD’S EYES IT IS ALL ONE WHETHER WE MEET TOGETHER TO WORSHIP HIM ON SUNDAY OR SATURDAY ... I refer solely to the people comprising the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and all those liberal elements friendly to its cause ..."  

Original Contribution  

Bernheim was aware of the new concept of the (Sunday-)Sabbath as Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-60) pronounced this as the "most original contribution to the discussion" (at the Third Rabbinical Conference in Breslau, 1846). Holdheim, according to Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut in his book The Rise of Reform Judaism, A Sourcebook of its European Origin (pp.190 ff), notes that Holdheim distinguished as between Sabbath rest and sanctification, arguing that the Sabbath’s true objective was to achieve sanctification, while Rest was a mere symbolic means to the end of ethical sanctification and not an end in itself. Still, while Bernheim was aware of Holdheim and his argumentation, Rabbi Adolph S. Moses’ thinking was along the same lines, even more so, and Bernheim vividly recalled his "sainted" rabbi’s sermons and writings on the subject.  

The Central Conference of American Rabbis was much concerned with the question of transferring the Sabbath to Sunday. As Rabbi Solomon J. Freehof of Temple Rodef Sholom (Pittsburgh) wrote: "In spite of all the modernization of the service and the appeal of the sermon, the synagogue on Saturday morning grew emptier and emptier.... For what was the good of reforming Judaism, especially the improvement of the ritual and the prayerbook, if the Reform services were not much better attended than the Orthodox services?"  

An uneasy compromise was the result and while the Sunday morning service of worship was turned into the principal weekly religious event of a number of congregations, not excluding Pittsburgh’s Rodef Sholom, most still continued with their Sabbath services, as noted much to the discomfort of "purist" reformers such as Adolph Moses and his disciple Isaac Bernheim. Yet, some experience with a number of authentically Reform congregations, such as Temple Adath Israel of Boston in which Sunday morning worship replaced the Saturday sabbath, was not particularly positive. Its rabbi, Solomon Schindler (1842-1915), reflected on the fact that his congregants failed to attend traditional Sabbath worship because they were unable to leave their shops and professions. Once he had introduced Sunday worship he found that these attracted a non-Jewish audience, but his own congregants found reasons to spurn Sunday worship as well. Still, it is likely that a concerted effort within American Reform Judaism designed to centralize Sunday morning worship might have significantly increased attendance. It certainly accomplished this in Louisville.  

The Zionist Issue  

Bernheim remained an inveterate foe of Zionism throughout his life. Long before the American Council for Judaism was founded in 1943, he relentlessly carried on his own oppositional stance. It stood to reason that he immediately became a member of the American Council for Judaism, though by then 95 years old, In Denver, where he had moved during the 1920s, he was a key member and activist together with Colonel Schlesinger, Charles M. Schloss, Jack A. Weil, Colonel Stanley C. Shubart, William L. Winter and Bert Reuler.  

At the 1921 UAHC conference, Bernheim discounted Zionism as "not a thing to our liking, nor can it ever receive our support, Here is our Palestine, and we know no other." For those Jews who were not as fortunate even in those very early 1920s, in Eastern Europe, he declared "Our helpful and willing hands will ever be outstretched to them in their attempt to better their conditions and to seek a place in the sun. If they decide to emigrate to Palestine or elsewhere, we shall give them our unstinted support; but not as nation builders — only as colonists in the same sense and under the same conditions as emigrants to other lands receive. The attempt to re-create ... a so-called ‘Jewish state’ will never meet with our sanction, and we solemnly protest against the slightest imputation ... that we or our children are anything but 100 per cent Americans.... We will neither countenance nor tolerate a hyphenism thrust upon us by Zionists ...."  

He cited in support of his strident appeal Ambassador Henry Morganthau’s words to the effect that (in 1921, well noted) Americans were likely to view Zionism as a menace to American solidarity, since anything tending to make a section of the population transfer a modicum of its allegiance — even a sentimental and religious one — to "foreign soil" would represent an impediment to that undivided devotion which true Americanism demands. "Americanism is a jealous mistress and can brook no rivals," he stated.  

Bernheim argued before the UAHC assembly in Buffalo that Zionists misuse the word "Jew" and "Jewry": "attempting thereby to create the impression that "Jewry" comprises all the Jews in the universe and forming, as it were, a separate entity, a State within a State, a closed corporation of impractical dreamers and foreign reactionaries...."  

Not a Nation  

Seven years later, at the Berlin meeting of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Bernheim told the audience: "We are not a nation and we are determined not to isolate ourselves in Palestine. We are utterly opposed and will never willingly or otherwise subscribe to Israel’s (i.e. the congregation Israel, not the emergent State) identification with a national policy or culture, nor will we recognize in any form a flag or national hymn other than the one in the land in which we live. We shall never allow any man or set of men to lead us astray by sentimental and transient humanitarian appeals, to endorse a movement like Political Zionism, which gives the lie to all the preachings of our Prophets and to historical movements within the last two thousand years."  

Bernheim castigated "a limited number of our leaders" who were tempted to compromise with Zionism and he thought it "high time" to let the world know "that we Liberal Reform Israelites insist that our faith is not merely the by-product of our people, but that it is the heart, the nucleus and the reason for our existence now and forever."  

Still, he did not want to be misunderstood either as one without sympathy for those Jews who could find no other refuge than Palestine: "We are eager and willing to lend our aid to any colonization movement which has for its aim their settlement in Palestine, We cherish the historical associations that bind us to that classic land and we revere the idealistic motives that brought many ‘of our people’ there. But we are unalterably opposed ... to the institution of a Judaic Political State in this or any other land."  

By November 1929, Bernheim would assert that, "Palestine is likely to become a theater of a tragedy involving the Arab and the Zionist in ever increasing violence. Reform Israelites throughout the world should steer clear of this iridescent dream and maintain untarnished the integrity of their citizenship in the country where they dwell, and where their families have struck root."  

Renaming Jews and Judaism  

Marketing techniques are efforts to alter standard designations in order to create a more favorable image. Words connoting negative imagery are changed, usually without any realistic positive effect. Army mess halls become dining facilities Old Age homes are called Senior Residences and even old age has become the golden age.  

The late Jacob Rader Marcus of Hebrew Union College and the American Jewish Archives related that by 1816 the alchemy of apologetics had transmuted the rigidly observant members of Shearith Israel Synagogue from Jews into Hebrews and the term "Jew" was to remain virtually a dirty word into the 20th century. President Julian Morgenstern of Hebrew Union College in 1946 wrote that "Hebrew" served in the U.S. as the current designation for Jews. (See Issues, Winter 1996 for further discussion of this subject.)  

For Isaac Bernheim, the matter of changing a number of terms such as "Jew," "Jewry," and "Judaism" turned into a regular campaign, albeit one which was foredoomed to failure.  

During the course of his provocatively challenging address to the UAHC in May 1921, Bernheim minced no words. To begin with, he declared his readiness to turn the words "Jew" and "Jewry" over to the exclusive use of the Zionists and their heirs. He noted that, "The use of the word ‘Jewry’ has no right to exist in our country and is as repugnant to us as would be ‘Methodistry’ or ‘Baptistry.’" Bernheim completely failed to appreciate, of course, that unlike Baptist or Methodist groupings within Protestantism, there were clearly defined ethno-antecedental facets entirely lacing with various Christian-Protestant faith communities.  

Sainted Rabbi  

He referred to Adolph Moses, his sainted rabbi and friend of Louisville days, who had himself called for the abrogation of the word "Jew" as follows: "Among the numerous misfortunes which have befallen the Israelites since they ceased to form a state and a nation, one of the most fatal in its consequences is the name Judaism. In the mind of the gentiles this name indissolubly associates our religion, which is universal ... with the Jewish race (sic) and thus stamps it as a tribal religion. Worse still, the Jews themselves, who have gradually come to call their religion Judaism, are most of them misled to believe that their faith is bound up altogether with the Jewish race (sic. What Rabbi Moses meant was what we would today call an ‘ethnic group’) and that it is a religion for Jews alone and not for people of any other race or nationality."  

And Adolph Moses was further quoted by Bernheim as saying that there is nothing to sanctify the word "Jew" that has become of "deteriorated" signification. In fact one of the learned rabbis declared that "Jew" in its general application and acceptance had degenerated into a form of reproach.  

Bernheim cited a number of well-known coarse corruptions of "Jew" as these were contained in standard dictionaries. Finally, Bernheim took issue with both "temple" and "synagogue," of Roman and Greek origin respectively: "They are of foreign origin and should and must give way to the simple name of ‘church’ which in America is known and understood to be a place of worship. He wound up his address to the assembly by saying that the name REFORM CHURCH OF AMERICAN ISRAELITES be immediately substituted in the spirit of Isaac M. Wise’s work and that Sunday be declared the genuine Sabbath Day, untouched by compromise and sophistry.  

The Reactions  

Bernheim’s demands caused a tempest of fury. In The Jewish Tribune, an Orthodox-oriented weekly, its editor, Rabbi Nehemiah Mosessohn (1853-1926), raged that Bernheim was an "old ignoramus bereft of knowledge of Judaism and Israel’s history, an extraordinary coward inclined to de-Judaize the Reform Jews and detracting the Orthodox Jews." His arguments were said to be "idiotic" and like those of robbers and swindlers, he is no more and no less than a plain anti-Semite, a contemptible fabricator, a purveyor of impudence and falsehood, a silly ex-peddler.  

Along these lines, The Jewish Tribune’s editor wrote: "Is he so far demented that he fails to know that the Zionists do not ask any sanction from enemies of Israel? What permission do the Zionists need from their enemies of the Bernheim breed ... what do they care for the barking Bernheims? Bernheim’s taking himself so seriously throws doubt on his sanity, Bernheim’s demands ... are an excellent example of idiocy, rank ignorance and Jew-hatred.... We Jews have always suffered more from the Bernheims and Morgenthaus (i.e. Henry Morgenthau Sr., 1856-1946) than from any other enemies of ours."  

More serious than Mosessohn’s ravings were the harsh words of the great Rabbi Stephen S. Wise who, while demanding the right of free, untrammeled speech for himself, wanted to refuse the same to Bernheim, the "meddling peddler" from Louisville, In an "Open Letter to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise" (1922), Bernheim very courteously responded to Wise’s insults but could not spare Dr. Wise his advice to desert "the flesh pots of Carnegie Hall" and give himself and his talents wholeheartedly to Palestine, an uncharitable remark.  

Proud and Happy  

On the occasion of Isaac Bernheim’s 80th birthday in November 1928, the UAHC dispatched a delegation under the leadership of Charles Shohl (appointed by the UAHC chairman of the executive board, Ludwig Vogelstein), who said: "You have reason to be proud and happy of your life’s record."  

Rabbi William N. Fineshriber of Reform Congregation Kenesseth Israel of Philadelphia, subsequently a founding member of the American Council for Judaism (1880-1968) found inspiring words on that occasion: "... Essentially religious he has always been, and one of the outstanding characteristics of his personality ... has been this devotion to religious life. He has always taken this religion seriously and has fought a whole lifetime against what he believed to be insincerity cowardice and the other vices that so frequently encumber religious organizations."  

In viewing Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s devoted efforts on behalf of that which he wanted known as Israelitism, not Judaism, much credit can indeed be assigned to him. The terms "Jew" and "Judaism" have become words of approbation and pride, much as during the years leading up to the Holocaust era there was strident argument for exchanging them.  

Proudly in 1943, our American Council was defiantly named on behalf of JUDAISM, and while during the 1950s there were suggestions to differentiate between "Jews" and "Judaists," these came to nought.  

In the event, the establishment in May 1948 of the Republic of Israel could not but invalidate use of "Israel" and even "Israelite" for all who employed these references for theological purpose. Practical considerations dictated such usage, much as there continues to be legitimacy attached to a theological definition of "Israel" and "Israelites" in differentiation to the state and citizenship understanding the latter though correctly identified as "Israeli."  

In his time, Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was a tireless crusader for what he believed was the genuine universal and prophetic Judaism. The debates of those days are still with us, although their form and rhetoric may have changed.

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