Vol. I, No. 5
The Jewish Creed
by Isaac Leeser
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, is the Lord one."
If we look into the nature of all religions, we will discover that they are necessarily based upon the acknowledged existence of a Being superior to the utmost power of man; and this feeling of inferiority is so strong in the human bosom, that scarcely any savage nation has ever been discovered that had not some notion, however crude and imperfect, of the existence of the Deity. For, whenever man applies himself to labour, he instinctively feels that he lacks the power to mould circumstances to his will, and he naturally, therefore, looks up to a mightier One to assist him in his undertaking. So the farmer ploughs his field, and scatters the seed in the open furrows, whence he hopes to reap an abundant harvest at the usual season. But is it enough that he has completed his task? will the germ shoot up without moisture or heat? will the ear, after it is formed, blossom amid drenching showers? will the grain ripen amidst mildew and blasting? and after it is ready for the sickle, can it withstand the shock of the hail-stone or the tooth of devouring insects? The field-labourer, therefore, tills the soil with dread and apprehension, lest the blessing, without which his toil is vain, be withheld; but when his field is ripe with an abundant product, and when this yield is stored away safe in his garners, his heart swells with natural thankfulness to the unseen Preserver of his labour, to the beneficent Giver of the timely sunshine and the seasonable rain which have matured what he entrusted fearfully to the bosom of the earth.
The same course of thought will force itself upon every uncorrupted mind, which has not been destroyed by the overweening pride which shuts out the callous heart from feelings of acknowledged dependence and necessary gratitude; for it can only be a wilful blindness to the evidences of the existence of a higher Power, which can induce a mortal to believe himself the highest intelligent being of which he can form an idea.
Let us see what the atheist is, supposing even that such a unfortunate lost mortal should exist in reality. He finds himself placed without his consent or his own connivance in the midst of many creatures of various degrees of power and of intellect, not one of which exists by his contrivance, not one of which he can entirely destroy by all his arts, by all his exertions. Nevertheless he will not admit that his being here is any evidence of a higher Power, since he believes that all exists, as it does, by mere chance, by a fortuity which he cannot explain, which he nevertheless claims as the true solution of his being. Does this train of ideas place him beyond the reach of contingencies? does his denial of an ulterior Power secure him against the assaults of adversities which hover around him? By no means; he is the slave of circumstances equally with all other men, and he cannot tear himself loose in the least degree from the fate which is common to all. As far, therefore, as any real or permanent benefit is concerned, there is nothing gained by the atheist; since he is and remains a mere mortal, liable to diseases, controlled by accidents, subject to all the vicissitudes which flesh is heir to. What consolation now can he have, should sorrow or pain fall to his lot? to whom is he to fly for help? of whom is he to seek consolation? He is hungry in the loneliness of the desert; he floats upon the broad face of the ocean borne on a solitary plank of a disjointed wreck, himself the sole survivor of a gallant crew of a noble ship;--on whom is he to call to deliver him from his perilous situation? Mark, as soon as he calls on God, he is no longer an atheist, for then his pride has yielded before the Aider of the afflicted. Therefore suppose him obdurate as he was before his distress, place him, as you found him in former days, among those who believe their intellect the highest, their will the sole motive of their action: and whence can he derive the least consolation in his distresses? Yes, there may be the stupor of despair, the sullen submission to that which the sufferer cannot avoid; but is this consolation? can this furnish a single motive for hope? Now suppose, though hope was not in the sufferer's heart, though the idea of aid had fled from his thoughts, an unexpected deliverance be nevertheless sent to him; has he, in his pride of unbelief, any real cause for joy? Blind chance placed him in the desert, and uncontrollable fate left him floating on the ocean, and a similar chance or fate, as he weens it, places him again beyond the danger which threatened to annihilate him. Where then can be his joy? To-morrow a similar accident, or one of equal imminency, though of a different nature, may environ him, and end his existence, which to him can be of no real value, seeing that he is always during his few years of life threatened with a thousand dangers, whereas he must know that before long he must at length hopelessly succumb to the force of disease, or to the uncontrolled violence of the chance-creatures around him. How dark, therefore, how hopeless must be the soul of the unbeliever; and for what does he endure this constant torment? merely to maintain the pride of opinion, to persevere in the once conceived idea that his being is the greatest in nature, that his wisdom cannot be improved by that of an Author of all. Surely this is all such an unfortunate, as we have described, can plead as his excuse, that he perceives not the necessity of a controlling Power, and that it therefore does not exist, as he imagines.
And should such a pride rob us of our stay in affliction, our hope in distress? are we to be so stubborn as to suppose ourselves supreme, when every moment of our existence is fraught with instruction that we are subject to laws of nature which we did not establish? that every thing around us moves and is directed by one supreme and uniform Will?
If now a man yields himself to this conviction, and receives within his soul the acknowledgement of a supreme Author and Ruler of all things, he certainly does not escape from the ills and trials of life; he is a member of the human fmaily, and as such subject, if you will, helplessly so, to all the vicissitudes of human life. Our blessed teacher, the friend of God and man, Moses the son of Amram, long since called our attention to this fact; for, instead of appealing to the immunity from sorrow to be granted to Dathan and Abiram as a test of his not being a prophet, he only says that he would forfeit his claim to truth, in case the usual fate of man only should reach them, that is, if they should sicken under pain and die a natural death by the usual methods which terminate human life. The attestation of his mission was therefore only put upon the extraordinariness of the fate which should instantly overwhelm them; and when this attestation was verified by the event, no farther proof was for the moment needed by the people, but a moment before incredulous enough, of the verity of the man who had become, under God, their greatest benefactor. Belief in the existence of a God, therefore, leaves us nothing but mortals; yet not mortals without hope, without consolation; on the contrary, it satisfies us that we are subordinate beings, in the power and control of One who is infinite in resources, kindness and truth, who afflicts for the correction of the faults incident to our nature, and reproves that the erring child may be taught wisdom in the school of adversity.
In this respect also the believer in Providence has a resource in affliction far above the atheist; because he feels the unavoidable circumstances attendant on his being are within the direct control of a Power capable of assisting, and willing to grant relief, if such relief be conducive for the real benefit of the sufferer. For, inasmuch as our power is inferior to that of the Supreme, our wisdom must necessarily be so in an equal degree; hence we learn to submit with patience, where our penetration has even not shown us the necessity of our enduring the ills, as we consider them, which have fallen to our lot. We can, therefore, when suffering any of the many afflictions, which reach us no less than others, reflect that He who, from his superior strength and wisdom, looks farther and deeper into the connection and ultimate result of things than we have the means of doing, knows at the very moment of our distress that good will result sooner or later from this tribulation; just as, though in an infinitely higher degree, the skilful pilot leads the vessel entrusted to his care through dangerous channels which the less instructed seaman regards with mute despair and helpless astonishment. Should even death be the immediate result of the pains we are enduring, we shall nevertheless be able to remain calm and resigned; for the fabric which by this event drops into ruins is, notwithstanding this change, as much within the control of its great Author, as when the parts composing the wonderful structure were entire and working in that harmonious manner, as body arid spirit, which their supreme Architect had imparted to them.
We say, therefore, that believing is a source of joy and consolation in its very essence; unbelief; in the same manner, the source of pride on one side, and of sullen despair on the other. When the atheist is proud in the arrogance of his acquired wisdom and power, the child of faith is meek and submissive; and when the former is overwhelmed with the ills which rise in masses like the waves of the sea over his head, and knows no egress from the force of calamities which he himself cannot remove, whilst he acknowledges no one who can remove them: the man, who sees in God the Parent of the evil no less than the good, is full of resignation and hope; because he feels that his deeds may have deserved visitation, and he trusts that the One whom he adores will, if it beseemeth his wisdom, take off the load of ills which lie heavily on his neck.
But not alone from the individual happiness which the belief in the existence of God confers must we view the subject, if we mean to deserve the name of rational creatures. For there are many proofs, drawn from the organization of all things, which speak in a language not to be misunderstood that there is an Intelligence far above the wisdom of man, and a Power infinitely above that of mortals, which pervade all nature. Were it that a mere chance had accidentally piled up the vast mountains, poured out the unfathomable oceans, lit up the heavens with countless bright stars, or endowed the brilliant sun with effulgence of light and heat: there would, in all probability, be some faltering; some time or other, in this chance-born universe, some hesitation in the perfect order of which we are cognizant every where, every day of our life. Yet this we never see; there are changes in temperature, in the comparative length of seasons, in the fruitfulness of the years, in the intellect and strength of various individuals or in the same persons at different periods of their lives; but these variations we will, upon investigation, discover to be all proceeding upon fixed rules, often apparent to our intellect even; and as we know ourselves to be limited in acquirements, and incapable of grasping more than a limited number of words, ideas, and facts, we must conclude that though we know not the cause, a wiser Being may, and what is more, must know the whole secret of the mysterious chain of which we see neither the beginning nor the end. A mere accident could not have produced the order and harmony, nor reconciled the contrariety of elements which constitute the objects of outward nature, not to mention the intellectual endowments which are inherent in Man. If, however, a chance or accident could have called forth this order and this harmony we have been briefly endeavouring to sketch, then would it be at once a being superior to the individuals it has produced, or a deity in itself. The very words, therefore, which the unbeliever must necessarily make use of to express his unbelief, would thus, when strictly viewed, overthrow the very systems he wishes to uphold. We acknowledge that we are not able to explain how the Deity we believe in does exist; but this only demonstrates the insufficiency of our intellect to grasp the Infinite in power, in years, in wisdom, in space. As much might the stone which the sculptor hews into shape understand the thoughts of the artist who gives it form and beauty, as the child of clay to dive into the nature or being of the Most High, by whose will he lives.
In short, the only solution of our existence is involved in the existence of a God, who is intelligent, good, and powerful, and this belief is the only source of happiness to us in the state in which we live on earth, and in that hereafter for which we all sigh, and which we all feel, even without reverting to revelation, to be the destined lot of man.
But not on mere cold reasoning only was this fundamental principle of our faith left to rest for its support. Revelation, or, as we may term it, the goodness of God as manifested in the annunciation of his will, declared unto us his existence, and certified us that this belief is the first requisite for a religious life, and for a happy death. By this we mean to say; that in order to assist the reflections of man which would of themselves have ultimately led him to acknowledge a Creator, a time was when the everlasting God displayed his glory in such a manner to his creatures, as to force them to believe from their own conviction in his existence and power, and He at that time announced himself as the Creator and Ruler of all that exists within the entire range of our imagination. In this annunciation He declared that it is our duty to believe in his being and powers and He ordained at the same time, that this belief, or acceptance of this idea, should be the foundation of our whole life; that is to say, that this idea having once filled our spirit with its importance, should direct us in a path, which would in the best manner possible secure unto us and others all the happiness of which our state, of mortality in this existence, of immortality hereafter, is capable receiving.
And so we read in Scripture: "I am the Lord thy God who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage." (Exo. 20. 2.) "And know this day, and consider it in thy heart, that the Lord is the God in the heavens above, and upon the earth beneath, there is none else." (Deut. iv. 39.) "Bread ye have not eaten, neither wine nor strong drink have you drunk, that ye might know that I am the Lord your God." (Ib. 24.5.) "See now that I, I am He (everliving,) and there is no god with me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; nor is there any one can deliver out of my hand." (Ib. 32. 39.)
This is the doctrine of the existence of the All-powerful as developed in the law of Moses, verifying in this authoritative manner the sound investigations of human intellect. Thus is amply confirmed the first article of the creed of Maimonides, which is in these words: "I believe with a perfect faith, that the Creator, blessed be his name, is the Creator and Ruler of all creatures, and that He alone has made, does make, and will make, whatever has being." So also says the first verse of the hymn Yigdal: "Extolled be the living God, and praised be He; He exists, but his existence is not bounded by time."
Having in the above brief manner illustrated the first step to the life of a pious Israelite, we must reluctantly break off for the present, and resume the discussion of the other articles of our faith in the succeeding numbers of our Magazine.