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The Congregation of British Jews, London.


In the discharge of our duty as an editor of a Jewish periodical, and minister of our religion, we have been impelled to bear our decided testimony against all the attempts lately made to establish a reform which will naturally cause a disruption in our communities, and lead to the establishment of sects in our bosom. It has been the just pride of Israelites, as our learned correspondent, the Rev. Mr. Rice, says in his sermon which we gave in our last number, that they have ever been one uniform people, free from sects and marked divisions. but all the efforts of the moderns seem directed to divide off our household into factious sections, each acting independently of the other, and revolving, like some eccentric planet, in an orbit of its own. Whilst we, on our part, have during the whole course of our official life, which has neither been short for our years, not without excitement and event, always striven to cement a union where we found divisions, and to bring together through the bond of religion and conformity the individual members of Israel with whom we happened to come in contact. We do not, however, mean to say that our system of observances and ancestral ceremonies (we do not speak of the LAW, for that is perfection) could not be improved in some particulars; nor do we assert that there are not some things which will strike the uninitiated as strange and useless; but this we will maintain against all contradiction, that there is nothing whatever in the manner and substance of our prayers and ceremonies which could induce any sober-minded Israelite to separate himself from the Synagogue, because his advice or request had not been followed in the adoption of the improvement which he may have suggested. For our people naturally fear to touch the sacred ark which they have guarded so many centuries; mere observances even have, in some points, acquired with them a strength equal to absolute laws; and no one who knows how dear to the heart are early associations will venture to break off, without urgent necessity, from those practices and views which have grown with him from the cradle and become a part and parcel, as it were, of his very being.

Here then would be a key of our earnest opposition to all the contemplated changes, and particularly to the temple-reform in Hamburg and Charleston, as also its imitation or rather its associate in London, if even there were nothing illegal in them. But even this there is, as far at least as we know of these movements, and we have thus characterized them whenever it was our duty to speak concerning them in our periodical and from the pulpit. We know well enough that the zealots for visionary reform (for visionary it is whilst not two sections are agreed about what they wish to abolish and what to substitute) will doubtlessly accuse us of being behind the age, and of doing injustice to their motives. But even if we are behind the age, we are so honestly. We have had as many opportunities to observe the state of the Jewish congregations, at least in America, as any one among thousands, and we believe that our acquaintance with individuals in almost every place in the Union, Canada, and the West Indies, either personally or by letter, is greater than any Israelite we know of; and we hesitate little in saying that not one of the plans for reform, we use the word though we cordially detest it as applied to our religion, will either satisfy all the parties or improve the state of religion. They all reach externals only, and we want most of all a greater appreciation of our duties as men of Israel. How are we then behind the age? how do we misinterpret the motive of the reformers? We will merely state, though we think that we have said so before already, we too are for progress, but it must be a progress, not for lopping off an observance here and there, and striking out a phrase or a passage or a portion of the prayers, simply because one does not like rabbinical portions, another not the metrical hymns, another does not approve the doctrines embraced in the terms of our ritual, or because a fourth finds some critical faults. In thus condemning the labours of our contemporaries we know well enough our own deficiencies, we cheerfully acknowledge that many on the continent of Europe who are engaged in the ministry, are our masters in all that is learned and eloquent; but, nevertheless, we cannot yield to them, who differ so widely from their views. But say even that all the European Rabbins had agreed upon a plan of proceeding, we should still hesitate transplanting to America with our aid the crude project which would thus be produced. We stand here in a peculiar and somewhat delicate position; we never had among us any men of real strength in public situations, but with rare exceptions, who could stand forth as the champions of Judaism; and still it has extended and struck deeper roots in the hearts of thousands. There is now a greater religious sentiment here than in Europe; and the little that has been left to us in our domestic and public relations is cherished with an ardour of which the European new-lights have but little conception. To be sure the stranger will find little to approve of in the state of religion witnessed in America; but he should consider that what he sees has been snatched from the destruction by the inherent strength of our faith, unaided by the exhortations from the pulpit or the teaching of the schools. It is the family circle which has effected this; and all that is requisite, we think, is to aid this holy germ to enable it to strike root deeper and deeper in the hearts of the natives of this soil. Much there is surely to discourage, but there are also on the other hand many signs of life. But all the systems of reform which will naturally tend to make us sects instead of a united people, will not, cannot, effect a union of hearts, but must produce divisions and heart-burnings.

We will not stop to inquire how much more one division is culpable than the other, whether it be an organ that is the worshipped idol, or a new ritual invented by men of the day, instead of time-honoured prayers, or whether all positive religion is to be case off; this is for the different reform-unions to reflect on; it is their business to see that they keep as much of the law in their system as they believe absolutely necessary; but we speak only of the effect, no matter how produced, and declaim against division, even if the deviations which constitute the new sects be ever so small.

In our September number we spoke of the "Reform Verein" in Frankfort, and in discussing the merits of this monstrous abortion, we said: "But it has been reserved for the ultra-liberalists to form themselves into distinct sects with avowed peculiar doctrines, by which they sever themselves from the majority of Israel. We have thus a Temple Association at Hamburg, a Congregation of British Jews at London, and a Reform Society at Frankfort." (Vide Occid. Vol. ii. p. 304.) But we leave it to our readers whether we did not distinctly place in culpability the Frankfort nothingarians, (it is an ugly word, but the only one we could use except ——) far deeper than the London reformers. But it seems that our remarks, without our intending it, have given cause of umbrage to a highly respectable gentleman connected with the West London Synagogue of British Jews, in saying that this association had rejected, equally with the Frankfort union, the authority of the Talmud. We certainly ought to have remembered that there is a difference between rejecting it and not calling the whole of divine origin, especially as we hold the same opinion. Still we cannot see, if this be precisely the case, why Mr. Elkin, our esteemed correspondent, and his highly respectable associates, several of whom we have much cause deservedly to appreciate, should deem themselves compelled to set up a new Synagogue, with a different organization, and distinct from the fellowship of their brothers of the other Synagogues.

We have also to remark that in defending the London British Jews from some unfounded attacks published against them, we did so upon the simple principle of justice; nevertheless it could not thereby be understood, that we were either the apologist or partizan of the movement. But as we are supposed to have been wrong in our remarks alluded to above, and as our language is liable to a construction which we did not mean to give it, we publish the subjoined from the last letter of our correspondent, merely adding that we had received before one letter whish we decline printing altogether, as it bears upon a subject which we will not discuss at present, and another which could not be printed entire; of the last, however, we subjoin such extracts as will satisfy Mr. Elkin. At the same time we cannot help stating that every one will do us the justice to remark that by giving publicity to the two sermons of Mr. Marks we have done something to make his views on the Messiah and the duties correctly understood, much to his advantage over the Hamburg reform.—Ed. Oc.

London, 18th Nov. 1844.

Reverend and Dear Sir,

There is an article in the Occident, No. 6, which, proceeding from your pen, surprises me much; for how could I ever expect that you, who in an editorial note, had defended us from the sweeping, unqualified charge of Mr. Carillon, as to our having denied all talmudic authority, would yourself have brought the like indiscriminating charge! My letter to the Occident irrefragably proves that we do not deny, never did deny the authority of the Talmud in the unqualified manner you represent, and thus you formerly said, when we were attacked by Mr. Carillon:—"We think that, judging from the consecration sermon, Mr. Marks admits measurably the authority of the Rabbis." Surely then it is not just to say, because we bow more reverently to the Holy Oracles of God, that we pay no reverence to the Talmud; and although I have proved that our minister spoke of that work in terms truly respectful, yet, you say, "the rejection of the rite of circumcision, as well as the authority of the Talmud;" is but a wide step from our proceedings three years ago. My letter, Sept. 10th, will, I hope convince you, that we little deserve to be classed with the Frankfort Reform gentlemen. To prove our dissimilarity from them, let me inform you that from our pulpit we have lately had a series of sermons on the perpetuity of the Laws of Moses—sermons striking terror into the heart of the Sabbath-breakers—enforcing the obligation of wearing Tephillin—of fixing the Mezoozoth* and also denouncing the eating of prohibited food; and yet are we classed with men whose latitudinarian principles have late been deprecated from our pulpit! (Vide Voice of Jacob, No. 85.) Fearlessly, I say, "we are more sinned against than sinning;" but the consolation is left us, that from the aspersions of man, we can appeal with a clear conscience, to that Righteous Judge who weighs the actions of all his creatures.

* Of course Mr. E. was unacquainted with the fact of our having placed the very sermon alluded to in the hands of the printer when he wrote the above.—Ed. Oc.

I begin to be apprehensive that I shall not be able effectually to remove the false and prejudicial reports in circulation against us but by publishing the far greater portion of my letter to you under date 10th September. I remain, Rev. and dear Sir,

Yours very respectfully,
Benj. Elkin.

Extract From Mr. Elkin’s Letter of September 10th., 1844.

"Your favor 24th June reached me in Devonshire, where I have been residing some months with my family, and as your letter did not call for prompt reply, I have deferred addressing you till after my return to London, which was not till Friday last. I am much surprised and disappointed at your having closed the columns of the Occident against my communication, and I really cannot bring my mind to acquiesce in the cogency of the reasons you assign for this exercise of your editorial prerogative.

"I grant that you have a right to be cautious what articles you admit into your paper; but do you not think, sir, that this kind of censorship should be exercised less rigidly where there is but one press, and when the appeal to its columns comes from the accused? Moreover, my letter, except on one point, is merely elucidatory, and affords proof incontestable that we never entertained the thought of repudiating the wearing of Tephillin or denying the authority of the Traditions.

"Quinzinus (an assumed name) has published in a pamphlet, not only the two mendacities my letter so incontestably disproves, but has added another pious falsehood, namely, our ‘Non-commemoration of the destruction of the Holy Temple.’—Sir, every action of our blessed Synagogue is a living refutation to these and a host of other calumnies.

"These falsehoods have had an inglorious vitality, and these it is that encourage Christians in their expectation of our union with them; but I am acquainted with facts which authorise me to say that from the members of our Synagogue, Christians, lay and clerical, utterly despair of ever making converts.

"I trust you will pardon this prolix explanation of my reasons for wishing you had inserted my letter, and why I consider your rejection of it a departure from that uniform impartiality which had heretofore distinguished the pages of the Occident. I however regret your determination of the less as the letter is to appear in the Voice, after the holydays, and you will see that I have omitted the objectionable word you pointed out. I am aware of the opinion you so long expressed to Mr. Henriques on the abolition of the second day festivals; but I would entreat your attention to the important difference between us and congregations already existing. In the latter case the religious scruples of others are entitled to consideration, in the former, the whole congregation agree to the measure.

" ‘We want union, union,’ you exclaim. My worthy sir, do not let us cheat our understandings by mere sound; for if we take a religiously philosophic view of the adhesive elements of this lauded union, we shall arrive at the melancholy truth of its being a compound of hot puritanism, cold indifference, and a very small residuum of rational piety. There may be expediency in this union; but as it gives no spirituality to our worship, I see no holiness in the alliance. A little wholesome agitation were better than the repose of this union; which reminds me of the curse of the calm upon the Dead Sea. Mourn not then, Sir, over our severance from this union, but grieve at its necessity, and I join in your lamentation. Sir, the very intensity of our attachment to our holy, blessed religion, and desire of its perpetuity have caused the dissolution of this union. Many of the founders of our Synagogue, men far advanced in the autumn of life, and of staid religious habits—these and others of our congregation, wished to see something done calculated to inspire a well-grounded hope that our children would continue steadfast in their parents’ creed. This, under God’s blessing, we have accomplished, and death will have one pang less for me! Sir, I address you—a pious, learned minister of our Church—with all the reverence due to the majesty of truth. I call on you then in her sacred name to believe that we have not been actuated by any abstract love of reform—that we have done nothing but what we thought essential to improve our public worship—that we have given strength to the weak in faith, and caused the discontinuance of the desecration of the Sabbath. We have kept a happy middle course, avoiding alike the Scylla of bigotry, the Charibdis of infidelity. Happy, happy for Israel! were every Synagogue conducted as is ours, where the pure word of God—frequently enforced and illustrated from the writings of our sages—is preached, and where the soul, throughout the service, breathes a spiritual atmosphere. The merit is also ours of having given a death-blow to the only specious reason assigned for reading portions of our prayers in the vernacular tongue of each country. With us, the study of Hebrew is as much an element of education as the fashionable languages, music, drawing, &c., for we hold it more essential that our daughters should be rational beings, than accomplished ladies. Happily they can be both, and no longer commit the folly—I had almost said the lunacy—of addressing God in a language not understood! Further, the whole of our congregation, through some live at great distances, assemble before the service commences, and throughout the service the utmost devotion prevails. As regards the confirmation of both sexes, I verily believe J. K. G. of Boston would see all he desiderates on that head fully carried out in our Synagogue. Again, in our Synagogue there is no more distinction between rich and poor than in the grave: Wealth should have no immunity in the temple of God. Since our Synagogue has been established (January, 1842), we have not made a single alteration, nor does there exist any intention of making any; our reform therefore, speaking humanly, may be said to be final. Looking then to the fruits already produced by this reform, can I—dare I, think it unacceptable to God? It forms a new and glorious epoch in our spiritual existence—tends to make us better in every relation of life, and has awakened in our souls a deeper love of our holy religion.

"Regarding our Prayer Book, you say it is unauthorized—far from being divine—a human compilation and of human authority. We never held it up in any other light. The book was compiled expressly for our Synagogue—it contains nothing but what is pure and holy—it defecated from every portion breathing a spirit of intolerance—is possessed and preferred by very many persons not of our congregation, and our Minister in its compilation had the assistance of a gentleman as competent for the task as any other learned Jew in England.

"You allude to our designation of British Jews. By this appellation we have happily merged the absurd and untrue distinction of German and Portuguese Jews: we are Englishmen, consequently, British Jews.

"Having replied to the religious points embraced in your letter, I return to the all-important question, namely, the restoration of peace in the community. I am truly happy to say that there does not exist any thing like the same acerbity of feeling as existed at first, and were Sir Moses Montefiore inclined to undertake the god-like task, we might again ‘live in the hallowed bonds which make Israel one;’ but the magnanimity of confessing error is a virtue rarely practised, and Sir Moses would have to confess error to render his mediatorial efforts of use. I should have greater hopes in the impartial administration of the gentleman who is to succeed the late Rabbi did I not fear the influence of men who will attempt to poison his mind against the Secession Congregation. The preliminary step to peace as an act of common justice, must be the revocation of the Cherem (i.e. the proclamation of the late Rabbi Hirschell). That act of simple justice must be done unconditionally, then we shall be in a position to listen to overtures of peace. If the Cherem was right, let it be continued; if wrong, let it be revoked. I confess that I see difficulties in the way of pacification, but before we were persecuted, every member of our community, for the sake of preserving the blessing of peace, would have made some sacrifice and been satisfied with a smaller measure of reform. That time was; since which we have happily consolidated our new form of public worship, and have had nearly three years experience of its transcendent spiritual blessings.

"The whole of your works adorn my library, and the reading of your sermons aloud has formed part of our home Sabbath devotions, imparting to us spiritual comfort and mental illumination. The Occident affords me great pleasure, especially your bold and able defence of Judaism. Here, where there is an established religion, this cannot be done to fearlessly, and you will find that the Voice does not like to transfer to its columns even Dias’ Letters.

"Beseeching the God of our fathers to accord you the blessing of better health, the prolongation of your valuable life, and many happy returns of the approaching festivals, I conclude by iterating from the depths of my soul your own prayer—‘That the time may soon come when union and peace may prevail among all our sons, and that righteousness may spread in every land.’"

I remain, Rev. and dear Sir,
Yours very respectfully,
Benj. Elkin.

Note.—Several remarks which we had written to be appended to the above are necessarily excluded by the want of space this month; we may, however, have soon occasion to revert to the subject again, when we shall improve the opportunity to say something more on a point which is of the highest interest to all Israelites.—Ed. Oc.