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Thoughts on the Jewish Ministry.

No. IV.

In our last number (page 69*) we stated that the evil of the absence of devotion in our religious assemblies, is owing to a want of a thorough education on the one side, and in the manner of reading the prayers on the other. We expatiated somewhat on the deplorable ignorance of many of the Hebrew tongue, whilst we insisted that it ought to be retained as the language of prayer, inasmuch as it is the vernacular of Israel, and the bond which unites the most distant dispersions of our people into one homogeneous whole. It would be, indeed, a sorrowful and disastrous day for our union and nationality, were we ever to see the Hebrew banished from the devotional exercises of our family circles and our Synagogues; we should be severed from the ancient stock to which our religious tongue firmly unites us, and be exposed to every wild theory which some madman might wish to palm on us as the true exposition of Scripture; which, thank God, is now impossible, with the unadulterated word of the Lord in our hands, and with many always ready to expound it according to the grammatical construction of the terms employed by the sacred writers. We therefore advise all to ponder well on <<114>> the hints we offered in our last number, and to establish every­where schools where Hebrew education is to be one of the chief elements. And sure we are that the labour and expense thus incurred would amply repay themselves by the superior intelligence of the Israelites there instructed, and by the more ardent devotion which they would feel at prayers, both at home and abroad, followed as this would naturally be, by a more faithful observance of the dictates of our religion; since obedience and knowledge are allied together as cause and effect.

* We request our readers to correct an awkward error in the same page, line 14, and to read, instead of “which to enforce,” which would make no sense, “which to expose,” to wit, the abuses spoken of.

For one of the sages of Israel said, not without deep reflection: לא עם הארץ חסיד “the ignorant cannot be truly righteous,” as little as אין בור ירא חטא “a brutish man can fear the commission of sin.” Knowledge, gentleness, and obedience are all requisite to constitute us Israelites, in the full sense of the word; but let either be wanting, and we lapse into a half-savage state, in which no true righteousness can be brought to maturity.—It is indeed remarkable that those who have the public ear, and those who have the management of public affairs in this country, no less than elsewhere, can be so indifferent at a view of the immense mass of ignorance around them; they can feel the darkness which rests on us like the plague did on the Egyptians; and still they will not bring forward the light, though they must know where they can find it. They see around them what they call union and harmony, the absence of motion, the want of animation, and then felicitate themselves in their hearts, saying, “There is peace.” But what sort of peace is it? It is the peace of the grave-yard, where those who sleep in the dust feel no more the anxiety and trouble of life, nor, on the other hand, the con­sciousness of living; of feeling, of being. Do we want such harmony? need we such union? Assuredly not; for under such a state of inaction we should soon perish, and Judaism would become either an empty name, the recollection only of something glorious, or the intelligent would quit it in disgust, and seek for life where symptoms of it could be discovered. Let no one imagine that we are advocating apostacy; God forfend that such a thought should ever enter into our soul; but we are merely pointing out the natural consequence on the mind of the worldly <<115>> intelligent, who have perhaps affixed to real Judaism the defects of want of spirituality, and its consequences, which they may have actually discovered in its counterfeit, the outward show of religion, where all within is hollow, diseased, and nigh unto extinction.

Our bold language may not sound agreeably to the fearful; the timid public officers, who live on their salaries, and shut their eyes and ears to the evils they see and hear, may fancy we go too far; but not so, we are within limits, and only utter what we have seen, felt, and mourned over again and again. Men do not love those most who tell them the undisguised truth; and hence they who depend on the public favour for their living or office, they who are ambitious to become the heads of the people, take great care not to offend those whose favour or partiality is necessary to sustain them. We admire this prudence, it savours much of worldly wisdom; but does it produce the effects which we stand in need of? will it waken up the sleepers? those who lie entombed in a spiritual death? will it reform the evil-disposed? will it convert the sinners? We imagine not; and still, the injurious personal results which the more bold have from time to time encountered, deter our timid friends; and though the leaders (for Israel is not yet deserted nor widowed of her God) have often courageously advanced up to the encounter, fondly imagining that their followers were marching behind them, ready to come to the rescue, they on turning round to look for them, found themselves alone, totally deserted by the craven throng, who, only intent on personal preservation, were seeking safety in an inglorious flight.

There is one great evil attending all our efforts at diffusing an education which would render the Synagogue, in truth and fact, the place of resort for intelligent worshippers, and this is, that the wealthy imagine that they need not the training of which we speak, and that they can all learn a little Hebrew, if they choose to engage private teachers, of whom there is always an abundance, such as it is. There may be also interested motives at work here; since those who make private teaching a business, would lose their perhaps profitable vocation, by the introduction of a more comprehensive system of imparting information; <<116>> hence they may not look with a favourable eye on any plan which would, if carried out, deprive them, in their eyes, of the means of earning a subsistence. But independently of the consideration that wherever the public welfare may be promoted by any change, private interests cannot be regarded, it is short­sighted policy even as regards the latter, to stand in the way of a better system of education; for instead of an injury inflicted by it on private teachers, it is more than probable that they would be more appreciated, and consequently more sought after, were all Jews to feel it as a prerequisite to become familiar with the Hebrew language. The very paucity of teachers, both here and in England, is owing to the want of a demand for their services; and political economy is right in this also, that the demand for anything governs the supply in the long run. Now we see that the few teachers who have from time to time offered their services as private instructors, and we include among them the various Synagogue officials, have had but little opportunity of employing all their leisure hours in imparting a knowledge of our sacred language; whilst, had they advertised their services for the teaching of Latin, German, French, and Italian, it is more than likely that they would have been fully and profitably occupied. Is there not something wrong in this? Where is the root of it?

Evidently in the deplorable satisfaction with the absence of the knowledge of our sacred language, which has become habitual to so many of our people; they luxuriate in their ignorance, and consequently feel not that there is any necessity for a better state of things. But if the community were really alive to their own wants, would not many teachers find constant employment? Are there not many in every place whose knowledge of the Hebrew, if they have even applied themselves to it, amounts to no more than merely a little reading? And still the acquisition of Hebrew is as easy as that of any modern language; and compared to the large numbers engaged in studying the latter, we are tempted to say, those who understand Hebrew bear quite a large proportion; since it is perfectly notorious that after all the care bestowed on French and the like, there are but comparatively few who have acquired a competent acquaintance <<117>> therewith to read a work in that language with ease and pleasure; whereas, were the Hebrew acquired grammatically, the constant practice which our public service affords, would make it actually familiar and agreeable to our ears. The proof of this is found in the fact, that to those who are acquainted with the original text, no translation of the Scriptures affords any satisfaction, farther than occasionally resorting to it to elucidate some obscure passage.

Again, to revert to the assertion of those who can afford to engage a private teacher, that they learn Hebrew, we would simply remark that, without disputing their ability to do so, we very much question whether they actually avail themselves of those facilities and means which their abundant means place at their disposal. One thing it is to be able to engage a teacher, but quite another to do so; and we greatly doubt whether among the many rich American families there are twenty into whose houses a Hebrew preceptor is admitted at stated times. We do not in this instance speak from any knowledge of our own; but we judge so from the very small number who actually appear to understand the Synagogue service. Indeed we do fancy that there is a slight awakening; but it is still very slight. Everywhere the necessity is acknowledged; but the means to overcome the evil, hitherto provided, are very inadequate to reach the full extent of the malady. Still it is a great blessing that in all places, many are ready to confess that things are not right; but they find a great difficulty in devising the proper remedy; and this is chiefly owing to the absence of proper men to take the lead in this necessary reform; and then in the unwillingness of all our people to form a union on the common platform of public instruction; since so many are averse to let their children mingle with those of others, on the various pleas of inequality of social position, and the fear of their contracting habits from those of inferior station, which may injure them in after life. Without stopping just now to refute the erroneousness of the assumption, which we trust to do hereafter, we will merely state, that experience has not proved the correctness of this fear; since in the schools where the rich and poor are mixed, and where they <<118>> meet on equal terms, no injury has, as a rule, resulted to the former from the contact, although the latter may have been benefitted by seeing constantly before them the more refined manners of their more favoured fellow-scholars; hence it has not rarely resulted that those who entered life as the inferiors, have, by dint of talent, fortified by a good training, risen to an eminence which the children of affluence have found it impossible to attain. Moreover it is, to say the least, very silly on the part of American and English Israelites to boast of exclusiveness or ancient family descent; for the vast majority of them, worthy and respectable as they are, are descended from immigrants who left their native land, at the utmost, a little more than one hundred years ago, for no other reason than to better their condition, and were then not of the most distinguished families, nor those renowned for learning.

The ancient Portuguese families may be an exception to this general rule; but nearly all the descendants of the Germans and Poles have no very high claims to an aristocratic ancestry. This does not injure them in our estimation; we regard man as he is, not as his fathers were; if he is worthy, respectable, honest, and good, we cannot avoid respecting him, though his parents, and for that matter himself, had been the recipients of charity; since the humbleness of a man's descent becomes only then a cause of just reproach, when he forgets the root whence he sprung, and looks with disdain on those who are still climbing the steep went of preferment, or who have to give up the attempt, after completely failing in their endeavours. All, however, we mean to advance, is that none, at all events, but few of our wealthy men have so just a claim to renowned ancestry as to excuse them for refusing to mingle, under certain restrictions, with those of a degree inferior to them in the scale of fortune or position, to establish a system of education wherein all can be benefitted alike; since even assuming that the manners of the lowly are not as elegant as those of the affluent, it is equally certain that all the children of the wealthy are not so virtuous or free from bad habits as to make it safe for others to associate with them without contamination. It is, unfortunately, too true, that all who ought to be exempt from <<119>> low vices and debauchery, by the possession of ample means, which place them above temptation, are not addicted to the pursuit of virtue and the ennobling occupations of life; and many there are, at whose birth a bright prospect opened in the distance, and still they end their days in penury, or expire in the dungeons where the malefactors expiate their transgressions against society.

Hence, taking all this in consideration, there ought to be no time lost in devising a remedy for the general evil we have exposed; and we trust that the sense of our deficiency, which is just beginning to manifest itself, will not again drop asleep, but induce all who have the means to endow and the power to influence others to act, to exert all their strength to accomplish something in the premises; and we are sure that in no other manner can they become as great benefactors of society as in this. Some may smile at reading the expression “benefactors of society,” used in connexion with teaching Hebrew unto Israelites; but if they would reflect that all benefits man can confer, must be partial only, that all general mercies proceed from the Creator alone, since to man it is only allowed to labour in a limited sphere; and taking into view the happy effect religion has on the spirit of mankind, and that a proper understanding of our duty is so highly necessary to enable us to be religious; and that proper devotion to the Almighty is a great means to influence us with feelings which prompt us to fulfil our duties; and whereas our prayers are composed in Hebrew, and in order that they should be understood, the language in which they are written ought to be familiar to those who employ them:—they would acknowledge that it would be a true benefitting of a portion at least of society, and this that important part to which we belong, were they to use successful endeavours to re-introduce once more the household of Israel to a familiar acquaintance with their ancient language, in order that they may be enabled to pray with devotion, peruse the Scriptures with profit, and be “Hebrews of the Hebrews,” not merely professors of a religion, which many only know by hearsay,—that is, which they have learned from trans­lations, all, the very best even, the work of fallible men. We <<120>> do respect the learning of our wise men, and those of the Gentiles who have laboured so zealously to make the contents of the Bible accessible to all, through means of versions more or less accurate; and to show that we do this in earnest, we have in our own person endeavoured to do something in this walk of litera­ture also; but for all that we say, it is much more useful to be taught by the Master himself, than by his most highly endowed disciples; it is far better to drink freely of the fountain opened for us, by the Lord of life, than to imbibe it drop by drop from the hand of even the most faithful agent. And herein, too, we again maintain that the labour of those who strive to teach the public, would be more appreciated, had they a standard of their own by which they could measure correctly what is offered to them. But now, how many are there who can determine the difference between a good and a bad version of the Bible? between what is diametrically opposed to Judaism, and that which is its best defense? We will not enlarge, and leave every one to frame his own answer, in the bitterness of his heart, when he discovers his own inability to do justice in the premises seeing that to him, too, the Holy Scriptures are a sealed book.

We fear that we have detained our readers already too long on the topic we have been just discussing, not that we have exhausted it; but that people become impatient when an unwelcome truth is held up to them for serious reflection. But before dismissing it, we must again say, that our various ministers do not discharge their duty, unless they urge on their flocks, whether from the pulpit or otherwise, the absolute necessity of remedying the evil under which we groan, and which threatens to work incalculable mischief among us. For how long will those who are Jews, but not Hebrews, yet listen to our public recitation of prayers? how long can it be expected that such as these will attach themselves to any Synagogue or congregation?

We may be told that Judaism has other duties of far greater importance than church-going, to use an expressive term. We agree to this, with all cheerfulness. But what use is it to have ministers, of whatever degree, if we have no public assemblies? or of what practical use can these again be, if the majority are habitually <<121>> absent? Do let our readers once put the question fully before their minds; let them look the evil in the face, without shrinking from the monstrous hideousness which it presents itself in; and then let them cast about themselves for the remedy, if there be any within their reach by a united effort and a unanimous concert of action.—Reformers have ever laid too much stress on the mere externals of the Synagogues; they have fancied Judaism suffering from sickness, and they have prescribed empiric remedies; some wish to abridge the prayers, others to introduce the languages of the various countries, others choir singing, others new hymns, whilst others came at length to the sage conclusion that music is to restore the lost harmony between the precepts of religion and the free mode of life which circumstances had introduced among Israelites, no less than the followers of the other religious systems.

But if it be true that Judaism is sick, and that the harmony between the life of the worldly and our religion is no longer to be met with, we fancy that it is not the public worship which can cure the evil or restore the harmony. For if people are tired of a religious life, it is not likely that they will resort to a place of worship, however attractive the singing and music may be, if this attendance should, as it must, withdraw them from their pleasure or business. Indeed, curiosity might once or twice a year induce such as these are to attend a Synagogue, where a renowned preacher expatiates in eloquent terms on the various topics connected with religion, both theoretical and practical; but it passes our comprehension to understand what can be gained thereby, no less for the attend­ants themselves than the community at large. At the same time, we do not question that the manner of conducting our service keeps many from attending it; hence, if some slight modifications, which are perfectly in consonance with Scripture and Talmud, could be introduced, and which would likewise tend to remove the unsightliness of which we hear occasional complaints: it is evidently the part of wisdom to act in accordance with this demand. It is notorious, that insisting on things of no importance, and stamping every observance as sacred, whether founded on law not, has led to much confusion and injury; and the <<122>> very existence of the so-called congregation of British Jews, in Margaret Street, London, of which David W. Marks is the preacher, is owing, in the first place, to a refusal of the old Portuguese Kahal to open a branch Synagogue in the West End of the British metropolis, and in denying also every modification which some members requested. We do not profess to be fully acquainted with the origin of that secession, as our information is only one-sided, that is, from the seceders themselves; hence we cannot determine how far the governors of the Bevis Marks Synagogue were justified in resisting the innovations required. But we have no doubt that all, at least, were not insincere in stating that they wished to confirm themselves in religion; and the order which we understand to prevail at their meetings, and the strict observance of the Sabbath by nearly all of them, when some of the so-styled orthodox act so very differently, amply satisfy us that they fancy themselves in the right. Again, we beg our friends not to misinterpret us as countenancing schisms and secession, no matter how specious the plea therefor may be; we have often condemned both in our magazine and private correspondence the assumption of a new name and the skeleton prayers, together with other unauthorized measures, which are not founded, at the same time, on strictly scientific conceptions of the subject. We are only stating an historical fact, and leave it for those in authority to ponder well and gravely on the occur­rence, in the hope that they may draw thence lessons of wisdom. It is true that the reform in London has as yet found but few adherents, and this especially among the wealthy, and no open imitation anywhere else; nevertheless, it must be evident, that any division which assumes a new sectional name, must be injurious to the harmony and consistency of our religious structure. We cannot afford to present a divided front, in view of the many opponents which our faith has to encounter, both from the nature of its observances, which arrays against it the irreligious Jews, and the doctrines which it enjoins, which raises up, in every age, the whole mass of mankind who differ from us. Especially ought we to take heed not to drive the wealthy and intelligent away; not that we think ourselves the stronger for their presence, but <<123>> because we have no right in reason, nor in law, to alienate the affections of those who have been born among us, and claim our sympathies as fellow-Israelites.

The question, we insist on it, cannot be answered so off­handed, nor could we countenance an excommunication of any portion of our brothers, whilst they hold to the main pillar of the faith, the belief in the entire Scriptures, and the observance of the precepts. In ancient days it may have been correct to have excommunicated those who offered opposition to authority, when Israel presented a homogeneous structure; but now, alas! where is the power to enforce a decree of a Beth Din? who is there now ready to avoid commerce or intercourse with those excluded from the Synagogue? We imagine even the strictest adherents to rabbinical authority would be cautious how they yielded obedience to such a decree; and it is surely worse than useless to Take a demand on the faithful, which they will not and cannot respect, since by this means all deference to our superiors must be jeopardised, a state of things highly to be deprecated as conducive to incalculable mischief. Nor, on the other hand, can mere laymen, those, we mean, who have no scientific knowledge of the scope of Judaism, who are unacquainted with its traditions and history, and the origin of its customs, have any right to meddle with a question which they do not understand,—by which want of knowledge they run the risk of abolishing what is of the highest importance, and retaining the useless and burdensome; since in this, as in all other events of life, “there is no disputing about tastes.”

Experience has proved, in this connexion, that hardly two independent bodies have reformed the Synagogue on the same principle, and the mere arbitrary will of those who have the management of local affairs has been established, in carrying out the notions which have pleased the majority of such self-constituted leaders. We do not say this to wound the feelings of any one; but simply in perfect consonance with truth; and we leave our readers of both extreme parties to decide whether true religiousness has been the gainer by their proceedings, opposed as both are to sound common sense, and a correct interpretation of our books of authority. Cannot some<<124>>thing be done to reconcile the extremes? must we Israelites, too, be split into hostile parties? must we also become sectarians? denounce each other as false to our mission, as unworthy of the fellowship of the faithful? Is it not possible for those who deeply feel for the desolation of Israel, to meet in convention, and take counsel together, in order to draw the bond of union closer, to labour in concert, and to strive for one common end? Such a meeting would have at least one effect—it would bring together the heads of the people, and they would there learn to know and respect each other; and when they have separated, even without discovering a remedy, they would carry home with them the consciousness that they are not labouring alone, since they would feel that they are countenanced by the active support and inward sympathy of many who like them labour for the good cause of Israel. But tell us how many of our ministers are acquainted with their fellow-labourers? how much evil do they not believe of each other? how many suspicions are not entertained? how little confidence is placed by one in the other? And still there is almost a moral certainty that if they could once meet, all such jealousies and dislikes would, in a great degree, vanish, and men would become ardent friends, who now manifest a hostile attitude. This change of feeling among the leaders, would also produce a corresponding change among the people; and reformers and orthodox would learn to respect each other; and when they see how blissful a measure peace is, they would each forego a little of their pre­conceived notions, and by yielding wisely some extreme points, they would reunite again the various sections, then animated with the new life which agitation has produced, and we should have something far better than the harmony of the grave-yard, where all are at peace, because all are dead, bereft of life and emotion. The problem is indeed a weighty one; and if a friendly consultation, carried on in the fear of God, and truly to promote the common welfare, should ever be witnessed among us, without the advice and supervision of the civil powers, but solely spring­ing from the spontaneous acts of Israelites themselves: there can be no question that much may be done to reconcile practice <<125>> with duty, whereas, unfortunately at the present day, so many are false to precept, though they profess to be faithful in belief.

The Synagogue, as the place for general meeting, is surely an important element in this deliberation; hence its claims and present position must not be overlooked; at the same time, the other interests of life are also demanding our serious considera­tion; and we invite all who have the knowledge and the power to express the same in words, to favour us with their views, and to aid us thereby to bring the question fairly before the people. We mean, however, to continue the subject of the ministry, and the manner of improving it, in our subsequent numbers, and beg at the same time the indulgence of our readers, for dwelling so long on one topic; and we would merely remark, in concluding for the present, that the whole subject possesses at this moment far more interest than it did ten years ago; since congregations have multiplied greatly, and are still multiplying yearly; and it is highly requisite for the interests of Judaism in America, that we establish correct principles in advance, so that endless confusion may be avoided hereafter. Little indeed can a single man, as we are, accomplish; but it is the province of a journalist, as well as his privilege, to think for others, and it is to be hoped that the ideas which he gathers from various occurrences of every-day life, may not remain unfruitful in the minds of his readers; it is their business to carry into practice, what an editor lays before them; and if this be done in the matter before us, and there results an improvement in our worship and its ministers, we shall be amply compensated for the expense of labour and thought which we have bestowed on this important subject.

We again invite the attention of correspondents, and shall be happy to insert their favours, if they be calculated to benefit the common cause.