Max Wertheimer: Rabbi, Evangelist, and Bible Expositor

Jacob Gartenhaus [1]

MAX WERTHEIMER was born in the province of Baden in Germany, and his devoutly religious father hoped that as a steadfast Jew his son would grow up to be a credit and an honor to his family. To this end he provided Max with a strictly Jewish education. From the age of five he was required to study the Pentateuch in Hebrew together with Rashi’s commentary,[2] as well as parts of the Talmud. To ensure that his education was truly comprehensive he also attended the village school. At the age of eleven he gained admission to the Gymnasium at Ettenheim, where he studied for five years. Throughout his years at school he attended the synagogue regularly, and participated in its services. At home he observed the laws and customs, and said the various prayers required of the observant Jew.

In accordance with his parents’ wishes, Wertheimer prepared himself for a commercial career. When he had gained sufficient knowledge and experience, he was engaged by a well-known manufacturing house in Strassburg, Alsace. In that beautiful city he spent the greater part of his spare time in reading and study and, as he himself acknowledges, in the enjoyment of worldly pleasures and indulgences.

But his worldliness robbed him of his peace of mind. He yearned for something nobler and more enduring, something that would give meaning to his life. In his youthful search for satisfaction and fulfillment he emigrated to the United States. For a while he lived in Buffalo, New York, where he attended the Franklin Street public school. Shortly after his arrival in Buffalo he met the rabbi of the Jewish temple. Through his instrumentality Wertheimer was helped by the temple congregation to enter the Hebrew Union College at Cincinnati, Ohio, in the fall of 1882.

While studying at the Hebrew Union College he was granted a stipend by the board of governors. This was in response to the recommendation of the president of the college, Dr. Isaac M. Wise, leader of the Jewish Reform movement in America. After Wertheimer had matriculated, he was placed in the second-year class, and was thus able to complete in seven years the usual eight years’ course. Dr. Wertheimer writes of that period:

My religious views were fostered by tradition, pride, and prejudice. I thought Judaism was the greatest religion and the most rational. I catered to the evolutionary theory and had some modernistic notions of free thought, held some socialistic doctrines, and thought that Moses was the greatest of the prophets and benefactors, and that no one excelled him in originality, genius and perfection. I had a mania for theater-going and loved the melodramatic performances, as well as symphony concerts and classic operas. I was fond of reading fiction, romances, detective stories, and current literature. I played the violin and practiced whenever I had a chance. Thus I was swayed by all that is implied in “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life....”
In the Hebrew Union College I was in a class of nine students. We studied the T’nach [the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament]; also Hebrew grammar and composition; as well as many sections of the Mishnah and a number of treatises covering many folio pages of the Gemara, mostly from the Babylonian Talmud; the works of Rambam or Moses Maimonides, his Moreh Nebuchin (Guide of the Perplexed) and his Mishnah Torah; the work of the Kusari; also Joseph Albo’s writings; the Sulchan Aruch (ritual code); and Dr. Graetz’s History of the Jews. Then homiletics, or the science of preaching; and hermeneutics, or the science of interpretation according to rabbinical principles; the laws of Jewish jurisprudence concerning marriage and divorce; also the philosophical and analytical introductions into the various parts of the Talmud.

The president of the college favored Wertheimer in various ways, and chose him as the tutor of the children of his second wife. He also arranged for him to live with him in his country home. Wertheimer graduated from Cincinnati University in 1887 and from the rabbinical seminary in 1889.

Following his graduation and period as tutor Wertheimer received his first call to officiate as rabbi. This was given by the B’nai Yeshurum Temple in Dayton, Ohio. He maintained the post for ten years and was held in the highest esteem, receiving many expressions of love and regard from his congregation. In his Friday evening lectures he spoke with authority on subjects of current interest—social, industrial, and economic questions, monotheism, ethical culture, and the moral systems of the Jews. In his Sabbath morning addresses his subjects were the weekly sections of the Pentateuch followed by a corresponding section of the prophets. On Sunday he taught Sunday school from eight in the morning until five in the evening, with one hour intermission for dinner. He prepared boys and girls for confirmation by drilling them in the cardinal truths of Judaism. Great crowds came to hear and to witness the confirmation exercises in the temple on Shavuoth (the Feast of Weeks).

Such was Wertheimer’s reputation as lecturer, teacher, and preacher that he was frequently called upon to speak in literary societies and in schools. He was even made an honorary member of the Dayton Protestant Ministerial Association, though its members and officers knew him as the rabbi of the temple congregation. As a distinguished rabbi he also addressed Christian gatherings of various denominations, including some Roman Catholic institutions. In short, he was loved and esteemed not only by Jews, but also by Christians. The Jewish congregation was justly proud of its rabbi who had gained such recognition and appreciation among non-Jews. As a good “mixer,” which a Reform rabbi is expected to be, he became a member of a Masonic lodge and later a Chaplain of the Mystic lodge. He also became a member of the B’nai B’rith.

At this time he married Hannah Affelder, a refined and cultured Jewish woman who was also a skilled pianist and organist. Their marriage was blessed with the birth of a handsome baby boy. But, three and a half years later when the couple had a baby girl, Mrs. Wertheimer contracted childbirth fever. She died at the age of 23, after three months of suffering. The little girl was taken by her grandmother while Wertheimer himself cared for the boy.

The death of his beloved wife was a devastating blow to Max, and he became a broken, unhappy man. One day, as he was walking aimlessly through the streets, a stranger spoke to him and, placing his hand on Max’s shoulder, remarked, “Rabbi, I am sorry for the domestic affliction that has befallen you. I think I can brace you up and ease your grief, if you don’t mind coming to my house. Will you come?” The stranger was a local judge. Wertheimer accepted the invitation, and that evening went to the judge’s home. He was then taken to a spiritualistic seance. During the journey to the medium’s home the judge related how he, too, was heartbroken when his baby girl died, and how he was comforted after a friend took him to a spiritualistic seance.

On that occasion, and on several evenings afterwards, Dr. Wertheimer was greatly disturbed by extraordinary phenomena. There were mysterious tappings at night, and the sound of footsteps like those of his wife. These manifestations upset him so much that it became difficult for him to concentrate on composing his weekly lectures and sermons. This disruption of his accustomed habit and routine greatly interfered with his work.

As his ten-year period of rabbinical administration drew to a close, Wertheimer decided not to ask for reelection. He wrote:

Reform Judaism had no comfort for my trouble. I determined to resign my office and administration and step down and out, leaving the rabbinate. For two years of my domestic sorrow I had tried to get some tangible comfort out of the Talmud, Mishnah, and rabbinical doctrines, but found none that satisfied my soul’s hunger and longings. I began to study, to search for more light. I was lonesome, harassed, and full of doubts. Thus ended my ten years’ rabbinate! I was crushed and disappointed. My congregation was exceedingly kind to me and most considerate but, alas, in spiritual things there was coming to be a barrier between us. Here endeth another chapter! Was God providentially preparing me for something better?
Bereft of any real spiritual comfort, I became even more conscious of the void in my heart occasioned by the unexpected death of my young wife. Imperceptibly I was drawn into a study of the things of the hereafter. I asked myself, “Where is she who was the joy and companion of my few years of married life? What has become of her talent for music? Where has that music gone? Where is the touch of the vanished hand and the sound of the voice that is still?”

While in this disturbed and confused state of mind Dr. Wertheimer came into contact with Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. After completing a prescribed course of study, paid for by Mrs. Eddy, he became a teacher of Christian Science in Dayton, Ohio, where he had previously officiated as rabbi. Within a very short time he was chosen as the First Reader of the First Church of Christ Scientist, Dayton.

In that environment he met a woman named Ruby Jewell, whom he married five years after the death of his first wife. But his search for peace, his hunger for light, and his quest for truth remained unsatisfied. His faith in Christian Science, which at first appealed to him, began to waver. Whereas he had thought it to be the ideal expression and development of true Judaism, he began to recognize the many discrepancies between it and the Judaism he knew and loved. Doubts began to annoy and to perplex him. He was especially concerned that Christian Science emphatically denied the essentiality of blood in religion, while Judaism as taught in the Old Testament was closely identified with the blood of sacrifices.

For long periods Wertheimer locked himself in his library studying, meditating, and supplicating God for light. As he searched the Scriptures his thoughts were repeatedly directed to Isaiah 53. Again and again his attention focused on the central figure of the chapter—“the righteous servant.” He knew the rabbinical interpretation of the title “righteous servant,” which was said to refer to the people of Israel, because they were required to bear the iniquities of the Gentiles. But as he read and pondered the passage he saw clearly that the prophet could not be referring to the people of Israel, since in his first chapter he speaks of Israel as the most sinful nation on earth.

Other rabbinical suggestions about the righteous servant intruded themselves into his thought, but none were in harmony with the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. In meditation his thoughts were directed to a variety of Scripture passages. He considered “the Son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

He also studied the phrase, “The LORD said unto my Lord” in Psalm 110:1, as well as the “man” in heaven spoken of in the first chapter of Ezekiel. In addition his attention was drawn to Isaiah 9:6-7:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

Gradually these Old Testament passages, and many others, turned his thought to “the son of man [who] came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)—the man of Calvary. Previously he had casually read parts of the New Testament, but had never felt any deep interest in its contents, except as a means to demonstrate his erudition at meetings with Christian clergymen. Now, however, he began to study it carefully and prayerfully. And the more he studied it the more he saw it to be complementary to the Old Testament. Christian doctrine which he had ridiculed as illogical, unnatural, and un-Jewish he now saw as perfectly logical and truly Jewish, although supernatural. He now found that such fundamental articles of faith as belief in the triune God, the divinity of Christ, and the virgin birth, were based solidly on the anticipations of the Old Testament. Dr. Wertheimer writes of the great moment when he reached the conviction that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and the Son of God:

I fell down on my knees and exclaimed, “Oh, Thou Jehovah Yesous art the only Savior, who didst make an atonement for my sins. It was Thou, Jehovah the Holy One of Israel, who was wounded for my transgressions and bruised for my iniquities, and the chastisement of my peace was upon Thee, and by Thy stripes I am healed. Give me faith to believe on Thee and to own Thee as my Savior, Messiah and Lord. Give me courage to confess Thee before men.” Thus I passed from the shackles of rabbinical Judaism and the meshes of Christian Science into the government and Lordship of Jeshua haMasshiach, ben Elohim, ben David—of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of David.

On March 30, 1904, Dr. Wertheimer publicly confessed Christ in the Central Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio. He then entered the Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and graduated after one year of study. After his ordination he served as pastor for five years at Ada, Ohio, followed by two and a half years as pastor-evangelist with the New Covenant Mission in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Finally, he felt called to a wider sphere as a “free-lance” preacher of the gospel to both Jew and Gentile. The greater part of his support in this ministry was provided by the income from his books. He was continually in great demand as Bible teacher, expositor, and evangelist.

[1] Chapter 32 of Jacob Gartenhaus, Famous Hebrew Christians, available from International Board of Jewish Missions, Inc., P.O. Box 1386, Hixson, Tennessee 37343.

[2] The commentaries of Rashi (Rabbi Shelomo ben Yitzhak, 1040-1105) are the basis of the traditional study of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.

If you have any questions regarding the Christian faith, feel free to contact Dr. Wertheimer’s great-grandson, Rev. Stephen Pribble, Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1301 W. Wieland Rd., Lansing, MI 48906-1895 | home