|Vol. IV, No. 2
Iyar 5606, May 1846
A Plea For Education.
by Isaac Leeser
In acknowledging with gratitude the charitable disposition and the benevolent acts of the American Israelites, we have nevertheless to except against the apathy which has been shown in the cause of education. We do not mean that general knowledge is not sufficiently appreciated and sought after, but that the subject of religion has not sufficiently attracted the attention of our congregations. If we look abroad upon society around us, we cannot help seeing the evidences of the spirit of propagation which is abroad in the land; schools, seminaries, and colleges, are springing up almost daily; and for what? only to teach the particular shades of Christianity which are not taught in those already existing. Even the Friends, whose tenets are to have no creed, have their schools, to impress upon the minds of their children the religion without a profession of faith. Unitarians, Universalists, Catholics, Protestants, have all their primary and high schools, and there is no cause for complaint that each little section of Trinitarian and liberal Christianity has not its schools, whence its spirit cannot be diffused abroad. But Judaism seems to be neglected by its friends; this is to increase and fortify itself by its own inherent strength; this, one would be led to think, requires not the fostering care of the teacher to impress it on the minds of the children. It is certainly paying a high compliment to its excellence and strength, to ascribe to it the power of maintaining and spreading itself without any human means to aid it; it betrays a great deal of faith in the power of the good cause, to suppose it independent of our labour; but it shows not much knowledge of the course of human events to presume, that even the best and holiest thing cannot be advanced by a due share of activity in its behalf, by those who are interested in its success. Our neighbours certainly deem their religion as sacred as we do ours; they profess to have the some confidence in its stability as we have in the permanence of Judaism; yet do they rest satisfied with this? do they send their children for religious instruction to the school of dissentients? do they permit persons of doubtful religious opinions to be elected as teachers? are not even the free schools, professedly established without regard to sectarian bias, always governed and presided over by persons belonging to the dominant professions? We know full well that no sectarian doctrines as such are taught; but the very school-books bear the impress of partisanship, and the teachers, as just said, are the expounders of the spirit of the books placed in the scholars’ hands. Daily experience has also taught us, that the sectarians who deem their interests overlooked in the arrangement of the free schools, are dissatisfied with them, and labour hard to obtain such a control in them as to make their views prominently brought forward. It is not our intention to enter into the religious political discussions of the day; for as Jews, we have no connexion with them, and as citizens, the public schools, divested of all religious instruction, are good enough as resorts for the obtainment of the common elements of education. But as respects the higher interests of life, the acquisition of an ample knowledge of the faith and practices inherited from our fathers, the means at our command are extremely insufficient. We know we shall be met by the assertion, that owing to the benevolent and pious efforts of the ladies, schools for gratuitous instruction during one day every week have of late years been established in most congregations; and it is also probable that the commendations which we bestowed upon them, from time to time, will be advanced against our present assertion. But we do not mean to gainsay a single word of praise of all we have hitherto written or spoken. We know indeed of no remedy more capable of arresting the indifference of the age than instruction conveyed from woman’s lips, when fired by a holy zeal for our blessed faith; and the noble readiness with which so many came forward in many parts of the land, to follow the example set them by an honoured sister, shows how readily a reformation for a better observance of religion might be brought about, were the subject but once properly appreciated, through the same wholesome influence, which has been felt active enough to induce so many to take the initiative in education. But nevertheless we maintain that what has been done proves how much remains yet unaccomplished. We need not argue the fact that, at best, one day’s instruction in the week is not sufficient to produce a thorough acquaintance with the all-important subject of which we are speaking, were it even that all the Jewish children in America could readily participate in the instruction afforded. If, however, we examine the circumstances in which we are placed, we must soon discover that the Sunday school system cannot be made readily available for all. Because, independently of the prejudices some people feel, against the day selected, there are too many, who are not conversant with the English, who cannot therefore participate with every advantage in the course of the studies. True, they can be taught English, but the time required to effect this is too long, at least if means could be brought into action which would abridge the period for the acquisition of the vernacular language of the land. But even irrespective of all this, it requires but little reflection to convince any one that the amount which can be taught in one year on but one day in the week, is very limited; so that however useful the Sunday schools may become as an auxiliary measure, they cannot supply the demand for a thorough religious training which is so very necessary. There are besides too many interruptions, by absence of both teachers and scholars on the regular meeting-days, and this from the very nature of things unavoidable, that it could be averred that we could rely with any degree of certainty upon the volunteer system of education.
We say, All honour to the pious women of Israel, who have commenced and carried on so noble a work as that of education; where many of them have had no other incentive, not having any relations among the pupils, than the desire of being useful in the cause of religion. Still we maintain also that it would be nothing but half-measures to stop at the point already attained. Something has been accomplished, and hence we have an earnest that more may also be done. Let us look at the case as it really is, not as our fancy might be perhaps induced to represent it; and what is the amount of our success? On one day of the week, in some congregations, the ladies give instruction in Catechism, in Bible Questions, and Scriptural recitations, to such as are willing to come; they have no means of compelling a regular attendance, and several of the teachers have generally to be absent also, from some cause or other. Unfavourable weather, also, not rarely interrupts the exercises, and if holydays beside intervene, there may be several weeks consecutively that no instruction can be imparted. And then, above all, though it is so extremely desirable that the Hebrew language shall be taught, there is no time to teach it, should there be even a sufficient number of competent instructors within reach; the two or three hours every week are barely enough to impart the elementary rudiments of the principles of religion, without which knowledge not the smallest child should be suffered to remain; and how then shall the Hebrew be taught at the same time? It may be said by some that they do not care for the Hebrew. But we imagine that the number of those who thus think is deservedly small. We do not now wish to go into a long argument to prove the necessity of the holy language; but we wish to put it merely to all friends of the Scripture, whether they do not believe with us, that it is of the highest importance to every Israelite to attain, if possible, a correct knowledge of the language in which our prayers and law are read, so that he may have a correct appreciation of the beauty of the former, and the truth of the latter. A translation, however well executed, is at best but an approximation to the original; yet if it even were the same, there is a peculiar interest in our ancient tongue to the Jew, that he ought to make himself familiar with it, in order that he may be able to compare for himself what is given out as the word of God in a foreign dress, with the original records themselves. It is not safe to trust to human assertion; the word is best explained by its context and the dress in which it is conveyed; and let us then enable our children to have the same protection to their faith which we have enjoyed ourselves. So much to those who may have some doubts about the necessity of the Hebrew. Those, however, who with us deem it of vital importance, what have they to allege at the apathy displayed about obtaining competent Hebrew teachers? They have too often left it to mere chance to find some one to teach their children at very irregular intervals; and when he changes his place of abode, or when he gives up teaching, they have to search for another one to commence anew, as the little already acquired has probably been forgotten between the time of stopping and recommencing; it is no wonder then that so little progress is made in the acquisition of even a moderate amount of knowledge of the Hebrew, and that it is very rare to find persons in this country thoroughly familiar with this language. The only remedy for this evil, is to select and appoint such as have received a thorough education, and who are perfectly familiar with the language of the Scriptures and the Hebrew sages, and whose sole business it is to be, to devote their time and attention to give instruction in our ancient tongue and religion to all the children of the congregation, without regard to their pecuniary means, so that the rich and poor may have the opportunity of acquiring at least a moderate share of a knowledge so necessary to them as Jews.
We have hitherto spoken merely of Hebrew religious education, to be imparted where the other elementary branches and sciences are acquired in public or private schools, not under the charge of Jewish teachers and committees; and we contend that the more our children are left to mingle with those of other persuasions, the greater care should be taken to fortify their minds with that kind of information which will enable them to resist successfully the open or secret attacks against the religion of their fathers, to which they will always be exposed during their journey through life. The very sacredness of our belief, and the contrast it presents to the opinions prevailing around us, must necessarily expose it and its followers to the jealous watchfulness of the various sects who profess Christianity in its different forms; for we deem it superfluous to use any arguments other than the mere appeal to any one’s experience, to establish the fact that all Christian sects, without exception, however they differ among themselves, agree on this point, and co-operate with each other by all the means which wealth and learning can produce, to withdraw the Israelites from their religion, or, where this is impracticable, to weaken their attachment to its behests. Where so much zeal is displayed to destroy what is so holy to us,—where our opponents are so active and so indefatigable to deprive us of what was ever dearer to the Jews than life itself, can we, consistently with our duty to our God and to ourselves,—consistently with our debt of gratitude to the honoured dead, who transmitted to us, untouched, unchanged, the sacred legacy confided to them from heaven,—consistently with our obligation to posterity, to preserve inviolate the standard of truth, under which our nation have marched joyously to victory, or cheerfully embraced death when thus alone they could prove their consistency:—can we consistently, as Israelites,—as descendants of Abraham,—as followers of the law of Moses,—leave it to mere chance whether or not our children become sufficiently imbued with the spirit of our faith to be and to remain faithful servants of the God of Jacob; true believers and willing witnesses to the existence, the truth, and the unity of the everlasting God, the Creator of the universe?
Some may allege that the apparent truth and the self-evident consistency of the Jewish faith, enjoying as all do, some portion of instruction at home, will enable all born of Jewish parentage to cope successfully with the arguments and appeals addressed to them by those who deem their conversion to other opinions a sacred duty. But agreeing as we do with those who argue thus in their opinion of the superior reasonableness of our religion above all others, still we cannot share their confidence, that but an imperfect knowledge of its doctrines and duties can be sufficient to render us consistent and pious Israelites; even assuming that the advocates of antagonizing principles should fail to impress our minds with the truth of their opinions. For in this manner we would be merely theoretical Jews; still how can a religious conformity be produced, or even expected, where theory only has been implanted, but where a knowledge of practices has been left to be acquired as chance might dictate? Judaism is a system of duties,—of obligations,—both moral and ceremonial, applicable to every stage of life, many of them differing from the actions of other religious persuasions, and which are rendered meritorious, solely because they are commanded in Scripture, or sanctioned by ancestral customs; how, we ask, can it be expected that all these should be observed, if the mind be not early and thoroughly trained in the knowledge and appreciation of them? Domestic education, powerful as it is, cannot alone have this effect; a stimulant more energetic, that of constant precept from those who form the mind abroad,—teachers and associates,—must combine with parental authority to make religion sweet, and a practice of its duties agreeable and necessary to tranquilize the spirit. In other words, our children require teachers of their own persuasion to instil into their souls a knowledge of the doctrines and practices of their faith, and school-companions of their own persuasion, to urge on and to encourage by example and conversation a conformity to the duties first implanted by the watchful father and anxious mother, and enforced afterwards by the teacher, who is animated by a sincere attachment to the law of God.