|Vol. I, No. 11
Shebat 5604, February 1844
The Demands of the Times.
by Isaac Leeser
In our last we called attention to the disjointed state of the American Jews, and though we spoke only of them, our remarks might, with nearly as much propriety, have been applied to Jews all over the world. But we blame the American Israelites more than others, for the reason, that in nearly all other countries there are antagonizing principles, other than inherent in ourselves, which prevent a fusion of the elements in one homogeneous mass; whereas here we are in very truth in a new position; for, freed on the one land from governmental interference, and uninfluenced on the other by rights vested in the ordinary rabbinical courts and in the consistories which have elsewhere the supervision in church matters: we are enabled, if we would, to meet as independent men to deliberate upon the best interests of our people, swayed only by what is right and correct according to the well-understood principles of our religion, and to appoint such persons at our head as will, whilst teaching the law and expounding the Scriptures, abstain from exceeding their conceded powers as pastors and teachers.
We will not attempt to deny that there are difficulties in the way of such a union; there are, as we have already remarked in our first article on this subject, many inveterate prejudices among our people, owing to no religious difference, but to the fact that some are natives, others new-comers; some wealthy, others poor; some professing love for the German Minhag, others again for the Polish or Portuguese; some have reform ideas, whilst others at last refuse even the smallest concession to the changed state under which we find ourselves after the lapse of centuries since our present church governments sprang into existence, not all at once, by did advice of a deliberative assembly, but from gradual and slow changes, owing to times and circumstances. We may perhaps have occasion hereafter to speak more at length upon the last point animadverted on, and will therefore pass it over now without farther remarks.—We say, that it is true that there are difficulties in the way of a union; but are they insurmountable? What is there so important in the difference of the places of birth of the various Israelites in America? We do not ask that they should deliberate upon political concerns, of which foreigners are not as well calculated to judge as natives; but upon matters relating to them as members of the household of Israel. What matters it to us whether the Israelite whom we meet drew his first breath at the confines of China, where timid policy has built a wall fortified with towers to keep out bloodthirsty and barbarous neighbours, or whether he calls the great metropolis of busy England his home, where men of all parts of the world congregate in the pursuit of traffic and gain? We are all Israelites, loyal citizens, or obedient subjects in all countries wherever we find shelter and support; Israelites only by the tie of a community of belief, and not by the enjoyment of or debarment from the rights and immunities of political equality. Wherever we pitch our tents there is our home; and whatever country permits the Israelite to dwell within its borders, that one he will call his own, and serve and defend it with all his might. So this obstacle, of a difference of place of nativity, need not be of any importance, if we would but reflect that the accident of birth cannot, and of right should not, separate those whose souls are linked together by the ties of consanguinity in faith, by the union of the same religion, which regards the Creator as the common head of the Israelitish race, under whatever government they live.
The jealousy, which unfortunately in all states of society exists between the rich and the poor, no doubt may prevent many persons from meeting together to discuss matters of interest to both, could they be once brought to unite in friendly council. There are, however, so many inducements why all Israelites should living in harmony and friendship, that we may hope that spirit of liberality and mutual good-will may induce the lovers of their faith to meet upon the broad platform of righteousness, to effect a common purpose. Without the means of the wealthy, no plan can be matured; but without the active co-operation of those whose labours can be made available, all expenditure of money and the countenance of those who stand high in public esteem will be fruitless. It is a labour of love, in which all ranks and stations may meet together. Among our people there can be no thought of an aristocracy; they who are honoured now sprung probably from as humble an origin as the most lowly; they who are wealthy have for the most part started in life with little or nothing; at all events we are all descended from a long line of persecuted ancestors, who but a few years back were treated with scorn and contumely, though some had wealth, and could deservedly lay claim to a renown for distinction and probity among their own fellows in faith. It mattered in those days but little to our Christian rulers whether we were virtuous or wicked, honoured or despised, rich or poor, wise or learned; it was enough we were Jews; and this exposed us all alike to scorn and persecution, from which no rank or station was exempt. With the prevalence of a better state of feeling towards us, with the enjoyment of perfect liberty in this land, why should we so soon learn to despise each other, and thus justify the conduct of Israel's enemies towards us? Is this acting gratefully towards our Maker, who has blest the result of our labour, given us distinction, granted us liberty of speech, of conscience, freedom from oppression and equality of rights? We all enjoy, whatever be our station, the same political immunities; and as such then all have a similarity of interests in the preservation of that for which we have suffered so much—in the upholding of the religion of our forefathers. It was for this we braved all the taunts and all the dangers which the cupidity or malevolence of a hostile world could threaten us with; and now it ought surely to be the pleasure of every one, no matter what amount of worldly goods he possesses, to prove that, as far as he is concerned, Judaism shall have a brave, a fearless, a conscientious defender, and that he would consider himself disgraced were it even suspected that he felt not the greatest ardour in upholding its ancient institutions. The man with nothing and the man of a million are here upon a perfect equality; there are no degrees in godliness except through one's own course of life, and if one be known to the world, the other only known in heaven, what matters it where salvation is concerned? will not the Searcher of hearts judge all equally, all justly, alike, whether they have much in their power, or little, or nothing? To borrow a beautiful simile from one of the noble band who disdain not to struggle for the holy cause, the present Rabbi of Emden, Dr. Samson Raphael Hirsch, we are all engaged upon the building of the salvation of Israel; the contribution of each, where there are so many builders, will not be readily appreciated; but it surely will be happiness enough for each labourer who strives to do his best in simple sincerity, to feel the consolation to have contributed "if it be but one stone to the structure of faith; or to have added one drop of oil to the lamp of religion." For our own part, we do not fear that ultimately all classes will not act jointly and harmoniously; the present estrangement is owing to there not being any point, except once in a while a public meeting, in which all meet together as Jews; but when once reunions of this kind are established, when brother seizes the hand of brother upon the broad ground of religious equality as Israelites, there cannot be any doubt but that a community of feeling will produce a community of action, which will tend in its turn to spread a spirit of godliness and conformity to the received tenets of our blessed religion among all classes of the community. But we must leave this discussion, and proceed with the remaining points.
What shall be done with the difference of Minhag or custom of the various Synagogues? Yes, this is a knotty point. Were it that the difference were anything of essential moment, it would perhaps be more probable to bring people together upon a compromise, where each might give a little to secure a general harmony. But the distinction is almost so inappreciable, that each party fears of being swallowed up by the mass, if it do not persevere in all the minutia which old custom has brought down. But let it be understood once for all, that a union of Israelites does not take from any Synagogue its independence; each community can retain its prayer-book, its mode of reading, of raising a revenue, and of internal government. For our part, we would rejoice could all Israelites, not alone in America, but all over the world, take up one mode of worship, one mode of prayer. But this is not to be looked for in our age, at all events, though there has been of late a greater approximation to conformity than was the case formerly; but the time is too recent when the division between the denominations was so very abruptly marked, that years must elapse before a perfect harmony can be established. Still all Israelites profess to and actually do venerate the same law; it is the object of all to spread godliness among the brethren; and they only are attached to their peculiar parties because, having been trained in them, they feel more drawn to them by the tie of association and familiarity than to those methods which are comparatively strange to them. Why, then, shall this mere sectional division,—we repeat it is not doctrinal in the remotest degree,—be a bar to a friendly union for general purposes, where each party remains independent in its own proper sphere of action? In brief, why should there not be a FEDERATIVE union, which leaves every Synagogue or every city perfectly at liberty to manage its own internal affairs, without the smallest control by the others? The customs of worship, of reading the Hebrew, the order of prayer, are not interfered with in this manner; and they only will be listened to in a general meeting who have something useful to propose, no matter to what denomination they may profess themselves. It is intellect and learning alone, joined to respectability of character, which can rule: and it is worse than foolish to dread the influence of the one party because they are too numerous, and of the other because they are too wealthy and exclusive. Again we would ask, what is it that all desire? is it not the welfare of the church of Israel, the assembly of the faithful, the כנסת ישראל? Long has the daughter of Zion mourned because of the dissension of her children. And will they still strive with each other? will always some pull down what others build up? Is there never to be peace? never any harmony? For shame, men of Israel! your faith demands your united support; no one can be spared from the ranks of the labourers; all are needed; let all, therefore, strive for the same end, and righteousness will flourish, to the joy of the faithful and the confusion of those who look with a jealous eye on the progress and prosperity of the house of Jacob.*