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The Hebrew Man; or, The Man of Faith

A Lecture.

By the Rev. Henry Giles


We have been requested to give the subjoined substance of a lecture, by the Rev. Henry Giles, delivered at New York on Tuesday, the 11th of November last, before the Mercantile Literary Association; in order to preserve it in a more permanent form than the columns of a newspaper, and to bring before the Jewish public the liberal sentiments, just, in the main, of one of the most highly endowed orators of the century, and who has always produced a happy effect on his audience wherever he has presented himself.—Ed. Oc.

“The prevalence of idolatry is the one fact of man’s religious his<<214>>tory, which confronts at every point the boast of human wisdom and human dignity. In the nations of antiquity, while mind was progressive, idolatry itself was progressive. Idolatry was the timid wonder which the energies of nature excited; and it shaped to itself conceptions of which these energies were attributes, and, in the effort to represent these beings in positive forms, it brought forth all that imagination could realize of embodied superhuman strength and beauty. But to this point of refinement it attained only in a few tribes; the rest, with one exception, was a wilderness of heathenism. This exception was the tribe of Israel. In the midst of idolatry, the Jewish tribe exhibited the singular phenomena of a pure Theism. The Hebrew man stands out among ancient men as the special recipient of religion—among modern men as its special witness, and often as its special martyr. As the man of Faith, then, he may be considered, first, as the man of theocracy; second, as the man of tradition.

“The idea of God was the supreme idea of the Hebrew man’s faith. That this idea was modified by his condition—that it became more exalted as the compass of his life extended, we may admit;—but this progress touched not his faith in God, as the sole Sustainer and Sovereign. The presence of Jehovah was his national glory. The religious and political existence of the Hebrew man was the same. His theism and his law were as spirit and as voice. Hebrew law was all positive—admitting of no compromise. It was imparted to him not as a mystery—not in hieroglyphics, but as a solemn, though familiar thought. He heard it in the open congregation—it was the sentiment of his home; he heard it from the lips of his parents, and he gave it to the lips of his children. In all the changes of his condition, he never loses the conviction of God’s presence in his nation. Most other nations have traced their history up to the same divine guardianship; but the mythical forms in which the belief was shadowed, were widely different from the defined distinction of the Hebrew faith.

“In a primitive people, we mark the order of their career by three eras—the era of the Tribe, of the Nation, and of the Renewal, or the effort for Renewal. Each of these eras have a head—the Prophet, the Legislator, and the Patriarch. The mission of the first two is to organize and to gather into unity the scattered customs of the people, and to teach them the virtues and the energies that shall ripen into national prosperity. In all human combinations, there are elements of corruption and decay; and the evils that are inherent in combinations of national polity, silently undermine the virtues of a people, until they <<215>> grow feeble unto death. Then appears another class of men—the Prophets—who seek their power in the Past. They invoke the past with most persuasive necromancy; but, if it is at all obedient to their incantation, it is in haggard semblance and doleful prognostication. They cry aloud and spare not—they persuade, they exhort, they threaten, by memories that are as life, by duties that are more than life, by evils that are worse than death. They may charm, they may please the ear, but they do not move the will. It is towards the close of a nation, that the music is heard of its sweetest song. The most sublime utterance of human speech, the most intense expression of the national heart is impersonated in some supreme man when he is no more than a voice in the wilderness—when the nation will but idly listen. Where there are none to reflect the splendour of his light—he has spoken to his own ruin. One moment, the spirit, the life of his country, pants in his eloquence—the next, he is silent in the martyr’s death, and all that was great in the soul of country has gone forth in his.

“The analogy of such a course we trace in the Jewish as in other nations. The direct agency of God is held with an unbroken faith. The Patriarch, in his pastoral valley, hears the command, and goes forth to found a new people, in a strange region. The Legislator be­holds God in flames, and hears his voice in the burning bush, and braving the power of Egypt, he emancipates his brethren from bondage. From the mists of Sinai, he receives the sanction of his mission, and the law that was to rule his life reminds him, by the incidents con­nected with its promulgation, of the Lord, who rules the universe.
When the time of falling away arrived—when pride had brought the vices that work destruction, men arose who spoke as with the voice of God—in exhortation, in remonstrance, in threatening, and in mournful warning. They were among the people, and loved them; but they had a life which the people did not share, and did not know—a life in the depths of thought, which the people could not understand. They spoke not softly; but openly put forth cries of agony and shrieks of anger. Nothing alarmed them, nothing daunted them; for how could they know fear, who were always conscious of the presence of God? They had nothing to allure them; the gilded roof, luxurious pleasure, the companionship of princes, were nothing to men whose thoughts were wrapt in divine communion. From every point of view, these prophets appear as the sublimest of men—the proclaimers of the Supreme, the living, the eternal Unity. They heard Him in the thunder, they saw <<216>> Him in the sunlight, and He rushed before them in the wind. He was associated with them in their national history and their daily life. To Him, who brought them out of Egypt, they offered the morning and evening sacrifice. Jehovah was symbolized to the Hebrew mind under every allegory that was affecting and impressive. They had felt the cruelties of their enemies—they had endured the sorrows of bondage, and God was their refuge and redeemer.

“The Hebrew mind had more of reverence than of sympathy, and, in its relation to God, stood separated and isolated. The Hebrews were essentially distinct from other races of men; yet they were not exclusive in their belief and sentiments. With the Hebrew, the idea of man involved a unity of race, as his idea of God involved a unity of being; and, as he believed that all men had the same human origin, he believed also, that they had the same divine paternity. The lecturer gave a clear analysis of Hebrew laws, showing that though they seemed extremely severe, yet provision was always made to mitigate or avert them.

“The constancy with which the Hebrew man has lived in his faith, the solemnity with which he has enshrined it, has been evinced in all the changes of his fortunes. He has kept always in view an unchanged idea. In other races, we seek for strength of soul in their constancy and force in physical resistance. The Hebrew has not failed in the physical energy of manliness; yet it is in the soul itself we must espe­cially esteem him. It is a remarkable thing, that the mere fact of a man’s existence should be, in itself, a testimony to some extraordinary worth in him. Yet such is the case with the Hebrew. His mere existence is an evidence of vitality, and strength, and honour. All you urge against him but serves to vindicate the unity and identity of a life which two thousand years of sorrow and of shame have not been able to brutify or destroy. Surrounded by his enemies, suffering in captivity—restored again—through all he has prayed in the language of his ancient and, long-loved revelation. When the final hour of dispersion came—when the towers of the Holy City were levelled—to the temple they consecrated themselves, in the last sacrifice of patriotism and martyrdom, and still, as the anniversary of that awful event comes round, the Hebrew, seated on the floor of his Synagogue, by the dim light of a solitary taper, mourns it in sad and penitential psalms. The outward cruelties and wrongs by which the Jews were exposed, in the middle ages, give but faint conception of the malignant indignity out of which they sprung—not in flame and in blood, but in fear, in dishonour, <<217>> and in ceaseless trouble. The very intervals of tranquillity were more terrible than the sanguinary outbreaks in which thousands met at once a quick destruction! The people of Western Europe, in the middle ages, were the direct opposites of the Hebrew—the one a people whose agreements were in physical sympathies—the other, ancient Asiatics, whose means of success lay all in the intellect. The needs of the times brought them constantly into communication, both with the Barons and the Commons. On both sides, a covenant had the spirit of a contest, a bargain the virulence of a battle. Between the Baron and the Jew there was always a contest of mind, in which the Baron was sure to be worsted and provoked, and the Jew victorious and crushed. It was a relation in which the Baron would have cheated the Jew; it was a most deadly offence when the Jew outwitted the Baron; but, as the Baron could not cheat the Jew, he did the next thing in his power—he choked him. Mr. Giles reviewed the charge of craft, which is so generally considered an element of Hebrew character. He imputed the sharper qualities of mind ascribed to the Hebrew, to his occupation, and not to his creed, or his race, while his occupation is accounted for by his history. He began in being a money-dealer by circumstances, and he continues to be one by training, by skill, by habit, and by prescription.

“But the great quality of the Hebrew man is his vitality. The Hebrew has no zeal of proselytism. He has no additions—gains no replenishment from conversions. The Hebrews are dispersed through all countries—speak all languages—have but few opportunities of communication; yet who as they have such identity of life, such essential unity, such absolute agreement? Whatever faults may be considered distinctive of the Hebrew, it will not be denied that he has also manifest virtues. It is said that he is a sharp trader; but is he not sharply watched and sharply judged? The Hebrew seems in general a quiet and orderly citizen. He is not often found in the Courts—is kind to his own race, and not wanting in general humanity. There is no evidence that he is inferior to other men in purity, in morality, and in temperance, while there is strong testimony to the depth of his domestic affections. However degraded abroad, in his home the Hebrew was a patriarch; there, in the midst of his family and by his Sabbath lamp, his face beamed with light, and his bosom was filled with hope; and now, as then, in places and positions where his life is hard and he can put off his sufferings, as the holy day opens to him, and away from the world and its mockeries, surrounded by happy faces, shine in the lustre of the father and the priest. Intellectual vitality has also dis<<218>>tinguished the Hebrew, and out of the region of the actual, the leading tendency of his mind is to the religious and the poetic. Its disposition is not to analyze, but to take things in the concrete. It comprehends objects as they are: it is not curious as to the principles of their construction. Yet, in the highest productions of the Hebrew mind, we find proof of a living insight into nature, which only the most earnest love of nature can obtain—proof of sympathy, which moved and felt with all that is embosomed on the open earth or by the rounding sky. Reasoning was the method of the Greek mind; faith was the method of the, Hebrew mind. Right with the Greek was the highest reason; right with the Hebrew was the highest will: it was a conclusion with the Greek, with the Hebrew a command. To the Hebrew, that is holy which God enjoins; that is wicked which God forbids. And here it is worthy of remark, that while the Western mind professes to carry a like spirit into Christian morals, it in reality dears with the substance of morals, rather, after the manner of the Greeks. It takes a text from Paul, reasons on it from Plato: it takes a position on the authority of Moses, and proves it afterwards by the logic of Aristotle.

“The artistic vitality of the Hebrews was next exhibited—the lecturer claiming for the race a spirit and a power unequalled by any other nation. In music and the Drama, the Hebrew would seek in the ideal the enjoyment of emotions and inspirations which were forbidden him in the actual. Music affords luxurious indulgence to memory, to melancholy, and is a most impressive voice for the glory of the Past. These are feelings which a Hebrew of genius would profoundly experience, and profoundly desire to impart. Afforded no opportunity to be a hero or a king on the stage of reality, in a play, in however shadowy a manner, he could show how heroes and kings should do and suffer. But take the earth, itself, as a stage, and then the Hebrew appears to us as the continuous spectator of humanity’s solemn drama—the survivor of the actors—the survivor of the audiences. He looked upon the Egyptian; he beheld his majesty, his glory, and his wisdom; he felt his oppression, and he wore his chain. The pyramids stand to mark where the Egyptian had acted his part; but the poor player that strutted his hour upon the stage, is gone: men look with wonder upon his monument, and are bewildered by his epitaph; but the Hebrew remains. He saw the Assyrian empire display a proud and pompous scene. Its monarchs spread forth their golden tinsel to the sun, and claimed to be eternal: destruction came on them as a flood in the night; they vanished as does a dream, and a blank was in the place of their splendour. <<219>>

A few Arabs now grub for broken stones of the once mighty Nineveh, but the living Hebrew stands by their side. The Persians and the ‘great King’ came and disappeared: no echo was left upon the air, no footprint on the soil. The brilliant Macedonian, and the resistless Roman, we can converse with in their books; the Hebrew man saw them face to face, changed words with them voice to voice. They, with all their greatness, are in the dust; but the Hebrew man remains, looks into our eyes, and speaks to us in our speech. The journal of the Hebrew man’s life can be noted only by centuries and eras—the stages of his career can be marked only by the fall and rise of empires—races have been his companions, and all history contains and continues his biography.”