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Rabbi of the Confederacy
He came from Pressburg to lead New Orleans' Jews

by Rabbi Shmuel Singer

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Rabbi Yissachar Dov Illowy
5574/1814-5631/1871

Our appreciation of American Jewish history is directed towards personalities who founded institutions where previously none existed. Others no less deserving of admiration, however, are the Torah pioneers who were not so successful. Many of these individuals came to America to face a sweeping spirit of materialism and abandonment of "Old World" values, much to the detriment of the general commitment to Torah Judaism. They fought uphill battles with unusual valor and even though the apparent results were often dismal, their spirit and ingenuity succeeded in serving as sources of inspiration to their contemporaries as well as to us today. Outstanding among these intrepid Torah pioneers was Rabbi Yissachar Dov (Bernard) Illowy, whose struggles form a fascinating chapter in nineteenth century American Jewish history.

A Talmid in Pressburg, a Student in Budapest

Yissachar Dov, Illowy was born in Kolin, Bohemia, in 1814. Kolin had been a leading kehillah of Central Europe for many centuries, boasting great scholars as its rabbanim, such as Rabbi Elazar Kalir, author of Or Chadash on the Talmud, and Rabbi Elazar Fleckles, author of Teshuvah Me'ahavah. Rabbi Illowy himself came from a family of distinguished rabbis. His first rebbe was his father, a businessman who regularly taught a group of young Torah scholars. After a number of years, Yissachar Illowy enrolled in the world-famous yeshiva in nearby Pressburg, Hungary, where he developed a close relationship with the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, eventually receiving semichah (rabbinical ordination) from him. He later enrolled in the University in Budapest where he earned a doctorate.

For a while he earned his livelihood tutoring secular subjects to wealthy men's children in Znaim, Moravia, later becoming a professor in a Gymnasium in that city. Before long, however, he changed his against life's course. He was unusually well-equipped to lead the battle against the tide of Reform and assimilation that was sweeping Western and Central Europe, and he applied for a number of rabbinical positions in these areas.

He probably would have been successful in his quest had he not been suspected by the Hapsburg regime in Vienna of having been in sympathy with the local revolutionary elements during the upheavals of 1848. Thus the Austrian government forbade any Jewish community in the Empire to accept him as their Rav. Rabbi Illowy then applied for positions in Germany, where the kehillah of Cassel wanted to accept him as their Rav and as Chief Rabbi of Hessen as well, but the local government there also vetoed the appointment for similar reasons. Rabbi Illowy then turned to the United States where it was not a liability to favor revolutionary activity. Two rabbinical leaders who had strongly recommended him for the Cassel position were Chief Rabbi Nathan M. Adler of Great Britain and Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch o Frankfurt. Rabbi Illowy was to remain in close personal contact with them throughout the rest of his career.

U.S.A., 1853: Orthodoxy on the Decline

Rabbi Illowy arrived in America in 1853, when the state of Judaism was markedly on the decline in this country. In 1824, when Isaac Leeser had come here, and even in 1840, when Abraham Joseph Rice had arrived on these shores, Reform Judaism had achieved no wide-spread acceptance in this country. True, non-observance of mitzvos had grown and commitment to Torah had weakened, but almost all official expressions of Judaism in the United States were still Orthodox. In the 1840's, however, leading exponents of German Reform had begun to immigrate to the United States, and active opponents of Torah Judaism such as Isaac Mayer Wise and Max Lilienthal emerged as important factors on the American Jewish scene. These "rabbis," many of whom had never seen the inside of a yeshiva, organized Reform congregations all over the country. Ignorant German immigrants of the period - many of weak commitment - followed the lead of these clever impostors. While increasingly more congregations throughout America were turning Reform, Orthodox Judaism lacked spokesmen and able writers to combat the sweeping Reform tide.

Thus Rabbi Illowy had an ample field for work before him when he arrived in New York. As a true talmid chacham and an educated university graduate - both in short supply here at the time - he was especially qualified to debunk Reform mythologies, both in their own terms and by Torah criteria. He was soon engaged as Rav by Congregation Shaarei Zedek in New York, then a leading Orthodox synagogue.

Rabbi Illowy weathered a stormy career in the rabbinate. He rarely remained long in one congregation. His unyielding Orthodoxy, expressed in zealous speeches and writings against Reform, was not calculated to win the approval of even the members of Orthodox synagogues of mid-nineteenth century America. The Orthodoxy of many of these individuals was itself quite weak. In less than twenty years, Rabbi Illowy served in seven congregations. Indeed his travels trace a sad portrait of the state of religion in the United States of his time.

After a short tenure in New York, Rabbi Illowy moved on to Philadelphia where he was Rav for a brief period in Congregation Rodef Shalom, followed by service in St. Louis, Syracuse, and Baltimore. His longest stay was in New Orleans, where he served as Rav from 1860 until 1865, during the Civil War. His last rabbanus was in Cincinnati, from 1865 until the end of his career.

Articulate Opponent of Reform

Rabbi Illowy was greatly involved in polemics with the leading Reform figures of the period, primarily through articles in Leeser's Orthodox magazine, The Occident. He was gifted with a sharp satirical pen and a keen sense of language, which he used in literary pieces in Hebrew, English, and German, the contemporary Jewish language in America. In all three languages, his style was fluid and elegant, and his writings are still a pleasure to read.

Aside from Rabbi Rice, Rabbi Illowy was the only talmid chacham in the country capable of answering the clever and misleading publications of the Reform movement. As a new immigrant, he first agreed to attend Isaac Wise's Reform conference, in Cincinnati in 1855, but when he became aware of the nature of the gathering, he quickly removed his name from the list of participants, and he publicized this move in The Occident. From that time on, he was a sharp opponent of Wise. In 1856, we find him penning a scholarly letter protesting Wise's attempt to permit a yevamah to remarry without chalitzah, which is forbidden by Torah law. When a reader of The Occident questioned statements from the Talmud that seemed to contradict modern scientific findings, it was Rabbi Illowy who replied, effectively dealing with the alleged difficulties.

Nor did Rabbi Illowy flinch from writing personal reproaches to the major Reform leaders. Upon publication of Wise's History of the Jews in 1853, which denies the historical truth of the Bible, Rabbi Illowy responded with a long Hebrew letter in The Occident addressed to Wise: "How could your heart entice you thus to outstep all bonds to distort the truth and to shelter under the wings of falsehood, in order to make yourself a name? ... What will you do on that coming day when your Master shall question you, 'I set thee to guard the vineyard but my vineyard thou has not kept!'"

Similarly, in another long Hebrew letter he reproached Lilienthal, formerly an Orthodox rabbi, for his Reform activities in Cincinnati - specifically attacking the Reformers' contention that by reducing the "yoke of mitzvos" they were bringing about a renewal of commitment to Judaism: "With all the orations that you have given every Sabbath in an elegant and cultured style, what have you accomplished? ... What have you done to strengthen our faith? Where, then, are the ba'alei teshuvah who returned from their evil ways through accepting a new Torah you have given them? Where are those who have stopped their hands from working on the Sabbath day?" This letter closed with a quote from Rambam's ninth Principle of Faith: ''I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be changed and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator."

In 1856, when the new Temple Emanuel Reform prayer book was published, Rabbi Illowy wrote a brilliant English language attack on it in The Occident. In a masterful, scathing analysis of the changes introduced into the tefillah by this work, Rabbi Illowy marshals, point by point, evidence of the halachic ignorance displayed by its authors: "Several members of my congregation ... found themselves induced, partly perhaps by the beauty of the binding and fineness of the paper of a prayer book recently published, and partly perhaps by the brevity of its contents, to endeavor to procure its adoption in their respective synagogues" he writes. When asked his halachic opinion of this, he answered, "It might be good enough for those Israelites who have no other use for their prayer books than to keep them as an ornament for their parlor tables, but no true Israelite could use it as a prayer book proper." Indeed he writes that he publicly announced in his congregation that any Jew using this book is excluded from the loyal Jewish people, commenting further, "For the omission [from the prayer book] of the verse: "Ashrei Ish SheYishma L'Mitzvosecha V'Sorascha U'Divarcha Yasim Al Libo" (Fortunate is the man who harkens to Your commands, and takes Your Torah and Your words to heart), the compiler has his good reasons."

Rabbi Illowy was also an active contributor to the German-Jewish press in Europe. While yet in Europe, Rabbi Illowy had become friendly with Rabbi S.R. Hirsch of Frankfurt. In America he became the local correspondent for Rabbi Hirsch's German magazine Jeschurun, often reporting on the American Jewish scene and bemoaning its low religious state. He frequently translated his English language articles against the American Reformers for publication in Jeschurun. In one article he describes America as "an unclean land . . . many ignorant, yet all are wise and intelligent in their own eyes though they know not the Law." In another communication, he warns European Jews "not to permit themselves to be lured hither by the desire to increase their fortunes ... if they still have a heart for the religion of their fathers." In later years he wrote for Der Israelit, the journal founded by the noted Orthodox writer and editor Rabbi Dr. Marcus Lehmann, of Mainz.

In addition to his polemic writings, Rabbi Illowy was very much the traditional, learned Rav. In every city that he served he would compel the local shochtim (ritual slaughterers of cattle and fowl) to report to him for testing. They also were required to assure him with tekias kaf (a binding handshake) that they would not slaughter on Friday afternoons, which Rabbi Illowy feared could lead to selling kosher meat on the Shabbos. In addition, he either founded a Jewish school or strengthened the existing one in every city where he was rabbi.

Rabbi Illowy attempted to influence his congregants to greater observance of Torah and mitzvos, invariably achieving some measure of success. When he arrived in New Orleans in 1860, only four or five members of his shul were strictly kosher, and there was only one succah in the entire city. The following year, there were forty succos, and almost every home was kosher. He attempted to establish personal links with his congregants by visiting them in their homes, without compromising his role as the traditional Rav ... A contemporary account describes his study: the small pocket book size Yore De'ah always on the desk, next to his chair, for easy reference.

Halachic Guidelines ... From New Orleans

Many halachic questions were sent to him from all over America: regarding acceptable conversion of gentiles ... the kashrus of various sifrei Torah ... the use of a gas light for the mitzvah of Channuka (Rabbi Illowy forbade it).

While in New Orleans during the Civil War, his congregation was faced with another problem. The Union naval blockade had cut off the south from any source of imported esrogim for Succos. While the four species were available, Rabbi Illowy declared the locally, grown esrogim to be pasul (unfit). Hence, throughout the war, the arba'ah minim were taken in New Orleans without a blessing.

When he anticipated resistance from his congregants regarding certain difficult halachic questions, Rabbi Illowy frequently turned to European authorities for support. He carried on an extensive halachic correspondence with Chief Rabbi Adler of London and his bais din. Rabbi Adler was accepted in the Western world as a great halachic authority. To a lesser degree, Rabbi Illowy also maintained halachic contact with Rabbi S.R. Hirsch and other German rabbis.

Among the questions this correspondence dealt with was whether the children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers may be circumcised. Rabbi Illowy forbade this, since the circumcision was not followed with immersion in the mikvah, leaving the children non-Jews. In addition, he maintained that these children would, in any case, never observe mitzvos, hence why circumcise them? His decision, which was subsequently published in Der Israelit, was supported by leading German authorities including Rabbi Marcus Lehmann and Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer.

Another topic of correspondence was the kashrus of the Muscovy duck, which Jews of New Orleans were eating when Rabbi Illowy had arrived there. Rabbi Illowy found it lacking the halachically required tradition of acceptability, and hence declared it a treifah fowl. When the local shochet refused to accept his decision, Rabbi Illowy wrote to European scholars for support, noting that no American tradition of acceptability of this fowl was halachically valid, since there had never been a Torah scholar resident in New Orleans. Both Rabbi Adler and Rabbi Hirsch concurred with this opinion.

Rabbi Illowy actively promoted Orthodoxy in deed as well as in word. While in Baltimore in 1859, he was invited to address the Hebrew Benevolent Society dinner. When he was casually informed by one of the organizers that no arrangement had been made for ritual washing of hands before the meal, he refused to attend. This omission had been arranged through the influence of the radical Reform preacher Dr. David Einhorn, then in Baltimore. Rabbi Illowy delivered a sermon denouncing the dinner as having an "intolerant and sinful character" and urged his members to boycott it. Needless to say, the dinner arrangements were changed to conform with halachah.

Farewell to the South

The nature of his troubled career is exemplified by the circumstances under which he left New Orleans. At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, Jews from other areas of the South flocked to that city. These newcomers joined Rabbi Illowy's congregation, expressing a desire for Reform. Their first demand was for a mixed choir for the High Holy Days. When the trustees refused, an election was held and they were replaced. The new president was a man who publicly stated: "The sefer Torah has no more worth for me than another book written in ancient times" (as quoted in a letter from Rabbi Illowy to Rabbi Hirsch). These new officers soon accepted the Reform demands. Rabbi Illowy immediately resigned and left the city. In a bitter article in Der Israelit he describes the events: "The enemies of goodness and religion destroyed all... my delicate garden devastated."

Fortunately, Rabbi Illowy was then invited to serve as Rav of a newly established Orthodox congregation in Cincinnati. We can sense his joy in his description (in a letter to a friend) of the synagogue as strictly Orthodox, having prayers three times a day in accordance with Jewish tradition. Unfortunately, he was not to serve in this position for long. His years of struggle had worn him out and, ill with chronic dyspepsia, he was forced to retire, after a short time, to a farm outside of Cincinnati. However, he remained active in Jewish affairs until the last. During these years, he published an article attacking the recently arrived Marcus Jastrow as being a hypocrite. Jastrow was an advocate of the Historical Judaism school of Frankel, which was the forerunner of Conservatism in this country. Rabbi Illowy sensed the danger in this approach and asked Jastrow in his article to openly declare whether or not he accepted the doctrine of the Divine revelation of the entire Torah. This was a commitment carefully avoided by most members of this group, for their basic approach was one of blurring the boundaries between Orthodoxy and Reform.

Rabbi Illowy did not remain in retirement for long. Worn out by his increasingly painful illness, he died on his farm in June, 1871. He left behind him the record of a lifetime spent in the struggle for Torah Judaism in this country. Viewed from the standpoint of tangible achievements, the story of his life may seem a total failure. However, the courage and determination exhibited by Rabbi Illowy in his lonely battle for Torah supremacy in this country over a century ago surely inspired many of his contemporaries, and should equally serve as an inspiration to us all.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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