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Thoughts on the Jewish Ministry.

No. V.

We left off speaking of the general interests of Judaism, including the Synagogue, as the general place for meeting. But the assembling must have a definite object, or, at least, it ought to be based on some sound motive and lead to some particular result; and it is perfectly self-evident that if the proceedings which take place at our meetings are not such as are based on a sound motive, and lead to no good result, they fail of attaining the object of their institution. Now let us see what do Israelites desire to attain by the erection of a Synagogue, as a preliminary to our inquiry. They, unquestionably, feel the necessity of having a place of union where they can meet to worship the Eternal God after the manner of their ancestors, and to testify, by so uniting for this object, that they have full faith in the truth of the religion which they have inherited, and that they mean to encourage each other in a steadfast adherence to what they deem to be their duty. Nothing else can induce them to make the strenuous exertions which meet our view at every place and every turn, to build suitable and even stately houses of prayer, and to incur heavy outlays in accomplishing this work.

Let us now see what should be done to carry out the implied intentions, which, we are sure, must be at the bottom of the heart of every man who contributes by his means or time towards farthering the work. The mere act of building is not the object, though <<178>> it is the medium by which this is to be reached; hence, but little is accomplished, when even the handsomest structure stands in all its proportions of grandeur and beauty before us. But if it is truly intended to encourage one another in becoming more firmly devoted to God and to be more zealous in the discharge of our duties, something must be done with the building, and it must not stand unvisited by those who aided in erecting it; since, if this were so, it might have remained unbuilt for all the effect it can have on those who have a pecuniary interest in the wood, and stone, and labour, which constitute the outward Synagogue. Consequently, it is necessary to meet there whenever such assembling becomes practicable. But a mere gathering within the walls of any house cannot accomplish much, unless something be done whilst we are there. We must, hence, be engaged actively whilst we are united in a public meeting, to prove that we are interested participants, not mere idle spectators at what others are doing. In other words, if we meet to pray, we ought to be engaged in prayer; and not alone this, we should be so employed as to induce each other, by mutual encouragement, to come again and to be always deeply interested when we do visit the house of assembly.

If, now, we find that many are absent from public worship, we are at liberty to say that they do not fulfil their own designs expressed by building or being attached to a Synagogue; and, if the manner of conducting the service is such as to leave the heart of those present uninterested, there must evidently be a fault somewhere, either in the heart of the worshippers or in those who superintend and carry forward what is done at our meetings. We have already spoken on the first part of this proposition, of the want of devotion superinduced by the want of knowledge of the language of prayer on the part of many who ought to attend, but who are, perhaps, absent, attending to anything but the service of the Most High, seeking every pursuit but that of righteousness, satisfied with any acquisition so as they are only relieved from acquiring a knowledge of their faith. We will not now dwell on the means necessary to remedy this evil, but go at once to the other branch of our inquiry, whether there is not much <<179>> fault to be found with the conducting of the business of our public assemblies.

The first thing that must strike those who, unacquainted with Judaism, visit our Synagogues, is the great irregularity observable as regards the time of the entrance of the should-be worshippers; since, in most congregations, the whole period, from the first commencement to the ending of the prayers, seems to be indifferently used as the period for joining the meeting, regardless of who may be disturbed or annoyed by this mode of proceeding. Those who offend in this manner seem to think that they have accomplished all that is requisite by merely showing themselves in the meeting at some small portion of the time which it occupies, little heeding whether this be at the beginning, middle, or end of the service. No one can tell us that by this means any good is derived from the attendance at prayers.

The second offensive thing is to observe the undevotional manner which often is displayed by those who are appointed to read aloud the prayers which constitute our liturgy; and we deem it, beyond dispute, that every one must mark the ostentatious mode in which the chaunting is performed, as though the service were for the glorification of the creature, and not the adoring of the Supreme. We love to hear a good Hazan; we love to hear the messenger of the congregation return thanks and utter prayer in a beautiful, heart-stirring, soul-inspiring manner; it is delightful to see the talent of a fine voice fully employed to extol Him who dwells on high, to hear the melody of the heart vibrate in unison with the exalted sentiments of the assembled faithful. But, we ask, is it not evident that many read the prayers in a manner which seems to say, “Come and admire my chaunting?” Is it not palpable that humility and devotion have little or no part in the performance? It is in sorrow and humiliation that we employ the last word; but nothing but truth guides us when we assert that there are some who seem to regard their style of reading, their beautiful intonation, their wire-drawn chaunting as all in all, through which they stand before the people as unrivalled, incomparable “sweet singers of Israel.” Does such a display please the hearers? perhaps it does, or else we should not have <<180>> to deplore its frequent repetition. But does it improve the heart? Ha! this is the question; and we fear that herein our singing ministers will have to answer before a Tribunal where no self-deception, no spurious gloss will avail them aught. We should have devotion, but they give us song; we should have elevation of feeling, but they display their vocal powers. It is true that the congregations who are in the habit of attending the Synagogues where such as these officiate, may not feel that there is anything unbecoming in all this; constant habit may have blunted their sensibility, they may deem it all right, all as it should be. But, again we ask, what will the effect be on the rising generation? will they too be always pleased with the sing-song style of reading? will they require nothing more? will beautiful melody and a sweet voice make them pious? retain them as devoted followers of Israel’s God? Assuredly not; hence, if we see that the Synagogue fails to attract the young, that the educated are habitually absent, much as we deplore the fact, we must acknowledge that there is something wanting in the mode of conducting the worship, where song, and nothing but song, is continually presented as the sole spiritual food to a famishing people.

Another class of readers are those who hurry through the service as though the greatest merit consisted in the utmost rapidity of utterance. They display but little earnestness in the prayers they read, and seem indifferent whether they make a favourable impression on the assembled faithful or not. And what is more curious yet, some who are in certain parts fond of displaying their vocal powers, hurry through others with the utmost speed, especially in the reading of the law and those prayers which are merely recited but not chaunted. That this cannot be otherwise than repulsive requires no argument; nor can any excuse, as arising from the length of time required to chaunt other passages, and making offerings, &c., in the least extenuate such a want of decorum on the one side, as most assuredly it is in one who is to inspire devotion in others; and the entire forgetfulness of duty on the other hand, which it is when we take in consideration before whom we stand when we utter prayer and thanksgiving. Perhaps some may say to us, “Physician, cure thyself.” Most <<181>> true; nevertheless it is requisite that we censure the wrong we know to exist, though the blame may apply to our own person with the full force, or greater even than it strikes others. We do not set up our judgment as superior to all others, but we relate what we have seen and what we have heard from others; and here we will remark, that though the delinquent ministers may not themselves hear the faults found with them, though the good nature and kindness on the part of their constituents may extenuate and conceal their faults, especially in their hearing: much, very much, is spoken in our presence which we would be glad to know had reached them also, in the expectation that by this means some of the wrong complained of might be duly amended.

But our catalogue is not yet complete. We must revert to the very indifferent manner in which the blessed words of the law are read to the people. Here we hold it as a self-evident proposition, that since the טעמים or musical accents are to be read according to the various methods of the German and Portuguese customs, those who are elected as Hazanim should be capable to read the weekly and other sections free from error after a little study and a moderate share of application, and this without being compelled to employ the time for the public reading of the prayers, to which the Hazan’s whole attention should be directed, to looking over certain portions of the Parashah, in order to familiarize himself with the vowels and accents. It is grating on the ear and disturbing to all devout feeling to hear the holy Word recited in a manner different from what it is written; the errors are often approaching to blasphemy, which one is compelled to listen to; and what is the result?—that the more acquainted a person is with Hebrew grammar, the less willing can he be to be present at such reading as this. Should, therefore, men of knowledge absent themselves and pray and read the weekly sections at home, they can hardly be blamed; since when they are in their family circle they are not disturbed in their devotional feelings by the above annoyances, which they must experience in the Synagogue. And still how unsatisfactorily does the holy Sabbath pass when the Israelite is not surrounded by those who, like him, hope in the salvation of the Lord! how lost does he feel when <<182>> he stands, as it were, alone in a crowded city, without bearing witness in the midst of the congregation concerning the faith that is in him, which his fathers have delivered to him, pure and undefiled as it came from Sinai. Hence, it is from a sense of duty, no doubt, that many say their prayers at home, and then go to the Synagogue, so that their absence may not be remarked, and to encourage others to be there likewise. But why is it not made a requisite that good taste should not be offended? why do congregations not demand of their officials to be perfectly qualified to discharge, at least, the necessary merely ministerial, and, we are almost tempted to say, mechanical duties? It is, indeed, a pity that even the ministers are so little acquainted with Hebrew grammar, of which accentuation is a necessary part; and yet a greater shame it is that they do not candidly acknowledge their ignorance and try to learn from others who have the requisite information. And, our readers must permit us to say here, that the musical points, as they are called, are governed by strict rules, just as the punctuation is in the modern languages; and it requires, in truth, but little more knowledge than a moderate ability to translate the Hebrew into German, French, English, &c., to know where to place any of the Neginoth after a week’s instruction from a competent person. That the people are satisfied with the little information their ministers possess, in this respect, is no reason why these should rest contented with the littleness of their skill in a correct mode of reading; on the contrary, if they had a proper ambition they would leave nothing untried to introduce a correct and proper manner of reading the law, so that the people might imitate them and gradually obtain themselves, by mere dint of frequent practice, a proper and improved style. But we fear that our remarks may be received very ungraciously, and that some may think we specially refer to them; but the simple truth is, that even in Europe the evil is so extensive that the wonder is that those in authority, as Rabbins and Consistories, have not long since taken energetic measures to put a stop to it, and to bring back the holy language of Israel to its ancient dignity, which we deem to be greatly injured by the faulty manner of reciting the Scriptures during worship.

Another annoyance is the making of offerings over the Sepher, by which the service is constantly interrupted, and unduly prolonged without any commensurate benefit resulting from it. Our own experience has taught us that we could feel no devotion in reciting one money offering after the other; it wearied us extremely to bend our ear to catch the name for whom, and the amount that was to be offered. No doubt we displayed, at times, an impatience to be done with it, and that our countenance brightened up when the last votive offering was made: But who can blame us? The minister, as said already, should have the whole section to be read clearly in his mind; but must not such interruptions, as offerings are, chase much of what he knows for the moment from his mind? is he not like any other being, liable to have his attention withdrawn by interrupting and distracting causes? We shall be met no doubt, with the usual saying, “We expect something better from our ministers than from other men,” this is all very well; but it must not be forgotten, that ministers are men like any others, and that they may be disturbed by the same causes which would have the same effect on ordinary mortals. Now, we say, the offerings ought to be diminished to a very few, if it is not thought expedient to abolish them altogether; and it ought on no account to be suffered to detain the people with a list of complimentary remembrances for half an hour at a time, or more, simply to show regard for some living or deceased friend. We know not how others may be affected by such a round of good wishes, each fortified by a vow to give a shilling or more, or less, to the public treasure; but for our part, we can never feel the slightest interest in the whole proceeding, though we be the recipient of the compliment, farther than feeling grateful for the kind partiality which induced the offerers to spend so much in their blessings on our unworthy head. We imagine that some may almost accuse us of profanity for so speaking of a custom which has in their eyes the force of. a Mosaic law; and still take the thing in its naked deformity, strip it of its tinsel of an aid to charity, and it assuredly has nothing whatever to recommend it to oar approbation. It may give the rich an opportunity to display before the public gaze <<184>> his liberality; but at the same time it exposes the poor man who is called up to the law to the exhibition of his inability to make any magnificent offering. Now assume that the poor man was formerly the master, who was reduced through sickness and misfortune to narrow means, and that the rich was formerly the servant, who by some lucky turn of the wheel of fortune, has amassed wealth without obtaining the necessary fine feelings to enjoy and spend his large gains with true liberality and humility: and you have a case of arrogance on the one side, and of deep mental affliction on the other, which should have no place in the house of worship, where all ought to meet alike as sinners seeking for mercy, and as children asking for the kindness of their Father.

Now, tell some of our would-be righteous that they had better assist you in abolishing the money offerings; and to introduce in their stead the reading of a passage of Scripture in the language of the country, or to finish the service with a sermon, or lecture, or even to recite one from the printed collection of some of those who have received the public approbation in the absence of any who could produce original composition; and it is possible enough that you might be regarded as a heretic, as an innovator dangerous to the good cause of orthodoxy. But in the name of common sense, what has our religion to do with all this ostentation? is it necessary for a whole community to be informed that a certain gentleman or lady has had the will to appropriate, say fifty dollars, towards the support of the charities, or the general treasure of the congregation? could not he or she send the voluntary gift to the collector or treasurer, or whoever the proper person may be to receive the same, without proclaiming it in the midst of a multitude? And yet, more derogatory still to all propriety, is the making known to all, that Mr. So and so has made an offering, or so-called Mattanah, to the Hazan or Shamas, for which, of course, these officials must be duly grateful. If anything is destructive of all good feelings, it is this public bounty to those who ought to be above receiving charity from their employers. If any man feels impelled to bestow, from his large store, a gift on the Minister or Synagogue officials of other <<185>> degrees, he can assuredly gratify his sense of benevolence without letting it be known that this important event is to take place at some time subsequent to the day of offering. We suppose that the ministers of other persuasions are duly remembered by their hearers, and that their presents and perquisites exceed by far what is bestowed on Jewish Hazanim and preachers, &c. And still we are yet to learn that any proclamation is ever made that a barrel of flour, a dozen bushels of potatoes, or a hundred dollar bill, is to be presented by one or the other member of the church to the beloved pastor. All this is done privately, as it is most becoming; and we think that herein Israelites might learn a valuable lesson from their neighbours, without walking בחקת הגוים the customs of the Gentiles. Indeed, we are apt to be frightened by a phrase, without weighing whether the same be applicable or not to the circumstances of the case; and perhaps it is this fact which has hitherto deterred some from learning decency and order, in public meetings for worship, from those who are inferior to us in religious knowledge. But we trust yet to see the  day when all ministers will discourage the practice of announcing to the world that they are to be presented with some gift; and that, at the same time, those that are able will not be the less liberal to bestow as formerly their kindness, when they think that they owe this to the servant of their religion, who is their messenger to the throne of grace. Still it would be better yet, if the people would at once endow their ministers with a sufficient income, that they may be placed above the necessity of expecting favours from any one; and it would be just as well that instead of giving presents in money, all such amounts be handed to the treasurer of the Kahal, to augment the salaries of the various officers.

No injury could result to the community at large for abolishing all gift offerings, and reducing the votive ones greatly in number, so as to abridge the service materially, which would give the minister more time to read the prayers and law slowly, solemnly, and uniformly, when he might be able to calculate beforehand, at what time the congregation could be dismissed; and our word for it, that the service would not be too long; the <<186>> Sabbath prayers not too burdensome, and the law would not tire the hearers, and the haphtorah too would not weary the people; and still nothing need be hurried, nor would the reader’s voice fail on account of the great exertions he has to make in the service. Reformers have, let our readers consider well, seized on all the unseemly portions of our public worship, and endeavoured to show thence that the whole required a radical change. We are not willing to extenuate the defects which others’ and our own experience have pointed out; but in place of destroying the existing liturgies, especially that of the Sephardim, we would merely cast out the abuses, restore the purity, holiness, and efficacy of the Synagogue, and remove at once all cause for the divisions which have of late years threatened our unity. Orthodoxy need not feel any terror at the proposed amendment, as neither creed nor practice is to be touched; but if the worship be better regulated, and the indifferent are thereby brought within the portals of the Synagogue, which now but seldom receive them; if instead of idle spectators, who sit gazing about as though they had no business there, we could transform all into attentive worshippers, because the service would proceed uninterruptedly, and therefore not weary any; would not all be gained that is now not to be met with? would not the ministers and people be equally edified, equally attentive to the duty of adoring God in spirit and truth?

“Perhaps the experiment might entail a heavy loss on the treasury, which no congregation could afford to incur.” This may be the case in most instances; but something ought to be done prospectively to check the absurd practice; and if it be attempted in good faith, with a determination to succeed, so that the revenue should not fall off, there can be no doubt that it could be accomplished much quicker than is now supposed possible by many; and the worship could then proceed harmoniously and quietly, without the interruptions which now disgrace it, and are perhaps the chief cause why all ministers, nearly, are in too great a hurry in some parts of the service, perhaps because they feel exhausted, and fear to fatigue the people too much. It is notorious that in all the German congregations it was, till within a few <<187>> years, the custom of selling the Mitzvoth, and no one thought it advisable to stop this violation of propriety, for fear of injuring the revenues to a serious extent; and yet in Mobile, Baltimore, and the Shaaray Tefillah Synagogue of New York, and perhaps elsewhere, this abuse has been abated, and still no one has discovered any diminution in the prosperity of these communities, since the greater liberality in offerings amply compensates for this loss. If now an annual assessment or voluntary subscription could be introduced in the place of the purchased blessings, and the attempt not be made with a view to prove its impracticability, as was done in an instance known to us, but in serious earnest: there can be no doubt of its complete success; and when once the Synagogue is freed from this great annoyance, people will wonder how they could so long have clung to it.

We have yet much more to say on the abuses of our present want of system; but we must take our leave for the present,—with a promise to continue our “Thoughts” at an early opportunity; but we must beg our readers, in concluding now, not to condemn us as a fault-finder who knows how to blame without being able to act well himself, or to advise a remedy for the fancied evil he has detected; but they may believe our word that we sneak from sad experience, and that we should be happy indeed, if others would unite to labour with us, with as much sincerity as we feel, in restoring the lost lustre of the house of God, lost through our supineness, and perhaps the ignorance and folly of incompetent leaders, who care little how much evil is done, or permitted to exist, provided their slumbers be not suddenly broken in upon, and they are not deprived of their power, which is nevertheless useless in their hands. It is time for us to awake; and happily Judaism is buckling on its armour, if we may trust the signs of the times, the slight movement in the waters after a long calm, a deathlike stillness: and may God grant that the arousing may be permanent, and for good, and for the peace of Israel, and the salvation of the entire world.