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The Demands of the Times.

by Isaac Leeser

In our previous papers, under this head, we spoke of the absolute necessity which exists of doing something for the spread of our religion, by a united effort of the disjointed members of our people, scattered over the wide surface of the American continent and the adjacent islands. We have always been sorry, (and what honest man could be otherwise?) to be compelled to confess that the state of religion among us is very low indeed. Not that people do not have faith in religion, but that they do not act up to the standard which has been presented to us by our forefathers. The indifference is one of supineness, not of an aggressive nature. In America there may be a few enemies to our religion, men who would seek designedly to injure our holy structure; but their number must be small indeed, if we may trust to the opinion which we have formed from our very general intercourse and extensive acquaintance with all classes of persons.—There is, we say it sincerely, no enmity to Judaism existing to any great extent; there are but few who would gladly see their neighbour yield himself captive to infidelity or join another system of faith. When, however, we come to enumerate those who look with indifference upon religious observance, we fear that the number will be found exceedingly great. The observance of the Sabbath, that weekly sacrifice of our time to the divine will, is neglected to such an extent that honourable Christians speak of it as a shame, as a disgrace to us; and with respect to the prohibited kinds of food, the non-conformity is too glaring to escape detection. The same may be said with respect other duties; for it has become perfectly evident that we can lay no claim to the title of a religious community. To judge from late accounts, the same defect is chargeable to the Jews of Germany; and to a still greater extent to those of France; but this generality of the disease is no consolation to our wounded spirit; it aggravates our sorrow, that so short a lapse of time, as from the commencement of the nineteenth century till now, should have produced so striking a change in our course of life. We know well enough, that sinning is characteristic of human nature, and that when the prophets walked bodily among us we were, as a nation, guilty of the grossest transgressions. Still this does not satisfy us that such things must always continue to be so. The sins of our fathers are so many warnings, that we may be rendered wiser through their sufferings; and the wrongs practised in Europe clearly prove to us, that there is something very blameable somewhere.

In the remarks which we spread before our readers in the concluding number of the first volume, we endeavoured to trace the change in religious sentiment and action to the overthrow of royalty and Christianity by the French revolution. We may, perhaps, be wrong; but we candidly think that that event stands pre-eminent in its effects upon the mind, perhaps more so than any fact recorded in modern history. We said that the contagion spread to us from abroad, and we are willing to abide by this opinion, as one which we deem incontrovertible by any argument or contradiction from any quarter. We believe that the general falling off witnessed among the Christians, chiefly of the catholic denomination, the rise of the French and German philosophers, who cavilled at every thing, and left not the most sacred objects untouched, also tended to render the Jews rationalists, or questioners of the truth of their own system. We also maintain, that the compulsory neglect of duty, engendered by Jews entering the armies of the European sovereigns, and fighting their battles, reacted upon those who were not so situated, and gradually rendered a state of transgression less rare, and consequently 1ess dreaded.

But the evil might, perhaps, have stopped here, had our religious chiefs known how to turn the state of confusion to the advantage of our faith. We have not many data to judge by; still we think that we cannot be far wrong in believing that the Rabbins were not enough men of the world, and did not understand the movement which took place around them. Learned they were; honest also they were in the highest degree; they lived humbly and were devoted to their calling; but they had, as was the custom in those days; received a one-sided education, Talmudical in the highest sense of the word, and sciences were not thought of.—Whilst the disquisitions, which develope the highest intellectual efforts of the mind, were all that was expected of their leaders by the mass, whilst the greater the amount of ancient erudition a Rabbi could display, the greater became his renown among his flock; whilst all had to suffer alike from persecution; whilst there was no amelioration in their political condition, and consequently the distance between the Jews and their neighbours was kept up with all the ancient feeling of bigotry and intolerance on the one side and contempt for the power of the world on the other: it might, perhaps, have sufficed that these men, of whom we are speaking, should have needed no other qualification in their spiritual dominion over our people. But with the appearance of Mendelssohn, and perhaps a little before his day, a new spirit began to dawn over Europe; sciences were exhumed from their long closed sepulchre, and men of all opinions came in contact with each other upon very different grounds than mere church authority, state authority, or authority of any kind. It was wit, more than argument, which was not rarely resorted to; large tomes fell into disuse, and short essays, cogent though brief, began to be required for the daily food of the people. In these circumstances our ancient Rabbins and schoolmasters were behind the age.—They felt not the movement, or if they did, they thought that the storm would not reach them. They continued to disregard the world and worldly learning, though more genial toleration from without was bringing gentile opinions home to Jewish bosoms. We do not hesitate to confess that we were gradually falling under the influence of secular sciences, by the example of the gentiles at the awakening of Europe from its long slumber, just as we were compelled by the persecutions of an antecedent age to yield up the sciences which we had cultivated with more success and to a much greater extent than any other class of people, and to resort to the subtilties of discussion as the only refuge for the active intellect which is one of the peculiar features of our race.

Thus then stood matters. On the one side, teachers unacquainted with the spirit of the age, nor with the things in which this spirit displayed itself; on the other, a rage for new theories, running not in its inexperience and newly acquired freedom. Let it be understood that the decline of religious conformity was not as sudden among us as it was among the Catholics; the state never having been ours, its downfall could not affect us as it did those depending upon it for existence. But though gradual, the progress of the disease was not the less sure. The new-fashioned were at first but few, and seldom rose to the surface of the whirlpool of sin except when in company with those who thought and acted with them. They were cautious before the religious portions, for sin was not yet become the fashion. The teachers of the people did not countenance them, and they were thus acting in rebellion against public sentiment. But their numbers from one cause or the other constantly increased; for there were not many leaders who sufficiently understood what the times demanded, to bring back the offenders, or knew how to yield in little matters of no importance to secure the permanency of our entire system. The task was indeed a difficult one, and it is doubtful whether any education, or any efforts on the part of our guides could have been of any avail when the fever for change first broke forth on the European continent. Still no one can deny that they were from many circumstances totally unfit to stem the torrent which carried so much desolation in its progress. Besides this, they felt pleased that the houp of freedom had sound­ed; they hailed the armies which poured forth over Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Holland, as so many liberators from galling slavery, and forgot perhaps at the time that with freedom from political bondage those men were from circumstances warring also against opinions. Who would not follow the army when he might enjoy honours which had so long been strangers to Jews? Who would not march under banners which waved in triumph over many a city in which Jews were not formerly permitted to enter? And how could the Rabbins refuse dispensation to those who bore arms in a cause so noble as that of a contest for liberty? It need not be mentioned that the service in the armies was compulsory, and that the dispensation was a mere matter of form; for Jews had to serve whether the Rabbins permitted it or not; Jews had to march and fight on the Sabbath whether our laws could be construed in favour of this violation of law or not. But still all this tended to unloose opinions, especially as we had, as said, so few who understood the nature of the mental war which was sure of being waged against our ancient systems, sooner or later, from the moment that those imbued with the new ideas were sufficiently powerful through numbers and respectability to declare themselves openly. And when this war did commence, when our own ideas too were subjected to the carping process of modern investigation: the defenders of the ancient usages were entirely unfit to contend with their reforming antagonists, just as the heavily lumbered armies of Prussia could not stand before the light-armed forces of Napoleon. The learning in the remains of our sages, the perfect acquaintance with the Talmud and Midrashim when paraded before the people, failed to convince when brought into contact with the learning of the schools of philosophy, arranged before the public with all the trappings of eloquence and a popular mode of writing. In outer words the Rabbi sunk before the preacher, the champion of ancient customs before the dashing advocate of new theories. But does this prove that the latter were necessarily right, the former undoubtedly wrong? Certainly not; it merely argues that the tact of the latter was greater, that their method was more agreeable to the people than the manner of their antagonists.

The consequence of all this was, that the Synagogue with its prayers, argumentative discourses and antiquated ceremonies failed to attract the readers, the official servants of the house of God were not educated to preach in the popular dialects, and were otherwise too deficient in the requisite branches of a polite education to become orators and expounders of the word. The Rabbins, with few exceptions, were similarly situated, and they moreover had not learned to speak to and for the million, they only could speak to and for the schools. During all this time the storm of war raged fiercely throughout Europe, and the conflict of opinions also did not cease in its violence. The result was, that at first the Rabbins were privately assailed, many learned to disregard them from their intercourse with the new-fashioned, either dazzled by their arguments or misled by their example.

At length a new race came upon the scene; Israelites learned in worldly things, educated at the high-schools of the gentiles and but imperfectly acquainted with the stores of our own traditions, though sufficiently so to read and expound them to suit their own purposes. No one, indeed, called these from the shades of retirement, they were not placed in the chair of instruction by the popular voice. Still, they knew how to acquire adherents, and little by little they obtained followers sufficiently numerous to make themselves felt in their effects upon the public mind. And thus one joined the other, to make a public war upon ancient usages, and thus combined they constituted a new party in our household, that of the reformers. With all this the Rabbins of the old school have but rarely broken silence; and if they do, it is but of little avail. For whilst the moderns speak and write for the mass, either in German, French, or English, the friends of the old system continue to send forth their missives in the Hebrew language. Let us not be misunderstood; we condemn the use of Hebrew only in this respect: where the masses are to be acted upon; far is it from our mind, to countenance even, much less to join the crusade against the use of the holy tongue in our worship; for this is one of the very things which is the proper characteristic of our people. But we merely state the fact, that our great minds did not properly appreciate the dangers of the time, and they forgot that authority as such had lost its charm, that excommunication, if even pronounced, would not have been heeded more than the idle wind. In short, the time had come to reason with the people, the age for commanding obedience had passed. The enlightened members of the catholic church refused blind obedience to the pope; the dogmas of the protestant sects were openly canvassed; and our teachers should not have disdained to appear before their flocks as champions of the tenets they taught. But they did not, With but few exceptions; and to this day the “movement men” have the public ear almost exclusively through the public press, for the Orient and Jewish Gazette of Germany and the Archives Israelites of France, not to mention the papers started entirely by the newlights, are all advocates for reform in some shape. There may be one or two continental journals of an opposite tendency, but we have not seem them. The friends of ancient usage may be correct in looking upon journalism with distrust; but the people demand periodical information more than patient study, for which many have not the time; why then refuse yielding when resistance is no longer possible? why not enter the lists at once and battle manfully for what is so precious, so holy as the good cause of our faith? We fear almost that a minority, as the reformers are, a very meagre minority, they have had the field so long to themselves, that it will require great exertions to make the public attentive listeners to the other side of the question.

To add to the evil all our modern Rabbins who belong to the movement party have obtained their education chiefly at Christian colleges, and value the title of Doctor of Philosophy, with which they are ornamented, perhaps as high as their name of Moraynoo, which alone qualifies them for the functions they exercise in our community. They are Jewish philosophers, and, we fear, not sufficiently embued with the true spirit to be safe guides to Israelites. And if ever rabbinical authority was in danger, it, is from the doctrines of those who, whilst they claim the title of Rabbins, are actually at work to cast odium upon their predecessors and contemporaries who will not move with them. Now it must be clear to our readers how it is that our teachers have effected so little in the last half century, and why they are so powerless at this day. On the one side they do not understand what is needed, on the other they are incapable to contend against the evil which they themselves have evoked. Now we in America have scarcely any religious teachers at all; we have readers, a few preachers who occasionally address the public; but, we say it with deep humiliation, we have not those whose position enables them to advance the religious sentiment which has so much fallen into decay; the Hazanim are too much occupied with their often onerous routine of duty to attend to studies and to prepare weekly sermons even if they had the requisite education; and schools of religion there are scarcely any which deserve the name. We do not therefore wonder that so little religion is seen among us; the wonder is, that in spite of all the disadvantages of time and position, it should not retrograde. This, thank God, it has not done for several years past; to this we bear a cheerful testimony; and so far from falling off, there is a better spirit, and the communities too are constantly increasing; and wherever a sufficient number are assembled in one place, there they form themselves into a congregation and establish a Synagogue. But this all increases only the necessity for teachers, and imposes a new obligation on us all to do something in the cause of the Lord.

Our readers no doubt understand our drift. We leave the subject to their reflection, and promise them to speak again in plainer terms on the premises before very long.

(To be continued.)