|Vol. IV, No. 11
Shebat 5607, February 1847
By The Rev. S. M. Isaacs.
“Pray, sir, did you make any call on New Year’s day?” said one of my charges yesterday.
“Yes, my daughter, several. My visits are easily particularized. At break of day I called on my Maker, pouring forth my humble gratitude for the kindness extended to me and mine, in having preserved me from the dangers of the night, and soliciting his gracious protection for the coming day; I called on my children, in their study, to give them my daily blessing; and together we supplicated Heaven, in the morning’s service. We descended to our breakfast-room, and there found their mother engaged in the like holy duty. We washed our hands, said מוציא and partook cheerfully of that meal, which God graciously permitted us to enjoy. We said the blessings after meals, and then departed for our various employments; my partner to her domestic duties, my children to their lessons, whilst I, referring to my diary, attended to the calls there registered. My first call was on a poor widow, offering her such consolation as I deemed suitable to her mind’s disease; then on one of the congregation, who was labouring under the effects of serious illness; attended Synagogue to rehearse the סדרה of the Sabbath; returned home, and there found two men who had some slight differences—reconciled their hearts; had a half an hour’s theological discussion with an Episcopalian clergyman; prepared for the Sabbath, and then made the best call of the day, by going to Synagogue, ‘like a bridegroom to meet his bride.’ There in united anthems we poured forth our feelings to the gracious Father of the world, for having given us the Sabbath. The service concluded, I returned home, and after blessing my children, reiterated my thanks for the benefits the Sabbath was destined to afford. With two loaves before me, I recorded my thanks to God for having given me bread. We then partook of our Sabbath meal, performed the religious rites appertaining thereto, chaunted the זמירות; and a few friends paying us a usual visit, we discussed a portion of the law, detailed the current news of the day, read some of the Jewish periodicals received during the week, and retired. Such were the calls I made during the day, and truly pleasing they were.”
“Oh, sir, I did not mean that; I alluded to the calls usually made on a New Year’s day. Are you not aware that we have commenced a new year, 1847, A. D.?” “No, my daughter; I was not aware that 1847, A. D., has any thing to do with me as a Jew; it was to me a new epoch in my career when 5607 made its appearance. On that glorious day I received the congratulations of my friends, and from the heart’s core I offered them my meed of hopes, that the year might be to them a foretaste of heaven, that sickness might keep distant from their dwellings, that no cloud of unhappiness would obscure their light; but that they might prosper temporally and in spiritual fullness. But I was totally ignorant that 1847 is a new year for me, as one of the sons of Israel.”
“Oh, sir, you cannot expect every body to think like you.” “No, my child; unfortunately for my ideas, they are all centered in the things that have been, whilst the world indulges in the whims and fancies of the present age. I look in the mirror of the past, and there trace light, life and glory; whilst the so-called Jew beholds the same mirror, and there finds nothing to gaze on; all he can trace is a dark line, which he would gladly obliterate from his sight.”
Such was the substance of a colloquial discourse between the humble writer and one of his charges, on which his mind dwelt with pain and pleasure; pain that the Jewish world should in any way misconceive the true interest of their holy religion; pleasure that we live in an age, and are located in a land, where we may freely utter our sentiments, whether our ideas are popular with the mass, or whether our words are uttered to stocks. and stones. Thank Heaven! Judaism may pour forth its reverberating peal to the world, and utter the notes of lamentation to every son of man, in Jewish works, in the vernacular tongue, fully impressed with the proud attitude we should occupy as pioneers in the religious world, as owners of that property which the laws of primogeniture and the word of the living God have given us. We are impelled in the dark of night, when the vain cosmopolite is dreaming of the pleasures of the morrow, to pen a few remarks on our present degenerate condition, on that morbidity of feeling which stagnates our true improvement, and on that supine indifference which mars our real utility. 1847, A. D.! In the name of all that is sacred, what have we as Israelites to do with that date, more especially with the A. D.? Our Lord existed before 5607, from which period we commence our chronology; why then should we be ashamed to date our letters, our Synagogue documents, and our tombstones, according to Jewish computation? It is this morbidity of sentiment, this aping of the ways of others, which tarnishes our reputation as Jews. 1847! Shame on those Rabbins who have A. D. in their thoughts. To the mind’s eye it appears that all the light they use is borrowed from the pages of the New Testament. Under such circumstances need we wonder that their advisory remarks pall on the ear, and fail to leave a due impression? It is high time that our wandering thoughts should be brought to a single focus, to consider in one view, whether we are not losing all our Jewish customs and feelings, for the sole purpose of copying the manners of those who cheerfully borrow from us. If we are really determined to cast off old habits, we have plenty to spare—superstition and bigotry enough to clothe an Indian; but for goodness’ sake let us not discard that which is useful and ornamental. If we wish to reciprocate the love which Christians bear us here, 5607, A. M. will do more for us in that respect than all the modern lords in creation. Need it in our day to be recorded, that the true Christian’s affection for the Jew is based upon the recognition that in him he beholds a living witness of the truth of revelation? Why then should we shrink from avowing it on all proper occasions? We know that the answer to this interrogation will be, “We can be Jews in our hearts, without making any display about it.” This answer may satisfy the superficial observer of Judaism; but we, who are wont to look for things beneath the surface, who are not content to skim the waters, but to dive deep for search of religious gems, do not at all times believe in assertions; it is only when acts correspond with words that our credence is satisfied. This Judaism in heart means something, or conveys nothing. If we really are Jews in our hearts, our heads would correspond with feeling; from the seat of vitality would flow the seeds of Judaism, and imbue every thing by its blissful efficacy. As a matter of feeling we would commence our letters with 5607, and feel an inward pride in thus recording the fact that our chronology is the computation of the Divine Historian of the Bible, on the same principle that a member of the Society of Friends feels an inward satisfaction in numbering the months of the year. This would be true Judaism of the heart. But we fear, and with much reason, that what the sciolist terms “being a Jew in his heart,” really means nothing, or at most, like the heart, it is hidden from the view, and its secret working cannot be scanned by human means. We have seen many whose constant boast it was that they were Jews in heart; we have seen them guilty of the most inconsistent conduct opposed to their assertions; married to the gentile’s daughter, their children reared in the Christian faith, doing nothing on God’s earth for the cause of Judaism; yet in the night preceding death, they would call their relatives to their bedside, and with the flesh creeping over the bones, exact from them a promise that they would use their exertions that their remains should be deposited in a Jewish cemetery. This the world would call, “He died a Jew in his heart.”
Now, with us, it really means nothing; such a death betrays a total ignorance of the tenets of Judaism. Our holy religion requires self-denial, and every ennobling principle that adorns humanity, in life; but in death, the very idea that the clod of earth, buried in its native channel, is rendered secure from the scrutinizing gaze of Omnipotence, or the imagination that being deposited in a Jewish charnel-house, is to be deemed an evidence of Judaism in heart, the very contemplation of so construing our holy faith is too monstrous to receive credence. No; to be Jews in our hearts, it is our duty to do every thing in our power, to manifest it on all occasions, whether we dine in the mansions of the great, or sup in the hovels of the humble. Should we receive an invitation to dine with strangers to our creed, let us accept the invitation, or send our declination of the honour, with the prefix of 5607 to our note; it will at once satisfy the recipient of our effusion that we are Jews, that we do not eat of forbidden viands. But we are ashamed of thus manifesting to our friends of other creeds our faith; hence we would rather partake of their fare than acknowledge, by 5607, that we are Jews. Is this Judaism in heart? No, it is a Punic state of feeling, which betrays itself to every observer, and is in every way injurious to its possessor.
It is not this feeling which characterizes the British Jew; he feels his dignity, is impressed with his aristocratic faith, when he manifests to the world around him that he is a Jew. What, we would ask, has rendered the Jews so noble in the British empire for the last few years? Is it their wealth? No; it is their public display of all that relates to Judaism. The Montefiores, the Salomons, the Rothschilds, the Cohens, are respected, not because they are rich in the world’s wealth, but by reason that they are rich in Judaism. On Montefiore’s carriage may be seen, in legible characters, Israel’s proud memento, now in ruins, ירושלם in Hebrew. When he was sheriff of London, his servants’ new liveries were submitted to her majesty, and that august lady bestowed her warmest approval, not on the gold and tinsel which met her view, but on that part of the dress which displayed Jerusalem. At the London Hospital Anniversaries, where dukes and lords dine with merchants, a table is spread for the Jew, a Jewish purveyor is appointed, Jewish viands decorate the table, and the most wealthy Israelites ornament the place by their presence. They record their gratitude in the Hebrew language, and after that give as liberally for the benefit of the institution as those who, for the moment, were at another table. And, we would ask, Have the Jews been less respected because they exhibited their self-denial? No; to the everlasting gratitude of the managers of that noble establishment be it recorded, that so impressed were they that something was due to the feelings of those who yearly patronised their anniversaries, and who felt a pleasure in supporting them on all occasions, that a wing of the building, containing four wards, was by unanimous consent appropriated to poor Jews, whose sickness might render such a home necessary, whose shattered condition might require a sanative process. Here the Jew obtains food allowed by his law, Jewish nurses smooth his pillow; and, should death summon the invalid to a better world, the Jewish minister is there to do his duty. Thus at the Jews’ Hospital, where the writer held an office some years, at their anniversary, although a royal duke* presided, they did not, out of compliment to him, hold in abeyance any thing that regarded their faith; but his royal highness would attend the Synagogue in the institution, and there conform to their customs, by covering his head, and, in Hebrew, read the service of the day. He would then accompany them to the tavern, and partake of Jewish viands, listen with the most devout attention to the chaunting of the grace by the reader, and then enter on the business of the evening with increased alacrity. He felt honoured by patronising the Jews’ Hospital, because it was a Jewish institution.
We cite these cases to adduce evidence, that even amongst the pomp of royalty, the Jew is found to acknowledge his faith, on all suitable occasions; it is blended with his very pulse of vitality. And is there any thing in our republican institutions which should prevent us acting acting in the like manner? We would fain hope, nay, we believe, that much of that which we censure arises from habitual forgetfulness. That we feel as warmly for the cause of our religion as our brethren throughout the world, is manifested by our acts of benevolence, and by our various Synagogues; but we do not think so much of our national dignity and self-respect; we have indulged a pernicious habit of becoming copyists, in lieu of retaining our religious originality. It is not borrowing the Christian dates alone which is of such vital consequence. In fine, we select it as a theme because it is the least of our offences; but it is of assimilating our system to that of Christianity of which we disapprove; it runs through our whole system, in our private dwellings, and in our Synagogues. It would really seem that every thing that bears the appearance of a Jewish custom must be destroyed at the ephemeral shrine of innovation. A בר מצוה is called an act of confirmation. In short, from the fertile fields of Germany, where every thing grows fast, although not always wholesome, a new rite of confirmation, as it is called, has already been introduced among some of the modern congregations. Thus unwittingly we imbibe foreign habits, and unless we recede from our progressive movement, we shall some of these days find ourselves “a spiritual Israel,” as some Christian zealots are pleased to term themselves. Even now every thing is spiritualized, except our feelings. We spiritualize Tephillin, Mezuzah, and Zizith; nay, even our dietary regulations have undergone spiritualization. Wheresoever we look it meets our view. Our Sabbaths and festivals, what are they but spiritual feasts? for with many “they find no rest for the soles” of their feet; hence they leave their obligations to be discharged by those angelic beings who “keep the Sabbath day holy.” It is awful to reflect on that miserable polity which characterizes some of our modern Jews: Change this, abrogate that; it really appears as if religion was to be changed with our garments. What do they want? If the obligations of Judaism are too onerous for their enlightened spirits, let them be held in abeyance for themselves; but do not let their: poison-bearing ideas be forced upon those who love their faith in its native purity. Already the Talmud and Torah are scoffed at, by those who do not comprehend their spirit; thus carrying out the prophetic monition, “Those that handle the law do not know me.” Already, the last new-fashioned hymn is to be imported from Austria, even from the very neighbourhood of that power who is moving heaven and earth to seduce Israel from their faith; and we are promised even more attractive features in our polity, although the main object that should draw us to a religious fane is totally disregarded. The new ideas are that something must be done to captivate the worldling, to gratify his carnal desires, to please the earth-worm; for this every thing sacred from time’s effacing finger must be rendered subservient to man’s caprice. But the idea that we are bound to watch over our faith in its original purity, as our forefathers did, in order that when the glorious day of truth shall shine forth, we may be enabled to unfurl our banner on high, elevating it before the eyes of all nations, free from every profane pollution—this idea is stigmatized, as ignorance of the spirit of the times, as wedded to old-fashioned dogmas. Thank Heaven! we are ignorant of the so-called spirit of the age; we are wedded to oldfashioned dogmas; our religion is too venerable in itself to require modern habiliments to improve our reverential regard towards it; it looks much better with the figures 5607, A. M., than with the numbers 1847, A. D., as it is termed.
Gladly would we continue our thesis; but three A. M. warns us that we require rest, and that our readers are ere this tired of our remarks. Let us then, in conclusion, assert, that justice to our own flock, and some of the oldest congregations, demand that we should absolve them from the charges we have made. Still we place our words on record, in order to prevent any contagion from other sources. Let us remain satisfied with the simplicity of our system of worship, as practised in the days of Ezra,—prayer and instruction. What! shall we, on freedom’s soil, despoil it of its sublime character, when amidst the burning pile and the bleeding blade we preserved it from the hands of the destroyer? Shall we allow our holy language, that child of Heaven, Hebraic lore, to be lost and forgotten, banished to the shores of oblivion, in order to receive in our warm embrace the offspring of modern days? No; let us adhere to the immortal ejaculation of the prophet of old, who, when surrounded by dangers of the most awful nature, proclaimed עברי אנכי, “I am an Hebrew.” Yet let us not bear this badge of antiquity without being inwardly impressed by its soul-healing efficacy; let us elevate ourselves to our religion, and not remodel our creed to ourselves. Then, as the banner we unfurl waves its folds on high, we shall stand firm and unmoved, as we trace the characters of life, light, and everlasting glory.
94 Elm Street, Tebeth 16th, 5607.