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Erroneous Doctrines.

A Sermon, by the Rev. Abraham Rice

Spoken on the Burial-Ground at Baltimore, 29th of Ab, 5604.

The divine spark, which the Almighty has breathed into the human body, which we commonly call SOUL, and also at times designate by the name of CONSCIENCE, is, being an emanation of the Divinity, like the Deity itself, inextinguishable; and we see in the daily occurrences of life full often that the most worldly man is occasionally compelled by the impulse of his own conscience to reflect on his real destiny,—and is, in the midst of his sensuality and passions, unexpectedly roused from his torpor to reflect on something which can in no manner whatever harmonize with his course of conduct. All this is the effect of conscience, or the soul, which suffers not its high derivation to be extinguished nor forgotten, and therefore makes its heavenly claims felt at the very time when man fancies that he has succeeded in removing heaven, altogether from his mental vision. This is the reason of our assembling this day upon the place where lie those who have returned to their home. Our physical body must have something physical by which it can have manifestly placed before its eyes the evanescence of man, his short time and duration in this world, and his future destiny; and for this purpose no better means can be found than to abide by the cold grave; since here the lowest, most abandoned, and the most yielding to his passions comes to the consideration: “To what end will my acts at last bring me? What will be the result of all my doings?” Here the proud must bend his pride, when he sees that the meanest worm will at length sport in his body, and that every thing human returns to the dust. Here the rich must some to the acknowledgement that his riches can benefit him little or nothing, quietly and motionless must he be lowered into the cold grave by the side of the beggar. Here the doubter and the denier of his God must confess at length that there must exist a future, an unending world; because for this short and terminable life this world, so great and beautiful, cannot have been created. Here, therefore, is the proper place where the pure truths can find the best entrance into our souls; and we have with good reason, therefore, assembled here to spend one hour to speak concerning our heavenly or religious concerns. And for this purpose do I choose two verses from this week’s portion, which we read in our Synagogue. We read in Deuteronomy, 16:21, 22:

לא תטע אשרה כל עץ אצל מזבח ה׳ אלהיך אשר תעשה תעשה לך׃ ולא תקים לך מצבה אשר שנא ה׳ אלהיך׃ דבר׳ ט״ז כ״א כ״ב׃

“Thou shalt not plant unto thyself a grove, nor any tree, near the altar of the Lord thy God, which thou shalt make unto thyself. Neither shalt thou set up unto thyself any statue, which the Lord thy God hateth.”

It must naturally strike every one, that if a man is once so lost as to worship idols, he will surely not erect them precisely near the altar of God; for so soon as a man is guilty of idolatry, and denies the unity of God, he will care little for the altar which stood in the precinct of our temple. What could then have been the idea entertained by the law we have quoted? And again the second verse, “Thou shalt not set up unto thee any statue,” which usually led to idolatry, contains almost precisely the same prohibition as the first. But in every word of our law are hidden the deepest thoughts, and each word leads us to various truths; and this is the case likewise in the present instance, as I will endeavour to explain to you.

The Almighty, before whom the future lies equally revealed with the past, knew beforehand what occurrences would happen to his people in the long period between the destruction of the temple and the times of our Messiah. He knew beforehand that men would arise out of our own midst, who would endeavour to impose false doctrines upon the people, and to draw them from the straight path of virtue, adopting in its place false, glittering, and unmeaning words, to denote their new procedure; as Isaiah says, 49:17: “Those who destroy, and they who pull thee down, have come forth from thyself;” and the Omniscient prepared us beforehand for this state of things, and directed us to the way we should enter upon and what course we should pursue. This time, and these occurrences, now lie clearly before our eyes. We learn from the papers that a great pulling down takes place with our brothers in Europe; that even our chief and Rabbins, under cover of the passions, are endeavouring absolutely to force false doctrines upon the people; so that the common man, who cannot think farther than what stands clearly before him, is induced to doubt whether these men will not carry their measures so far, that our holy religion will have to suffer a great change. But for the thinking Israelite all this is nothing uncommon; for him there is no fear; he knows that the religion given by God, will, like God himself, stand unchanged for ever; and that all these events have occurred before this, and that Heaven only smiles over the assumptions of the weak mortals; as David says in his second Psalm: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed. Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away from us their cords. He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh, the Lord will hold them in derision.” See, brethren, our king David, who already sleeps in his grave near three thousand years, has already predicted all this in his prophetic spirit. So also Jeremiah, when he says in his Lamentations, (2:14): “Thy prophets have seen for thee vain and foolish things, and they have not laid open thy iniquity to bring back thy captivity; but have seen for thee false burdens and seductive doctrines.” As I have said, we have witnessed these events before this, and I will make this clear and intelligible to you. We had much to endure and to suffer in the days of barbarism and ignorance for the sake of our religion, so that millions were compelled to sacrifice their lives on account of our sacred faith. What did we lose through these trials? The earthly body, for the souls of those departed ascended untouched to their Father in heaven; the barbarians could only destroy the body, but the soul returned beatified to heaven. But now we are to witness a new and refined mode of persecution; that is to say, our enemies wish to destroy the soul, they wish to blind the ignorant masses by false doctrines,—they wish to take from them their heavenly wealth, and give them in its stead human laws adapted to the times and the fashion of the day. This is the aim of the innovations, and the true meaning of the agitations which we now witness, and is therefore properly a persecution of the soul. The God, however, who caused us to be told through his prophet: "“ the Lord change not, and you sons of Jacob shall not be consumed;” and “Fear not, worm of Jacob, men of Israel! I will assist thee, says the Lord, and thy Redeemer is the holy One of Israel;”—the God who caused us to be told through Moses: “And for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, nor will I abhor them to destroy them utterly, to break my covenant with them: for I am the Lord their God;”—the same God will confound and render to naught all these devices of our opponents.

You will perhaps ask: “What induces these men all at once to disturb with so much violence our holy religion, the inheritance from our fathers?” It is therefore my duty to give you a clear answer to this question. These men see the great abyss which separates us from other nations, and draw thence the conclusion that we can form a friendly alliance with the world only by throwing off our religion, and assimilating to the nations of the earth. They wish, therefore, that we should exchange the heavenly treasure which we have received as a gift from our Father in heaven, for worldly and worthless goods; they wish, so to say, to anticipate the Deity, and to improve the political condition of our brothers at the expense of our religion, as though God, through the faith which He has given us, were the only obstacle why we are not placed on an equality with other nations; and they therefore strive to force upon the people other laws, under the seductive pretence, “We wish only to purify our religion!” Our text therefore admonishes us, “Plant thyself no idolatrous tree near the altar of the Lord;” that is, the Deity has beforehand drawn our attention to the fact, that these men will strive to impose even the worst doctrines upon you under the cloak of religion, and plant for you an idolatrous tree instead of the altar of God. It says farther: “Thou shalt not set up for thyself any monument;” do not imagine that human power is sufficient to give you a high standing like the other nations, to improve your political condition through human means only; no, so long as the Omniscient does not deem the age ripe for our elevation, so long will all human exertions be vain and fruitless labour. How can we, as honest men, undertake to make such an exchange? In order to pass the short period of this life in peace and contentment, would we be willing to sell our eternal rest, our soul? would we be willing to degrade thus the name of Israel? O no! Justly says Isaiah (11:7): “Hearken unto me, ye that know righteous, the people in whose heart my law is; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye terrified at their revilings.”

If even our holy religion prevents us from taking part in many worldly affairs, we should not be led by this circumstance to barter it for something of less value. Alone, as our adored God in heaven, do we stand before the face of the world unshaken in our faith for thousands of years; and alone we thus must remain; and even if mountains tumble into heaps, or valleys be raised, we will remain, and our holy religion will endure undestroyed, notwithstanding the assaults of its enemies.

Perhaps you may ask, with some surprise: “What need we care in this country about the dangers which threaten our brothers on the other side of the ocean?” No, my dear friends, little will you have understood both the object of this movement and the course it will take, if you argue in this manner. Though the great ocean divides us from Europe, the onward flight of such ideas is more rapid than that of the eagle; and whilst we imagine that the fire rages only in a distant country, the sparks scattered from the burning are already kindling a flame in our own dwellings. This consideration it is which moves me to call your attention to the state of things which I have sketched, and how each Jew ought to be on his guard not to listen to seductive words, and how he ought to remain steadfast and unshaken in his belief, though all the goods of the world were offered to him. We have no right to alter one iota in the whole law; for it is not the work of man, that it should require amendment: it is derived from the Almighty, and, like the Almighty, it is unchangeable. The only and legitimate pride which the Jew bears in his heart is, that with us there are no sects,—that the Jew in the East is like the one who lives in the West,—that the religion in the South must be as it is in the North. This unity may be lost through a single ill-advised alteration; every ignorant man would daringly attempt to modify in the religion according to the notions of his feeble intellect; and there would arise a multitude of sects without any parallel. But no! O God, thy name is one, and thy people Israel will remain one, and never will such wicked attempts succeed; they may be able to seduce away the feeble and vacillating, but the firm and upright will stand unshaken to everlasting.

Never will the real Israelite suffer himself to be drawn away from his religion, or swerve from a part of the same by the offer of worldly possessions. Consider, brethren, what Isaiah says (52:2,3): “Shake thyself from the dust, arise, sit down, O Jerusalem! loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion. For thus saith the Lord, Ye have been sold for naught, and without silver shall ye be redeemed.” Here the prophet expresses himself clearly, that we are not to receive our freedom and our worldly prosperity at the expense of religion. Whenever the time of our freedom arrives, it will proceed from the Deity direct; and our holy religion is to be with us in our contest for freedom. Therefore says the same prophet (Ib. 6, 7): “Therefore shall my people know my name; therefore—on that day, that I who speak it am present.” Meaning, for this reason, will my people know my name; and the people that know my name will understand how to distinguish between true and false freedom; for on the day when true freedom shall appear, I will, says God, prove myself, who have spoken the promises, as present on earth. And then how “beautiful will be upon the mountains the feet of him who bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation, that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” For then will the steps of the messenger of good tidings be wonderful and admirable; because he will speak only of peace and union among all Israel; he will announce prosperity, and proclaim salvation; and such a salvation proceeds only from the Omniscient: but not from froward and ambitious men, who endeavour to pull down the divine structure which has stood for thousands of years.

Remember now, beloved friends, what I have unfolded to you this day, and be firm on the day of danger, since through firmness only, and a true insight in these dangerous agitations, can man be safe, so as not to enter upon the ways of error. And justly and confidently will we wait for the salvation of God until the proper time comes; as says Isaiah farther: “For the Lord goeth before you, and your rearward is the God of Israel.” Amen.