Rabbi Moses Cyrus Weiler
For his pioneering and productive efforts to plant and nourish Liberal Judaism
in alien soil, for his courage in opposing racial discrimination, and his concern
to lift up those who are its victims…
The term “progressive” typically denotes something that is new, different, outside the norm. And yet, Progressive, or Liberal, Judaism has its roots reaching back hundreds of years into Jewish history. Some of its basic tenets include equality for all, a firm commitment to making the world a better and more just place, and the idea that Judaism is not a static set of rules, but rather a dynamic practice that adapts to meet the needs of an ever-changing world. Moses Cyrus Weiler was a rabbi who spent his life and work holding true to Progressive Judaism and to these ideals.
Weiler was born in Latvia and studied both there and in Tel Aviv. He moved to the U.S. to continue his studies at the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Studies in Philadelphia (now known as the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies), and was later ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. While studying at HUC, Weiler and one of his professors—Abraham Idelsohn—began to discuss the possibility of Weiler going to South Africa. Professor Idelsohn’s brother had planted the seeds of Progressive Judaism in South Africa, but the movement was small and lacked structure. In 1933, after his ordination, Rabbi Weiler, through the efforts of Professor Idelsohn and the World Union of Progressive Judaism, went to Johannesburg to set up a Progressive congregation.
A temple was built, but progress was slow to build real interest in Progressive Judaism. Weiler was clear that membership in the congregation meant recognizing equality between men and women, rich and poor. To encourage more participation, a Hebrew School was formed, and children began conducting some Sabbath services. Naturally, their parents came to the services, and the Progressive Movement began to gain momentum. Over the next twenty-five years, Rabbi Weiler developed the movement to over 10,000 members, with congregations in nine cities.
In 1945, while visiting Alexandra Township, Moses Cyrus Weiler saw the need for a school for the children there, who were playing in the streets as their parents worked. He worked with his wife Una and the United Sisterhood—an organization of Progressive Jewish women working to better the lives of those who needed their help—to build a school, later named the MC Weiler School for his ongoing efforts to raise funds to keep the school going.
Weiler and his family left South Africa in 1958, and moved to Israel, where he continued as a leader in the Progressive Movement and was active in the Jewish National Fund. He became a counselor after the Yom Kippur War and the death of two of his sons (one in the War of Attrition, one in the Yom Kippur War), bringing aid and comfort to all who lost loved ones during the Holocaust and the wars.
Rabbi Moses Cyrus Weiler devoted his entire life as a leader working for the advancement of Progressive Judaism, and yet in his remarks to a citation awarded him by the Municipality of Jerusalem, he said that “…it is not my honour but yours; it is an honour given to Progressive Judaism. I am merely an instrument.”