Born in Worms, Samuel Adler came from a rabbinic family. His father,Rabbi Sirig Adler, was a rabbinic judge in Worms, Rabbi Nathan Adlerhead of the rabbinic academy in Frankfurt am Main, and Nathan MarcusAdler chief rabbi of the British Empire. His early instruction camefrom his father, though when the rabbi died, when Samuel was onlythirteen, the family found itself in difficult circumstances.Nevertheless, Samuel continued to pursue his education, studying inyeshivot and Worms and Frankfurt while simultaneously enrolling insecular schools where he acquired grounding in classics andhumanities. He studied at the University of Bonn and 1836 received adoctorate from the University of Giessen.
His next stop wasFriedberg, where he studied with Rabbi Feibisch Frankfurter andreceived his ordination. In 1842 Adler was appointed the districtrabbi of Alzey in Rhenish Hesse, and the following year he marriedFrankfurter’s daughter Henrietta. Although ordained in the orthodoxtradition, Adler soon aligned himself with the modernizing Reformmovement. While Adler was gaining a reputation for his innovativepractices and profound learning, he became increasingly involved inpolitical activities, campaigning for the emancipation of the Jewsand the removal of the More Judaico, a special oath requiredof Jews in German courts. Within Judaism he advocated for greatergender equality and for the end of segregated seating for men andwomen. His outspokenness made Adler suspect in the eyes of stateauthorities, and his brother Abraham was imprisoned in the wake ofthe 1848 revolutions.
In1857 Adler decided to accept an offer to serve as the rabbi of TempleEmanu-El in New York City, the leading Reform congregation in theUnited States, and in March of that year he, Henrietta, and their twosons, Felix and Isaak, emigrated from Germany. During his tenure, hecontinued the established practice of conducting services inGerman—rather than Hebrew—and published a revised prayer book in1860, which, among other things, omitted all references to the returnto Zion. At Temple Emanu-El Adler established a Reform theologicalseminary in 1865, instituted the practice of wearing head coveringsonly during devotional portions of the service, and rejected the ideaof supernatural revelation. At the founding of the Central Conferenceof American Rabbis, he was appointed honorary president. Adlerpublished widely, including his 1864 book, A Guide to Instructionin Israelite Religion. He continued to the lead Temple Emanu-Eluntil 1874, when the congregation—whether because they found himoverly scholarly, were displeased with some of his liberalizingreforms, or just seeking a change—voted to make Adler rabbiemeritus.
Throughout his life in the United States, Adler devoted his time andattention to charitable causes both in and outside of the Jewishcommunity. In 1859, for example, he and Samuel Myer Isaacs foundedthe Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. His son Felix, who would becomea prominent social reformer and founder of the Ethical Culturemovement, would cite his father’s “profound ethical influence.”