When you have two Jews, you have three opinions.
That’s the old joke, but history – and Oregon Jewish history – is instructive: Religious “wars” pepper our past as much as they populate today’s headlines.
The pistol-packing rabbi? A “lockout” at a local shul? Fights over kosher meat? It’s all there, and more.
The Bible describes us as a “stiff-necked” people – and, as history testifies, so we are. Disagreements about religious practices, of course, have always been the most volatile. Even the Talmud, in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), weighs in, noting that “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will have a constructive outcome, but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome.”
One of the earliest, and certainly the most notorious, of the frontier fracases occurred on Oct. 1, 1880, when Rabbi Moses May of Congregation Beth Israel got into a fistfight in downtown Portland with a congregant and pulled out a pistol. The cause? Long-simmering disputes between the young rabbi and his congregation over tradition versus innovation – involving everything from which prayer book to use to the operations of the Sunday School.
The Daily Standard, a Portland newspaper, described the event as a “melee:” “The Rabbi shot twice at (Abraham) Waldman, and tore a piece out of his coat, and came near killing an honest man, and Mr. Waldman put a pair of beautiful rings about the Rabbi’s eyes.”
Waldman, who was arrested and fined for assault, described the rabbi, who had been with Beth Israel since 1872, as “deficient mentally and morally,” and said he would have been kicked out long before except for sympathy for his family.
For his part, Rabbi May accused Waldman of spreading reports that were “false, shameful and hollow,” and of wanting him to “teach the religion of Waldman instead of that of Moses.”
The American Israelite, a national Jewish newspaper published in Cincinnati, Ohio, also weighed in, noting that the shooting took place right under the window of the Esmond Hotel on Southwest Front Avenue, where President Rutherford B. Hayes was staying during a Portland visit.
“The rabbi was soundly thrashed for being such a poor marksman,” the Israelite reported, adding that “he knows as little how to pull a trigger as he knows of the Shulchan Aruch (the standard Jewish code of laws).”
Needless to say, there was an immediate vacancy in the Beth Israel pulpit.
At Congregation Neveh Zedek, in 1903, ongoing disagreements led to a reported expulsion of a prominent member, Dr. Nehemiah Mosessohn, editor of The Jewish Tribune, a national Jewish newspaper published in Portland.
“He Almost Causes a Riot,” The Oregonian claimed in a headline. “But for the timely interference of members of the congregation, there perhaps would have been some blood-letting.”
The report cites many voices and points of view. The issues seemed to touch on disputes over a speaker’s comment during a Yom Kippur sermon, and a bitterly contested board election.
Isaac Apple, the then newly elected president of the congregation, said that Mosessohn – who had served as the rabbi the previous year – was not expelled from membership. He explained that no vote had been taken because the meeting dissolved in disarray.
“I am very sorry that anything of this kind should have come into print, as it is disgraceful in the extreme,” he said. But just a year later, in 1904, Neveh Zedek again made headlines amid allegations of filched keys, lockouts and characterizations of some members as “ignorant Russian Jews.” One congregant allegedly attempted to assault Rabbi Adolph Abbey while he was preaching during Saturday morning services – and another was charged with threatening to kill him. The charges were later dropped.
In truth, Rabbi Abbey was controversial. Some congregants were strong supporters, but others said, “He’s not Orthodox enough for an Orthodox congregation.”
Apparently one of the issues was that he was not married, which was expected of traditional rabbis. One day, Rabbi Abbey decided to preach a “peace sermon,” but found himself provoking more than soothing.
“G-d does not get married,” he announced to his congregation. “Catholic priests do not get married. And I am not to get married either. As for junk peddlers, (illegible), and expressmen” – of whom there were undoubtedly a number in attendance – “they can get married.”
He survived that ruckus, but a year later – in his final sermon at Neveh Zedek – Rabbi Abbey offended most of the Jewish residents of Portland when he publicly denounced Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, then at Congregation Beth Israel, for preaching “political garbage and sewage instead of pure spiritual food” from the pulpit.
Wise, who went on to become a prominent American Jewish leader and longtime rabbi at the prestigious Temple Emanu-El in New York, was popular and respected throughout Portland and Oregon.
“He (Abbey) escaped in time from the church to save himself from assault,” a news story reported. And Abbey, who went on to law school at the University of Oregon, was roundly criticized throughout the community.
For his part, a friend of the rabbi’s said, Abbey was glad to be “rid of” the congregation. “Now he will have peace,” his friend said. “He is a man who is misunderstood.”
There are, of course, other stories, other fights – the most bitter ones dealing with issues of religious observance, and sometimes with a bit of business mixed in.
In 1908, Portland police were seeking a kosher meat inspector – accused of beating a kosher butcher’s wife so fiercely with his walking stick that the stick broke. Why? He accused the woman, who helped her husband in the shop, of selling dog meat as a kosher product. And that, clearly, was not kosher.
Even Portland’s beloved Rabbi Joseph Fain, longtime rabbi at Congregation Shaarie Torah, wasn’t spared controversy.
In 1918, a kosher butcher was charged with assault after starting a fight with the rabbi. Rabbi Fain had advised people not to shop at his store because of doubts about the butcher’s kosher standards. The butcher eventually was found not guilty, and the court dismissed a lawsuit he’d filed, asking to have some of the rabbi’s “religious edicts” overturned.
A half-dozen years later, Rabbi Fain resigned from Shaarie Torah “due to a lack of harmony,” as reported in The Oregonian, and joined another congregation, identified as “Machzika Horrav,” or “Defenders of the Rabbi.” No additional details were given, but the dispute clearly was resolved: The obituary for Rabbi Fain, who died in 1965, notes that he served as rabbi of Shaarie Torah from 1916 until his retirement in 1946.
“The good news,” says Judy Margles, executive director of the Oregon Jewish Museum, “is that all these differences are evidence of how much people value Judaism and Jewish life. If nobody cared, no one would argue.”
Sura Rubenstein is a Portland freelance writer.