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The Jewish Ministry

by Isaac Leeser

There can be no question that the congregations in this country have hitherto been neglectful in the greatest duty they owe to themselves, to rear up from among themselves persons to fill the important office of minister of religion. Go where you will, from one end of America to the other, not even excepting the West India islands, and you will be struck with the remarkable fact that all the ministers are foreigners by birth, and have either come hither in search of office, or have been chosen from among those who followed mercantile or other pursuits for some time after their arrival. The majority, we may say nearly all, are natives of Germany, and Prussian Poland, even in the professed Portuguese congregations, and but three in the United States have been used to the customs of the Sephardim from their infancy. In former times there were several native ministers; but these few have died away, and their places have been supplied by new-comers. To judge from appearances then, one would suppose that the office of minister was not much esteemed among us, or else respectable families would educate their children so as to enable them to occupy any vacancy which may occur. This is certainly the case in some respects; for unfortunately, both for the people and the incumbents, the requirements for the office have hitherto, for the most part, been purely of a ministerial nature, a regular execution of prescribed duties, and the word of advice was not expected from the Reader of the Synagogue. The consequences may be easily deducted from such premises; the servant of the house of God had no weight in the community, he had no individual rights, he having a prescribed routine to follow; and to use the words of an influential member in a certain congregation addressed to a Reader who complained of the infringement of his rights: "You, sir, have no rights, you have only duties to perform." It requires no argument to prove that where such sentiments prevail, a man of honour either cannot serve, or if he should have been chosen, his spirit will soon be crushed, and he will sink down into the mere performer of duties, and will not venture to assume responsibilities, when, after all his care, he may be reminded to his cost that he has no rights as a minister, that he can be treated at the pleasure of the congregation like a servant, like one employed to perform certain duties merely, and that he can be browbeaten by all who please to annotate the mastery over him, in quality of their being electors of the congregation, not to mention that he is under the absolute control of the ruling elders, without any redress whatever, without voice or influence at any public meeting, which he is not even permitted to attend, though this be asked as a personal favour from the body to whom his life is devoted as a faithful public servant. Such a state of dependence was certainly not one to tempt American parents, who had a boy of promise and brilliant parts, to educate him to become a subordinate to his brothers in faith, when they had the means to give him an education either as a jurist or physician, in quality of which, he may rise by his own merits, and take a high stand among the great ones of the land, without taking into account that the pursuit of commerce offers so many and easy ways for the obtainment of an independence in worldly goods; whereas, the Jewish minister has the certain prospect of labouring all his life in hopeless poverty upon so small a salary, that with all his care but little can be laid by after paying the necessary family expenses, though they be limited to what is absolutely necessary. Put on the one hand, therefore, distinction as a man of science in the law or healing art with the almost certainty of a high position in the community, if the candidate for public favour have a good capacity; an independence of action; a freedom from restraint; and with a full assurance that success will bring him the countenance, and a respectful deference from those who obtain the services of their lawyer or physician; and then on the other, the hopeless toiling of a Jewish minister, the little respect shown him, the subjection in which he is kept to his masters; the preference which is given to other professional men above him: and there is ample reason why parents should prefer to see their son eminent in some secular pursuit, sooner than to be a subordinate in the service of the Synagogue. The same is the case with those who can bring their son forward as a merchant, in which character he has at least wellfounded prospects of a life of comparative case after a certain number of years of labour; whilst in that of a minister, he is sure of a life of ceaseless toil; with the constant apprehension of leaving his family, at length, utterly unprovided for, when he is summoned away from this world.

But it is not to be supposed that this will always be so, and that the Jewish minister is not at some day to take the high position which his character demands, provided he be fitted for the office by a regular course of study, and a high personal standing which a respectable bearing and a consistent religious life can hardly fail of imparting. We would not be misunderstood as costing a slight upon the honoured dead and those now active in their calling as servants of the Synagogue; we do not mean to convey that the former were and that the latter are inefficient; far from it, there have been and are men in our ministry who would be an honour to any office. But we do insist upon it, as an uncontrovertible fact, that so little has ever been expected from the Reader, or officiating minister, and so little has he been in general regarded by his flock, so few rights have been conceded to him, he has been kept in such a state of subjection by the elders and congregation, that no matter what were or are his qualifications, say even of the highest order, he found himself, or is still placed, in a position of so little real practical influence, and has so little of a clerical prerogative, that no feeling of honourable ambition or the religious desire to be useful to others can be gratified by merely being. the Reader of a congregation. But if more than enough to qualify for the office of reciting were demanded, if the people would insist upon one thing, that their ministers should be able to be their spiritual guides, that they should have the capacity to instruct them faithfully in the law of God: who can doubt that the office would at once become more respectable, and the incumbent, as a consequence, more respected than he now is? It would not then be every layman who could step up to the desk and read the service as well as or better than the regular minister; it would then be a matter of importance that the Hazan or a well-qualified substitute should be in the Synagogue; and the officer, being thus of importance with those who worship in the house of God, would receive that deference due to his standing, and would be called upon to advise in cases of conscience, and perhaps be chosen as an umpire if differences should arise between members of the congregation, as is to be expected of one, whose station confers upon him a more or less sacred character. It is not to be looked for that his pecuniary emoluments should ever be so great as to tempt those who would choose the office as the mere means of making an easy living, and who have no other inclination for the ministry than to be supported out of the public purse; but surely he whose whole time is devoted to the service of his constituents, who has from his very position no opportunity of labouring for his own support, should of right be placed beyond want, and love a sufficient income assigned to him, where his congregation have the means of so endowing their officer, that he should not leave the prospect of want always before him, and be unable to educate his children and support such a decent manner of living as is in the power of the ministers of other persuasions. In short, if the office be made respectable by the qualifications of the incumbents and the manner in which these are supported by the people, it is morally certain that a Jewish minister will have such a position in the community that he can favourably compare with those engaged in secular professions; and if that be the case once, it is equally certain that parents would devote the most endowed of all their children to the service of the Synagogue as the position in which they can be rendered most useful to themselves and others.

It may be urged against our remarks that we treat the matter in an entirely too worldly fashion; that we lower the character of the ministry by bringing it down to a subject of speculation, whether it would be wise and prudent to devote a child to the service of Heaven or not. We acknowledge that this charge may have some weight at the first blush of the question. But we ask in return, How are you to incite parents to devote their children to any pursuit, and to induce these to acquiesce in their parents' choice except it be from some tangible advantage? It is easy speaking of the disinterestedness and unbought zeal of a devotion to one's duties; but you find few indeed of those men who are so much elevated above the common feelings of mankind; it is at bottom, in most cases, some real advantage actually in hand or expected, which urges the best of us; and it is, therefore, but the part of wisdom in those who really feel for the welfare of their faith, that they make it the advantage of some ones to become connected with our religious establishment. If we were to search through the entire list of the ministry of our neighbours, our word for it, you would find few indeed who joined it from a mere desire to be members of the profession, who did not expect some advantage to themselves from it; still that does not say, that they are insincere in their professions, or that they are sluggards in the work to which they have devoted themselves. At best the ministry does not offer half the worldly advantages which the other professions do; at best it is a life of toil and constant study, and men can rise in other callings with not half the talent and learning which are required ordinarily of those who teach religion. Look, for instance, at the immense labour and research required to write original sermons, the mass of literature composed for the instruction of, perhaps, a small congregation; and then compare it with the quantity of literary labour which the best physician or the most erudite lawyer produces: and you will have some means of forming a correct judgment of the office which is so erroneously viewed as one of ease and of comparatively little importance. We will not refer to the well-known fact that other professions secure more wealth; for that is but a secondary consideration with those who think correctly; but surely the public are bound to see that those whose services they need upon all occasions should not be constantly harassed, because they need the necessities of life. You may say that the ministers should depend upon the bounties of the congregation; but there exists no more hateful future in the support which is given to public men than that constant dependence upon the good-will, or whim, or pleasure, or whatever else it may be termed, of the wealthy. They sink down into the respectful adherents of the rich; they are afraid to express an opinion for fear of their usual present being withheld; and, in short, the whole independence of an honourable mind is crushed, or else he must, to secure his extra allowance from the powerful, submit to the terms of servility which they are but too apt to impose. We ask not that the minister shall be independent of his flock; on the contrary, we hold it his duty that in all purely civil arrangements, and in matters where no principle is involved, he should implicitly follow those by whose choice he has been elevated. But we would have him perfectly untrammelled in matters of conscience; he should be free to speak, free to censure, free to teach, like the prophets of old, without the dread that his small dependence may be abridged by those who have wealth and gifts to bestow, because he has done his duty and nothing but what as a man of honour he was bound to do. We appeal to all who are conversant with the human heart, whether the fear of loss is not a powerful lever in directing our actions; how much is risked where gain is in prospective, and how much is omitted where one dreads a pecuniary forfeiture! Let it then be a first step in the reformation of the personnel of our ministry to place its members above want, and then demand that every incumbent should be fit to grace the station which he fills. And we honestly believe that, were our advice taken, were the office to afford a decent and permanent living, were the idea of dependence upon gifts and official fees entirely abolished, and were the life of our ministers not to be harassed by the constant apprehension of want or the loss of office upon every short recurrence of the period of re-election; were it made a practice of the rulers of the Synagogue to interfere less with those who have the direction of the service of the house of God,--it would not be difficult to find honest men, capable men, those who fear the Lord, who are willing and capable to do good service to the cause of our religion, who would be glad to be called to the head of the people, and go before them with honest example and good advice.

We are admonished by the space already occupied, that we have said enough for the present; but we have not yet exhausted the subject, and mean to point out some remedies for the existing state of things hereafter.