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

Author:Breitman, Richard
Position:Book review

Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. By A. James Rudin. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2015. 416 pp.

In an era of widespread anti-Semitism, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise pushed Jewish involvement in U.S. politics, campaigns for social justice and civil rights, and the American Zionist movement. Controversies followed virtually every step of his career. His ambition and ego only magnified them. The Holocaust has passed the stamp of controversy on to us.

In this full biography, A. James Rudin portrays Wise's early career well. Wise battled for and won a "free pulpit" (rabbinical independence and eventually financial freedom) at congregations in Portland and New York City, ending up at his longtime home, New York's Free Synagogue. Wise opened the way for recent non-Orthodox Eastern European immigrants to enter and appreciate Jewish life in New York City. He also built ties between Jews and men and women of other faiths, making his vision seem relevant to our day. Rudin notes Wise's early achievements inside and outside his congregations without overlooking his personal flaws, philandering and intense infighting among them. Wise often challenged older Jewish organizations more elitist in composition or low-key in methods. The challenges of the times suited a more democratic and activist organization, and as head of the American Jewish Congress Wise eventually became by far the most famous rabbi in the country.

Wise benefitted from supporting Woodrow Wilson for the presidency in 1912, and at age 40 (two years later), he was "at the peak of his powers" (134). But American Zionists were then at best a substantial minority of the Jewish community. Moreover, the 1920s were a lost decade for the progressive causes dear to Wise. Nor was Franklin D. Roosevelt's election in 1932 a triumph for Wise, who had clashed with him, especially over FDR's unwillingness to break with Tammany Hall until he had secured the presidential nomination. Wise actually voted for socialist candidate Norman Thomas in 1932, and partly as a result he had no personal access to the president until 1936. These events complicate Rudin's narrative of Wise gradually becoming too comfortable with the powers that be.

The last third or so of this biography focuses mainly on Wise's efforts during the era of Nazi Germany, World War II and the Holocaust. Rudin declares that any overall judgment of Wise ultimately rests on his personal relationship with FDR. Rudin's view...

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