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American History & Jewish History Blog
Isaac Leeser, circa 1868, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
July 13, 2021

Isaac Leeser’s Proto-Zionism

Isaac Leeser was one of the most important Jews of the nineteenth century, and certainly the most important rabbi in America at the time. Leeser, an orphan who had been raised by his grandmother, immigrated from Germany to Richmond, Virginia in 1824 at the age of eighteen to live with his uncle. Four years later, in 1828, Leeser publicly defended Judaism in the pages of The Richmond Whig in response to a virulently anti-Semitic article that had been published in London and then republished in New York.[1] Leeser’s polemics not only caused a stir, but brought him to the attention of the Philadelphia Congregation Mikveh Israel. Despite Leeser being only twenty-two and Ashkenazi, the Sephardic congregation asked Leeser to be their Hazzan, or congregational rabbi, a position he held for over twenty years.

It has been said that Leeser was the forerunner of Modern Orthodoxy in America. Modern Orthodox Judaism seeks to synthesize the traditions and tenets of Judaism with the secular and modern world while retaining the particularism of the Jewish people. He insisted on delivering his sermons in English (as opposed to German) in order for German Jewish immigrants to better integrate into their adoptive country, and popularized the practice of preaching in Orthodox synagogues. In a remarkable display of scholarly ecumenism, Leeser jointly published the Masoretic version of the Bible with an Episcopalian minister.[2] He also established and edited The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, a monthly magazine, from 1843-1868. This was the first Jewish serial to be published in the United States, and provided Jews with an established cultural foothold. Today, it is an invaluable record for historians of Jewish antebellum history. Perhaps where Leeser was the most visionary in bridging two worlds or philosophies was how he viewed the Holy Land. 

Supporting Jews who were living in the Holy Land seemed to contradict the desire of Jews living in the United States (or elsewhere) to integrate fully into American society, as it reinforced not only the theological notion of redemption to the Land of Israel, but also the sociological idea that the Jews were indigenous to the Land of Israel, and therefore foreigners in a strange land when living in the diaspora.[3] Leeser managed to belong to both camps – to reinforce and reinvigorate the traditionalism of Judaism, and yet at the same time, advocate for the Jew to be a model American citizen, and to be an outspoken proponent of the Constitution.  

Leeser’s thought on Zionism, his moderate position, was an evolution of several years and factors. Being Orthodox, he came from the traditionalist position that believed only in the return of the exiled Jews to the land of Israel with the coming of the Messiah. Two contemporaries helped change his mind: Mordecai Manuel Noah and Warder Cresson. As early as 1844, Noah advocated for a Jewish homeland, with the help of Christian allies. Leeser initially disagreed with Noah’s position not only because he could not imagine gentile support for a Jewish country in Palestine, but more importantly, because Noah’s vision seemed to lack the support of divine providence. Nonetheless, Leeser printed Noah’s work in The Occident. And despite disagreeing with Noah on the subject of Jewish autonomy, Leeser’s traditional worldview meant that he did support the indigent Jews in Palestine throughout his entire career. Though they didn’t come to fruition, Leeser also supported Cresson’s agricultural aspirations in the Holy Land. 

A turning point in Leeser’s thought was the European Revolutions of 1848. That year, Leeser, observing that Germany, Poland, and Italy had successfully reconstituted themselves as nation-states, wondered “why should not the patriotic Hebrew also look proudly forward to the time (even without revelation) when he may again proudly boast of his own country, of the beneficent sway of his own laws…” [4] Leeser finally conceded Noah’s point that he had vigorously opposed for years earlier, interestingly relegating the major theological point to a parenthetical one. Leeser no longer saw Divine Revelation as a prerequisite for Jewish statehood in Palestine.

Another component of Leeser’s already affirmed Jewish patriotism came at the end of his life, in the 1860s. The turmoil preceding and following the Civil War brought with it a rise of anti-Semitism in both the North and the South. Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders No. Eleven, issued in December of 1862, expelled Jewish people from Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and parts of Illinois with 24 hours notice. Though President Lincoln quickly rescinded the order, the state-sponsored anti-Semitic expulsion had already horrified Leeser. Like Theodor Herzl some thirty years later watching French Republic pull itself apart over the Dreyfus Affair, Leeser was convinced of the practical need for a Jewish state. 

Before supporting the idea of an autonomous Jewish State in Palestine, Leeser was an eager supporter of Jewish agrarian communities in the Holy Land, in particular the endeavors of his friend, Warder Cresson, to farm the land around Jerusalem. By the end of his life, Leeser was an ardent supporter of a self-sustaining Jewish enterprise in its homeland. In other words, Leeser was an early Religious Zionist. 

  1.  Sussman, Lance J. “Another Look at Isaac Leeser and the First Jewish Translation of the Bible in the United States.” Modern Judaism, vol. 5, no. 2, 1985, pp. 159–190. JSTOR, Accessed 30 June 2021, p. 162
  2. The word Masoret is Hebrew for tradition, and the Masoretic version of the bible is considered the most authentic version of the Hebrew bible. It was codified between 600 and 1000 AD by Talmud scholars who wished to transmit the original text of the Old Testament. They also provided vowel signs to ensure correct pronunciation as well as important marginal notes.
  3. Shiff, Ofer. “At the Crossroad between Traditionalism and Americanism: Nineteenth-Century Philanthropic Attitudes of American Jews toward Palestine.” Jewish History, vol. 9, no. 1, 1995, pp. 35–50, p. 38.  JSTOR, Accessed 29 June 2021.
  4.  Occident, vol. VI, no 2 (May, 1848), pp. 71-72
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