Felix Adler, a man destined for the Rabbinate, took an unexpected left turn at Emanuel Kant and ended up founding a secular, humanist religion. The son of Rabbi Samuel Adler, a leading figure in the liberal 19th Century Reform movement among European Jews, was born on August 13, 1851 in Alzey, Hesse, Germany.
When he was six years old his father moved the family to New York City to become the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, the cradle of Reform in America and the largest and most influential synagogue in New York. The congregation then conducted its services in German, the language of its founders in 1847, and was the first in the nation to do away with sex segregation in worship allowing families to sit together, introduce music, and revise many Orthodox rituals.
Although his highly cultured father had some grave doubts about his son’s ability, he educated the boy grooming him as a successor. He attended the prestigious private Columbia Grammar School and Preparatory Academy then went on to Columbia University where despite his father’s misgivings he graduated with Honors in 1870.
Then it was off to Europe for graduate education in preparation for the Rabbinate. He was enrolled at Heidelberg University, the high temple of German culture. There he fell in with bad influences—Neo-Kantian philosophers who posited that the existence or non-existence of God could never be proved either way and that morality could be developed independently of theology. The experience shook him to his core and caused him to re-evaluate Judaism and all religion.
Back in New York in 1873 he was invited to give a sermon at Temple Emanu-El, an obvious audition for being anointed his father’s successor. His lecture electrified—and shocked—the congregation. Judaism of the Future neglected to mention God even once. It was not rumination on the Torah, the Talmud, the wisdom of great teachers. Instead it was a bold, forward looking manifesto presenting Judaism as a secular religion of morality for all humanity, not just the closely guarded privilege of a Chosen People.
The sermon destroyed any chances of succeeding his father. In fact he was never again even asked to speak before the entire congregation. This must have been no surprise to him and may have even lifted a burden from his shoulders.
But his speech did have its admirers and defenders in the congregation, including some of its wealthiest and most influential members. Some of them endowed a non-residency Professorship of Hebrew and Oriental Literature at Cornell University in 1874. There Adler thrived in his natural academic environment. He was adored by his students with whom he was glad to engage in back-and-forth intellectual exploration. More dangerously, he tied ethics and morality to contemporary issues, particularly the concentration of wealth by the new Capitalist class, the subjugation of labor, and the emerging open class warfare of the era. His lectures were widely attended and reported in the press.
But his ideas were far too radical for the Board of Trustees when faced by unhappy and powerful alumni who accused him of atheism. They refused to extend tenure and turned down a renewal of the endowment that paid his salary in 1876. Adler was out of his job.
He turned his attention to pursuing the religious ideas outlined in his old sermon, which continued to generate controversy due to the wide spread distribution of printed copies. On May 16, 1876 Adler delivered a major lecture more fully outlining his philosophy. He once again urged the creation of a religious movement that could not be divided by theology, creed, or ritual but that allowed theists, atheists, agnostics and deists act cooperatively on a moral basis for the improvement and enrichment of the human condition.
The lecture was widely reported and stirred up both indignation and interest. Within a few weeks with the aid of supporters from Temple Emanu-EL
Once again supporters form his old Temple, including its President Joseph Seligman, lent him support. In February of 1877 he incorporated the Society of Ethical Culture. Although he dreamed of a wider movement, Ethical Humanism remained mostly a movement of culturally sophisticated Ashkenazi Jews, but through his wide spread lecturing and publication also had impact far beyond his religious society and the others that it spawned in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago.
The principles of Ethical Cultural were simple but profoundly revolutionary:
- The belief that morality is independent of theology;
- The affirmation that new moral problems have arisen in modern industrial society which have not been adequately dealt with by the world's religions;
- The duty to engage in philanthropy in the advancement of morality;
- The belief that self-reform should go in lock step with social reform;
- The establishment of republican rather than monarchical governance of Ethical societies
- The agreement that educating the young is the most important aim.
It was, in Adler’s oft repeated maxim, to be a religion of “Deeds not Creeds.” Living up to that standard the New York Society under Adler’s personal leadership was quickly involved in multiple projects including a kindergarten, a district nursing service and a hygienic tenement-house building company.
Most significant was the creation of the Workingman’s School, a Sunday school and a summer home for children which would eventually become the Ethical Culture School which Adler served as Rector until his death. That became a school whose liberal curriculum inspired generations of leaders in the worlds of the arts, law and government, and science. Among the graduates of the School and/or its high school prep division Fieldston School were photographer Diane Arbus, Red buster lawyer Roy Cohn (and anomaly), film maker Sophia Coppola, mogul/producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, activist and sociologist Staughton Lynd, New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, Poet Lauriat of the United States Howard Nemerov, Father of the Atomic Bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer, novelist Belva Plain, musician/poet Gil Scott-Herron, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and Barbara Walters.
That is indicative of the wide influence of Ethical Culture and it founder far beyond the few thousand members belonging to societies at any one time. In 1892 the existing societies formed a loose federation, The American Ethical Union, but each society remained sometimes fiercely independent.
Adler’s impact as a moral philosopher was wide. There was a small, but voracious, Free Thought movement in the United States in the late 19th Century of which The Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll was the most prominent spokesman. A movement of agnostics, Deists, and open atheists, it was characterized by open hostility to organized religion and often consumed in fruitless debate with its partisans.
Adler offered a new vision of humanism. He took no position on the existence of God, salvation, or eternal life. For him these were unknowable and best left to individual consciences. In fact he strove to overcome the bitter divisions of partisans of all religions and anti-religious philosophies by concentrating on moral service. For that he and his movement were bitterly attacked by some, especially the take-no-prisoners atheists. On the other hand this vision greatly appealed to new generations of humanists. By the way, the recent renaissance of the New Atheism has renewed this same debate.
Of course Adler continued to be a great influence in the development of the American Reform movement among Jews despite his separation from them. His ideas helped shape new generations of Rabbis and lay leaders which were reflected in Congregations. Only since the end of World War II, has there been somewhat of a retreat from the Adler tradition to incorporating more traditional Jewish ritual.
Adler also appealed to liberal Protestants, especially those in the emerging Social Gospel movement. But nowhere was his influence felt more deeply than among the most socially advanced Unitarians. Adler became a collaborator with Jenkin Lloyd Jones, head of the quasi-independent Western Unitarian Conference and the denominations leading liberal voice. He contributed regularly to Jones’s Unity Magazine and was a frequent speaker Unity Club meetings, mid-week educational lectures hosted by many Mid-Western congregations. The vision of a post-creedal religion with an emphasis on social justice and action was shared by the two men. Together they helped infuse sometimes stuffy 19th and early 20th Century Unitarianism with the genetic religious humanism that came to dominate the faith.
In 1902 Adler was able to return to academia as the Chair of Political and Social Ethics at Columbia University, where he taught until his death in 1933. The position elevated his public profile even more and he greatly influenced two generations of student.
After years of concentrating on domestic justice issues, the Spanish American War aroused a new interest in world affairs for Adler. Initially he had supported the war as a way to liberate the peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. But when it quickly became apparent the United States was actually more interested in acquiring its own empire, Adler became a voracious critic and leading anti-imperialist. The “supreme worth of the person”—a construction that sounds familiar to Unitarian Universalist ears—was the basis of Ethical Culture and Adler’s over arching principle in world affairs, that no single country, faith, political or economic philosophy could lay claim to superior institutions and lifestyle choices of other peoples.
When for similar reasons Adler opposed American entry into World War I his German birth was used to attack him as an agent of the Kaiser and he attracted the unwanted attention of Federal Authorities. He may have only escaped prosecution for his anti-war writings and speeches because powerful friend in New York politics interceded on his behalf. His opinions also caused rifts in Ethical Culture Societies, especially after the war when he surprised many by also speaking out against the League of Nations as an imperialist club of the winners of that war. Instead he proposed an international Parliament of Parliaments elected by the legislative bodies of all nations and representing various classes of people, rather than just the economic and social elite, so that common and not national differences would prevail.
Over his long career Adler published prodigiously, a seemingly endless stream of articles, pamphlets, published lectures and sermons, and academic papers. Among his books which were deeply influential were Creed and Deed (1878), Moral Instruction of Children (1892), Life and Destiny (1905), The Religion of Duty (1906), Essentials of Spirituality (1908), An Ethical Philosophy of Life (1918), The Reconstruction of the Spiritual Ideal (1925), and Our Part in this World. A collection of his The Ethics of Marriage for the Lowell Institute in 1896–97 was also widely read.
Adler acted on his belief by service to many worthy causes. He the founding chairman of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904 which hired his student Lewis Hine to document conditions in a series of searing documentary photographs. In 1917 Adler served on the Civil Liberties Bureau which was speaking out for war time dissident. The Bureau later became the, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with which he remained active. In 1928 he became President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. He also served on the first Executive Board of the National Urban League.
After Adler died in New York City on April 24, 1933 at the age of 81, his Ethical Cultural movement struggled. There was a post-war revival of sorts with new societies springing up in suburban enclaves and university towns, often focused around the Sunday schools for children. Societies have tended to become somewhat more conventional in their religious practices so that many Sunday services closely parallel church services without the mention of God.
Today it is a small, but influential voice for rational humanism with about 24 congregations and a few thousand members. But as always, Felix Adler’s influence extends far beyond that to generations of humanists who may never have heard his name.