The Rabbi Who Met with Presidents

February 22, 2022 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

When Isaac Mayer Wise—the principal architect of Reform Judaism in America—met then-President Zachary Taylor in the White House, he was not meeting a U.S. president for the first time, but Taylor was meeting a rabbi for the first time. At least, that’s what Wise claims in his memoirs, and there is no evidence to the contrary. Allan Arkush describes both this meeting and some of Wise’s other presidential audiences:

When he went to the White House in February 1850, Wise himself was not yet the distinguished president of the Hebrew Union College or the Central Conference of American Rabbis; he was just a thirty-year-old pulpit rabbi from Albany, New York. Zachary Taylor, the Mexican War hero, had been president of the United States for less than a year when Wise, who was traveling south for his health, arrived in Washington, DC.

A Bohemian-born immigrant who had been in the US less than four years, Wise was eager to observe the American government at work. He could hardly have picked a more exciting moment. The debate over the Missouri Compromise was raging, and . . . Wise owed his meeting with the president to one of the principal debaters—William H. Seward—who was a friend of his from Albany, where the senator had been a lawyer for a number of years between his terms as governor of New York and his election to the upper house in 1849.

It seems . . . that newspaper reports of the very fact that he had met with the president made Wise into an instant celebrity. The following day he had a long conversation with Daniel Webster, who was so impressed by his erudition that he offered to get him hired at Boston University.

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