Shades of Louis

Thank you for featuring a story about Louis Dembitz Brandeis (“American Sage”) in Brandeis Magazine’s Winter issue. Like many students at Brandeis, I knew little about him while I was there. But lately I find him surfacing in unexpected ways, as though to affirm an ongoing significance for me of my time at the university.

I have been reading about a fascinating, much-defamed sect of Sabbatean Jews, the Frankists, for whom Jewish destiny was bound up significantly with Christianity, in ways that alienated many fellow Jews. I was surprised to discover that Brandeis himself, though largely unreligious, descended from distinguished Frankist families in Prague. 

This is attested to by no less an authority on the history of Jewish mysticism than Gershom Scholem. Scholem published the will of Brandeis’ great-uncle, Gottlieb Wehle, who, in reference to the family’s sectarian beliefs, enjoined his descendants not to forget their “noble pedigree.”

Although I have not been able to discover Brandeis’ own attitudes toward this sectarian legacy, I am heartened by the idea that a great Supreme Court justice inherited a history of ties to so countercultural a movement within Judaism.

Ernest Rubinstein ’74
New York City

Before declaring Louis Brandeis an “American sage,” at least a mention of the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927) should have been included in the article. Brandeis voted with the majority without discussion in the court’s decision in this case, which legitimized forced sterilization on the “feebleminded.”

He would go on to cite Buck in another case as an example of properly allowing states to meet “modern conditions by regulations which ‘a century ago, or even half a century ago, probably would have been rejected as arbitrary and oppressive.’”

Mark Freedman
Northridge, California