|Vol. IV, No. 3
Sivan 5606, June 1846
Remarks on Miss Aguilar’s “Women of Israel.”
by S. Solis.
From the return of a remnant of Israel from the Babylonish captivity until the procuratorship of Florus, the people experienced periods of rest, succeeded quickly by anarchy and all the evils flowing from a state of weakness, which, whilst it provoked foreign aggression, fostered as well internal dissensions. “Of the constant rebellions against their Heavenly King, by the recurrence of idolatry and those awful practices mentioned in the previous periods of their history, we no longer hear; but in their place we find assimilation and intimate connexion with the manners and customs of other nations.” “The High Priest was still nominally the head of the nation—the ceremonials of the law rigidly and perseveringly observed; but its beautiful spirit of love, which had entered into every household, blessing and guiding every domestic relation, appears to have been entirely lost.” But when at length the cruelties of Antiochus Epiphanes aroused the national spirit, “and under the heroic Maccabean brothers the Jews threw off the yoke of slavery, it was a noble epoch in our history, as full of chivalric daring, of the purest patriotism, of the most heroic perseverance, as can be found in any history, ancient or modern.” Their efforts were successful, their religion was purified, and the nation for a short period enjoyed repose under the government of her own kings; but her frequent missions to other countries tended to denationalize the people, and the union of prince and priest in the same individual prevented that attention to the temple service which the office of High Priest required. Still while during these and succeeding years a spirit brooded over the face of the land, engendered by the vile passions of a majority of the people: there were yet many strict adherents to the written and oral laws. And though, in the words of the authoress, “we seem to read but of anarchy and sin, more fearful than any which had come before, and increasing to a climax which compelled the chastisement so long deferred; still if, with a faithful heart and unshrinking eye, we look within this rolling tumult—if we look beneath the stormy waves of dissension, hate, and wrath—we trace in the very elements that increased our miseries, those of our final preservation. We behold but the workers of evil, for wickedness ever comes uppermost; but the faithful hearts, the enduring martyrs, the good, the true, are invisible in history as in daily life, even as the still, calm depths of the ocean, whose waves are in tumult, and in storm.”
But though, under the rule of the alien Herod, whose descent as a Jew was doubted, who laid no claims to the royal blood of David, but who, favoured by the Romans, was anointed king over the people of God, with idolatrous sacrifices, the people enjoyed prosperity and peace: still as this period of prosperity was but the prelude of the destruction of the nation, it did not fulfil the prophecies, as the restoration could not take effect without a descendant of David on the throne; nor do these prophecies allude to a transient greatness, but to the happiness that should be based upon a lasting foundation, and, therefore, not liable to the changes that have made Israel fugitives and wanderers over the face of the globe. It is well that we have the beautiful and Jewish character of Agrippa to contrast with the sanguinary one of Herod, but by his being so early called away from guiding the destinies of Judah, we may infer, that not then was Israel to enjoy the peace of righteousness, but that her cup of bitterness was not then at its full.
“Eighty thousand persons, men, women, and children, slain in the forcible entrance of Antiochus in Jerusalem, and forty thousand of both sexes sold into slavery, was the horrible preface to the misery that followed. Every observance of the law, from the keeping of the Sabbath and the covenant of Abraham, to the minutest form, was made a capital offence. Yet, in spite of the scenes of horror so continually recurring, the very relation of which must now make every female heart shrink and quiver—yet were these female martyrs baring their breast to the murderous knife, rather than bow down to the idol or touch forbidden food. Women, young, meek, tender, performed with their own hands the covenant of Abraham upon their sons, because none else would so dare the tyrant’s wrath; and, with their infants (for whose immortal souls they had thus incurred the rage of man) suspended around their necks, received death by being flung from the battlements of the temple into the deep vale below; others were hung, and cruelties too awful to relate practised upon others; yet no woman’s spirit failed.” “What must have been their attachment to their holy religion, what their sense of its responsibility, and its immortal reward, what their horror in abandoning it, and cutting off their sons from its sainted privileges, to incur martyrdoms like these?” “Where in the vast tomes of history, sacred or profane, shall we find a deed more heroic, a fortitude more sublime, than is recorded of Hannah, the Hebrew mother, during the persecutions of Antiochus?” And what a lesson does the conduct of the seven sons of the heroic mother teach us! Drawing their first breath amidst the lovely hills of Judea, their very souls were entwined with the love of country, whose liberties they had perhaps strivcd to achieve, but strived in vain. Life was still fresh and blooming before them, and they had only to succumb before the tyrant, to his will, and wealth and power were within their grasp. But they had been taught too well, to value the evanescent glitter of a day, the airy bubble of an hour, to barter a blissful future for a trivial gain; and though their bodies suffered, they rejoiced that their untrammelled souls were free to assert the deep love they bore to their God. And how fully do the words of the sufferers prove—
“That all of immortality—of resurrection—of being with God in heaven—of reunion there with our beloved ones—of the transientness of the severest agonies below compared to the permanency of bliss awaiting above—that all was revealed to us, all was known to every Hebrew—male and female, childhood and age—believed in, acted upon, ages before the advent of that religion which was the first, her followers believe, to inculcate such doctrines.”
And that mother must have taught her children—
“That death itself was but a darkened portal opening into an infinity of glory; that man indeed might have power over the present life; but over the future, what mortal could have dominion ?”
“Then, oh!—would we do our duty to our children—would we indeed provide for their future—would we have them to recall us with the dearest love, the deepest gratitude, long, long after we may have passed away from earth—let us imitate the martyrmother, and, clothing them for affliction as well as joy, nurse them from their infancy for God; and we shall indeed receive them once again in mercy from His hand—and in His presence for everlasting.”
But the mothers of Israel not alone taught their sons to be heroic, but set before them their own bright example of endurance; nor did they deem, as in the case of the mother of John Hyrcanus, their life or sufferings of any moment, when the welfare or the safety of the kingdom was at stake. Nor were their intellectual acquirements so small as to cause them to occupy an insignificant position in regard to national affairs; as in this case no prince would have acted so ridiculously as to leave his kingdom to one who could not command the respect of the nation. In the wise and energetic government of Alexandria stand forth developed (when we take into consideration her own time of life, the people over whom she ruled, and the age in which she lived) talents of a higher order than those exhibited by Queen Elizabeth.
Over the character end person of Mariamne, the wife of Herod, Miss Aguilar has thrown a powerful interest. Of a high moral character, at a time when the manners of the people that surrounded her were extremely lax, she stands out in all the bold relief of conscious rectitude; neither to be shaken by caresses nor intimidated by dangers. But whilst the authoress has done full justice to this noble trait, she has perhaps blended too much “her soul-subduing loveliness” and “the pride of her Asmonaean descent,” with the virtues of her mind, until we almost feel that the pride of beauty and of birth have taken so strong a hold upon the imagination of the princess, as to overshadow those feminine weaknesses so potent in he sex, which, if allied to virtuous perceptions, render female influence so powerful for good. We doubt not had Mariamne had a more yielding nature, her virtues would have enabled her to have been a lasting benefactress to her people. Tyrant as Herod was, such beauty, such worth, could not have failed to make an impression on his character, had they been joined to a more conciliating deportment. The pride arising from accidental circumstances we think false or uncalled for. If one, from the condensation and vigorous action of his powers of intellect, raises himself to a high station, he may find room for self-congratulation, though even then it is weakness; but when the greatness springs from or flows through another, it were well to imitate the humility of a Moses, rather than the pride of a Pharaoh. We would however strongly recommend the perusal of this (VI.) period, as it enters deeply into the workings of the human heart, and by pointing out its lights and shadows, gives a fairer insight into the history of the times than would a mere detail of dry facts; and, whilst it possesses the force of truth, surrounds itself will the powerful interest of romance—we should have said, of truth itself—for what romance equals in thrilling interest the details of the heroic achievements, the gallant actions, the extreme self-denial and noble sacrifices made by our ancestors during the memorable period when nearly the whole force of the Roman nation was directed to the subversion of our lovely Judea?
Even whilst this time was hastening on, there must have been something fair and holy in Israel’s law, or else should we see an independent queen, Helena of Adiabene, and her two sons, seek to join themselves to the covenant of Israel when her destiny seemed shrouded m the gloom of despair?
“The character of Helena would. have adorned any religion; but we can discern throughout it the pure spirituality at that period only discernible in the religion of the Lord.”
“In a careful and critical survey of the manners and customs of the Jews, between the return from Babylon and their final dispersion, we find nothing whatever differing from the precepts of the early Christians. The apostles were themselves Jews, who wrote for the gentiles, and condensed and simplified for them the sublime morality of the Mosaic code. They do not preach a single precept, they do not proclaim a single truth, they do not give a single rule for social and domestic guidance, which we Hebrews had not known and practised ages before they wrote—and wrote, in fact, from their own experience of Jewish manners and customs.”
The truthful force of the foregoing paragraph will be acknowledged, on the attentive perusal of the New Testament. Let us compare it with the Bible, and expunge from its pages all that we find therein copied from the inspired record, and the balance will be found but as a poor guide either morally or socially. However much the memories of others may be at fault, we ourselves cannot forget that the apostles were Jews, most of them strict ones—kept the Sabbath and all other Jewish observances; and only differed from their brethren at large by acknowledging the Messiah had come; and even that they indulged in this belief there is very doubtful, authority.
It was not till the reign of Antoninus Pius that the miseries of the Hebrews subsided into a partial calm, and privileges were granted throughout Italy and the various provinces of Rome, which enabled the Patriarch of Tiberias to obtain such freedom and power in the observance of his religion, as to be recognised by the whole Jewish nation as their supreme head and spiritual sovereign.
“Over all the provinces of the great empire the Hebrew race extended; and from thence penetrated all over Europe, and into the far-off countries of China, Malabar, other parts of the East Indies, the coast of Africa, and places equally remote, where their very origin is plunged into mystery.”
Miss Aguilar has been charged as entertaining sentiments adverse to Talmudical doctrines. She may have discussed them too freely and boldly for a female pen; but let her own words answer. Speaking of the Israelites—
“Eager and earnest in their repentance and desire to return to their God, now that the long-threatened chastisement had fallen, they welcomed with rejoicing the efforts of holy and good men to lay down a path of obedience which even in their exile and in the midst of persecution they might tread. Hence arose those ordinances which are accused of clogging with dead and soulless weight the pure and spiritual law of God; but which, in those fearful eras of exile and persecution, bound Jew to Jew, and with God’s protecting blessing, saved His religion from amalgamation with other nations, and all adoption of the gentile creeds.”
So far the most orthodox can agree with the authoress, and if we can with her divide the oral law from the commentations upon it, and comprehend the true meaning of her remarks, there may not be that apparent inconsistency that some minds perceive.
“But the holy men who originally raised the protecting casket around the beautiful jewel of their faith, never either preached or intended that their ordinances were to be considered divine or perpetual. It was to preserve the purity, the spiritual purity, of their law unsullied, when circumstances must otherwise have crushed it, not to take its place and be considered in the same unalterable and changeless light with which we look upon the law of God.”
Now, if the same dangers to our faith exist now as when these ordinances were called into being, the same necessity exists for their continuance; and that necessity will exist so long as the term of Judea’s probation remains unfulfilled. What, if danger of one kind passes us by unharmed, another may spring up equally as potent for ill! What, if we breathe the air of freedom, and hear but the distant browns of our brethren from those countries where it is a crime to follow the dictates of one’s own conscience! This delicious air that so expands our faculties may poison us with the insidious breath of indifference. “Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked.” And shall we, because in the lull of oppression, we are enabled to wax fat too, kick against those observances that have preserved us intact until now? Oh no! we have gained some knowledge by experience, and the wisdom of the past shall guide us.
In the words, then, of Miss Aguilar, let those who would wish for reform for us—
“Unseal the fountains of pure waters which our aged seers provided; give us their renderings of the moral law; their spirit and aphorisms; their orient imagery, which in its power and imagination will outvie every other. Give us their detail of Jewish history; do not compel us to abide by the details of
those whose faith is opposed to our own, who believe us blinded and degraded, and whose peculiar views must inspire their pages.” And then we should be able to show, that “the most profound and searching wisdom, the most vivid and beautiful imagination the most elegant accomplishments, have been the heirloom of the Jewish nation, from their very first selection as the chosen of the Lord; and that instead of losing these endowments in their dispersion, all of mind and talent in the whole European and Asiatic world was possessed by them; and that gentiles of every denomination and every creed came with humility and deference to them, glad to learn from the oppressed those glorious gifts of mind which to the oppressors were denied.”
With the following beautiful extracts we shall close our remarks, and sure are we, that if our friends peruse with care this truly Jewish work, they cannot fail to rise, as we have done, with a mind more opened to the beauties of our holy law; and with a heart drawn nearer to that Great and Good Being, who, endowed with a full knowledge of His lost work, enacted for our happiness and guidance such laws and statutes, as were most capable of developing those virtues that our natures were susceptible of.
“With such writings our own, and ours from centuries long passed, do we need the works of Christian divines to make Israel spiritual? Oh shame! shame on those sons of Israel who, from pure ignorance, deny spirituality to their beautiful creed, and report that we are not a spiritual people! If we have not been, oppressive slavery is the cause. If we are not now in those nations where we are free, the heart shudders at the sin we are incurring: and, oh! fearful is it, if the women of Israel neglect the opportunities now their own, and refuse to become the pure spiritual beings, which not only their religion but their sex so imperatively demands.”
“ Oh, as we would hasten our glorious destiny, let us ponder well our own responsibilities, and become more spiritual ourselves, infuse the same immortal essence into man! If we do this, shall we say we have done nothing? Shall we not uphold the dignity, the beauty, the holiness of our privileges as women of Israel, if we so infuse, so guide, as mothers, that man, uplifted from his grosser self, so unites the spiritual with the worldly, the love of God with the dreams of earth, that without neglecting or despising a single earthly duty, or human feeling, he forwards the glorious cause of God, and, in the sight of the whole gentile world, stands forth an Israelite indeed?”