Max Lilienthal was born on November 6, 1815, in Munich, Germany. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Munich in 1837, and he accepted an appointment as principal of a Jewish school in Riga, Russia, in 1839. In 1841, the Russian government dispatched Lilienthal to travel in the western portion of the country to ask Jews if they would agree to send their children to government schools. Many Jews feared that the Russian government wanted to convert them to the Eastern Orthodox faith. They had difficulty believing that the Russian government truly wanted to create Jewish institutions. Most Jews rejected Lilienthal and his views for two reasons. First, he was acting as an agent of the Russian government, a government that most Jews did not trust. Second, Lilienthal was an outsider. While he was Jewish, he also was German. Many Russian Jews did not believe that a German Jew could understand their beliefs or needs. In 1842, Lilienthal became a rabbi for the Jewish population in Odessa, but he resigned this position, as his congregation did not trust him.
In 1844, Lilienthal immigrated to the United States. He became the rabbi of two separate temples in New York City, but he left these positions to open a Jewish school in 1850. In 1855, Lilienthal became a correspondent for the American Israelite. The next year, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became the associate editor of the American Israelite and became rabbi of a local congregation. He also served as a professor of Jewish history and literature at Hebrew Union College.
In Cincinnati, Lilienthal became one of the most important advocates of Reform Judaism. Reform Jews encouraged rabbis to conduct services in the language of the people rather than in Hebrew. They also introduced choral singing into services. They replaced the Bah Mitzvah with a confirmation ceremony and banned circumcision as being a barbaric practice. Reform Judaism also permitted women and men to sit together in the same pews in synagogue. Other traditional Jewish practices also came under attack. Reform Jewish rabbis concluded that their followers should choose for themselves which religious practices in which they would engage. Instead of establishing a strict religious dogma, Reform Jewish rabbis advocated freedom of choice for their parishioners. In essence, Reform Judaism created a less structured and more democratic branch of the Jewish faith.
Lilienthal utilized every means available to him to promote Reform Judaism. Besides the American Israelite, Lilienthal was involved in the publication of numerous Jewish newspapers and magazines, including the Hebrew Review, the Sabbath School Visitor, Deborah, the Occident, and several additional newspapers. Lilienthal helped transform the Hebrew Union College into the leading institution of Reform Judaic thought. He also published several volumes of poetry and sermons.
Lilienthal also contributed to the development of Cincinnati. He served as a member of the Cincinnati board of education. He also directed the Relief Union, assisting needy locals. He also encouraged Cincinnati residents and members of his congregation to treat each other with tolerance. Lilienthal died on April 5, 1882, in Cincinnati.