|Vol. IV, No. 5
Ab 5606, August 1846
The Movements in Israel.
We have all along protested, that the real friends of reform and progress—of reform of abuses and progress in true religiousness—were placed in a false light by the hasty and bigoted advocates of violent changes in our forms, and, in certain respects, in our laws, by men, who, whilst professing to feel a veneration for a monotheistic system, would, if they succeeded, reduce Judaism to a mere profession of a set of dogmas, without acts or life, save only what could be borrowed from our gentile neighbours. The attempted treasonable progress of these men has been so rapid, and has endeavoured to strike at so many usages and opinions,—yes, both usages and opinions,—that those who fear to trust the bark of faith to such pilots, had to oppose themselves to all movements which threatened to bring such direful evils in their wake. We ask those who are familiar with Jewish history of the last fifteen or twenty years—with the scandalous downward tendency of piety and ceremonial observance in many formerly religious congregations in Europe, to bear us out in our assertion, that those who felt the fear of God in their hearts, had naturally to feel alarm at the portentous signs of evil which had gradually begun to lower on the horizon of our people, and to strive, with all the means at their power, to avert the danger as far as they were able. It will be easily understood, that among the opponents of sweeping reform, there must be many who may claim to be reformers in a limited sense of the word, and who see, with profound grief, that abuses have crept in among the observances, especially in the manner of conducting public worship, which ought to be removed if this can be done with safety. But how could these latter join with the destroyers, who merely broached reform in order to introduce their destructive measures? We know that we shall be met with the assertion, that the ultra reformers are honest, fully as much so as those who differ from them. This is all very well; it is hard for any one to prove that another’s motives are bad, however suspicious his conduct may be; let us search the records of delusion, which resulted in crime, and though we must all condemn the deeds, we cannot often avoid adjudging honesty of motives to acts which would appear nevertheless to belong more to the nature of a demon than that of a human being. Honesty of purpose, therefore, cannot sanctify any act the tendency of which is evil; and hence we assume that the good intentions which the reformers of Judaism claim, cannot justify them for the evils which they have caused. We are fully aware that it is easy declaiming against the darkness and bigotry of ignorant ages; about the march of enlightenment; the spirit of the age, and all that. We know as well as any one can tell us, that there is a charm in being a popular leader, a redresser of grievances, the opponent of an irresponsible power which weighs heavily on the people; hence it was to be expected, as we said on a former occasion, that when the wrongs of tyrants, both civil and clerical, were dragged forth to the light of day, some Jews would be found who would also attack their spiritual rulers for either real or fancied injuries. Priests of all sorts, (and why not Jewish teachers among others?) may have opposed themselves to the march of events, which, say fifty years ago, commenced to play sad havoc with the order of then existing things. So far then was it legitimate to act boldly and with vigour; it was right to tell such opponents of light and literature, that they were meddling with subjects not belonging to their province; that freedom and science should advance, whether they endeavoured to set a barrier to them or not. But this much accomplished, what right had they to attack the fundamental principles of religion? to spy out, not defects merely, but every thing which could place any restraint on their unjewish sentiments, against their destructive love for strangers, and their customs? It is one thing to tell a teacher of religion, that you think yourself authorized by the very system which he preaches, to investigate the mysteries of nature, and to render yourself familiar with the sciences and languages of nations, who, though inferior to you in religious progress, had been favoured by circumstances to acquire more general information than had fallen to your lot; for that such acquisition would make you more truly intelligent, and fitter to appreciate in all their glory the works and wisdom of the Creator. In other words, you meant to say, that you saw nothing incompatible between religion and science. This is strictly true. But what right have you then to turn round upon the doctrines and principles taught you as the elements of your faith, neither of which have been contradicted by science or reason, and subject them to a process of reduction or amendment, which would leave little of their ancient force in the changeling you are about to produce? If this were your determined purpose, at the execution of which nothing would hinder you, then were your bigoted teachers right, in saying that you had better let sciences alone, which, once acquired, would deprive you of your religion.
Now, we have contended, that whatever reasons other societies may have had to rise in rebellion against their civil and religious rulers, the Jews had little cause indeed. Their Rabbins were not pampered placemen, who lived upon inordinate wealth wrung from the hard earnings of the people; they were not favourites of princes, scions of noble families, placed in authority from such causes alone; but they were humble men, living upon a bare subsistence, chosen by the free suffrage of their congregations, devoting their days to study, and their nights to contemplation; and when sorrow threatened their flock, they were the foremost to submit to any wrong which the whole community had to endure. But few memoranda of the barbarities which we had. to endure have ever come to our knowledge, except painful statements of wholesale slaughters of entire towns, and expulsion of the Israelites of whole countries. Where were then the Rabbins? did they, like so many of the present day, barter their soul for an office, or a gentile woman, the pursuit of unbridled passion, or even the retention of life? No! the people suffered for their faith, and their teachers walked at their head to where the executioner did his fatal work; there was no faltering, no truckling to power, no fear of the danger which overwhelmed them, because they believed, acted, and taught as became the successors of Moses and the prophets. Now, even granted, which we will not dispute, that some errors were at length taught by them through a long forcible exclusion from the acquisition of science, no one will say, that these were of any importance. They may have aggravated the burden of observance by a too strict construction; but still all this was harmless; since, be as strict as ever you please or can, you have done no one, nor even yourself, the least wrong or injury by your acts.
We speak now of rabbinical Judaism, and not of any fanatical body which may have sprung as an excrescence from our midst, and the very existence of which is contrary to our principles. We mean not, however, in our present article to enter into any defence of the ancient order of things, as we only wish to exhibit the feelings of the conservative portion of enlightened and scientific men with regard to what is passing around us. The persons belonging to this division in Israel (and sorry are we to use such a word, where all should of right be but one party) aver, and we think with perfect truth, that the self-styled reformers would actually destroy our faith, not improve it, by their clamour and their acts; that the outcry against our ancient teachers is the result of an ignorance of the true spirit and meaning of their works; and that so far from the changes contemplated being a safeguard to retain Israelites within the pale of their religion, they would ultimately lead us away from our own union, and throw us into the arms of the various gentile churches; a result which is indeed not to be feared as ever likely to occur, which nevertheless would naturally grow out of the anticipated movements, were all the Jews (which God forbid!) to yield themselves to them. They aver that the dogmas and institutions of the Rabbins are based upon Divine instruction, originally delivered to Moses as an explanation of the written law, without however asserting that all the Talmud and other rabbinical works contain to be equal to inspiration; and it requires no great learning to distinguish between an absolute assumption of a supreme authority for grave precepts, which does exist, and a claim of the same kind for unimportant minutiae, which is not founded in fact or reason. They also insist that the retention of the Hebrew as the language of worship and Scripture-lecture is of vital importance. Farther, that public worship should be regulated, not according to notions borrowed from gentile manners and customs, but according to our own well-received authorities. And lastly, that though Judaism is a system of progress, all that can be done to farther it must be based upon the positive history, the actual revelation, and received opinions which are at present in our possession, and have been delivered to us from our fathers. In brief, reform and progress must proceed out of pre-existing materials, and cannot be assumed or developed hastily or arbitrarily by the self-assumed fiat of any assembly, however wise and intelligent the composing members may be. Progress, in other words, should be an advancement in truth, enlightenment, and godliness, not a retrogression from the Jewish standard, no matter how highly attractive our worship and life might be rendered thereby in the eyes of non-Israelites.
Our readers will therefore see that it is an error to charge the CONSERVATIVE portion of the Jewish people with an enmity to improvement or progress. We acknowledge that we, among the rest, are opposed to any “such change as our reformers can bring us;” but not because we wish not for light, but because we honour our religion too much to trust it within the grasp of men who are so well satisfied with themselves and their knowledge, that all the world is ignorant compared to them, whilst they are in good truth either unacquainted with their subject, or endeavour willfully to mislead those who put confidence in their statements. It was for this reason that we lifted up our voice against the proceedings of the two Rabbinical Assemblies held within the last two years at Brunswick and Frankford, knowing as we did that all they resolved on, and, more than all, the spirit in which they deliberated, were opposed to genuine Judaism. We also regretted that the conservative Rabbins had not thought proper to meet the reformers for the purpose of openly rebutting the errors the latter were bent on propagating. Perhaps they thought that their presence would do no good, that perhaps they might be outvoted, since there are probably very many on the other side who would be opposed to deliberate at all with their destructive fellows in office. In fact, Drs. Zachariah Frankel, of Dresden, and Leopold Schott, of Randegg, had to withdraw after having met the assembly. It affords us pleasure, therefore, to see from the last Voice of Jacob (No. 130) received, that Dr. Frankel has proposed a meeting of the conservative theologians, irrespective of their being office-holders, or merely men learned in the law in private stations. We are not able to prognosticate whether the assembly will ever meet, or whether, if it does, any good can result from it. But still we rejoice that the proposition has been made; and we hope, at all events, that the exchange of opinions which will be produced thereby will cause our ministers to become more active in their calling, and endow them, through the Spirit of Grace, which always dwells with the assembly of the righteous, with more ability to spread a spirit of prayer and piety among the many of Israel who are now indifferent to the eternal concerns of their souls.
Our remarks have already extended to such great length, that we must suspend, them for this month; but the appeal itself will better enforce its importance upon the thoughts of our readers than any thing which we could say.
AN APPEAL TO JEWISH THEOLOGIANS.
The learned and pious Chief Rabbi of Dresden, Dr. Z. Frankel, has issued an appeal for an assembly of Jewish theologians. The document being of a remarkable character, and its object deserving the greatest attention, we transfer it at once to our columns.—V. of J.
“Religion, in our days, admonishes with a twofold appeal; it demands preservation and also development. The present, which is impregnated with decomposing and destructive elements, in which eternal and internal circumstances threaten to distract and undermine religion, asserts the urgent need for preservation, imposes the high obligation to guard and protect the sanctuary, so that nothing may be estranged, that our faith be not curtailed nor frittered away, that what is of Divine origin may not be represented as an institution subject to the changes of time, nor be thrust into the background by the current of intercourse and of social relations. But though every thing demands preservation—though every reflecting mind bears within itself the conviction that remedies must be devised, yet does the same conviction declare, that preservation itself lies in development. Although the claims of life in this respect can never be satisfied—although the object of religion is to raise life to its level, and to secure for what is Divine the victory over external obstacles, yet must the claims of life be considered,—because the enlarged notions and advanced education of the age spurn many a thing immaterial in itself; because—religion is also to be preserved for our children and our latest posterity; and lastly, because refinement itself enhances faith. The problem which our age has to solve, is to harmonize two apparently contradictory and yet indivisibly connected notions—preservation and development. Every one truly imbued with the religion of our fathers, will easily comprehend that such harmonization can be secured only by continuing to build upon the foundation extant, and that what heaven has sanctioned must form the basis beyond which it is not permitted to pass. That basis is to be what heaven has sanctioned in its proper and true signification, but not exhibited as a deceptive picture, with which it is allowed to sport at pleasure, and with which one may conceal his real purpose to remove or to destroy it. The only safe foundation for preservation and development is religious earnestness, acknowledging something sacred and incomprehensible; not seeking to commence with the present, and to make it the creator of a religious confession; but acknowledging a past, and receiving that sacred boon within its bosom. Judaism has its indelible, indestructible history of religion; throughout its pages a divine spirit manifests itself, struggling and suffering for divine objects; and they have been preserved. It is a censurable levity alone which can disregard this spirit, which can slight the hallowed events of the past; and, by conceding and nugatory comments, treat it as though it had never existed. The development must take place upon historical ground. If the object be the preservation and not the annihilation of religion, then its fundamental pillars, deeply laid in the past, must not be destroyed, but must form the props of the further structure.
“In recent times, rabbinical assemblies have been held, in which the Divine word has been in a lamentable manner thrust into the background, and which have been productive of results by no means preservative of Judaism. Their resolutions have, moreover, nowhere found admission; for there still exists in our congregations a lively sense for historical Judaism, as transmitted by our fathers; there is still felt the influence of early impressions; we still appreciate how exalted a boon we have to guard, how sacred is the task imposed upon us, and we feel that if we wish to outlive time, we must not listen to the insinuations of such as render to time a servile homage. But this sense must not grow cold; endeavours must be made to the end that the historical ground beneath us should never give way, and that there be incessantly present to the mind of the community, the obligation imposed by Judaism to continue firm even amidst spiritual storms. To effect this, isolated acts are not sufficient, nor is the opposition in word or writing sufficient; operations must be carried on with united forces. Although our congregations are not satisfied with the proceedings above alluded to, they yet unwillingly miss a prop upon which they might lean, a centre whence information might proceed. To assert that ‘from the sole of the foot even unto the head, there is no soundness,’ is to misunderstand the present state of things; for, on the contrary, activity is manifested every where; yet it is nevertheless true, that distraction is to be met with every where. There are parties in our communities, one of which desires a progress leading to destruction, whilst another spurns even such advances as have only preservation for their end; thus exhibiting misunderstandings which, in the one case, consist in a mistrust by the congregation of its Rabbi, disapproving every attempt towards improvement, whilst, in another case, it is the Rabbi who progresses too slowly for his flock, by whom he is considered a bigot! Again, in the one case we see a Rabbi, who, from a modest doubt of himself, ventures not to attempt any thing; and in another, we see one who, in foolish self-conceit, estranges himself by rapid strides from his flock and from Judaism. Discord within, and isolation from all sides without,—each community sundered from its fellow, each pursuing its own way,—such is the picture which exhibits itself to the glance cast towards the future. But if merely to look on rarely obtains confidence, if inactivity is not productive of blessing, then the standing aloof at a period when so many changes threaten Judaism, incurs a serious responsibility.
“The demand becomes, therefore, imperative, that men zealous for our religion shall join and deliberate on our religious concerns. Thus originates the appeal for an Assembly of Jewish Theologians, which is not only the wish of the undersigned, but as he asserts with certainty, is longed for by the vast majority in Germany.
“An Assembly of Jewish Theologians. Historical Judaism, in the spirit of which this appeal is made, declares that office and position do not confer privileges, but that these are found in science alone. Natural as it is, that Rabbis and preachers, acquainted with science and with the wants of their congregations, should be called to such deliberations, the taking part therein by other theologians, possessing a general scientific education, cannot be but desirable;—hierarchy and autocracy being foreign to sincere efforts.
“Let there be a meeting then of many similarly intentioned, equally desirous for preservation and development, and recognising preservation in moderate progress. Such a meeting will find beneficial results in mutual intercourse; it will be useful to religious education and information; it will promote many a discussion in the interest of the science of Judaism, and for its revival; it will, in short, strengthen the confidence of our nation, by a due representation of our sacred religious interests: for its origin and progress will be moderation, and its results will not aim at agitation and ostentation, but evince a religious earnestness, which, equally distant from immobility and from contemptible frivolity, seeks only to advance. True, such a meeting will fall far short of the wishes of those that impatiently rush onwards; its results will appear insignificant to many; but such are the characteristics of moderation—progressing always moderately; its fruits will ripen the more certainly, and produce results which will consolidate and promote religion.
“The undersigned, impressed with the necessity of such an assembly, feels himself emboldened to make this appeal, encouraged thereto by several of his official brethren who have promised their adherence. It is hoped that this appeal will induce many office-bearers and theologians holding similar views, and desirous of moderate progress, to join in the movement.
“He will feel himself honoured by receiving the letters of such as promise their accession: and he cannot suppress the wish that the meeting should take plane at the beginning of next autumn, after the Festival of Tabernacles. The letters addressed to him on the subject will decide the point; and should the majority consider the period as unfavourable, then the spring of next year will be appointed. He also expects suggestions as to the place of meeting, or as to whether that arrangement should devolve upon him. It is very desirable that he should soon be honoured with letters from such as will join, and that the meeting be not deferred for too long a time. The arrangements as to time and place of meeting will, so soon as possible, be made known through the public organs.
“The undersigned refrains from submitting any proposal as to the constitution and statutes of the assembly; and he trusts in the Supreme, in the god of truth, that this appeal will be responded to.
“Dr. Z. Frankel, Chief Rabbi.
“Dresden, May 6, 1846.”