Vol. I, No. 6
The Union Of Israel.
by Isaac Leeser
"One God, one law, one people."
In all the vicissitudes which have passed over our scattered tribes, the idea of one God was always present to them; they ever remembered that the Creator, who revealed himself to their ancestor Abraham, is indeed the same Power who governed all from the beginning, and directs every thing that exists as best suits his unsearchable wisdom. History affords no record that, since the destruction of the first temple; forgetfulness of the Deity could ever be laid to the charge of Israel, or that they at any one time adopted a belief in the existence of a divine Being other than the Creator. This uniformity of opinion has been the bond of union which constituted us one people in all our wanderings; for wherever we met, the exclamation the "Lord is one" proved to the traveller that he had indeed met a brother, who, like himself, sojourned among the gentiles, conforming outwardly to their manners and customs, whilst the heart within throbbed unitedly with all, who, like him, believed in the same God and obeyed the same law, with the hope for the reunion of the scattered elements of the once great nation which was called by the name of Israel.
Differences have, as is natural, sprung up among us at various times; persons have disagreed regarding the interpretation of the law, and some have been rigid observers of outward ceremonies, whilst others have esteemed them of less importance. Yet these men differed honestly, and each party, in endeavouring to prove that their views were the best suited to a liberal interpretation of Scripture, accorded to the other an equal honesty of purpose; as is clearly established by the well-known saying,אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הם "Both opinions are words of the living God."
There was, no doubt, at times, a heated ardour exhibited in their disputations, which, to the casual observer, may appear like bitterness; but independently of the fact, that these ebullitions of temper are of rare occurrence, it is only conformable to human nature, that men, in differing with each other, will occasionally forget the courtesies of life, for which forgetfulness they will ever afterwards feel the sincerest regret. Besides all this, they actually never differed on the great points of religion, on the fundamental articles of belief, on the interpretation of the principal commandment, and in the exercise of personal acts of piety which ought to distinguish the life of those who know their duty, and feel their dependence on the bounty of God.
When, therefore, the hour of danger came, when the Roman conqueror thundered at the gates of the holy city, though dissension reigned within its walls, every sword was turned against the foreign invader; and Sadducce and his opponent, the priest and the soldier, all strove to prove that they could die for their home and the law of their God if it was denied unto them to live free in the land of their inheritance. Times passed again over our captive race, and the disputes that erst shook the state continued in the schools of the learned when elucidating the law which was all that was left out of the wreck of their holy state; dissension, as we hinted already, occasionally was witnessed among the defenders of the faith; but still the union of the spirit was not wanting, and when the edict of persecution burst like the terrific thunder over their heads, there were no faint souls in the homes of Israel, and many fell before the persecutor's uplifted sword, and those even who appeared lukewarm in the holy cause were among the foremost to embrace the stake sooner than forswear their trust in Israel's God.
What was the cause of this spiritual union among men who had no apparent community of interest? not a common language in their daily occupations! nor a common country in which they could dwell? We may answer that it was owing to the mercy of God, who wished to uphold a nation whom He had once established as his own peculiar people; hence results the astounding fact, that neither exterminating wars destroyed there utterly, nor that a constant intercourse with the world produced that mingling of the mind which is so fatal to the minority in all civil societies. Yet as Providence always works by natural causes, though they be often quite inadequate to the end they produce so in this instance there were springs of action put in force long before the people of Israel went into captivity. During their sojourn in the land of Egypt already, they had a language which had not its birth among the sons of Ham, but sprung from the speech of a nobler race, and was, perhaps, the same tongue which belonged to the father of the human family. With this language of Heber was connected the acknowledgment of the supreme
Creator as the God of the world; and when after their redemption from slavery a uniform law was superadded, given in the same language of Heber; proclaiming the, same great truth of one God: the union of spirit was perfected; and the children of Jacob stood before the world as one people through their belief in one God, their possession of one law, their knowledge of one speech.
Sinning, or what is the same, a falling off from the course pointed out by the law, was not unfrequently witnessed among them; but then at every step they took they found out, to their sore cost, that no good can result from a pursuit of sin, and every punishment, that followed in the wake of transgression, made them constantly more sensible of the superior excellence of the precepts which their law enjoined on them. They thus were sent as captives into Assyria and Chaldea, and became familiar with the domestic habits of the worshippers of idols, whose very images they too had foolishly worshipped in their days of prosperity. For a time they fancied, indeed, that their worldly, prosperity could be best promoted by a course not unlike that of the heathens; as we read in Jeremiah (44. 15-19): "Then all the men who knew that their wives were offering incense unto other gods, and all the women that stood by, a great multitude, even all the people that dwelt in the land of Egypt, in Pathros, answered Jeremiah, saying, The word which thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not obey thee in. But we will certainly do whatever we have resolved with our mouth, to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, when we ate bread in plenty, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by famine." But when, according to the predictions of the prophet, the downfall of the Egyptian empire was accomplished; when the Israelites, who had never worshipped idols without some reverence for the God Everlasting, saw the unmitigated horrors of paganism, the besotting effects of an unmixed idolatry: they became effectually cured of a hankering after false gods; and ever since that period, when the temple was rebuilt under Ezra and Zerubbabel, the national sin of idolatry was never witnessed among the sons of Israel.
What thus, in human probability, would have led one to believe as conducive to the destruction of the Mosaic system, became in the providence of God the means of removing an inveterate evil, which punishments of an aggravated kind had failed to accomplish during a residence of the Israelites on their own soil for a space of about nine hundred years. And with the destruction of the love for strange gods, the knowledge of the law of their adored Father in heaven grew into a national study, into an employment worthy of the chief of his people, and of the conqueror before whom quailed they who had been the conquerors of the world. And then, as a natural consequence, though their ancient language had ceased to be the vernacular and familiar speech of the people in their daily intercourse, and though it was found requisite to teach them a portion of the word of God in the Chaldean tongue, (Daniel and Ezra in part,) and to transcribe some of the prayers in this same cognate dialect of the Hebrew: the people were referred, as an object worthy of attainment, to acquire by study an adequate knowledge of the Hebrew, and the law, the prophets and the greater part of the service of the temple and Synagogue were ordered to be read in the ancestral language; thus binding the Israelites not only to the law, but to the original language of the law, in order that drinking each man of them out of the same pure fount, they might not be compelled to receive the impressions which religion requires through polluted channels, and to, avoid that great evil, of the word of man being substituted, by arbitrary translations, for the true unmixed word of God.
Moderns have at times cast ridicule on the use of the Hebrew in our prayers, because, as they tauntingly ask him who advocates the old paths, whether he is not better acquainted with the language of England, or France, or Germany, than with that of Palestine? Now, grant that the answer should be what the "wise ones in their own conceit" would have it, what does it prove, but that the modern Jews are not sufficiently sedulous in what behoves them to know, not that this language is not worth knowing, or not worth preserving. Besides, there is a radical fallacy in such a mode of questioning. It may not be in the power of every Israelite, we will even admit of the well-informed likewise, to express himself as fluently in a language which is not spoken any more, as in a dialect which receives daily a new polish or new variations and turns which are not easily expressed in a language which has ceased to be applied to things of daily occurrence; but this does not prove that any one of the dead may not be better adapted for certain purposes than the living languages; there may be causes why the former may have terms of expression which the latter can only approximate; and the former may have a perspicuity and elegance which we look for in vain in the latter. Now precisely this is the case with the Hebrew. We are not able to employ it to write upon chemistry or the modern art of war, or the new inventions, with the same facility as we use English, French, or German; but then it is a language, for all that, well understood by those who make it their study, and it has a peculiar closeness of diction, a richness of imagery which leaves our modern tongues far in the rear. But above all, it is the repository of God's holy covenant; in it all our laws and statutes, our ideas and opinions, our hopes and our history are all originally contained; and then we know well enough, that with all the care which the most honest men can bestow, errors will creep into the best translations; and so great is the bias of fallible human mind, that preconceived opinions will often sway the translator to detect certain meanings in words which they evidently do not possess, and to convey these to his readers, despite that he himself thinks that he faithfully renders his author.
The application of the foregoing will be easy enough. If we discard the Hebrew, we must resort to a translation of the Bible-passages without which our worship would be incomplete; and a translation presupposes an authorized one; and this we never had among us, it was never attempted, and what is more, it can never be admitted, so long as we have no inspired translator to give us the true version of the words of the inspired writers. To preserve the law, therefore, in its purity, we must preserve the Hebrew, and to preserve this we must at all hazards retain it in our worship, wherever attainable. We do not mean to say, that persons unacquainted with the holy tongue should not be permitted to pray in a language which they do understand; but this we will fearlessly maintain, that the study of the Hebrew ought to be encouraged, and this can best be done by leaving it, as it is the language of public worship; we should prove its necessity, and thus urge our members to hasten to acquire an adequate knowledge of what is of such essential service to them.
Let us sum up our ideas on the union of Israel. The possession of the law and Scriptures in the language of Heber has proved the greatest benefit to our existence as a nation; it has marked us Hebrews by a sacred national tongue, just as our descent is traceable in our features; it has preserved us from heresies which interpolations and mistranslation into a strange dialect would necessarily have caused; it has screened us against the frauds of designing impostors and against the slothfulness of careless transcribers of the word of God. Ay, the very exclamation Adonay Aychahd sounds differently from the LORD IS ONE, sublime and striking as the last may be; there is a charm in the sounds of the language of Israel, it well harmonizes with the latent feelings in our soul; and it is a proper legacy to that nation whose members are the living witnesses of God's unity, of his universal rule on earth.
Do we now ask, What is the bond which invisibly unites the Israelites of all lands? we shall be answered, It is the belief in one God, the possession of one law, and the union of the spirits by the use of one language, which, proving them one nation from one common descent, mark them most fittingly as the proper descendants of those great names of antiquity, who first professed themselves servants of the sole God, and vowed unflinching obedience to that holy religion which this God, the Creator of all, instituted as his sole will to stand unchanged to everlasting.*