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The Dangers of Our Position.

by Isaac Leeser

The Israelites of America, both continental and insular, although uniformly in a more happy state of political independence than their brothers in the majority of the Eastern Hemisphere, are nevertheless exposed as regards their religion to many more dangers than they are elsewhere. We have alluded before this to the fact that they are scattered all over North America and the West India Islands, and in part too over South America, and in but few places do they form communities respectable for numbers and influence. They are therefore surrounded by an unhealthy influence from without, which is constantly pressing against their religious adherence, and happy indeed are those who are able to resist the contagious atmosphere which environs them. In the larger communities too the evil is but little less; for there also they see the large mass whose opinions and conduct are so greatly varying from the Jewish standard of belief and custom, and can consequently not escape the influence, though it be silent, which the acts of great numbers necessarily exercise over their minds.

We do not believe that there is a single Jew in all America, who is given in the least to reflection, but must acknowledge the truth of what we day, and feel that we owe it to ourselves to do something in the premises. But “the how?” is the question, and consequently day after day is allowed to elapse and we are found in nearly the same position as in the beginning. All, we speak of those who actually care for the well-being of their religion, deplore what they see daily before them, and still the remedy is very difficult to be discovered.

Perhaps some may gloss over the unfortunate state of religion among us, and think that we sound a useless alarm; but this is not the proper way of either devising a remedy or of applying it after it has been found. We ought, on the contrary, to survey the field with strict impartiality and unflagging courage, not imagine that we are better than we are, nor believe that there are insurmountable obstacles to our progress, because we may happen to discover some things which have a threatening aspect. But if we look with the impartiality thus mentioned into our state, we will easily see that the Jewish life, which formerly distinguished us, has in too many instances given way to another mode, which is far from being in consonance with the law. Let any man pass through the cities and villages of America on a Sabbath day, and see the many, whose places of business are opened in violation of the day of rest, and he will have to acknowledge that many live unjewishly in this regard. Let any one who is strict in his domestic relations, who abominate those things which the Lord has separated for him as unclean, be invited to a Jewish house, and he will be compelled to make himself acquainted beforehand whether or not his host abides by the dietetic Laws of our faith. Let the inquiry be made in town and country concerning some Christian families, whose features resemble strongly those of our race, and he will be told that they are descended from Jews either by the male or female line. We will not specify minor matters, it is useless to point out little grievances where many great transgressions strike our view, when we cannot hide our faces from the deformities of the times, if we even would do so. It is not, however, to be imagined that our American brothers are indifferent to religion; many there are certainly who are guilty of absolute indifference; but the majority of those who transgress feel they are doing wrong, and deplore not unfrequently their backslidings. Many of those, for instance, who have intermarried with strangers express their contrition for the irrevocable act by which they have exposed themselves to the anti-Jewish influence in their domestic circle, and some have even gone so far as to dissuade others, on the point of taking a gentile wife or husband, from following in their own footsteps. What does this prove? but that the sinners themselves have by experience found that the way of the transgressor is hard. In the moment of excitement of the passions or disappointment, a man hastens to seek the alliance which our laws condemn; the woman is asked in marriage by one whom she has been taught to regard as a friend, or whose rank or wealth will confer on her a higher position than as a simple Jewess she could attain, and she yields him her heart, and becomes the wife of the man who is a stranger to our laws. But when the excitement has worn away, when reason again rules uncontrolled by any selfish influence, the man soon discovers the fatal gully into which he has been plunged; his wife is not a Jewess, he feels it daily more, and should children at length cement their union he will experience a twofold grief when his wife refuses to have them educated as Jews or actually trains them in her own religion. Even if at the time of marriage both parties were indifferent to religion, still the Jew’s heart cannot be long callous to his eternal concerns; he awakens, but it is too late, his fate is linked with one who cannot sympathize with his soul; and she too awakens; early impressions or untoward influences make her sensible that she owes allegiance to a religion which her husband ridicules or abhors; and hence she will be doubly intent upon educating her children at least, in the Christian manner.

So also with the Jewish woman who marries out of her faith. She speedily discovers that she has hunted a phantom in pretending to secure the love of a man without religious sanction; her religion, if ever so little be in her soul, she would gladly cherish, but her husband naturally forbids it, for why should he be made uncomfortable by his wife’s scruples? and she will soon be made to feel, that the wealth, distinction and love she has purchased by her severing herself from the Synagogue have been obtained at the cost of a life of regret; for her children will not be suffered to enter the covenant of Israel; her daughters will not arise and bless the Lord, the one Eternal; and despite of the tender cares of a devoted husband she will every day have ample cause to look back upon her youthful days and wish that the step she then took could be recalled. We will not speak of unhappy unions where domestic strife or poverty adds bitterness to the compunction of conscience; not even of the religious classes whose sensibility is strongly urged by the knowledge of any small transgression; we only allude to cases where the house is one of peace and affluence, and where but few religious impressions remain in the mind of the transgressor. Still we can assert with safety that in nearly all, if even not all, cases, the natural result must be that regret will spring from the mixed marriages; and hence it is not at all surprising that persons so circumstanced should be the first to warn others from following their example. For knowing themselves how unsatisfactory has proved to them the dark prospect of a connexion without a union of souls, of children strangers to the God they themselves worship in their spirit, no matter how much their outward acts may belie their inmost heart, of a smiling countenance to the world whilst the conscience is constantly racked with remorse for the past and dread apprehension of the future, they will not willingly see a brother or a sister plunge onward into the same gulf which pride, prejudice, or love of ease may open before their feet; they experience an inward pleasure in making this atonement for their transgression to alarm others to the danger which they have themselves experienced, and to snatch them as a brand from the burning, though they cannot themselves escape from the entanglement in which they are involved.

There are indeed examples where the wife or husband has joined the religion of Israel, after the marriage with the stranger; and of some of these we may say that they were true proselytes and steadfast adherents of our religion. But in other instances the conversion was but temporary, and after the death of the Israelitish parent the other relapsed into Christianity, and the children grew up as Christians, though educated superficially in our faith. Other instances again have occurred where the Israelite embraced Christianity, outwardly at least, to please the husband or wife; and thus severed completely the bonds which united him to our race. We have also occasionally seen the children educated as Jews though the Christian parent adhered to Christianity; but far more frequently than all have we witnessed that the children were educated as Christians at once, though no conversion took place in father or mother as the case may be. We speak from our knowledge, and therefore with more certainty than any theorists could who have not investigated the matter. Nay we even know of cases where men united in religious meetings to avow their faith, whilst they did not prevent their wives from educating openly their children as Christians. Who therefore can be an advocate for such unions when the fruits are so injurious to the parties themselves no less than their descendants?

In America there are no legal restraints upon mixed marriages, the law knows of no distinction between Jew and Christian; parents may bring up their children to a positive religion or not, as they may choose; there are no restrictions therefore which could compel a Jew to embrace Christianity if he wishes to espouse a Christian. Still, with all that, a marriage of the kind is tantamount to an apostacy in most instances; though, as we said above, an abiding regret should take up its abode in the soul of the transgressor, he has passed beyond the pale of Judaism as soon as he is allied to foreign blood, not by any act of his friends or church, but simply from the necessity of the case; he has new associations, new feelings to gratify, and thus virtually places himself beyond the reach of his religious teachers, granting even they were present to admonish him from time to time. We do not conceive how it can be possible for a man to pretend to an adherence to Judaism whose wife is not of our faith; he cannot expect that his household should be managed after Jewish customs, nor can his children be educated as Jews, except under rare and favourable circumstances. There are, as we said on a former occasion, some honourable exceptions, where Jewish fathers have educated their children according to our principles and introduced them legally into our congregations; but these exceptions prove the dangerous tendencies to which the rule is liable. Enough, we have suffered severely and for many years constantly from these connexions. Gladly would we see among us some of the German theorists who are so anxious that government should grant the Jews permission to intermarry with Christians without previously forswearing their religion. Let them come among us, and we would point out to them persons hurrying to every religious meeting of one or the other Christian sect, Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, &c., who are descended from Jews, and who became so not by the apostacy of their parents, but by the effect of a mixed marriage. Few indeed, comparatively speaking, are the Jews who are so descended, but many, more so than people imagine, the Christians who boast of a partially Jewish descent. We know several of the most respectable families in different parts of the Union who have Jewish blood in their veins, and no doubt there are in the interior hundreds who have sprung from some emigrant Jews who settled singly in some distant settlements, where they had no intercourse with any of their co-religionists.

If then we wish to preserve our race, we will not say unmixed, for proselytes are as much of Israel as we are, but still if we wish to preserve our race in our religion, and do not wish to see them incorporated with all or any one of the many denominations of Christians, we must endeavour to prevent, if possible, any of our members from intermarrying with Christians or persons indifferent to any faith. Let us state, in passing, that our using the term Christians must not be ascribed to any illiberality, as though we had a particular objection to them only; on the contrary we employ the word merely because we are surrounded by them on all sides, and even they who believe in no religious system whatever, are nominally reckoned among Christians; and we use therefore this comprehensive term as denoting all dissentients from Judaism.—But to proceed, we ought to counteract the tendency occasionally exhibited to seek for matrimonial alliances with those not of our faith. We know we touch upon a tender point, since unfortunately many families have members who have acted in violation of the law of which we are speaking. But we cannot be correct to keep silence for fear of wounding the feelings of friends, when it concerns the highest interests of our souls, our heaven-born religion. We have noticed that many of our people in this country have continued relations of friendship with those who have seceded through marriage, and even countenanced the connexion by styling the non-Jewish wife or husband by the common terms of endearment so beautiful in domestic life. But all this is wrong, radically wrong. There should be a penalty in public opinion against all such transgressors, and then only can the evil be radically cured. Whilst the sinner merely exposes himself to a temporary displeasure of a parent, of a brother, or guardian, to be then again received into favour, or even to become an inmate of the house: another, seeing the penalty no greater, will be very apt to follow in the same track. The remorse and sorrow, we spoke of above, are at best but after-occurrences, and can therefore have no very great influence in deterring those especially whose religion is not very strongly rooted; “experience being,” as we read lately in some paper, “like the stern-lights of a ship, which illuminate the path we have gone over already.” We must have something more than a doubtful future to assist us in correcting backsliding,—there must be immediate effects which will result as a tangible consequence from the transgression, and sure we are that if they are constantly exhibited they will go far to preserve our people from the dangerous intermixture with persons strangers to our religious belief.—We may be, perhaps, accused of fanaticism, and of asking of parents that against which the heart revolts. But we will merely say, that if we are acquainted at all with out own nature, there is no fanaticism in our disposition; we were educated among Christians for nearly five years, and had for more than two years exclusively Catholic priests or candidates as teachers in the school where we studied; we have had many valuable and esteemed friends among several classes of Christians, and hope ever to cherish the most kindly relations with all denominations. But this does not say that we are to love our religion less because we love mankind in general; on the contrary, we wish to aid in keeping erect the standard under which our allegiance has been claimed since the revelation at Sinai, by all the means in our power; and because we believe that the love for gentile women is so dangerous to our religion, do we now so earnestly appeal to our people to discountenance any such alliances.—Parents also are not asked any thing which their heart should revolt if they are true to their faith; they can love their children, but they must love God more. It is easy enough to speak of the love of God, whilst it costs no sacrifices, whilst we from a full exuberance of plenty give, for instance, money to the poor, or offer to the stranger hospitable entertainment under our roof. But when the soul is sorely tried by the sacrifice demanded of us, then will true religion be distinguished from its dangerous counterfeit,—then will it be seen whether we indeed “love our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might.” If, therefore, a child should forget his allegiance to his God by espousing a non-Israelite, it is at once the duty of parents to withdraw from his fellowship; and his brothers and sisters, and other relations, should follow in the same path, and not recognise the person brought into their family without the sanction of the Jewish laws, by the terms which the world applies in such cases. We again repeat, the measure is a severe one; but we see no middle course between giving a tacit consent to such acts of dereliction, and condemning them utterly and significantly in the manner just indicated. And though to act so may appear a cruelty to the offender, it will act as a blessing to the remainder of the family. For, suppose the mother of several children receives her daughter after she has plighted her faith to a man in a Christian church in her house, and even goes so far as to give her a festive entertainment, what does she but invite her other daughters to go and do likewise? Suppose she excuses herself by saying: “She is my child,—she has broken my heart,—I would sooner have followed her to the grave, than behold her united to a person who does not believe with us; but what can I do? she is my child, the past cannot be recalled; I must save her from sinking lower!” Suppose you hear such an argument, will this satisfy you? does it satisfy the mother herself? Certainly not; it is merely endeavouring to deceive the holy Spirit of our heavenly Father, thus to gloss over acts of daring wickedness. If you wish to preserve your families from contamination, act consistently. Your children, it is true, live, as yourselves do, in a free country; they have a power to choose between you and their new connexions; but be earnest with them, and tell them at once, that they MUST choose either you or these new connexions; and that if they choose the latter, they are no longer sons and daughters of yours. Let them understand, should unfortunately one of them disobey you in this essential particular, by your utter refusal to hold any personal intercourse with the culprit and the new connexion, that you are in serious earnest in your love for your God, who bids you to teach his law to your children; and nothing is more likely than that your well-timed rigour will save the others from the snare which the allurements of the world spread for their inexperienced feet.

We wish our readers to reflect how dangerous our position is in all America by the unrestricted intercourse open to us with all classes of citizens. Direct apostacy would shock the most careless Jew; but the quiet yielding of his religion to the seductive influence of a beloved female, or the acquiescence in unlawful practices in deference for a dear friend’s wishes, is something which is not so revolting to the majority of persons. Let it not be imagined that any new matrimonial connexion of the kind we have been speaking of will result more fortunately than all prior ones; they have been hitherto, and will continue in all times to come, detrimental in the highest degree to the religion of the weak party—to wit, the Jews. Nevertheless, many such marriages have constantly taken place, and at times under circumstances the most cruel and revolting; and still parents have often forgiven, and friends have given countenance by not refusing to associate with the delinquents. Now we put the question to all parents: “Do you wish to preserve your children in the religion in which you have been educated?” If so, do something, or at least resolve on something, which will prove to yourselves that your hearts do not vibrate between two extremes. Tell your offspring, especially you who live in fashionable circles, and whose children are surrounded by the seductive influence of silly admirers and flatterers, such as the fashionable world has but too many of, that they must not expect any home in your houses, nor any love and support out of them, if they ever dare to embrace the stranger in wedlock. There must be no hesitation, and sure we are that the tendency to rush into this sin will be checked.—Perhaps some may fear that by cutting off a child, he will apostatize altogether. But we again reply, there can be little good derived from keeping a diseased branch in our communion, one whose fruit necessarily will fall a prey to the stranger. The fruit, as we have shown, will, in all probability, be lost; let the branch go with it. Glad would we be indeed to preserve to Israel all its members, even the greatest sinners; but when such would carry disease to the unaffected, and corrupt by their presence our vitality, let them join those whom they cannot benefit, and leave us healthier and purer by their absence. A friend of ours once told us, “The root of the tree of Israel is indestructible; but many of the branches are diseased, and we would be much better off were we to lop off the diseased branches, even cut down to the root, so that this be left to shoot up anew a more healthy stem, and more healthy branches than were the first.” We all agree in this, that the root of Israel can never be destroyed; dangers even cannot well reach the stem, nor easily the old branches that stand out as the giant arms of the oak tree; but the younger twigs and tendrils which cling and entwine themselves amidst the neighbouring trees, these are in danger of corruption themselves, and of injuring their neighbours. If, therefore, necessity calls, let them be cut off, though our eye weeps whilst we apply the axe; but it is a sacred duty we owe to the good, venerable tree, and let it then be done, though we ourselves are suffering all the while. Only let us be of good courage, and we will feel blest after the sacrifice is consummated, and our peace of mind will be a glorious reward, because that we have been firm in the hour of trial.