|Vol. I, No. 8
Heshvan 5604, November 1843
Public Religious Education.
by Isaac Leeser
It admits of no doubt, that in a well organized community the different members composing the same have certain duties to perform towards each other. Individual enterprise, when blessed from above, does not rarely effect a great deal in benefiting the public; but no permanent good will ever result from any undertaking, if the people do not take sufficient interest in it to foster it with their countenance and support. If the body public is sick, and is not sufficiently alive to its disease to apply the necessary remedies, it is in vain that skilful men urge it to guard against the baleful result of the unhealthy state under which it labours; it imagines that all is well, and heeds not the voice of admonition. But once convince it that there are plague-spots visible upon its surface, make it conscious that there is a burdensome sore which requires to be cut out: and you have already half cured the evil which but lately was not thought to exist. For you will soon find that every one who is desirous of life will ask you, "What he is to do in order that he may live?" and what means he is to resort to to roll from himself, as one, the fatal disease which afflicts him no less than others. And when this result has been brought about, the progress to a healthy state is very rapid; and reformations have in this manner been produced which in their commencement were ridiculed by the common crowd, and thought beyond the scope of probability by the intelligent even.
Do our readers know that we Israelites, living in England, America, and the West India Islands, are labouring under a fatal disease which has destroyed many a precious soul, and threatens still to carry its havoc much farther than it has done? We allude to the great ignorance which prevails among us with respect to the tenets of our religion, and the language in which the Bible was communicated to our forefathers. There is, we acknowledge, an ardent devotion among most of us to the name of Israel; but unfortunately there is little else to designate the character which this feeling should establish. And how can it be otherwise? Where are our teachers? Where our schools? our colleges? They have indeed been spoken of, and now and then projected; but they have unfortunately never been well established, and where they do exist, they have not been resorted to by all the classes of the community. We will not deny that of late years some little has been done to promulgate a knowledge of our religion; a few—but few indeed,—elementary books have been written to be used as manuals for beginners in the sacred study; yet all this only proves how deeply seated the disease has been and is to this day, and how much remains to be achieved which has not yet been attempted. The indifference, therefore, which we witness, is in many cases the legitimate result of an ignorance of the duties and doctrines which Jews ought to perform and believe in; and the apostasy of a few by intermarriages with the gentiles, or the adoption of the belief of the stranger, must be charged to the same cause, that when they sinned they knew not what they should do that they might live, and were perhaps unconscious of the enormity of their transgressions. It must be observed, that he who knows not what his religion demands of him, will hardly make any sacrifices in its favour, nor will he hesitate seeking his own pleasure and advantage, though he may be warned by a fellow-Israelite of the sinfulness of his contemplated course. But make him feel that religion is the life of his soul, and its observance the path to eternal salvation, and he will not readily fall into the snares of death, nor let his feet glide down the path of perdition.
Do our readers feel the force of these remarks? have they seen with sincere regret the backsliding of some friend or beloved relative? Have they found themselves powerless to recall to the path of religion one for whose happiness they would have sacrificed their life to purchase his peace? Have they themselves experienced the trials of an inward struggle against temptation, and felt the weakness of a reliance based upon worldly wisdom to resist the evil? If so, let them hasten to do something for the promotion of the diffusion of the knowledge which is to banish this deplorable ignorance from themselves and those they love; let them, in the full confidence that the Lord will aid them, endeavour to contribute their share to promote a general religious education among us; for if ignorance is the disease which afflicts us, if want of a knowledge on religious matters is a reproach to us from the gentiles, it is evidently acting only in conformity with common sense to do all we can to scatter this ignorance, and to prove to the world at large that we too are fully alive to the necessity of a religious education.
Individuals can do but very little if they act singly; but if they combine their efforts, call each other in council, draw in the experience of the well-informed and righteous, who love their brothers, and seek not their own gain, the work will go bravely on, and in a little while a general acquaintance with the details of our beautiful system of faith will render its precepts loved and obeyed, instead of the general indifference with which they are now regarded. The disease of Israel, our readers may believe us, is not incurable, though it shows now many symptoms of inveteracy; it requires only the skill of a physician "who is yet in Gilead," and a readiness on the part of our associates in faith and hope to act unitedly and firmly, to cause healing to come to our wounds, and to bind up the limbs which now throb under the pain of the disease which afflicts them.
In this effort every Israelite has a right to look to the other for assistance; and those who have the means would be acting but as good neighbours to open their hand wide and scatter some of the bounty which a kind Father has so abundantly conferred on them. But it must be understood, that the education should not be supplied to the poor only, but to all. The rich require a religious training equally with those in a humble sphere of life, wealth confers no immunity from sorrows, and is no safeguard against temptation. They, therefore, who have received riches at the hand of God, should also hasten to drink from the waters of salvation which He has poured out for all in the words of his law; and only thus can they become properly qualified to enjoy their superfluous wealth, when they know and feel that it is of God's stores they have received it, and that its best enjoyment is to spend it measurably in his service. Indeed, it would be useless to think of establishing schools where the rich and the poor should not both be taught alike; there is between them a bond of humanity; both are liable to sorrow, to disease and death; let both, therefore, have the same bond of joy, the same stay in happiness, the same support in the hour of sorrow, of sickness and of death. This bond is our heaven-born religion, the law of Sinai, the treasure of Israel. Let all, then, be enabled to come and eat of this bread of wisdom; and let us not rest in our efforts, till every child of Jacob be made familiar with its duties, and be rendered firm in faith, to resist, through the aid of a pious instruction, the temptations which on all sides are constantly ready as lures to draw off the sons of Israel from the path which leads to heaven. Other religions, we confess, have their temptations to encounter; but ours in particular is beset with the greatest dangers, as its professors are the few and the afflicted, whilst the followers of the others are the many, and in the enjoyment of all the worldly happiness which their situation allows them. It is, therefore, the more incumbent on all descendants of Abraham to place themselves around the heavenly treasure they have received as its faithful defenders; and to show others not so firm as themselves how they in their turn can become equally firm in the defence of the sacred cause, when the old combatants for the law and its purity have left this earthly life for the abode of the everlasting reward for their righteousness.
We will not prescribe any particular method to effect this good result, but merely to call the attention of others who are acquainted with the wants and the wishes of the people to speak understandingly on the subject; in the full persuasion, that the best interests of Israel are safest in the hands of the Jewish community, much more so, indeed, than with those who are self-constituted leaders. But, above all things, union is requisite: a union of heart, a union of action. No one can expect that his views shall alone be adopted; no one can hope that his advice will alone be taken. Therefore, let us have the united efforts of all those who wish well to the house of Jacob; and with the full assurance that divine blessing will not be withheld, we can then look forward to a happier state of religion among us than we now witness.