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Letter To The Rev. G. Poznanski,

Late Hazan of the Congregation Beth Elohim at Charleston, S.C.

Rev. Sir,—Were I to follow my own inclination, I would to a certainty not disturb you in the retirement which you have just now sought by your voluntary abdication of the office of minister, for which you had been elected during life by your late constituents. But as I have a duty to perform to the religious community of Israelites in America, who have heard of your official conduct, and as your retirement took only place, as one may judge, in consequence of the commotion which your official acts have produced in a once united congregation:

I feel myself imperiously called upon to address you in this public manner, in order to obtain, if it meets your views, a full exposition of your ideas on religion, which I herewith promise to lay before the public in the same vehicle through which I address them now.

When you were elevated to the office of Hazan to the Portuguese Jewish Congregation of Charleston, called Beth Elohim, I rejoiced that one whom I thought deserving of the elevated position, (it being the highest as yet instituted among us in America,) had been chosen by our friends of Charleston; and I think that there are yet in existence sundry letters of recommendation, which, unknown to you, I addressed to several influential gentlemen in that city and elsewhere: I did this under the full persuasion that you were a strict conformist, and an orthodox believer, as these terms are understood among us. Had I suspected that you studied the Rabbins merely to refute their authority by collecting passages not connected with each other except by twisting the apparent meaning of words, or that you favoured the party, unfortunately lately sprung up among us; called that of ultra-reformists; I would have been the last to countenance your elevation to the office of Shochet in New York, connected as it was, in a manner, with that of assistant Reader in the first, and to that of Hazan of Charleston, in the second instance. For both offices, as conducted among us, pre-suppose a decent conformity to the dicta of our sages, which if not always Scriptural, if we take the text as it stands, are at least intended and well suited to have the literal meaning of the Bible carried in strict execution; and although I have not been educated for the office of Rabbi, wherefore I claim but a cursory acquaintance with the multifarious writings of our חכמים I think that I cannot err in maintaining that they nowhere claim to be authorized to abolish or abrogate any Biblical ordinance, and that they nowhere instituted any ordinance, form or ceremony in contravention of, the text of Scripture. But from circumstances, lately made public, and others which have reached me through private channels, it would seem, that you regard the rabbinical institutions very lightly, and that you think yourself authorized to dispense with them, if they stand in the way of the ultra reforms which you have either instigated yourself, or at least countenanced in others.

One of the overt acts is your preaching against the observance of the second days of the holydays, and by your own example refusing to observe them. You know fully as well as I do, that this observance originated long before the destruction of the second temple, and was owing to the distance which many of the congregations lived from the seat of the Sanhedrin, who always consecrated the first day of the month upon the declaration of credible witnesses that they had observed the new moon. You must also know that when the temple had been destroyed, and the calendar had been fixed by astronomical calculations, the ecclesiastical authorities assembled at Tam, sent circulars to all the captivity, enjoining them to abide by their ancestral customs. In every page of the Shulchan Aruch, no less than the works of Maimonides, and even other legal authorities, the second days of the festivals are regarded as obligatory, although the Talmud contains a declaration, that the month of Elul had never been known to have had more than twenty-nine days from the time of Ezra downwards, consequently, as far as probable certainty was concerned, the captivity might have kept all the festivals one day, as we could do now, since the calculations of time are based upon astronomical data. You know well enough in this connection, that מנהג ישראל תורה היא "the custom of Israel is a law," is a maxim which is both consonant to reason and Jewish interpretation of Scriptural duties. In my review of a pamphlet lately put forth by a portion of your former congregation, I cited a proof from Scripture that in Solomon's time he ordered the Feast of Tabernacles to be kept seven days and seven days, together fourteen days. It therefore can be no violation of the commands of God to celebrate additional days of the festivals, especially as we consider them only as continuations of the preceding days.

I will not now discuss the propriety of their being abolished by a general synod of the Jews all over the world, which would form a Sanhedrin equal in numbers and renown with the one, from which the above circular emanated; enough for our present purpose, such an assembly has not yet been witnessed; and whilst this is undeniably so, I deny your authority or that of any single body or few bodies of men to teach a dispensation of a sanctioned custom in Israel. I will grant that the authority is not directly divine; but as we understand the law, and as you even understood it when you acted as the officiating Shochet in New York; and as Hazan in Charleston, the Sanhedrin have received the especial delegation to enact ordinances which are binding for the time being, or till revoked by an equal authority, and we are enjoined to pay strict obedience to the teaching of the judge or priest who has given us the word of judgment. (Deut. 17. 10.) Perhaps you may allege that you are not bound by the decisions of the ancients, and that you will interpret for yourself; then you at once reject all rabbinical authority, and either wish to form a mode of interpretation of your own, or become a Caraite, that is, one contending for the literal interpretation of the Scriptures. If the latter, you will have to adopt all the strict observances of this division of Jews; if the former, I have yet to learn that you will find many, those excepted who look up to you as the best authority for expounding the law, who will sooner take your interpretation than the opinions of those who were too worthy for us to think of equalling them in honesty of purpose or righteousness of action.

Will you have the goodness, therefore, to answer unequivocally, "Do you believe yourself bound by the clearly established customs of Jews, sanctioned by rabbinical authority, when this does not contravene the Scriptures?"

The other overt act, and one of prior date to the above, is your sanctioning the introduction of instrumental music on Sabbaths and festivals in the Synagogue under your pastoral charge. You seem to rely for your chief support upon the assertion that the Synagogue is the legitimate successor of the temple. But this is a fallacy; the Synagogue, unless we have been all along deceived, was contemporaneous with the house of God at Jerusalem, and was then, as it is now, a place for prayer, proclaiming of the law and prophets, and public instruction in matters of religion. I challenge you and your prototypes in Europe to lay your finger upon a single historical passage to prove that the Levitical music ever accompanied the Synagogue worship during the existence of the temple. On the contrary, the Levites were appointed only for the בית המקדש, the sanctuary, and persons strangers to this tribe were the officiants and lecturers then as now in the meeting-houses, בתי כנסיות, or as called by the Greek term, Synagogues. It is, therefore, incumbent upon you and your adherents to make out a clear case that since the dispersion the meeting places of Israel have been at all equal to the place of sacrifice and incense at Jerusalem. I acknowledge that we call the Synagogue מקדש מעט, the lesser sanctuary, agreeably to the words of the prophet, (Ezek. xi. 18.): "Therefore say, Thus saith the Lord God, Although I have led them afar among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them a minor sanctuary in the countries whither they have gone;" which passage is so explained: "although they have been placed at a distance from the sanctuary of the Lord, which was the great sanctuary there in his land, He would be to them a smaller sanctuary, meaning; in the meeting-houses, where they assemble to pray, He would be with them, hear their voice, and save them from the hand of their enemies, that they may not consume them utterly; and moreover, He would yet again gather them together, as it is said in the next verse," (which see.) How this means that the Synagogues shall be so many temples, surpasses my humble capacity to decipher, as it evidently alludes only to the watchfulness of God's providence (confirmatory of the saying of Moses in Leviticus 26.44,) though we be far from Palestine, without our great temple and its sacrifices and ceremonies.

You seem to lay some stress upon the fact that David praised God on the harp and other instruments during his prayers; no one will deny you the same privilege; yes, praise Him, in your hour of joy; glorify Him, in your day of sorrow! and if you are skilled, let melodious hymns ascend to his holy throne! But does this authorize you to play on instruments on the Sabbath, if this be otherwise prohibited? By no means. Now, we have undoubted evidence, even from your favourite Maimonides, whom I too value and esteem, no less than you, to say the least, that instrumental music was interdicted on Sabbaths and festivals, irrespective of the reason assigned for the prohibition; and as no date is found for the interdict, it is much more likely to suppose that it was always prohibited, say from the days of Moses to our own, than to maintain, that at any one period the people consented to stop amusing themselves with innocent instrumental music merely to please the whim of any Rabbi. Maimonides himself, the enlightened scholar and liberal philosopher, ought to be sufficient evidence that there was supposed, by him even, to be a transgression of the Sabbatic laws in the eliciting of sounds from musical instruments (השמעת קול בכלי שיר).

It would seem that music was performed on the Duchan by the Levites, during the bringing of the sacrifices at the temple, and at no other time. We know that necessary labours for the sacrifices were commanded to be done on the holydays no less than week days, and among the rest the blowing on the trumpets by the priests, (see Numb. 10:10:) and doubtlessly when David instituted the orders of the Levites, and appointed the singers and musicians to officiate alternately at the temple, the addition of the other instruments to the original trumpets was done by authority of the prophets then living. With the destruction of the temple all permission of Sabbath-labour has ceased; for we have nothing vicarious instead of the sacrifices, except our prayers, as you correctly observe; yet these prayers are not actual burnt, peace, sin, and trespass offerings, but merely the substitutes which alone our dispersion permits us to bring as acceptable atonements to the Lord. Can this idea, which has its origin solely in the mercy of the Lord as announced in Hosea 14. 3, ("And with our lips will we pay for the steers,") warrant us in doing during this vicarious sacrifice what would otherwise be prohibited? Understand me, Mr. Poznanski, that it is my opinion, that we have no right to extend permissions any more than to place unnecessary restrictions in the way of our people; and to permit, therefore, by inference what is interdicted in plain words, is a freedom neither philosophically correct nor in accordance with Jewish interpretation.

You yourself, I presume, will not allow profane music on the Sabbath; and for the same reason it must be omitted in the Synagogue, which I repeat is neither the temple nor the successor of the temple. I know, however, that a temple society has been existing for twenty-three years in Hamburg, an abortive one existed for a while at Frankfort, another at Carlsruhe, and another at Berlin; but I ask you candidly, were any of these the offspring of orthodoxy, or were they rather the effect of the degeneracy of the times? The proof that music never was, and is not now considered part and parcel of the Synagogue service, must be discovered in the fact that you cannot point out a single instance during the continuance of the second temple, nor subsequent to its destruction, till about 1810, that music ever was performed on Sabbath in any Jewish congregation all over the world. It is well to talk about unenlightened ages; but there were times of light which are not surpassed now. German dreamers may talk about the progress in every decennium; but facts do not substantiate any such assumption. Religion has not progressed with the fever for reform; and though I will not deny you, if you will, an honesty superior to my own, an enlightenment of which I have no conception, and a fund of learning before which I must hide my diminutive acquirements: still I must say, you acted unwisely in yielding to the clamour for reform in the Synagogue worship at a time when your opinion might have united the contending parties and overcome opposition, and you could thus, have become the minister of a congregation instead of a party chief. I know you have the reputation for meekness, for angelic forbearance, and unflinching piety; God forbid that I should rob you of a single laurel-leaf which a loving partiality has twined round your brow; nevertheless, you must think me honest also, when I say, you acted without duly weighing the fearful responsibility which you assumed in siding with those who formerly did not value you very highly, and discarding your old friends, when you gave your advice that music should be introduced on the Sabbath, against the opinion of millions of Israelites, the voice of centuries, the doctrines of the wisest and best of men.

There is yet one subject connected, with the received doctrines of our church, to which I must call your attention. I alluded to your reputed opinion in the last number of the Occident, page 209, in the paragraph commencing "Several painful rumours;" then I could hardly credit it, though I could not doubt the veracity of my informants. But since that passage was written, I received the Charleston Observer, a paper in the interest of the Presbyterian Society, and edited by the Rev. B. Gildersleeve. The number before me is that of June 17th, and contains among other things the following:

"Among what we have been in the habit of regarding as the fundamental articles of the Jewish creed, are, 1st, the unity of God—2nd, the resurrection of the dead—and 3rd, the coming of Messiah. And we had always understood that the Jewish people generally interpreted the prophecies as teaching the literal return of their people to the promised land.

"But if our correspondent were present at the dedication of the New Synagogue, he will probably recollect that the officiating Rabbi, in his eulogy upon this city and land, spoke of them as the only Jerusalem, and the only Palestine, which he and his people, who were enjoying our free institutions, either desired or sought. We do not profess to give the words; but the substance of his address was reported in the Courier, to which reference can be had. From this we inferred that the officiating Rabbi and his people in the city did not believe in the literal return of the Jews to the promised land. And this opinion was confirmed by a subsequent interview with him less than a year since. And at the same time we received the impression that neither he, nor those attached to his peculiar views on this point, believed in the personal coming of Messiah. He seemed to us to take the same liberty in interpreting the prophecies of the Old Testament touching Messiah, that he had previously done touching the return of the Jews. It struck us that he regarded both not in a literal, but in an emblematical point of view—and that free institutions—a cessation of hostilities—and the general prevalence of peace and good-will among men, constituted the only Messiah which he anticipated."

I have learned since, from undoubted authority, that you should have expressed similar views to my friend the Rev. Wm. T. Brantley, D.D., of the Baptist connection, and the Rev. Mr. Barnwell, of the Episcopal church. I might, perhaps, be inclined to doubt the correctness of the memory of all these three gentlemen (which I admit would be acting very unjustly, to them,) were it not that the creed, as affixed to the walls of your late Synagogue, gave the amplest confirmation to the correctness of their recollection. It seems your twelfth and thirteenth articles are in these words, the correctness of which I presume you will probably admit:

12. "We believe that the Messiah announced by the prophets is not come, the prophecies relating to his coming not being fulfilled.''

13. "We believe that the soul is immortal, and that we shall be accountable for our actions in the life to come."

Upon this I have to remark, that if you believed in the bodily coming of the Son of David, and did not view him merely as an ideality, some philosophical image: you would not have altered the words of the usual creed, which are, "I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and although he tarry I will nevertheless look for him daily that he may come." In brief, I cannot understand how not believing in the accomplishment of any thing can be a matter of belief, or creed. The wording of your profession of faith is apparently merely antagonising to Christianity. This is the first time in my life that I have learned that it is the duty of Israelites to refer to the opinions of any set of men, however respectable for talents and numbers, as a part of their profession of faith. Our religion stands independently, and maintains the same position as regards doctrines and duties, which it did from the beginning. Now before the alleged coming of the Messiah, it would certainly have been singular to asseverate "that he had not come," as a matter of faith; and I really do not understand how the ideas of Christians that he has come, can affect our creed so as to require the alteration of its words which you have either introduced or countenanced. But drop your concealment if you have any; do you believe or not that the Messiah will come? or do you believe that he has neither appeared nor will appear? for your wording is so obscure that it may bear either interpretation. Do let us know, that we may be able to understand in what light you wish Judaism to be regarded, whether as a fabric, frail and changeable, or based on the Rock of ages, unchangingly the same. Lastly, with respect to your thirteenth article as quoted above, it certainly is not what we have a right to expect from a Jewish divine who professes to teach religion as he has received it. Our creed is: "I believe with a perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time it may be the pleasure of the Creator, whose name be blessed, and whose memorial be exalted for ever and unto all eternity." The immortality of the soul is included in the eleventh article, which speaks of rewards and punishments, and is, by the by, an idea which many of the heathens believed in; but the resurrection is a peculiar Jewish doctrine, and to this we must profess ourselves as sons of Israel. Do you believe in it? or think you that they who sleep in the dust of the earth will not arise to everlasting life? I will not weary you any longer, my letter being already more extended than I could have wished; but it is much too short yet to express all my views on the important subjects herein embraced. But when I have your views, I shall add such remarks as I may deem necessary, and if you decline answering, it will then be time enough to enlarge upon points which I have now omitted.

In conclusion, I beg leave to assure you, that though opposed to reform as carried on by yourself, I am not opposed to legitimate improvements in the manner of conducting our public worship; but I want the sanction of men who have made religion the business of their lives, whose piety is a warrant that they will do nothing to yield to public clamour which it would be wrong to yield upon grounds of law and solid reason. Yet so much has been done already without authority, that I verily believe that it would be safer to retrench, than to extend reform. Whatever can be done in a legal manner has or will be done by our ecclesiastical chiefs; and even their reforms I would look upon with suspicion, unless their necessity and practical usefulness were clearly established.

Probably I may be branded with the epithets "hyperorthodox, dark, rabbinist;" whilst in truth many others will believe me to be too free and bold in my opinions. Yet in the middle course there is always safety, and not rarely the path of truth. Still, I shall not be terrified from that which I consider the strict line of duty, and hope to be strengthened by that aid which we all stand in need of. I trust that you will agree with me in saying, that we require no agitation. Persecution long terrified us in our houses and in the field; and now, when peace from abroad dawns upon us, let those who are the leaders endeavour to scatter peace also within the dwellings of Israel. What, are we so much wiser than our progenitors, to maintain that whatever they did was foolish and unsound? Must we for such reasons endeavour to break down the ancient landmarks and the fences of the law? May the Guardian of Israel forfend this, and may his blessing bring an increase and prosperity to the good cause of the law of his bestowal.

In the name, therefore, of our common faith, a religion dear to the heart of all Israel, I call upon you to pause, and to withdraw yourself from the dangerous course which you have, I hope thoughtlessly, been pursuing; join your efforts, Mr. Poznanski, to those of others to restore peace in the midst of your former congregation; yield the interest of a party for the good of the whole community; and receive the favour of your God, the approbation of your conscience, and the applause of thousands of honest hearts, as the reward for the sacrifice which such a step may for a moment require of you.

Yours respectfully,

Isaac Leeser.
Philadelphia, Tamuz 27th, 5603.