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Thoughts on the Jewish Ministry

No. VI


We have proceeded in a somewhat desultory manner in depicting the unfortunate position of our system of public worship. We cannot hope that our words will produce any good results, as no doubt all those who have the power to act in the manner we have indicated, will take their own counsel and attend to their pri­vate affairs with all due diligence, and leave the public concerns to take care of themselves as best they may. We speak advisedly; for we have often endeavoured to lead or cooperate with others, or even to follow their guidance to effect some good enterprise; and we are yet to learn that any efficient aid was ever extended to all these undertakings. Whether the cause was the unpopularity of the proposers of the measures, or the absolute indifference of the people, we do not pretend to decide; enough, that hitherto very little has been done to advance the cause of our literature and religion, in either England or America.

We shall be told that all Israelites, without exception, are businessmen, or engaged in some active pursuit of life, and that hence they have neither the time nor the talent to take the lead, or even to follow humbly that of others in the promotion of literature, or the propagating of our faith. But we fancy that this assumed humility, or pretended inability, is anything but sincere, and is more owing to an unwillingness, to labour in the <<226>> cause, than to anything else. It is however deplorable, and still not the less true, that mock-humility is perhaps the essence of pride; since no one is prouder than the Roman Pontiffs who sign themselves “the servants of the servant of God.” Words cost nothing except the overcoming of a proper self-respect; and when the seekers for power and popularity have gone thus far, they can easily fawn upon those whose favour and influence they seek, and turn with insolent pride and haughty disdain upon those whose influence they either do not require for their advancement, or whose power they fancy not strong enough to injure them. There is more or less danger to popularity connected with promoting any movement, which the timid have not the courage to encounter; hence they profess that they have not the necessary talent to decide grave questions, and that they will not take the responsibility of producing unpleasant feelings, or perchance disunion by taking a decided stand. Now it is not to be doubted that a prudent reserve in rushing upon any untried experiment is highly commendable; “it is only fools that ven­ture where angels fear to tread;” it is well to hesitate and to mistrust one’s own judgment, where the least doubt exists as to the absolute correctness and propriety of any measure to be adopted; experiments are at all times to be looked upon with suspicion, where their whole scope is not palpable beforehand. But where the course is plain, where the evil to be combatted is quite apparent, it is surely an overstrained sense of humility which could induce any man of common sense to feel the least doubt of the propriety of grappling boldly with the abuses which all acknowledge, and not to apply the remedies which are demanded by the exigencies of the times.

We will tell these trembling doubters one thing, a secret which they perhaps have not discovered in their own deep feeling of polite deference to the opinions and wishes of others, that if they do not choose to lead or cooperate in, good and wholesome measures, there will be others to urge them forward in some glaring evil and gross injustice. There are men in every community, from the grand inquest of a nation, such as the House of Representatives and that of the Commons, down to a congregation meeting of a small village church, who delight in mischief <<227>> and strife; who oppose everything which emanates not from their own sapient brain, and who would unmake the sun, and change the course of the planets if they had but the power. Such men, without religious impressions, without philanthropy, without liberality, without education even, are ever busy to make them­selves felt in public councils, and they always endeavour to impose their ideas, often founded on malice, as the expression of public opinion, on those who look on their boldness as an evidence of genius. And what sort of benefits have we had from such counsels? See how one by one our religious institutions have lingered in England and America, and how that most of the life now perceptible in our congregational affairs is owing almost solely to the active commingling of men, strangers to the soil. We cheerfully acknowledge that in a deep-seated religious feeling, the English Jews are behind no others, perhaps they may be said to be far in advance of them; that theoretically the Americans highly appreciate the value of their faith, and would die for it the moment any outward pressure should be employed to rob them of their birthright. But it is for this very reason that we join our complaint to that of other friends of real progress, and of those who strive to conserve our birthright—that nothing is done to insure either the one or the other; since what has not been, is not brought into existence, and that which exists lingers in hopeless decrepitude. As we some time ago stated, Synagogues are indeed built everywhere, and persons are always ready to join them as nominal worshippers. But when this is done, all else seemingly stops; people are exhausted with the mighty effort to raise up four walls, and to decorate them after some approved style of architecture; and it is difficult to make them believe that they have nothing, absolutely nothing, but these four walls and their decorations; and they appear like the anaconda which lies in a state of torpor after swallowing an entire animal, till this frightful meal be properly digested. Yet in its desire for more food, the giant serpent has the advantage over our Israelites; the entire sheep will at length have entered into the circulation of the devourer, and renewed hunger will urge on to new exertions, But do our brothers feel no hunger for the Word of God?
Do they never thirst for the Water of Life? Do they not faint under a knowledge that the true essence of all that is good and holy is not in their possession, although attainable if they but will? Why will Israelites be so torpid, why so little imbued with spirituality, that they are content with having a place for assembling, which stands empty nine-tenths of the year, or is, when filled, attended by many from mere habit, and by others who appear ill at ease, or those who come thither to converse or gaze around in vacant listlessness? Many indeed who attend Synagogues on especial seasons and holydays, appear as though they had nothing to do there. It is perhaps the season of the blowing of the cornet; they are familiar with this remarkable method of Jewish worship; they hear it perhaps spoken of with ridicule; still they feel that as their fathers’ laid much stress upon being present at the Synagogue to hear it, they too ought tote there, especially as a few days later, the Day of Atonement will be ushered in with all its mysterious solemnity, as the annual season for the forgiveness of sin. Hence they too go to the places where the habitual worshippers come to pray with sincere earnestness, and a full yielding of their spirit to God. And can it be expected that the semi-annual visitors will feel at home in their heavenly Father’s mansion? that they will not suffer weariness where they can naturally have so little of interest in common with others around them? We, for our part, are not surprised at witnessing that precisely those who come merely for the nonce are the very men who cannot rest that one day, or these few occasions at which they are present. The seats have not for them that magnetic attraction which they have for those who regularly occupy them; and the sounds of prayers which reach their ears may have the charm of novelty indeed, but they lack that familiarity which they have for the constant attendants, and who discover in them a harmony and beauty which strike in vain those who know them not.

And still it is these very rare visitors of the house of God, these strangers among their brothers, these who are listless when others are attentive, who must needs rule and control all others, who have perhaps not the same political or social position; they <<229>> feel nothing but weariness, and yet they imagine themselves competent more than all others to rule the Synagogue, and to prescribe laws for others. And these, good-natured and timid souls, would be horror-struck at the thoughts of even a passive resistance to such assumption, and one by one they follow the Jehu-like lead of madness, in which the others go in advance of them. No wonder then that godliness is absent, that spirituality is not to be met with; because the government is not religious, since the leaders are not imbued with the feeling of devotion which becomes the servants of a faith which sprung into life in a desert, and always grew into strength and action amid the adverse pressure of outward circumstances. But as the first men feel no pleasure in public worship, they cannot be expected to promote education and public teaching from the pulpit, especially if personal exertions are needed to introduce them. For as regards the first, they have perhaps never had the least inclination to become familiar with the depth of Jewish literature; it was not necessary to give them their position in society, and could contribute nothing to raise them in public estimation. And with respect to the second, they cannot be expected to be in earnest to desire being reproved weekly, or even monthly, for not observing what they practically do not believe in, at least do not deem necessary for their welfare. It is true that they may like to listen to the fine speeches of a preacher; they may feel pleasure in being taught at the cheap price of merely listening for half an hour to what it takes a man of experience and learning weeks or months to prepare. But this is not listening with a view of being improved and brought back from sin and iniquity; it is not coming to the house of instruction in order to go away bettered in heart and resolved not to transgress any more. Indeed we must consider it as heaping iniquity upon rebellion for an Israelite to be habitually present at sermons where the teacher enforces by argument and appeal the necessity of godliness, and then to continue unconverted, and repeat the sins of commission or omission, which are such a disgrace to our nation.

For instance, imagine that the theme should be the fearful desecration of the Sabbath, and that among the audience there be <<230>> few only who are touched with a little remorse, whilst the preach­er proceeds with his address, and who still leave the Synagogue, whilst the denunciation of the divine wrath yet lingers in their ears, to go to their worldly affairs, to be present at the stock-board to purchase or dispose of securities, to appear at court to make or resist a motion, to resort to their warehouses to write and transact business,—or to pursue pleasures incompatible with the Sabbatic rest. Would it not have been better, infinitely better, if they had been at the antipodes sooner at the Synagogue, at the moment that the religion which they thus despise was taught? better that their conscience had been left untouched, than to be merely, as it were, imperfectly, and uncomfortably half aroused, only to sink into a more profound lethargy thereafter?

It will be said with much truth, that, if even once sounding the alarm will not awaken a sleeping city, the man who is placed at the tocsin must continue to ring it, though the enemy who has surprised the city has slain his hundreds already, whilst they were sleeping at their posts with their arms unemployed though ready to their hands, because they apprehended no danger. But again, what use is the tocsin to those who are aroused, admonished of their danger, and who still are too lazy to snatch up their weapons, but sleep till the destructive steel enters their heart?

It is well, therefore, for the preacher not to flag in his duty, whether he sees any good result from his labours or not. He should continue to inveigh against crime of all sorts, against every defection from duty, against every act of rebellion toward the Most High. He must not complain, when viewing the mass of iniquity that silently and inertly opposes his efforts; it is not his business to measure or to weigh the fruits of his mission, since this is beyond his power; nor has he been called from amongst the people, to live at his ease and to glorify himself, perhaps more than the Master, by the number of conversions he counts among his hearers. Let him, therefore, remain’ the faithful sentinel, the man with the trumpet to sound the alarm; the man with the fire signal to enkindle the light for these even at the distance; “Let him cry aloud and spare not,—and tell to <<231>> Israel their transgression and to the house of Jacob their sin.” It is his vocation; his duty. It is possible that at length he may enlist attention, and after years of fruitless toil at last behold the evidence of divine blessing poured out over his labours. But what of the obdurate—who have heard him, who have felt the truth of his admonitions, who have left, when once in a while they came to the place where he taught, with their heart beating wit unwonted emotion, and still suppressed the rising Mutation of convicted sinfulness, and went and transgressed again? Say, how will it be with them?—have they, too, done their duty?— are they safe guides to be trusted with the management of public affairs?—is their advice to be taken against the counsel of those who have the fear of the Lord in their soul?—who tremble in His presence and hope for His salvation? What good can you propose to yourselves from the assumed sincerity of those who exhibit so little in their conduct?—to whom religion is nothing but a name?—who will sacrifice neither their interests, nor their ambition, nor their pleasures, nor their means in behalf of Judaism? You will say, “They are valuable to us, because they have not joined another sect; because they continue to remain Jews, although their position in society would become greatly enhanced by their forsaking the Synagogue.”

We are perfectly willing to allow this consideration the fullest possible weight; we acknowledge cheerfully that even a nominal adherence to Judaism, on the part of the intelligent, is of some value, not because they give us any very great additional strength, but because it is not the character of our religion to cast off any one, and for the hope that their children may become what the parents are not—pious and consistent. But we repudiate the idea that we should become any the weaker, because of their actual defection. See how many who were desirous of figuring conspicuously in the political and literary world, have really become apostates, from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes to the present hour; and then tell us candidly whether we may appreciate the loss our nationality has suffered by all of them, and this though many more had left us. Truly we are not as numerous as we should have been with their descendants included among us, as <<232>> members of Israel. But million times more numerous were the martyrs, slain for the faith, sad the thousands of exiles who perished by the roadside, driven from their homes of elegance, because they bore the hated name of Israel. And still we have continued to exist, to flourish in the lands of our enemies, hated still distinguished, abhorred yet known for our adherence to the Creator of the universe. And how numerous should we have been had these millions not fallen a prey to fanaticism and the fell spirit of senseless persecution? And has it come to this, that we are to thank the godless for continuing Jews by name, whilst they let the substance be lost amidst the turmoils of passion, and interest, and ambition? that we are to assign to them the chief places in our congregations, as an humble thanks-offering, that they do not cut loose their connexion with the common Jews who form the masses of Israel?

We are very often surprised at the little self-respect exhibited by our brothers. They are, perhaps, proud of being Jews; they would not exchange the name for all the wealth of the world; and nevertheless they can obsequiously follow the lead of those, who do not deem them good enough to associate with them, to whom the countenance of a gentile is far more welcome than that of their own kind. For our own part, we must acknowledge that to us nothing is more odious than a man who, turning his back, upon Israelites, is willing to become a tolerated follower of Christian society, who can find few or none among the Jews good enough to associate with him, and glory in the distinction of receiving an invitation to some fashionable supper-party: and then vaunt, that it could not be expected that such a man as he should keep company with people so very inferior to him in the eyes of the world. There may be persons who feel so, who do not express it in words; but whether spoken or not, the withdrawal from all good movements calculated to subserve our reli­gious interest, ought to be enough for all who have a manly soul in their bosom to repudiate the advice of those people who only come among us at stated times, when it suits their private pur­poses to carry some favourite measure of their own, and in which they would be perfectly powerless, if they were not supported by <<233>> those they hold in such little esteem. And again we ask, Is it necessary to wait the action of these men, before any useful measure is proposed? We would not indeed advise to refuse con tilting and acting with them; for this would be unwise and and savouring strongly of a spirit of persecution, the most foreign thing to pure Judaism. But all we meant to advance is, that Israelites should not wait till they move, nor distrust the opinions of humble men, simply because their superiors in wealth and education do not favour the measures proposed. It may be that wealth or considerable means, at least, will be requisite to carry out the plans in question; and that hence the co-operation of the rich will be acceptable, not to mention indispensable. Let all, therefore, be invited to meet when anything strikes the public as conducive to our improvement; nay even call in person upon those who keep aloof habitually; pay them that respect if you think that yon can, by a little deference, induce them to assist you in your efforts; but if you find yourselves coldly received, if they tell you bluntly that they do not want anything to do with you, or reply to you in the honeyed phrase of politeness, that they regret exceedingly not having it in their power just now to meet your views: do not be discouraged, but go home, take counsel with each other, humble and poor though you all be, and go to work, in the name of Heaven, relying on the goodness of your cause, and commencing as humbly as your means allow you, hope for better things with the progress of time. The Germans have a proverb which says, in substance, that with the time the requisite advice will come too; and indeed many an enterprise which appeared, desperate at its beginning, grew into strength and importance by its own natural development, to the surprise even of those who were the first to move in its behalf. Much cannot be expected at the first outset; the mighty stream of the Amazon is at its source, but a mountain rivulet. Yet proceed onward, neglect no means which can promote the cause; be honest, be watchful, be true, and you will have the elements of your success entirely in your own hands, and it will be your fault if you fail.

Humility is a quality, for which alone our great teacher, Moses, <<234>> is praised; it is that divine attribute which distinguishes the Most High, as He looks with mercy and loving-kindness on his lowly creatures. No one, therefore, who loves his God, who wishes to be in truth a follower of the great prophet, should ever become inflated with pride and forget that by his own strength he is absolutely powerless, and that he needs the aid from above in all he undertakes. But humility must never degenerate into meanness or self-debasement, which would counsel you to undertake nothing out of a pure mistrust of the powers with which the Creator has endowed you. All men are not equal in intellectual strength, any more than in bodily vigour, or worldly possessions, or beauty of person. At the same time, every one has some mind, some capacity, which, properly developed and fostered, will lead to some good or often brilliant result, without even the knowledge of the individual himself. Your act may be simple, an ordinary thing, in your own opinion; still it may excite thought and emulation in others; and the issue may thus be more beneficent than you could possibly have hoped for in your most excited moment. Act, this is all you or any man can do; be busy with something, think of the wants of the community with which you are identified; and be sure that nothing will remain unfruitful, although the incipient results be small indeed. Believe us one thing, that it is not the proud, the selfish, and egotistical who render real service to any cause; for they labour mostly for their own advancement; but the diffident, who feet their responsibility, and who still are conscious that they have received a mission or of being endowed with a sentient soul, and who deem it a privilege to promote the good of others, though they can perceive no possible gain to arise therefrom to themselves. The first may incidentally render a public service whilst working solely for themselves; since good can and does spring, under the providence of God, out of the greatest evil. Whereas the others aim, in their honesty, at effecting a benefit not alone to themselves but to others at the same time; hence their efforts bear at once the stamp of public usefulness; and they therefore deserve the approbation of all who really wish well to the common cause.
If, therefore, an evil example is contagious, a good one may become no less so. Virtue may become fashionable at one time, as vice is at another. It is indeed true, that the practice of virtue ought to have a far nobler source than its being the fashion of the day; but any inducement to do good is admissible, in the absence of a better one. Now indifference to religion has been long prevalent, not alone among ourselves where the infractions become evident from the entire absence of a public opinion to control them, but among our gentile neighbours likewise, although there it is often concealed, from the fact that self-interest demands a decent outward conformity to the customs of the majority. But with our increase of numbers, in America especially, a gradual change, we trust, will be silently wrought. From one end of the country to the other, congregations are coming into existence, and the God of Israel is invoked in numerous assemblies, where formerly the person of a Jew was regarded as a natural curiosity, to see which, people travelled from a distance, in order to satisfy themselves, by ocular demonstration, what sort of a being a real Jew was. Hence it will become daily less remarkable for a person to practise all the requirements of our ceremonial laws, and one Israelite will naturally encourage the other to be true and faithful to our religion. In this manner a new public opinion will spring up, and we shall then have a new standard of respectability,—that of a knowledge and practice of the duties incident to Judaism. Ignorance and indifference will perhaps not be tolerated in respectable circles, so soon as our numbers are so considerable that some influence can be acquired by a connexion With the Israelites; and we repeat that this in­direct means of amendment, unworthy as it may appear on strictly moral grounds, is an element not to be despised, and surely one that should on no account be overlooked in taking a calm view into the future of our people on American soil; since there can be no doubt that the present state of oppression, under which so many labour in Europe, together with the far greater stability of political affairs, and probable security against war, which are enjoyed here so much more than elsewhere, will induce many to emigrate hither, and this of a better class than those <<236>> who formerly left their homes in the East to the new field of the West. And we tell our readers that they are not true to themselves, if the newcomers shall year by year, find nothing more attractive in our spiritual affairs than they have been able to meet with hitherto. Formerly we lacked numbers; these we have now, with a daily prospect of farther increase. All we require, therefore, to do what we desire, is the zeal which distinguishes our Christian neighbours, and a union of individuals no less than congregations.

We want first of all Schools, where every Jewish parent can, if he will, send his children to learn the duties of their religion, without imbibing sectarian views from their daily instruction by bigoted teachers, and a too early familiar intercourse with those of another faith. Judaism is no sectarian thing, at least Israel­ites ought to recognise this; it is the life of a nation, a people one and indestructible, notwithstanding of its being without a country and government of its own. It will be observed, whether we are active or not in its behalf; but our children have a claim upon us that we do not deprive them individually, of the privileges and blessings resulting from being followers of the ETERNAL GOD.

Secondly, We need, and must have a better regulated worship; more order, more decorum, more quiet, more attention.

Thirdly, We require more frequent pulpit instruction by highly-educated men, who feel a love for their profession, and are not comparatively, but absolutely good; not those who are menials to-day, and chiefs to-morrow, but who are from habits and associations fit to be leaders of the people, and capable to reprove without dreading the influence of the civil heads of the people.

Fourthly, We must have, sooner or later, but the sooner the better, a federal union of all the congregations on the continent and islands of America, and a Board of Deputies elected to take cognisance of all local disputes, and to do such other things as the delegates composing the union shall for a time resolve on, with the assent of their congregation.

Fifthly, This Board of Deputies should institute a college in <<237>> which our ministers and teachers should be educated under our own inspection, so that we in the Western hemisphere should not need to send abroad for those who are to minister for us in the sanctuary.

Sixthly, We must have a college of Rabbins to decide for us questions of law, and all matters pertaining to religion. So that hereafter all our acts shall be regulated on a basis of aknowledged validity, and do away with the necessity for the interference of individuals and single congregations into ecclesiastical matters, properly so-called,—in which we include the right of marrying, granting religious divorces, Chalitzah; pronouncing between the clean and unclean, the permitted and prohibited; examining candidates for the ministry and the office of Shochet, Sopher, and wherever we should require an authoritative opinion. 

Seventhly, We ought to have, either in addition to, or in the college of Rabbins, travelling missionaries, who should visit once or oftener, every year, all the accessible congregations, and settlements of Israelites, in order to preach to them fearlessly and boldly on the concerns of eternal life, and examine into the conduct of the local ministers and teachers, and see that the system of education, devised for our schools, be as near uniformity as possible, under the varying circumstances of the different communities. And

Eighthly, We should have as an auxiliary to all the above, as Jewish Publication Society, with branches in every town and village, to print popular as well as learned works for general distribution among the people, and to encourage Jewish men and women of approved talent to devote their leisure to the production of useful and learned works illustrative of our religion, history, literature, or whatever can benefit our cause. It ought also to be the problem of this association to establish a number of serials, such as weekly, monthly, and quarterly papers, and reviews, presided over by responsible editors to attend to the interests of Judaism, so that information and learning may be the privilege of many, and not the exclusive property of a few.
We will not include now hospitals and asylums, as they will naturally suggest themselves to all reflecting minds. But for the promotion of religion proper, our eight points will present themselves not alone as necessary, but as readily reducible to practice; and we trust that the people, the unlearned, the working men, the traders, and all who feel, will agitate and discuss the question, till their leaders will have to yield under the penalty of losing their influence; and then the work will be done, and this well done.

But we must close again, to resume the subject hereafter.