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Spiritual Authority.

by Isaac Leeser

In our January number we announced, in a postscript to our News Items, that a letter had been received, which brought the information that the Rev. Dr. Nathan Adler, late Rabbi of Hanover, had been elected Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. Since then the particulars have reached us, and it appears from them that the election, which took place, as we stated before, on Sunday the 1st of December last, was conducted with singular unanimity, Dr. Adler receiving 121 votes, Dr. Hirschfeld 13, Rabbi Hirsch 2, and three congregations, having seven votes, declining to exercise their elective franchise. It thus appears that the office, so long vacant by the demise of the late Dr. Hirschell, has at length been, and we doubt not worthily, filled. We are wrong, however, in stating that it is the office of Mr. Hirschell which has been filled only by the choice of Dr. Adler, since the late Rabbi was only elected by the great Synagogue of Duke’s Place, whereas the present incumbent has been called to his post by the concurrent votes of nearly all the Synagogues of German Jews in Great Britain, since they entered some months since in a species of convention to elect their presiding Rabbi, not through the instrumentality of one congregation only, and to contribute also pro rata to his support. This election therefore has vested in Dr. Adler a power not before enjoyed by any Rabbi in England, and he has been virtually placed by the free suffrages of a body of Jews, powerful through their wealth and attainments, in a position rarely if ever enjoyed by any of our spiritual guides.

He has thus assumed a post of honour; but also one of responsibility, if not of danger: we do not mean personal danger, for such does not exist, but one of danger to his reputation on the one side, and to the religion he represents on the other. We live in times of agitation and movement; and especially in London, there has latterly manifested itself, as our readers well know, a spirit of restlessness in some families, few it is true, but powerful through their wealth, intellect, and standing, which resulted in their secession from the ancient order of the Synagogue. How far they have been secretly or openly countenanced by persons in regular attendance on the other Synagogues, we cannot tell with any degree of certainty; but there is no doubt from certain infallible indications, that there is a large body of semi-reformers, who deplore, as we do, the occasional disorder discoverable in our church polity, and who believe that there are legitimate means within the strictest limits of rabbinical authority, to remove the evil, which we in common with many good men deplore. Let us be understood; we believe the Portuguese form of prayers, with very few exceptions indeed, perfectly unobjectionable, and this we are willing to maintain by argument, whenever occasion requires our so doing; so also we maintain that the German liturgy is by no means so defective as some would make the world believe; and there are in the poetical prayers of the middle age, some splendid composition, full of the spirit of poetry and devotion, which we should be sorry to see removed. Still there are some things which have given cause for animadversion in the mode in which our public worship is conducted: the chaunting of the prayers, the sale of the honours of the Synagogue, the compulsory voluntary offerings, the inharmonious singing witnessed in many places, and similar anomalies, which have become obnoxious to many a thinking Israelite. their existence hitherto has been owing to the state of separation in which we have lived, and the impossibility which existed of bringing public opinion to act on any subject. There were before our days no public journals to give voice to the thoughts of the people; and though we do not approve of, nay, sincerely deplore, the tone which some of our periodicals have assumed, still the partial evil must ultimately lead to the good result of exciting the attention of Israelites to their spiritual concerns, and to arouse them to a sense of what is due to themselves, as well as their religion. Good or evil, however the so called Jewish religious and literary journals may be, is nothing to the question as regards the present; were it to be determined whether they should be commenced, there might be a discussion of their use and abuse; but since they do exist already, and are in all probability sufficiently strongly fixed in the affections of the people, that they are more likely to increase than to diminish, though no one of them all enjoys much public patronage, if we are allowed to judge from circumstances: they must be regarded as an element in our religious government, and, let us add, one which cannot be left unheeded without great danger, for they who come every week or month into the remotest district of the diocese of even the greatest man, with or without his knowledge, must be endowed with a power for good or evil, which will be felt in despite of opposition and denunciation, should these even be resorted to.

To return then from our digression. Some abuses which our fathers did not feel onerous, have in our day been felt a burden by many; and public opinion, we mean by this the opinion of the not-learned, has become aware of the fact which in former days may have presented itself to the learned only. It is therefore not possible now for even the greatest intellect to stand still, if he wishes the welfare of his religion. We do not mean to say that reforms in our religion are required, not such reforms, at least, as the different schismatics of modern days wish to introduce without authority, and urged only by their fancies of right and wrong; but there can be no doubt that the ancient system of school-teaching, happily exploded in many countries, the manner of raising the revenues for the support of public worship, the qualifications of our ministers and teachers, and the absence of decorum in many places from the service of the Synagogue, require a thorough and searching reform, or rather improvement. Another thing, of far greater importance yet, demands the immediate attention of all our leaders: the diffusion of more spirituality among the masses of our people, that they may look upon the outward acts of religion as the exponents of a pure spirit, and as evidences merely of a sense of dutifulness which we owe to the Author of our faith. We cannot deny that many Israelites have been brought up to think every duty discharged, when they have faithfully obeyed and followed up all the ceremonies, though the thought of serious earnestness has been absent. It is this want of appreciation of mental religion, which has caused all the want of decorum with which we are charged by gentiles, who occasionally attend our worship. It needs not our assertion to prove that the ancient Rabbins did not think outward religion enough for Israel; they ascribed to every act a higher aim than its mere performance, they looked upon precept performed as a purification of the spirit, and they wished to impress upon the people that, on entering the house appointed for worship, they came in the more immediate presence of the great King, on which account they ought to stand in a becoming posture, and listen devoutly to the words of the minister as he recited the prayers, even if any one or more of them should be themselves ignorant of the mode of praying in the accepted manner. They recommended, therefore, that upon the minister’s reciting any blessing, the people should respond, as he pronounces the name of the Lord: “Blessed be He, and blessed be His name;” and at the conclusion of each benediction, to affirm the truth, or to assent to the aspiration with a hearty “Amen,” meaning either “It is so!” or “May it be so.” We therefore do not charge the absence of spirituality to our ancient teachers, as some zealots for reform have unwisely and ignorantly done; not they who were ready to sacrifice life and liberty, and all they possessed, so as not to deny the Lord’s unity and truth, can with truth be accused of not leading the multitude to true devotion; for the very formula of prayers, commencing, for instance, at the laying of the Tephillin, “In the name of the Only God the holy One, praised be his name, and his majesty, and in perfect worship of his being, and in the name of all Israel, I now prepare myself to obey the commandment,” &c., proves that they thought a mental preparation requisite to sanctify every act of outward worship, to render it efficacious in promoting purity, and to render it acceptable before God. But we think that the cause of the want of earnestness may be discovered in the want of capacity of those in whose hands the education of children was formerly placed, who were often men with some learning, but in many instances totally unfit to rear up the mind to reach any elevation. Another cause was the neglected state in which the small congregations were left seldom or never having the presence of a spiritual chief among them, to see whether or not there was a defect which he could remedy, or at least abate, through the means which his station had placed in his power. Though we are now speaking of Europe, we cannot say that we in America are much better off; for though our children born here have not had incompetent teachers in worldly things, they have had but little religious instruction, and in many places none whatever. Of spiritual guidance through their elected ministers, there has been deplorably little, and a chief, who has the direction of the synagogues, has never existed here. We do not wonder, therefore, that both in America and Europe, spiritual religion is so rare, but it is on the contrary, a matter of thankfulness and surprise, that our faith has survived the long neglect of the means to urge its growth. Herein, too, we have evidence that the hand of the Lord has supported us; and were it not that He had sustained us in all the tribulations, which four hundred years of the darkest oppression had brought upon us, we would long since have perished in our affliction.

We say, therefore, for all the above reasons, that the newly elected Rabbi of Great Britain, has a difficult task before him, which if he executed as becomes a shepherd of a large portion of the flock of the Lord, he will earn unto himself an enviable and imperishable reputation. On the one side, he will be appealed to by those who demand ample changes, who wish to assimilate Judaism to what is termed the spirit of the age, who want to gentilize our worship, and bring us within the circle which approaches nearer the “Christian state” of certain politicians than our system will permit us. On the other wise, however, he will be assailed by those who are fond of every thing stationary, with whom the very cobwebs on the walls of the synagogue are something too sacred to be brushed away by the sacrilegious hand of some industrious housemaid. We do not speak in derision, for, to us the subject is one too serious to admit of a jest, even for argument’s sake; we speak the sober truth, and sure we are that some of our European readers will confirm what we have asserted, to be literally true. Such as these would oppose an English sermon, because it is customary to preach in Christian churches; they would refuse to stay out the period of the service of the Synagogue, because their grandfathers did not deem it an interruption to the worship to run in and out as often as they liked; they would oppose the abolishing of the sale of the Synagogue honours; they would consider it an innovation, leading to direful unknown consequences, if a plan should be proposed to do away with the voluntary compulsory offerings, and to substitute in their stead a uniform simple method of raising sufficient funds for the use of the congregation; they would probably deem it a sin to introduce new school-books, from which children might imbibe a better appreciation of their blessed religion, than they can do from the senseless method of merely learning a little Hebrew by rote without any knowledge of the principles of grammar or of rational religion; and, lastly, who would think it s downright infringement of their prerogative, were the Rabbi to demand that each candidate for the ministry should be examined by him before he could be permitted to assume the office of reader or teacher in any congregation. To be sure they would cheerfully admit that the Rabbi should examine the Shochatim (our non-Israelite readers must know that by this term we mean those persons authorized to kill the animals which we use as food), because it is requisite, and justly so, that those who are to pronounce for us judgment between the clean and the unclean, ought to be men of sufficient information as regards their duties, and of unblemished character; but they do not see the necessity of those addressing, for them, the throne of Grace, being men of learning and capable of guiding the people under their charge. It will, therefore, be no post of ease for the Chief Rabbi to know how to act amidst such opposite ideas urged upon him, as no doubt they will be, upon his first arrival; he will have to ward off all importune advice, and not decide hastily until he has become thoroughly acquainted with the wants and wishes of the people who have voluntarily placed themselves under his charge. And we trust that they will have the good sense not to expect a sudden change for the better by the ministration of Dr. Adler; since they ought to be convinced that improvement, to be permanent, must be of slow and gradual growth, for any thing which springs up in a night as uniformly perished in a night. But when they see, as we hope they will, that their Rabbi is the leader in all useful reforms, that he aims by his own personal exertions to diffuse light in every town of his diocese; that he preaches frequently, eloquently, and fearlessly the word of God; that he rebukes vice whether it be seated in high places, or found in the hovels of poverty; that he urges on the friends of religion to establish schools for all classes, whence they may draw the wholesome instruction of science, combined with and based upon the principles of our faith; that he endeavours to heal the breaches when a state of interregnum has produced; we trust that when all this is seen, that they will unite heart and hand to aid the pious efforts of their religious chief, and do all that lies in their power to forward the blessed cause for which we have been ordained a nation.

Some of our readers may, perhaps, think that we have exceeded our province in speaking about the prospects of our English brethren, with respect to the choice they have lately made. But in thus judging they would do us injustice. America is more allied to England than with any other country; there prevails between them an identity in the origin of the people and the laws; the language is the same in both, and the intercourse between them is daily becoming more rapid, certain, and intimate. If this is undeniably the case in commercial and political relations, it is not the less so in religious concerns; and matters which, when agitated on the continent of Europe, would have passed unobserved by the majority of our brethren in this country, assume an important bearing when they reach us from England. Moreover a large portion of English Jews are domesticated in America, and these naturally look to their native land for all religious impulses, and consult what is done there before they can resolve to act here. It is therefore with just cause that we feel a deep interest in the progress of our religion in England, and this is intimately connected with the acts and opinions of the man whom the people have just raised to the chair of authority. If the impulse thus imparted will be for good, we have the best founded hopes that the same impulse will be felt here; but if the reverse be the case, we fear that we shall suffer here also. Moreover, we confidently trust that, if Dr. Adler can show by his acts the usefulness of a spiritual chief, it will not be long before the American Israelites will also demand the election of a chief with several associates to preside over our worship and education; and hence the course of the English Rabbi will be watched with a double anxiety by many who deeply feel how important a thing their religion is to them and to the world at large. We indeed candidly think that we require in this country some ecclesiastical authority over and above the independent ministers who are elected without any examination, and act irrespective of each other’s wishes, being as they are only bound by the will of their respective congregations. But we have at present said already so much that we must defer any farther remarks to a future occasion; in the mean time we beg of all our readers to ponder will on the question “whether a greater union and uniformity of action is not highly necessary, and would be productive of much good among the Israelites who are settled in America, who are, moreover, daily increasing in numbers, in wealth, and respectability.”