Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


The Demands of the Times.

by Isaac Leeser

(Continued from No. 11.)

We continue from our last.—We presented cogent reasons for a union of action to the different classes composing our people, the various sections in which custom has divided them. We could not see that there were any sufficient causes existing which should keep these classes and sections apart from each other, since there is no difference in doctrine and discipline between them. Judaism, we have said and say again, once for all, to avoid the misconception as though there were a sectarian difference between our divisions as there is among Christians,—Judaism, we say, is a uniform system based upon the words of Scripture, illustrated by the traditions and customs of the fathers. In the days of Moses, with the evident revelation of the Most High before them, people went to the seer to "inquire of God;" the same was the case, in the days of Elisha,—the Shunamith traveled towards his dwelling, because he was the man of God; the same was witnessed in later periods, when the people resorted to those in whom the spirit was, to be informed of the duties which the Lord required of them. Now, it is precisely this arrangement which we should to this day carefully observe, to inform ourselves of "what is the will of God?" and where our knowledge will not reach, to appeal to "our fathers who are to tell us and our elders who are to declare the word unto us." Orthodox Jews, or rather, to speak correctly, they who abide faithfully by the good rule of former days, will cheerfully acknowledge, in words as least, that the views we have presented to them are just such as they all will gladly assent to in theory, however deficient might be their practice. To them, therefore, we need not use any farther arguments at present to prove that which for them needs no proof. But we have a few words to say to the class which has lately sprung up, and has raised a bold front, since religiousness as such has fallen into decay before the mighty whirlwind which has passed over empires and opinions with desolating power, we mean the French Revolution. It was this event which threw down the crazy fabric of monkish superstition, which had been upheld in its depressing force upon mind and freedom by the influence of states in connexion with that mysterious power,—active and strong to this day, despite of the mighty assaults directed against it by giant minds and daring hands—the Church of Rome. It was sudden in its onslaught; opinions, never before doubted, were overthrown after a feeble resistance; still its approach, though to the careless eye unperceived, had been silently helped forward by men of mind and science who, under the guise of fiction and philosophical inquiry, laid the axe with noiseless activity upon the tree which, with its poisonous shade, scattered its deadly gloom over the world. These men had laboured long and skillfully; and in their hate of what was really false and detestable, they had also attacked what is true and holy. Their writings, full of plausibility, rich in anecdote, attractive to the taste by the variety of incident or the boldness of their views, had loosened from the mind the veneration for things of antiquity; and with the first effort of an enslaved people to escape from the galling yoke of oppressive taxation, and of an arbitrary tyranny which knew no law except the sovereign's will, no state except the sovereign's person, antiquated ideas of religious obedience fell by the same blow which struck down the allegiance to political rulers, since the public mind confounded both, the one having been, to all appearance, so long the chief support of the unjust dominion of the other. And true to the usual exclusiveness of reformers, they, who had just conquered in the war of opinion and the contest for power, had no sooner triumphed, than they became tyrants in their turn; and they retaliated with fearful energy the oppression they had so long endured in being compelled to veil their innovating views; and it was made dangerous either to be a friend to political royalty or ecclesiastical attachment to ancient rules.

Had it been that the change in religious sentiment had only been the effect of the political convulsion we have feebly sketched, it would have subsided possibly with the "restoration of civil order," as the suppression of popular governments is called in royal countries. But, as we have hinted, the root of the mental revolution lay deeper even than the political convulsion, and had been gradually brought to ripeness by the progress of the sciences which ancient popery had condemned as heretical, despite of their being demonstrated true by mathematical and experimental proofs. It was, therefore, possible for a Napoleon who held the reins of government with an iron grasp, to proclaim Catholicism as the religion of the state; but it was quite beyond his reach to bring back people's minds to the standard of thinking of bygone centuries. We do not assert that this may not occur at a future day, because the mind of men makes very often as strange retrogressions as remarkable advances; and the progress of a few years, perhaps, may render fanaticism again the standard of reasoning in religious matters, and the papal will the dreaded oracle of millions of men; but, at the accession of Napoleon, both the cause and effect of the astonishing change, which the world had just witnessed, were too recent to be rolled back by even his Herculean arm; and, moreover, the actual or supposed attachment of the mighty conqueror for the opinions of the philosophers gave to these yet a stronger hold on the popular mind, since the re-establishment of the former national church was but justly looked upon as recalling to the aid of the new dynasty a power which had so faithfully aided, and been supported in return by, those who had formerly borne the rule as divinely chosen kings of France. Every thing was thus surrendered to doubt and examination; and opinions, the most sacred and vital, were discussed with the freedom of a mathematical problem, and rejected not rarely, unless they could be supported with mathematical accuracy and philosophical deduction. And as far as the national religion of many European countries is concerned, we doubt whether the unbelief prevalent fifty years ago has, even to this day, been overcome by the process of half a century; so great, we venture to assert, has been the shock which all the systems of Christianity have received. We do not say that there is no religious feeling extant amongst the mass of European population; but this much is certainly true, there is a difference between the manner of thinking among the intelligent and the common populace, at the present moment, and the standard of the middle of last century. There were then, doubters, it is admitted but the mass was superstitiously reverential of things which are now universally disregarded, or professed by such only as have an interest in their received opinions. We cannot stop to argue the point, and refer to its general notoriety as proof of its correctness.

This being so, it cannot excite surprise that our religion, though it is not chargeable with any of the superstitions of the catholic church, nor with the mysticism of many of the protestant professions, should also feel the assaults which the new theories made on other religions. Before the French wars our youth were excluded from the armies of the Christian powers, no honours could be earned by any one who should have entered them; public employments were absolutely denied to the most meritorious; and, more than all, but very few could obtain classical educations in the colleges and universities of Europe. In addition to this, prejudice placed an effectual barrier to any friendly intercourse, unless under favourable circumstances, between us and our neighbours; and friendship was only offered as a barter for our faith. But with the commencement of the period under question, a new life was, so to say, breathed into the long oppressed race; the men of blood, who rode the storm at the outbreaking of the Gallic revolution, did one thing at least, which should shield their memory from an entire abhorrence; they declared all the citizens of the state upon an equality, and whoever was willing to serve the land of his birth could do so, no matter what were his professions, or the lowness and degradation of his origin. Under these circumstances not French Jews alone, but foreigners likewise joined the victorious armies of the Republic; and as the arms of self-educated generals and new raised recruits carried the war into foreign lands, and proclaimed there too the principles of the revolution, more Israelites became incorporated with the military or civil administration. It was a time of agitation, of rapid changes, of annihilation of states and systems; and many Jews seeing the freedom with which Christians transgressed their received duties, the daringness with which the church systems and their doctrines were canvassed, and not rarely ridiculed, by degrees learned too to question many of the duties they had hitherto religiously observed, not rarely excusing themselves by the necessity of their public employments.

In this manner several years elapsed; and they who had once considered themselves absolved, either by having been compelled to transgress, or by having been contaminated by the imbibing of infidel opinions, spread by their example the evil among those who had not been thus circumstanced; and this state of indifference was yet more urged forward by the insecurity which the long duration of the war so naturally produced, which caused the breaking up of many of our colleges where the old-fashioned teachers of religion had been educated. Can it be then wondered at, that, after the constant strife, had endured for twenty years, especially in the larger cities where the military license had been the greatest, a deplorable degree of laxity in religion should have been engendered? that there were many who, from their long absence from the Synagogue had ceased to feel veneration for ancient customs and ceremonies? that they, who had heard all religious truths questioned and ministers of all persuasions ridiculed, and not rarely seen them mocked and ill used, should have learned to look upon their own faith with diminished hope, with impaired sincerity? All these deplorable consequences were but too completely realized, and many of the young men exhibited a state of indifference truly revolting to a religious mind. To remedy this calamity a union of all who feared God should have been formed; men should have weighed well all the means which were placed at their command, to recall the backsliders to a sense of duty. But, unfortunately, it was under these circumstances that the so-called reformers sprung into being; they averred that there was transgression in Israel, that something must be done to prevent the sacred edifice from altogether falling into decay; yet instead of illustrating the old methods of worship and making them lovely to the multitude, they in an evil moment came upon the idea of rendering the divine service agreeable by introducing changes and modifications unknown to and unauthorized by the teachers and wise men in Israel. In place of discountenancing the errors of the transgressors, they endeavoured measurably to justify them by confessing defects in our observances. From one thing they proceeded to another, till innovations, both startling and unlawful, were proposed and sanctioned. The impulse was also farther assisted by the indecisive answers of the so-called Sanhedrin of Napoleon; and every year since then has seen some new cause of contention brought forward by those who, we will admit, sincerely but still unwisely insist that our faith too requires a reform on the principle of the Lutheran reformation of the papal system. Now we are not so blind to passing events as to assert, that there were not defects in the state of the Jewish mind in the last century, and are to this day, where nothing but rabbinical literature, without a mixture of the secular sciences, is allowed to influence the mind of youth. But this seclusion from worldly knowledge (we repeat what we have been saying elsewhere) is not chargeable to Jewish bigotry, but to gentile oppression; it is not our religion which seeks support from ignorance; and the enlightened among our teachers, never interdicted the pursuit of elegant literature, provided it did not interfere with the acquisition of that knowledge which is beyond all price, which makes even the foolish intelligent—the knowledge of the Lord and his law which He has prescribed for our guidance. With the resumption, therefore, of scientific pursuits by Israelites, more or less inquiry would necessarily have been called forth; opinions formerly believed, founded upon ancient authority, would to a certainty have been examined by the light of modern discoveries. But with a careful training of the intellect under the direction of pious teachers, no farther consequences could have resulted than a tacit dropping of all unsound views based upon the received ideas of former centuries. All this would not have touched our form of service, and have left unapproached by profane hands the ark of the covenant.

But, as said, the timid yielded to what they deemed a pressing necessity, and here and there permitted changes in the public worship, because they believed, (we will credit their assertion,) that to refuse every thing would be to banish many an Israelite from the bosom of the Synagogue; and this without any consultation with persons learned in the law, but upon the suggestion of individuals who were experienced in worldly matters, but by no means of that prominence which ought to give undue weight to their views, especially if they come in conflict with established authority. Be this as it may, the reforms thus introduced were in their nature mere local regulations, and at their first appearance did not number among their advocates any of the religious leaders of Israel. But with the departure from the field of action of the aged servants of the Lord, who had faithfully taught to others the knowledge which filled their souls, a new race, educated in the learning of the gentiles, and not a few of them tinctured with the dogmas of modern philosophy, took their places, frequently appointed, not as of old by the popular will, but by governmental interference; and teacher of this class have now given consistency to the former vague hankering after changes, though no two of them hardly agree as to what they desire, and where they will stop. With the departure from the ancient standard of uniformity there can evidently be no harmonizing of opinions, whilst each teaches what he conceives to be the proper reform, whilst one strives to go farther, more or less, than the other. Now, as far as the American Israelites are concerned, it was a long time before they felt the contagion. Separated from the old world by the Atlantic, they pursued for a long time a course of godliness according to the best light accessible to them; they were not learned, it is true, neither in Hebrew nor other knowledge, but their heart was true with God, and they strove to do all in their power for the glorification of the Holy Name. But, with an increase of immigration from Europe, persons tinctured with all the modern heresies have mingled among us, and we daily see the effects of their working in our midst. They often decry the ancient usages, and their irreligious conduct is an ample evidence of the spirit within. The profanation of the Sabbath, the eating of forbidden things, the unjewish household, the omission of the covenant of circumcision, and the intermarriages with gentile families, have been chargeable to European immigrants to as great a degree as to native Americans, though the former have had for the most part greater opportunities of obtaining religious knowledge than the latter. In addition to the open violations we have just mentioned, reform notions of the ultra kind have been brought over to this country chiefly from abroad, or have been excited by foreign example.—They, however, who profess to be reformers, allege that their object is the restoration of ancient usages, stripped of all human additions. We will, as said, not dispute their sincerity; but why do they urge their views with so much pertinacity, exclusiveness, illiberality? Who is the aggressor? surely not those who wish to uphold the customs of their fathers. Why will they, therefore, who wish for modifications, not tolerate the conservative views of their brethren? No one, we speak advisedly, wishes to preserve abuses which are clearly so; no one will oppose any wholesome regulations in the public service of the Synagogue, or object to any legal means which will make the practice of religion more loved and generally acquiesced in. Still it would argue but little wisdom and as little sincerity were we all to yield implicitly to every demand made upon our compliance from one or the other quarter. The system which we have so long lived under (we speak of the ceremonies, not of the religion, for of this there is no question,) is surely one which has the sanction of wise and eminent men, and we cannot surrender it blindly to the tender mercies of those who ask of us to help them to pull down, before they have shown us a fair specimen of what they mean to build up in its stead.

We (the lovers of ancient usages) are not enemies to improvements, but desire that nothing should be done hastily, or contrary to law: we are for amelioration of our condition by education, by enlightening the public mind, by making our blessed faith better understood and more lovely to all its adherents. We therefore ask all of you who are the professed friends of improvement, to progress, to reform, or by whatever other term your endeavours are characterized, to reflect, that all the recent agitation sprung out of a state of a laxity of morals and religion, brought about by a long-continued war and its consequent confusion; that it was first attempted by those who professed that something must be done to bring the backsliders and lukewarm back to the pale of religion, and that in the outset but some few local changes were thought requisite. Now, tranquility prevails universally through all Europe and America, we have ample opportunities to come together upon common grounds, for the defence and the upholding of our faith. In the name of Him, therefore, whom we all profess to serve, do not render us a disgrace to the gentiles by your violent measures; pause in your dangerous progress—there is a lurking poison in the cup which you are draining; let a spirit of moderation preside over your councils, an do not regard your fellow-Israelites who share your sentiments as less enlightened than yourselves. The humble writer of this has no personal interest in whatever he proposes in this respect; accuse him not, therefore, that he speaks from motives arising from professional standing. It is the cause of Truth we wish to serve, and in her name we appeal to all who venerate her as she stands revealed in God's holy law. Under this standard Israel has so often withstood the assault of a thousand misfortunes; let us all, then, whatever be our shades of opinion, since for the most part we differ but in trifles, rally around this standard, and vow fidelity to the holy cause, and good-will and forbearance to each other. Thus only can we all serve the best interests of our people; thus only can we promote the spread of an enlightened intelligence in religion among ourselves, when all unite for one common end, when all regard each other as friends and brethren.

The unexpected length with which we have rapidly and very imperfectly sketched the rise of the new opinions among us, has detained us much longer than we anticipated, and still we have not said one-tenth of what we meant to illustrate. We therefore have again to break off in the midst of a discussion highly interesting to us at least; but we propose to return to it at a future day in the progress of our intercourse with our readers.

(To be continued.)