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The Reform Agitation.

By the Rev. S. M. Isaacs.

In an age like the present, when the most startling theories are mooted, the most pernicious doctrines disseminated, and the strangest systems propagated regarding our religious polity, it becomes every man in whom the latent spark of religion is not extinct, to employ all the means in his power to prevent the theorist from putting his visionary schemes into practice, to thwart the worldling in his dangerous doctrines, and to counteract the copyist in his onward course. Carrying out this principle to its fullest extent, I take up my pen, not to exhibit the “cacoethes scribendi,” nor to cater to the taste of the innovator, not for self-aggrandizement, nor for fleeting popularity; but for the sole aim and purpose of demonstrating to the Judaic world, that the system we have followed in our dark days, and our brighter ones, has performed all it was destined to accomplish; and to adduce evidence to prove that reforming our system of worship as regards its spiritual affairs, will entail danger on our nationality, and mainly tend to remove the landmarks which were erected by prudence and caution, and which hitherto have been sufficient to guide the pilgrim of hope to the regions of immortality.

In order that I may be properly understood, I will first define my position, lest on the one hand I be accused of Rabbinism, or on the other hand of innovation. My object is neither to defend the saints of antiquity, nor to hurl down their appointment; but to prove, from facts, that our system of worship, apart from its temporalities, is the best of all systems; and to adduce evidence that adding or diminishing, abrogating or altering our form of prayers, handed down to us from the Men of the Great Synod, אנשי כנסת הגדולה and other saints of a later date, at the will or caprice of men, who, however well-intentioned, are yet tinctured with the spirit of the age, and not capable of judging correctly or dispassionately—that reforms so instituted—will lead to inevitable ruin on our polity, and tend to unfetter the chain by which we have ever been riveted in union and in love.

Our system, tested by experience, ripened by age, was, in its primary nature, intended to be distinct from that of other nations in its every form. Our records testify that whenever we retained its distinctive features we prospered, whenever we were unmindful of the distinction, we became enthralled in misery and ruin. We were destined to be “a peculiar people;” and this peculiarity was to manifest itself in the Israelite wherever he might be located, and it was to be apparent to the naked eye.—Like the prophets of the Lord, who became the instruments of his will, selected for that purpose, so the Jew was to be the living witness of the unity of God. Trained for that destiny, the Jew, as taught by Moses and the prophets, was to be traced in his appearance, in his moral and social duties, and mainly through his religious obligations.

Respecting his appearance, it may be averred, without the fear of contradiction, that the Jew may at once be recognized by the “distinctive” feature. It cannot be considered Asiatic, or the more fanciful term orientalist, it is strictly Jewish. Hence our sages have aptly said אף על פי שחטא ישראל הוא “Although he sins he is still an Israelite.” Let him eat forbidden viands, the remark will be, “the Jew eats that which his law forbids;” let him intermarry among strangers to his creed, the Jew still clings to him; let him renounce his faith, the “converted Jew” becomes his name; the features may lose something of the expression of benevolence, but the Jew is there, to haunt him to his dying hour; it is the monitor which troubles him in all his paths; it is the shadow which darkens his course. We will not enter into so complex a subject as the cause of this peculiarity; it is sufficient that the cause exists; and, as Jews, we feel grateful to the Omniscient that He has so distinguished us. Let us meet each other, either in the torrid or frigid zone, no introduction is required, no ceremony is requisite; simultaneously we are impressed with the conviction that we are Jews, that we serve one God; from that moment we become one, we cheer each other, we inquire respecting our nation, and direct each other’s mental gaze to the land of promise.—Socially we have also our peculiarity, a distinctive feature; our domestic hearth is indescribable, it is an Eden of this world. The marriage of a Jew and Jewess becomes the harbinger of bliss; aware of the awful responsibility that state enjoins, all its weighty matters have erst been calculated, and it is a phenomenon to see the home of peace swept by a blast of war. A divorced woman is a subject spoken of in the Law; but scarcely found in practice. Our children become the counterpart of ourselves, their entrance into the world is heralded forth in prayer, and, whilst yet lisping their first infantile words, they are taught that there is one God and no other. It is spoken to them at dawn of day, repeated at noon, and reiterated at close of evening. We train them for this world and the next, and the “distinctive” mark stamps its immortal impress on their minds. We recount to them that we are the chosen people, that the law given to our forefathers is the book of life to the world; we detail to them our golden age, and our iron pilgrimage; we inform them that the greatest men of antiquity were Israelites, and we train them to emulate each other in virtuous deeds.—Extending our remarks as to our social condition, we refer to the term “friend,” as understood by us, and find in it all that can render man dear to man. To serve a friend, we surrender every selfish feeling. Animated by similar principles we, in heart-stirring emulation, sharpen each other’s understanding as “iron sharpens iron” ברזל בברזל יחד׃ When we behold a friend in distress, we disregard time, distance or purse, but offer every thing on friendship’s shrine. We allow no Israelite to become mendicant; but think it only a portion of our duty to wipe the eye moistened by tears, to remove distress from the heir of grief, and to use all energetic means to prevent a few being poor. Morally we have likewise our peculiarity, “a distinctive feature.” Our moral eye looks at a glance through the world, and analytically surveys the condition of Israel throughout its dispersion. We smile with approval when we read of any thing that may tend to the credit of our nation, we become sad when we peruse any subject that may degrade our people. Schooled by adversity we have been taught the lessen of unity; it matters not where the wrong is performed, the Jew feels the smart wheresoever he may dwell; it is of no impart where the good is done, the Israelite takes the credit, wheresoever he may be located. The state of Jewish morals will bear the strictest scrutiny. Wherever a Jewish family take up their residence, it is a safe guarantee that they become good neighbours, excellent citizens, and deeply anxious for the prosperity of the land they adopt. This is not confined to the present era: but in the darkest ages, where superstition and bigotry inflicted their dreadful wounds, the Jew, in affliction, remained loyal to the land that oppressed him; and it is but reasonable to suppose that increased liberality tends to increased loyalty.

Having thus cursorily glanced at our social and moral condition, and demonstrated that it is peculiar and distinctive, we become impressed with the soundness of the system, the excellence of its working, and, as a natural consequence, it must be a matter of regret that any thing should occur which may mar our happiness, counteract our destiny, or destroy our unity. It may perhaps be asked, why speculate on a theme which is visionary? If your system has been tried by affliction, and stood the test, why fear for it when the liberality of the world has manifested itself in every way? To be candid, this is my fear: I fear not the world. I fear Israel, lest they should lose the “distinctive,” since יפה עניות לישראל “Adversity has ever been good for Israel.” When the iron entered their soul, they looked to God and became consoled in affliction; but when they prospered, unmindful of their destiny, they mingled with the nations and became ensnared in their system. Morally and socially this might perhaps be no barrier to their happiness; but religiously it ever has and ever must tend to Israel’s ruin. Our religious system is peculiar and distinct; those landmarks removed, we become engulfed in the abyss of deism or infidelity, and the vine (Israel) which was brought from Egypt, whose low-hanging tendrils now sweep the earth, will deteriorate—its branches will become engrafted with those of others; and, although it might continue to flourish and Israel remain a people, yet a branch might be snapped from the tree of Judaism which never can be replaced.

It may, however, be urged, that what has been advanced does not meet the question, that all which has been stated has reference to our moral and social condition, whilst the religious system remains untouched. This is precisely as intended; having adduced sufficient to show that the superstructure is good, we need scarcely look at the foundation. But, as some Israelite, with new ideas, may argue that we shrink from the question, we will, even at the expense of being considered tedious, extend our remarks, to demonstrate that our religious system is calculated for all times and seasons, and that, in reforming that system, we shall become copyists, in lieu of being original, and the ultimate result will be a total loss of nationality, an extinction of that distinctive condition which should ever mark our course, and an overthrow of that polity which has been our consolation in adversity, and which should continue our boast in prosperity. Our religious system is calculated for all times and seasons. It consists of a code of prayers, selections from the learned of antiquity, and a compendium of all that is required from the earthworm wherewith to address his heavenly Father. The synagogue is the shrine, where the mind embued with grief, the heart overflowing with gratitude, should in unison of feeling address the living God. It is the fane where spirit should commune with spirit; it is the school in which Ezra taught Israel their law and its requirements. And to this theme should the eye of the soul be directed; the law and its obligations have ever been its ruling star, hence its perpetuity. But, say the men of the new world, “The system was suited for by-gone days, we live in an enlightened era, we want to be impressed with the prayers, we wish our place of worship to have a more modern appearance, we require music to arouse the soul; in fine, we want to surpass our neighbours in all that appertains to religious worship.” The first proposition is certainly such as no one can deny; we should be impressed with the prayers. But may it not be asked where the fault lies: is it in the prayers or in ourselves? It is in the latter; we have been unmindful of our duty, unimpressed with our highborn destiny; the remnant of our departed greatness has been forsaken, we have despised the child of Heaven (the Hebrew language) deriding her delightful, energetic and philosophical worth. Unbefriended and contemned, we have committed our charge in a frail bark to the streams of time, to the mercy of its waves; we have left our heirloom to strangers, our language to be sedulously cultivated by the biblical student of every sect, whilst we, as Hebrews, are alienated from its language. Instead then of censuring a system, let us be humiliated ourselves, let our energies be directed to suit ourselves to the system, not to measure the system by our own incapability, let our reforming Hazanim, instead of wasting their time in traducing the Rabbins, exert their latent talent in having the Hebrew language cultivated by every son of Israel.—But there are other theories. “Why should not an organ form a part of the system? was it not employed in the temple worship? does it not arouse the soul to duty?” This is all special pleading. The organ is not desired because its notes reverberated in the East, but because it is employed in the churches of the West; because our neighbours of other creeds have an organ, we are desirous of assimilating our system to theirs. And here is the danger; it is not the last stroke that fells the tree, but the slow sapping means which accelerate its fall. It is an innovation on the distinctive feature which characterizes our system.

Our religious system is one of humility; the primitive Hebrews in singleness of purpose and ardency of attachment, made the law their guide, and in its pages they found והצנע לכת עם אלהיך “thou shalt walk humbly with thy God;” but those who desire these changes, however sincere their profession and earnest their intention, with regret be it said, they are not influenced by humility, but by religious pride, which has proved the stumbling-block of thousands. Goaded on by its influence, they become the obsequious slaves to a host of erring and blind impulses, and call fashion religion, religion fashion. They would have the most sacred rites disregarded; and they call that religion which meets their views. They would have a system of Judaism unknown to the ancients, and even now unacceptable to ninety-nine out of every hundred Hebrews with whom the world abounds. It is this pride which carries men to the most violent extremes; in the excess of folly, causing them to rush where angels scarcely tread. They would change this, and alter that, and proceed in their career, until sanctity, in its most venerable associations, becomes desecrated by the sacrilegious hand of pride; till the whole fabric of our religious polity becomes a mutilated structure soon to fall; till Judaism, as characterized by its distinctive feature, be entirely destroyed, and give place to a chameleon state; till the elder brother of the family of worshippers squanders away the substance which primogeniture had given him, and borrows from his younger brethren a few miserable rags, wherewith to deck out his person, in the hope that he may, thus attired, enter the portals of heaven. From the dread moment this spirit gains an entrance into the human heart, it will seek to extend its influence; in its overwhelming self-sufficiency, it will enlarge or contract, build up or pluck down, unite or sever. In a word, this turbulent, ungovernable spirit will be satisfied with nothing short of a total renunciation of every thing that bears a Jewish appearance.—They will first ask for an organ; and, in order to give stability to their doctrine, they will consult their oracle, their minister; he, desirous of bringing his people to worship, readily makes the required concession, vainly imagining that this musical religion will be the summum bonum of their desire. But, alas! it is but the means to an end. When once we surrender a point to the worldling, the citadel will soon be stormed; all that is sanctified by age will be destroyed; and a new system will spring forth, suited to true taste of those who have no respect for age. To avoid this dangerous declivity, it has been aptly said by our expositors on the 3d c. 7th v. of Zachariah, עשו משמרת למשמרתי “Make ye a fence to my fence,” that no inroad be made on the really sacred and inviolable. This bears particular reference to our system of worship; and its abrogation would endanger our whole religious polity.

Extending our remarks respecting the organ, we shall have additional reasons for rejecting it as an adjunct to prayer. Looking retrospectively at the time it was mooted in Hamburgh, some twenty-five years since, we find that all the theologians of that day rejected it, not alone as an innovation, but as a direct prohibition, as a system unknown to the ancients, in their Synagogues, and as opposed to the spirit in which we should address the Deity, who requires no mediator of wood, but accepts the prayer of the meek and lowly. It is, however, urged that an organ was employed in the Temple. With safety I could reject this as visionary, and assert that עגב (Psalm 150. 4.) anglicised organ, is in no way applicable to the organ as used in churches, but that its proper meaning is yet enshrouded in mystery. But by acting thus we should concede a point against our inclination. We have no Temple, nor should we imitate Temple worship; this will be time enough when the “sheep return to their fold.” At present we have Synagogues, and the object should be to hold on to the religious system as practised in days of yore. In referring to Nehemiah and Ezra we perceive that their energies were directed to collect and compose the prayers in the pure original form of language; but music was no part of their polity; “We had hung our harps upon the willows.”—Our system must retain its distinctive feature; we have one God, one law, one system, and should have one code of prayers. But the moment an inroad is made on the latter, it matters not what reasoning is employed, it is replete with danger, and its tendency will be to subvert all that the ravages of time have spared. To illustrate the force of this argument we will use words employed by men who, unmindful of their origin and former avocation, ask us, “Who were the Rabbins that they should make laws to bind us?” It would be easy to assert, that they were men whose lives were devoted to prayer and to piety, whose energies were employed for the salvation of Israel, and whose mental eyes looked deeply into the future. But, for the sake of argument, let us allow that they were narrow-minded, superstitious, and cynical: can we then be safe in rejecting a system, which they did not establish, but merely fortified? Can we proceed without our rabbinical code? How can we celebrate feast or fast, joy or sorrow? How perform any of the religious rites the Mosaic code enjoins? Are the reformers ready to become Caraites קראים?—or shall we be left to the guidance of those who think self-denial forms no part of religion? No, our system has outlived all others, and its sun will continue to illumine the house of Israel when we shall be forgot as the “dead from the heart.” Let us, in the words of Mendelssohn, continue to hold on to our system, until a power equal to that which enjoined it shall order its abrogation. We have gone too far already, there is a moral cowardice pervading our polity sufficient to stunt the growth of every plant of Judaism; we have become unmindful of our high-born destiny, our patriarchs’ names adorn the head of Christian families, whilst we name our children after modern heroes; we have copied the manners of those among whom we have the happiness to dwell beyond the bounds of prudence; we leave no מזוזה on our doors lest our neighbours should see them, we lay no תפלין on our arms lest our Christian friends should think our religion a mystery; we partake of their viands lest they should think us unsocial; we visit their churches lest they should deem us irreligious. Heaven forbid that we should make this sweeping assertion against the collective body: it is intended against individuals; and to demonstrate that Judaism has borrowed from those it was destined to supply. Let us, then, shun the meshes of reform, but continue true to the system as practised in days of yore; let us cling to our God, who supported us under the severest trials, who conducted us safely through numberless perils, smoothed our passage through the most tempestuous paths, and be impressed with the radiant message, that the beauties of nature shall fade, the whole visible world sink in endless night, but Israel shall survive, and be “saved an everlasting salvation.”

New York, August, 5604.