American rabbi, author, translator, editor, and publisher; pioneer of theJewish pulpit in the United States, and founder of the Jewish press of America; born at Neuenkirchen, in the province of Westphalia, Prussia, Dec. 12, 1806; died at Philadelphia, Pa., Feb. 1, 1868. Educated at the gymnasium of Münster, he was well grounded in Latin, German, and Hebrew, besides having studied the Talmud tractates Beẓah, Baba Meẓi'a, and a part of Ḥullin and Baba Batra under Hebrew masters. At the age of seventeen he emigrated to America, arriving at Richmond, Va., in May, 1824. His uncle, Zalma Rehiné, a respected merchant of that city, sent the youth to a private school; but after ten weeks the school was closed, and for the next five years Leeser was employed in his uncle's counting-room. Unfavorable as were the circumstances for a growth of Jewish knowledge, the young man showed his bent by voluntarily assisting the ḥazzan to teach religion on Saturdays and Sundays and also by appearing in the public prints from time to time in defense of Judaism when assailed.
In 1828 an article in the "London Quarterly" reflecting on the Jews was answered by Leeser in the columns of the "Richmond Whig"; and the reply attracted the attention of the Jewish communities of Richmond and Philadelphia. About that time (Oct. 18, 1828) the Rev. Abraham I. Keys, ḥazzan of the Congregation Mikveh Israel of the latter city, died, and a successor was needed. Leeser was induced to accept the congregation's invitation to present himself as a candidate. His own view of the situation is given in a letter written by him six years later to the chief rabbi Solomon Hirschel of London: "Knowing my own want of proper qualification, I would never have consented to serve, if others more fitting in point of standing, information, or other qualities had been here; but this not being the case (as is proved by there being yet two congregations at least in this country without a regular ḥazzan), I consented to serve."
In Aug., 1829, Leeser went to Philadelphia with the manuscript of his first book ("The Jews and the Mosaic Law") in his pocket and great thoughts for Israel in his mind. Up to that time the ḥazzanim in America had been merely precentors. There was, however, a new movement in Europe. The Hamburg Temple had put forward Gotthold Salomon; and preaching in German had become the Reformed fashion, while the new Conservatives had met it by electing to the Hamburg rabbinate Bernays, who also delivered sermons in the vernacular. Something of this ferment had leavened the thoughts of Leeser; and he hoped to transform the reading-desk into the pulpit and the teacher's rod into the editorial wand.
On June 2, 1830, he delivered his first English discourse, and thenceforward preached with reasonable regularity, though on sufferance only, until June 18, 1843, when the congregation formally accepted the sermon as regular.
The scarcity of books concerning the Jewish religion emphasized the fact that there was no American Jewish publisher. Having translated Johlson's "Instruction in the Mosaic Religion," Leeser issued in the winter of 1829-30 proposals to publish it and "The Jews and the Mosaic Law." As no one would take the risk, however, he became his own publisher. The following are his publications:
- 1830 (Aug.). Johlson's Instruction in the Mosaic Religion.
- 1833. The Jews and the Mosaic Law.
- 1837. Discourses. 2 vols. Portuguese prayers, with his own translation. 6 vols.
- 1838. Hebrew Spelling-Book.
- 1839. His Catechism.
- 1841. The Claims of the Jews to an Equality of Rights. Discourses. 1 vol.
- 1843. The Occident, a monthly magazine (continued till his death, and, under the editorship of Mayer Sulzberger, one year thereafter; vols. xvii. and xviii. were issued as a weekly. 26 vols.).
- 1845. The Pentateuch (Hebrew and English). 5 vols.
- 1848. Daily Prayers, German Rite (with his Eng. transl.). 1 vol.
- 1853. His translation of the Bible. 1 vol. 4to.
- 1857. Second edition of the Bible. 18mo. Portuguese prayers. 2d ed. 7 vols.
- 1859. Dias' Letters.
- 1860. The Inquisition and Judaism.
- 1864. Meditations and Prayers. Aguilar's "Jewish Faith" and her "Spirit of Judaism."
- 1867. Collected Discourses. 10 vols. Mosaic Religion. 2d ed.
Besides accomplishing the literary work involved in the foregoing, he translated Schwarz's "Geography of Palestine," and with Dr. Jaquett saw through Lippincott's press an edition of the Hebrew Bible.
Leeser retired from the Congregation Mikveh Israel in 1850, and did not again take office until 1857, when the newly formed Congregation Beth-El-Emeth in Philadelphia called him, and he remained its minister until his death.
When Leeser commenced his public career the scattered Jewish individuals and the members of congregations in the United States did not number more than from 12,000 to 15,000. His purpose to mold these into a community was to be achieved in part by the pulpit and in part by the press.
Besides engaging in the activities sketched above, Leeser participated in all Jewish movements. He was the earnest promoter of all the national enterprises—the first congregational union, the first Hebrew day-schools, the first Hebrew college, the first Jewish publication society—and of numberless local undertakings. The "Occident" acquired a national and even an international reputation; the Maimonides' College, of which he was president, paved the way for future Jewish colleges in the United States; and his translation of the Bible became an authorized version for the Jews of America.
In the religious controversies of his time Leeser took an active part on the Conservative side, and lived and died in the unshakable belief that the existence of opposing parties was but transient and short-lived.