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Our Religious Teachers.

(A Sermon.)

O exalted and holy One who dwellest on high, and art with the humble and contrite of spirit, to revive the heart of those who are bowed down, and to quicken the spirit of the lowly! Teach us to feel thy greatness and to be guided through thy wisdom. For well do we know, that when we are prosperous we ascribe the victory to our own hands, forgetful of Him who assists us in our labours. If we are toiling in vain, we imagine ourselves overlooked and neglected by the Bounty which prospers our neighbour’s house. And in all cases we are jealous of our equals, envious of our superiors, as though the success of others could injure our happiness or mar our peace of mind. And still we receive thy blessing! We eat from the table which Thou hast spread so bountifully, so luxuriantly for all living; we live in thy beneficence which is scattered over the earth and the sky, over the dry land and the wastes of waters. And as a people too we have often forgotten this, and have fallen off upon the ways of evil, casting thy commands behind our backs. Do therefore aid us through thy all-powerful spirit to accomplish the work which thy revelation has began, to let us see the wisdom of thy word, that it may render us wise and intelligent, willing to serve Thee, O Father, in whatever sphere Thou assignest to us; mindful of the miracles which Thou wroughtest in the desert, and warned by the punishment which overwhelmed those who rebelled against Thee and thy servant; so that in all things we may be faithful, and always act as Israelites, the servants whom Thou hast chosen to proclaim thy name. Amen.


Our wise men, the Rabbins, who were always anxious to found a strict and consistent morality, no less than a rigid observance of the ceremonies, upon the text of the Bible, have left us in their writings many beautiful moral doctrines, which when observed, will add dignity and worth to a religious character, and tend to render the practice of the divine precepts as honourable in the eyes of the world as it is meritorious in the sight of the Lord. So much has been said of rabbinical authority, with such a sneer at times have sciolists treated men whose shoe-strings they are not worthy to loosen, that one who did not know better might suppose, that all they had ever taught was fraught with mischief and folly. This age is one, emphatically speaking, of pulling down. Every day some newfangled notion is propounded, some singular thought broached and propagated with all the zeal of sectarianism, and with the intolerance with which ultra liberalists always regard those who refuse to admit their theories before they have been proved correct. Let it then not surprise you that so many systematic attacks are made upon the remains of our ancient learning, by persons whose greatest pleasure it is to decry what they do not understand, and to despise every thing ancient, as though every day must bring forth a new system of wisdom and government, as though every thing which has come down to us from former years were all conceived in folly and darkness. With all the well-known illiberality of innovators, it is nevertheless remarkable to witness among some Israelites such a haste for innovation, such a rage for destroying. Let them but consider for a moment who were those teachers who guided our people, from Moses to our day, and surely they, the most ultra of them, must feel a profound veneration for men who pursued so unwaveringly, amidst so many disappointments, the duties to which they had devoted themselves. In the days of the Bible there surely was no profit connected with the teaching of the holy word; nay, there was danger from the ungodly, that in their wrath, they might might down those who uttered reproof to them, and testified against their wickedness. During the continuance of the second temple, to how many persecutions were not the scribes and wise men exposed from factious enemies at home, and bloodthirsty invaders from without! And since our glory fell, what have not our teachers had to endure from all who hated Israel, and endeavoured to blot out their name from the page of the world's history! Indeed, we can scarcely designate a single period of long duration, when the study and teaching of God's law brought any worldly ease and tangible gain. No, we must come to the conclusion, that it was a serious pursuit with the great mass of the teachers, that they went forth with the word of instruction upon their lips; it was a solemn conviction that they were benefiting their fellow-men by their labours, which not rarely exposed them to all the hardships of a campaign without the glory of worldly conquest. We should therefore be careful how we listen to those whose unacquaintance with the circumstances of the times in which some of our books were written induces them to cast censure upon their writers, and who not alone condemn the authors of what they think ideas unfit for the present age, so boastfully called that of enlightenment, but those likewise whose works and whose savings are to this day the themes which engage the most learned and refined in their elucidation. I am not the panegyrist of ancient abuses, nor of errors which may among many good things have come down to us; but surely it is no evidence of narrow-mindedness nor of an opposition to improvement, to be unwilling to admit the soundness of new views till they have something more to recommend them than the mere novelty or the daring with which they are propounded. It admits of no question that so much good has resulted to our nation from the labours of their great teachers, such as Simon the Just, Hillel, Rabban Gamliel, Jochanan son of Zaccai, Rabbi Judah the chief, Samuel, Rab Ashi, Saadiah Gaon, Yarchi [Rashi], Aben Ezra, Maimonides, and a bright galaxy of innumerable others, that no one can be otherwise than safe in following them in the way they have pointed out, whilst on the other hand there is the greatest danger to enlist one's self under the banner of some of our modern guides, who in their mode of instruction, as I have said already, endeavour to unsettle and to pull down every thing, and fail to build up and to establish any thing useful instead. There can be no safety in a system which only denies former views, and we ought to avoid it as we would shun an evident sin. There is therefore every reason to mistrust our innovators, who under the pretence of reforming Judaism, have introduced, or endeavour to introduce, ideas and rules of conduct contrary to our received opinions. They are perhaps proud of their attainments in science, which however confer on them no claims to become reformers in religion. They say perhaps with truth that the ancients were not deeply learned in worldly matters. But this fact does not weaken the authority of the latter in the light of religious teachers, in which we have always been taught to regard them. It is the misfortune of modern times that their enlightenment has been too sudden; the darkness preceding them had been of such long continuance, that the light which was shed upon them, from so many new and formerly inaccessible sources, has blinded those who were accustomed to the feeble glimmer of the little scientific knowledge that came to them from the by-roads of science. Our people had been restricted for centuries to the study of their own books, few knew any thing of the “Greek branches of wisdom,” and what is more, valued them too little, looking perhaps upon them as inimical to a religious life. How far their fears have been justified, let the bitter example of modern dereliction testify. Jews are not enemies to science; but truth compels us to say, that many who have made the arts and sciences their study, have done but little honour to Judaism. Many have through apostasy entered upon public offices, whilst without their dangerous acquirements they would have remained honest though humble Israelites. Many have studied the sciences, become proficients in the healing art; and their lives, though they yet profess the Jewish religion in name, are but a miserable exponent of the fruits of their learning. These and many others seem to say by their public acts, if not by their private thoughts: “We are now in possession of a talisman unknown to those uninitiated in the mysteries of sciences; we are removed from the bond of obedience, and we revel freely in the liberty of an enlightened conscience.” How little there is in all such things to make a sincere Jew fall in love with a pursuit which is so destructive in others, I need not impress upon your minds. And if the few who studied philosophy, so to say, by stealth in the dark ages showed an equal disregard of religion with the modern professors, and doctors, and public functionaries, it is no wonder that the lovers of religion discountenanced such dangerous acquirements.

I know well enough that there is no connexion between irreligion and the sciences; no one need tell me, that the deeper one looks into the book of nature the higher will rise his veneration for God; there is no occasion to assure me, that the Jew must become the more strongly wedded to his faith when he enters upon the study of history, and discovers how grievously his fore­fathers suffered for the faith they have handed clown to him, and how many persecutions they cheerfully braved only to be permitted to breathe their last breath as Jews, even if this was at the burning stake. I know all this, and so know the blessed teachers who to this day honestly proclaim the law as they have received it. But it is nevertheless true that the sudden change has been to, alas! too many, like the food placed before a famished person, who devours eagerly more than his feeble digestion will bear, and who suffers in consequence excruciating pains, or perhaps death, from his unguarded imprudence. Just so was it with us; the universities were opened again to receive us, and we could learn Latin and Greek, mathematics and history; and we seized with the eagerness of a protracted abstinence upon the long­ denied indulgence; but we lost sight of the fact that these things were merely additions to the divine wisdom, and the weak in faith substituted what they learned in the schools for the light of revelation. At first there was a little struggle between ancient ideas and the free notions of the age of change which commenced with the French Revolution; but one by one fell into the scepticism of the times, till the evil became festering and infectious in its contact. It is but too true, that with partial profession of religion (we will leave out of sight the downright apostates) many endeavoured to reconcile the freedom of a gentile life with the dictates of our faith. Hence it resulted, that where formerly it was considered requisite, in order to be entitled to the name of a dutiful servant, not to mention that of a pious man, to practise with care every minutia of observance, and to be engaged every day in the study of the Scripture and books treating on religion, it became the new fashion, of even the somewhat religiously inclined, to leave out as much as possible of the routine of duty, to abridge the time of prayer and the amount of devotion hitherto in practice, and to let the reading of secular books supplant the perusal of those of a higher order. Nay, many began to draw their mental nourishment from works written to ridicule religion, and to cast a shadow of doubt upon all that is sacred. Such a course might perhaps have operated injuriously only on the few who fell off from the right path, had the infection continued merely in the minds of those who had no influence on the public; but at length even some of our leaders joined what is commonly termed the modern movement, and they endeavoured to profit by the confusion of the times, in place of manfully withstanding the baleful desire for daring innovation. Now a new system commenced; new words were coined to throw odium on the past; and we were entertained with such terms as “Scientific Development of Judaism,” “Mosaism,” “Progress,” “The Light of the Nineteenth Century,” and whatever other terms of the like import were invented or misapplied to the circumstances of the case; until it is no longer possible, for those who are sincere in their adherence to the law of God, to keep silence amidst the storm of unhallowed feelings which the evil-minded have evoked. Let me state now, once for all, that I too, together with many eminent men, whose humble follower I scarcely deserve to be called, am fully aware of the corruption which had crept in among us during centuries of oppression; I know that a system of superstition was perfected upon the mystical notions of the middle ages, notions which are an excrescence on, not a part of our religion; I know that useless penance, and long abstinence, and frequent fastings, were recommended as meritorious acts. All this is true; and therefore no reasonable person could well have found fault, had the attacks of the modern new lights been directed only against such matters. But this would not satisfy their towering ambition; three hundred years before Popery had had its reformers and opponents,—men who, whether from ambition or sincerity, it matters not, attacked, and in a partial degree overthrew, in many countries, the political power of the pontiff who claims to this day his authority as the viceregent of Heaven. And now our modern Jewish leaders would needs be each a Luther, a Melancthon, a Zwingli, or a Calvin; they must needs contest the tradition of the fathers, as the Nazarene reformers did with the early doctors of their church. To gain eclat, something had to be done to attract the multitude; and whoever is acquainted with human nature, knows as well as I can tell him, that no one is so likely to be listened to, as he who steps forward as the reformer of abuses, as the man who ostensibly contends against the slavery of opinions. Still our reformers forgot one thing. The Roman power was one of political existence; it rested with an iron weight upon the conscience and will of its followers to no greater degree than upon those who had to live in the lands where it had control; in addition to which its missionaries traversed Europe, Asia and Africa, and began to extend to the continent and islands of America the influence and dogmas of the head of their church. To disobey was at the peril of property, of liberty, and of life; heresy, as it was called, and infidelity, as they viewed it, which included our faith, were mortal crimes, and subjected the offender to the pains and penalties of an inquisitorial tribunal. And when at length the shameless bargain with indulgences was openly exhibited, by which means the church stipulated a remission of sins for a certain sum of money paid to its priests: it was but rational that a change in the minds of the people should take place, and subject the pretensions of the papal authority to infallibility to the test of reason.

Yet where can the lover of change find any thing analogous in our wise men and teachers? Political power they never had; patronage, either great or small, was never in their possession; wealth is foreign to their hands;—what is there then to object to their exercise of a power which is merely founded on the attachment of an oppressed people to a fraternity of leaders, who, amidst all the sufferings they had to endure, were ever found in their midst, encouraging the wavering, comforting the strong, and enduring the same hardship, the same cruel fate, which overwhelmed the meanest among our race? Did not such conduct deserve all the respect which it received? and did not the people find their devotion to such leaders amply repaid by the instruction they at all times obtained from them in the things which the Lord had ordained? And where does any one find a loftier, a purer morality than breathes throughout the rabbinical writings which have come down to us? You may, perhaps, here and there discover a trace of illiberality, not in keeping with the refinement of our own age; but revert back to the time when these works were composed, when the name of Jew was an incentive to insult, maltreatment, and to robbery; and then reflect well that the Rabbis were men as we all are: and you will require no apology if the agony of despair wrung, at times, from them expressions of illiberality to which they never would have assented of their own accord.

Nevertheless they taught even in those days lessons of toleration of the highest order, such for instance: “The righteous of the nations of the world have a share in the world to come;” “The Lord withholds not the reward of any creature,” and many of a like import: and these are the men whom modern reformers wish to stigmatize as unwise and illiberal zealots! These the men whom we are called upon to disown as our guides! And what, after all, do the reformers chiefly aim at? I think the greatest clamour is raised against the mode of worship, as practised at the Synagogue, which, it is alleged, is not in consonance with the demands of the times. Granted that there are abuses, and these every body feels; against these, however, the ancient teachers also exclaimed. The disorder at times observable in our places of worship is in direct contravention with the dictates of our sages, who teach: “Man should not stand up to pray except with a heavy head,” i. e. devotional meekness; again, “Know before whom thou standest;”—they denounce as impious the least conversation in the Synagogue, especially during certain portions of the service; whilst the law is read in public they prohibit prayer even to be recited, although one should have come too late to the place of worship. What more would you wish to add to these directions? You may amplify, but the substance is there before you; act up to it, and our Synagogues will be as well regulated as the most fastidious can desire. All we need is for our people to value what has been handed down to them in this respect, and we may safely affirm, that decorum and devotion will be the ruling traits of our public meetings.—Again, an objection is made to the time of the service, which, according to our tradition, is for the reading of the Shemang before the expiration of the third hour of the day, that is, according to the calculation of modern time, nine o’clock in the morning. Now this has been found too early for convenience, and every effort is made to postpone the commencement of the service to a more suitable hour. But why should we not hasten to devote the early hours of the Sabbath to worship? Is not the whole day holy unto the Lord? is it not his gift that it is sanctified unto his service? Then it is the length of the service, next the too great uniformity, or the repetitions of the Amidah and Kaddish; when in truth, the whole time consumed by the prayers on the usual Sabbaths does not occupy more than one hour, or, at most, an hour and a half. True, if we do not feel earnest in the service, any time is too long, but this is what we need, a feeling of devotion which will carry us to the Synagogue and let us spend our time there in full contemplation of the great Being in whose presence we have appeared. The Amidah then is a prayer for the things we need collectively and individually; it is a prayer which comprises every thing which man can ask of his God; the congregation therefore should first, after assenting to the acknowledgment of the divine kingdom in the Shemang, recite it to themselves, that each one for himself and for all may petition the divine Presence to bless him and Israel collectively with all the goodness which we need at his hands. Then let the representative of the congregation, their appointed minister, pronounce aloud, as one of the people for all, as the representative for his constituents, the same petition for grace, and let each and all assent to every petition or affirmation by the unanimous Amen which records, as we said on a former occasion, the concurrence of the assembled brethren in the truth of our religion. Yes, let them in heart and soul listen devoutly to the Minister's words, let them comprise the whole of our household in their aspirations; and, when the Kedusha is inserted, let them tremblingly sanctify the Lord, who appeared to his prophet in the midst of his heavenly servants, who, like Israel do on earth; sanctify on high his holy Name, with a love, a unison, a fervour which only the pure souls of the saints can attain. There may, however, be some few repetitions of certain portions of of the ritual, which are not of much moment; but surely it is not worth while to commence a violent agitation, simply to remove these. They are to a certainty perfectly harmless, and whether repeated or left out, will neither lengthen the service too much, nor abbreviate it materially.—Some also find the reading of the law too long, and wish to leave out the portion from the prophets, which we read on every Sabbath and festival.—Again, I do not see upon what system this is to be effected. According to my view, and every dispassionate person must agree wth it, the reading of the entire law once every year, is of the utmost moment to all Israelites. Every one is not learned, every one has not the leisure to pursue an even simply biblical study with much profit during the days of labour. To such, as just described, the public proclamation of the law, once during the year, must be of the utmost value; the whole law, it must not be forgotten, is the code which God prescribed to us; no part thereof has been abrogated, although portions of it are no longer practicable in our present state of dispersion and banishment. Still the precepts, even those not now practicable, are all of interest to us; they are our life, our proof that we are God’s chosen children. By all means then, let us not withhold the bread of life from our brethren; let us continue to proclaim it in all their dwellings; it is our constitution, our magna carta, our bill of rights, our declaration of independence: and let it be proclaimed where we are in bondage, where we are members of the sovereign people, that in it we live, in it will we die! O it is a glorious gift, this law of God! It is the wisdom of wisdoms, it is the light of lights! Let Israel bend the head when the book is elevated, let them raise their hearts when its words are read; therein they find the road which leads on to heaven, there the herb of life which snatches the soul from death! Ay, every year let it be read aloud in all our congregations; let not one of its precious words be omitted, let not a syllable fail to sink deeply into the ear; and we need not a better monitor to guide us aright, not a better incentive to induce us to inquire “what the Lord has taught concerning us.”—But what of the Haphtorah? Is it not an addition to the service, a useless lengthening of our stay in the Synagogue? Is it not a substitution, introduced during a time of persecution, instead of the weekly portion of the law? Although the latter question is undoubtedly in consonance with the facts, we cannot admit that it is a useless addition to the service, or that we had better shorten our sojourn at the Synagogue by so much as is occupied therewith. Let us see what the prophets were. They were men sent out from amidst the people to teach and to admonish them in accordance with the word of the law revealed to Moses. They again confirmed what had been given on Sinai, and amplified the instruction by their denunciation of the sins they saw perpetrated around them, and added the consolations which from time to time they were sent to proclaim in the hearing of Israel. In other words, the prophetic writings are a commentary written by inspiration upon the body of laws embraced in the Torah; and whatever is spoken by the seers of our people, will find its echo in the books of Moses. Why then should we not read the portions which so clearly correspond with the law from the books of the prophets! do they not tend to confirm in the souls of the worshippers the faith in the truth and uprightness of their adored Father? Who can read unmoved the address of Moses to the people, just before his death, in connexion with the terrible introduction to the book of Isaiah, in which he sketches the backsliding of his contemporaries, which he could not prevent, against which he denounced the coming doom? Needs it that I multiply instances to prove what does not in truth require proof? No! I will leave the subject to your own reflection, confident that you yourselves can find parallels enough to finish the argument without my aid.

But let us return to our sages and their opponents. The Rabbis have, in accordance with the right inherent in the teachers selected by the people, from time to time introduced ordinances, as fences to the law, that men might not inadvertently break the vital commandments. They proceeded upon this principle, that there can be no injury in omitting to enjoy the things permitted, if by this means we guard ourselves against sin. Strictly speaking, nothing has been added to the law, they only defined the extent of the precepts, both the affirmative and negative kinds. There can be no doubt of the existence of a tradition, or a received manner of observing the precepts which the law contains. That all the sayings of the expounders of the law are absolutely traditional I will not maintain, nor is this the opinion of our teachers. But whether the ordinances are traditional or instituted for safety’s sake, they have become so intimately interwoven with the life of our nation, that they cannot be disrupted without giving a severe and useless shock to our national existence. One thing is evident, that the system of the Talmud is one of great uniformity, or rather I should say, it was one of great uniformity. Whatever occurred in the domestic or social life of our people, was strictly adjudged by our shiefs to the best of their capacity and understanding of the case, according to the decisions of the wise men. There could be no thought of sectarianism, while the means of arriving at a satisfactory solution were always at hand. Local customs were always permitted, the freedom of establishing congregations on such principles of government as pleased the majority in each was never contested, so long as the usual officers, a civil president, treasurer, and directors, on the one, and the Rabbi, reader, teacher, and the subordinate officers, on the other side, were chosen. So also the form of prayer, or Minhag, was not interfered with, provided as before the main principles of the worship, which are alike in all, were adhered to. Thus it was for many centuries, and there was therefore a perfect unity in the church of Israel, with the exception of a small body of literalists, or Karaites, who nevertheless have a mode of interpretation, necessarily traditional, though doubtlessly it deviates from ours. And thus it might have always continued, had not, within late years, a number of ignorant fanatics in the first instance endeavoured to establish a mode of life of an ascetic and extravagant nature, and to introduce the same in their worship; and in the next an equally unwise class sprung up who will judge every thing according to philosophical rules. The former are known as the Hassidim or Zoharites, the second as the reformers. There can be no doubt, but that the ascetics will not long continue in their extravagant manner, but will gradually return to the bosom of our community to which they belong. But the second class, or the reformers, seem to disdain any thing except their own views: they have drunk of wisdom, still the stream is polluted by the worldliness which they have imbibed under their gentile masters, and teachers; they come to cut down, and to level the obstructions which a life of enjoyment finds in our law and the teaching of our instructers. Some of them are every where, though not formidable in their numbers as yet, secretly working to sap the foundations of our system. I know well enough, that they allege that they mean to restore, to fortify; but their words are contradictory; they may perhaps be honest, but wherever they have appeared up to this moment, the course of religion has been backward, if we take the biblical observances as a criterion.

Instances could be produced; but in a public lecture it is not fit to mention persons and places, even should my sense of propriety not check me from so doing. Still from what I have seen in print, I cannot hesitate saying, that so is the case, that wherever the reform mania has penetrated there also is the spirit of religiousness greatly weakened. Yet spite of themselves the reformers have rendered a great service to our blessed cause. In former years our learned men were content to write for the learned, because they knew that many felt a desire for instruction in the things pertaining to the law. But in the course of time many were left uninformed, a fatal error undoubtedly. Now the agitators have awakened inquiry, and the means of information have become greatly increased. The torpor so long resting upon our masses is vanishing, and “to-morrow the Lord will make known who is his, and who is holy him will be bring near to himself.” Yes, the Lord who assisted Moses in his ardent mission of liberating the souls of his brethren from the degradation of slavery, will still, is still watching over us with paternal care. The cup of disunion is bitter indeed, bitter the dregs which it presents to our lips. But what was Moses’s situation when he was unjustly assailed with the words:

כי כל העדה כלם קדשים ובתוכם ה׳ ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל ה׳ ׃ במדבר ט״ז ג׳ ׃

“For the whole congregation, are all of them holy, and in their midst is the Lord; and why then will you raise yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”—Numbers, 16.3.

Fearful indeed was the assault which threatened from the preeminence of the malcontents to overwhelm all which had been built so recently with so much labour and wisdom. Ay, the same thing takes place again in our day. Men of wisdom assail the righteous, they revile them for having assumed an undue authority over the congregation of Israel; and like Korah, their object is not the welfare of the people, but the destruction of the divinely appointed leaders. But as the Lord saved his servant from that severest of all trials, so let us hope that his spirit will again guide us to overcome the difficulties which now beset our way. Disunion has been threatened; but let us go on firmly, piously, in the task of scattering information and knowledge among those who need instruction; and the indifference and the love for change which now are witnessed will yield before the power of the word of God, and the triumph of righteousness will again be witnessed now as on the day when the righteous Moses was vindicated as the faithful servant of God, by the display of miracles, when all the people felt, that the Lord was their God, and his word true, and that his messenger was true.

May the light of the Lord be our guide, and his blessing our shield, now and for ever. Amen.

Tamuz 4, (June 21,) 5604.