|Vol. IV, No. 7
Tishry 5607, October 1846
To The Editor Of The Occident.
St. Thomas, 16th August, 1846.
I know the deep sympathy and interest which you feel in all that concerns your co-religionists, wherever they may be found. I therefore, without apology, take the liberty of occupying your attention with some remarks, on a subject that ought to engage the attention of every friend to the faith. I know not what your views may be with respect to the various innovations which, under the title of “Reform,” are finding their way into the Ritual and Ceremonies of the Jews of the present day; but I think I know sufficient of you, in order to be assured, that, whatever your opinions may be, you will not object to hear, and to give publicity in your valuable periodical (the Occident) to the opinions of others, however they may differ from yours.
It may be necessary to premise that the individual who now addresses you thinks that the form of the religious worship of the Jews may be favourably amended, some of their customs may without injury or impropriety be dispensed with; but he must confess himself not sufficiently learned to point at any particular one, and to say so with certainty, therefore for himself, though a reformer, he would rather yield allegiance to long established customs than indiscreetly to have them changed. But another more powerful reason which induces him to object to innovations alluded to is, that they are not the results of combined and general understanding by the Jews throughout the world. Individuals who claim to be the descendants of Israel, who believe in the revelations of the Old Testament, and look for the fulfillment of the promises declared thereby, should consider that an obligation rests upon them of a different character to that which belongs to mere religious sectarians;—on them devolves the duty of seeking for the national regeneration of the house of Jacob, and by every means should they endeavour to hasten the approach of the gathering in of the faithful. Will they do so by destroying their individuality? Or by abject and servile imitations of the customs of the gentiles, who, on their part, have no inducement, no object in preserving that unity, which, while it gives strength, vigour and consistency to the worship, is at the same time a type of the object of the adoration and hope of the Jew: One only true and all-powerful God?
If our forms be defective, our ceremonies not congenial to the spirit of the times, in Heaven’s name let them be changed; but let the change be the result of some combined purpose; let it be based upon the united wisdom of competent persons, selected by the parties interested. I am for change; but for such a change as will not destroy the unity, the individuality and harmony of a people who claim to be chosen of God. I am led to these reflections, Mr. Editor, by having witnessed a ceremony performed in the Synagogue of this island, under the title of “Confirmation;” what the Hebrew term is I do not know, nor do I think there is any invented as yet; for I believe the origin of this grave ceremony does not go quite so far back as when the Hebrew Language was the vernacular of the Jews; but perhaps when I describe it, your learning may devise some Hebrew word applicable to it; and really I wish you would, for the term Confirmation reminds one too forcibly of the “laying on of hands” of the “Lords spiritual,” the “Vicegerents of their Lord and Master Jesus Christ.” In order to be appreciated by a Jewish congregation, I will briefly describe the ceremony as it was “enacted” here.
The confirmants having undergone a course of instruction and preparation, and being perfect in their parts, a procession, composed of the confirmants, (the girls dressed in white, with white veils covering their heads and faces, the boys in their holiday suits,) walking in pairs, and succeeded by the Reader of the congregation, dressed in his robes, proceeded from the residence of the Reader to the Synagogue; arriving there, the service of the evening (eve of Shabungot) was commenced; at the appropriate time the Reader ascended the pulpit and delivered a discourse in English, the confirmants and their parents were then placed around the front of the Ark, in two ranks, the former in front and the latter in the rear:—the Reader, taking his stand on the platform of the ark, then interrogated the confirmants on the Decalogue and the thirteen articles of Faith, alternately in Hebrew and in English, the responses being all correctly made, in accordance with an established formula; the ark was opened, and three Scrolls of the Law were taken out and held by the dignitaries of the congregation; the confirmants then approached and placed their hands upon the Scrolls, they repeated a solemn pledge and promise that they (the confirmants) will always believe in what they have learned and repeated, and will never change their religion, (or words to that effect)—the confirmants assented thereto, and the parents then laid their hands on the heads of the confirmants, and a blessing was invoked by the Reader. After this an exhortation was delivered, and the service was concluded. Now, sir, I ask, and would respectfully ask you to answer, Has such a ceremony ever been performed in any Synagogue of Jews previous to the establishment of what are termed “reformed congregations” in Europe? Is it to be found in the formula of Jewish worship ordained by Rabbinical authority since the dispersion? Is it to be found in the ceremonial established for the Israelites by Moses? If not, then I feel constrained to say that it is a presumptuous, uncalled-for innovation, without warrant from any acknowledged Jewish authority, and as such, should be discountenanced and rejected.
The creed of the Jew, as I have understood it, consists in the emphatic declaration, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.” It begins and it ends with that single, comprehensible and undisputed idea. But, in the ceremony of confirmation, as it was performed here, this great truth is joined to what are termed the Thirteen Articles of Faith, all of which the confirmants are made to declare they “believe with a firm faith.”
Thus, confounding a plain and evident truth, designed as the basis of the Jewish faith, with a collection of questionable deductions drawn from the writings of the Prophets and the Sages of the Bible, the foundation for discussions, divisions and dissensions is laid, which, it is to be feared, will lead to the same consequences as have resulted to the Christian Church. But independently of this, I would ask, is it either wise or proper to cause, or even to permit young, inexperienced persons, to make a solemn pledge before God and the world, always to believe what they have been taught, and always to act in conformity to that belief. In my humble opinion, it is a species of subornation of perjury, and the promoter of deception. Sir, is a man’s belief under his own control? Can he lock up his mind? Can he close his senses to the evidences and power of reason? The idea of pledging one’s self to any given belief appears to be such a perfect absurdity, and is so much at variance with what every man, a fraction beyond an idiot in intellect, must himself have observed of himself, that nothing but the quintessence of bigotry could ever have imagined it.
The pledge, with respect to action, is not quite so absurd; but what does it lead to? A child is pledged to a certain religious practice; with the increase of years and experience he finds them to be erroneous, and of course wishes to change them; but he remembers his pledge,—what then? either he continues to do what he BELIEVES TO BE WRONG; or he argues upon the non-liability to an engagement into which he was forced or betrayed; and he forfeits his pledge. If the former, what have not his wise teachers to answer for? If the latter, what is the value of his pledge?
But, sir, let us look upon this subject in another point of view, free from speculation, and founded upon facts either having occurred or likely to occur. The communicant is under his pledge bound to observe the laws of the Decalogue; among these is the fourth—“Remember to keep holy the Sabbaths day,” &c.—he repeats the imperative command; he is told that it comes from God himself—that God in whose presence he stands, on whose holy word his hand is placed; he then repeats the fifth command—“Honour thy father and thy mother,”—that father’s hand is on his head, he feels its pressure, and with it he remembers that that father openly and willfully infringes the command which he brings him there to pledge himself to observe!—the father is a Sabbath breaker!!—what a solemn mockery is not this!
Mr. Editor, numberless are the reflections which press on my mind at this moment; yet I dare not impose upon your indulgence in giving vent to them. But permit the a few words more; I shall be brief. This island you know is one of the colonies of Denmark. Under the benevolent protection of its late and present sovereigns, the Jews here have enjoyed not only a free toleration of their religion, but their congregation has been endowed with special and valuable privileges; they prospered under them; their worship was upheld; and notwithstanding the regulations under which their co-religionists of Denmark were governed, they were free to govern themselves. But the spirit of absolutism and of bigotry could not let “well enough” alone; it must control men’s consciences; there was too much freedom of action, too much liberty of thought. In the year 1814 an ordinance of they King had provided for the religious education of the Jews in Denmark; and, in order to enforce it, it was ordained that the children at fourteen years of age should undergo an examination and “depose their religion,” and make a promise “never with their free will to act contrary to the principles which they acknowledged” under the penalty of not being permitted “to make oath, to enter into marriage, to enter as journeymen in any corporation, to be made burghers in any town, to keep any trade, to enter among the students, or to be their own guardians:” all this was specially provided for the people of the “Mosaic communion” residing, or such as might hereafter be permitted to reside, in Denmark. Well, sir! nothing, of this was ever applied or intended for the Jews of this place; they enjoyed their civil and religious rights to the fullest extent. What think you, then, of the fatuity of the men who could seek to disturb so happy a state of things? what think you of the individuals who could apply to the colonial government for permission to enforce the regulations alluded to upon their co-religionists, residents of this island? to enslave their consciences? to make the enjoyment of their civil rights dependent upon a pledge? to shackle the freedom of thought, and of religious conviction?
Can it be that these men are the descendants of the people, who for ages have endured persecutions and obloquy without surrendering an iota of their right to worship God after the dictates of their own hearts? they are so; they are Jews who have done this deed. Strange inconsistency! the persecuted, whilst yet groaning under the effects of persecution, seek themselves to be persecutors!! But, sir, they say their intention is good: they fear that without some restraint of this kind the Jewish religion will be lost; that there have been a few seceders, and there might be more. And is it so? is the Jewish religion so weak a fabric as to be held together with chains and cords? Is its foundation gone? Has the glory departed from Israel?
These men add insult to injury. Sir, you are one of the watchmen on the outer tower; to you I appeal for a warning: tell these men that in seeking to uphold, they destroy; tell them that the great God of the universe has given to man free will to choose between good and evil: let them not pretend to be wiser than their Creator.
Yours in the faith,
Note By The Editor.—Our valued correspondent, whom we have known and esteemed for a number of years, wields a strong pen; and though we think that he colours highly, as all generous minds do when an object of interest is presented to them, still we believe that there is a great cause for serious thought upon the subjects embraced in his communication. Our friend could not have been aware, when speaking of the ceremony of confirmation, that we had noticed it already in our August number, from information derived from three various sources, who all approved of the new institution, whilst we appended a few remarks qualifying our assent to the introduction thereof. We said: “Though so much is told of this child of modern days, we are, for our part, not yet satisfied of its usefulness; and though not opposed to its being resorted to, however we might except to some of its details, we have not yet seen enough to satisfy our own judgment of the propriety of its introduction.” It will thus be seen that we do not assent to the necessity, and consequently to the propriety, of holding a public religious initiation, as has been recommended by some of our correspondents, in common with many others. Our readers need not be surprised that we allow others to advocate in our pages what we do not think either useful or necessary; we have always endeavoured to invite free discussion, not the least doubting that we too may obtain thereby convictions not otherwise attainable. Truth can only gain by discussion; error alone must lie crouched in darkness, for fear of exposure. So with the confirmation; we permitted its advocacy, and will now let others, if they think proper, discuss it according to its merits, either on one, or the other side. We, for our part, deem it a harmless thing, but still an innovation upon our ancient customs; Jews in former days knew nothing of it; it is borrowed from the Protestants in Germany, if we mistake not, and is akin to the first communion among the Catholics, for which the children are prepared by a long course of study, so that they may be able to be cleverly catechised by the examining clergymen when the (to them) important day arrives for their admission to the grace of the church. Christians, as our readers know, think the partaking of the bread and wine of the communion of the highest importance; it, they say, unites them to the body of Christ, when they typically or actually, according to the varying views of Protestants or Catholics, partake of his blood and his flesh. Hence the pomp and ceremony of a first approach to the communion table, and all the mystical manipulations to give to a simple act, which is done every festival at every Jewish table, the making of Kiddush and Motzee, all the imaginable importance which circumstances, well improved, can confer. Jews never had anything of the kind; their religious initiation חנוך (chinnuch) should commence from the cradle; the children should be early taught some religious truth, induced to participate in some religious ceremony, so that when the boy arrives at his thirteenth, and the girl at her twelfth year, they may at once enter, understandingly and piously, upon the duties which are now incumbent on them, they being, from their respective ages, full members in communion with the household of Jacob. Whilst, therefore, we lived in the simplicity of ancestral manner, confirmation, initiation, or not to be thought of, any farther than that the boys were counted among the ten requisite for constituting an assembly for public worship, or minyan (the number) as it is technically termed, called to the public reading of the law and were permitted to read their own portion, or even the whole weekly section. Occasionally a recitation or studied address was recited by the new members of the Synagogue, and a friendly invitation given to partake of a religious entertainment (סעודה של מצוה) at the house of the parents or guardians. From the nature of our worship, female children could not participate in these ceremonies; hence their entrance into religious communion was not marked by any outward act, other than their gradual initiation of all the observances demanded of them.
Thus matters stood till about 1810, when, we believe, the celebrated J. Johlson, of Frankford on Maine,—whose “Instructions in the Mosaic Religion” is sufficiently well known, and deservedly appreciated among many of our readers,—was the first to recommend and practise religious confirmation for both sexes in his school, which, occasionally, served also as a place of worship for those who had become estranged from the Synagogue because the ancient order of things no longer suited their corrupt manners. We say, advisedly, corrupt manners. We have, in several of our leading articles, before this, alluded to the great demoralization and infidelity, especially among the educated, which overspread all Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, and the commencement of this. Our young Jews had need to show their enlightenment by contemning all ancient usages; and hence the Synagogue, where the fancy was not amused, ceased to claim their attendance, and, in truth, they were strangers to Israel’s house of prayer. But in all evils there must necessarily come a reaction; and when the disease is at its height, the patient must either die or return to a healthy state of life. The same was the case with the philosophers of Germany; they felt a reviving desire for religion; but they desired something new, which would please them whilst it in a measure satisfied their awakened conscience. In this case Mr. Johlson, (he was certainly one of the first, if not the very first, of reformers,) who, in his school-house, established a sort of worship, commencing at a later hour than the Synagogue, with German hymns, organ, and preaching, to which was added confirmation of the young people:—the former as a means of drawing the grown persons to his place of worship; the latter, to impress the importance of religion upon the minds of those just entering into life, so as to bind them, through means of the promise then solemnly given, to the observance of the duties taught them at school, and the belief in the doctrines which had been enforced by their teachers. In thus giving Mr. Johlson the credit, or whatever else we or others may call it, for this step, we are not certain that we are right to assign him the invention; it is possible enough that he did it in consultation with others, or that others had preceded him; perhaps the celebrated Israel Jacobson, Minister of Finance (we think) to King Joseph Buonaparte, of Westphalia. By the by, will some of our correspondents give us the origin of the new reforms and their first promoters? The subject might be interesting, and we have no means at hand to gratify our own and the public curiosity. We only speak from impressions, and, as far as they go, they are correct; more than that we cannot say.
Be this, however, as it may, our respected correspondent will see that confirmation, or chinnuch, (here is the Hebrew word, how does he like it?) is not the effect of rabbinical, but of reform, tendency; it was resorted to as one of the means to bring people back to a religious sentiment which had greatly gone into abeyance. The organ and German hymn reform, although Mr. Johlson’s work contains some beautiful composition, has not brought a healthier state of religion among the Frankfort Jews; they have proceeded from bad to worse, till they are almost on a par with those of Berlin, Hamburg, and Paris; this does not say that there are not many pious Israelites in all these places, but that many, in a great disproportion to what was formerly the case, exhibit a course of life, such as no good Jew can justify. Equally unfruitful has been the act of confirmation, not alone in the hands of its first projectors, but in that also of all its later advocates. No Jew is made so by a public exhibition, and public attestation of faith, no matter how well he and his companions rehearse the their school lesson in the Synagogue before the assembled congregation; though he pronounce the most solemn asseveration, after a most heart-stirring appeal from the most eloquent minister, and under the imposition of the hands of his earthly progenitors. The remedy against irreligion can only be found in a thorough religious training, at school and at home; there must be, as the words of the prophet have been applied, “line upon line, precept upon precept;” and in addition, too, “observance upon observance, watching upon watching;” teachers should enlarge upon the duties which the Bible inculcates, and parents should see that what the school has demanded is enforced at home. The confirmation, or initiation, should be a daily work. “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children; and thou shalt speak of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way; when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” Do the parents do this? they require no pomp and ceremony to make their children Jews. Do they neglect it? all the exhibitions in the world cannot effect what they do all in their power, by their conversation and example, to destroy.
These are our views, which we have candidly given, instead of answering the questions of our friend, seriatim.But we do not wish to convey the meaning, as though we agreed with him in thinking it a species of sin to let children affirm to the thirteen articles of the Maimonidean creed. They are emphatically Biblical doctrine, all derived from Scripture; and in assenting to them in our prayers and hymns, such as Yigdal and Anee mahameen be-emoo-nah Shelaymah, or in our catechisms, we only say that we are Biblical Jews, believers in whatever the word of God has taught us. It is possible enough that there may arise, in after-life, doubts as to the correctness of one or the other proposition; some men may believe more, others less; but this does not say that therefore the doctrines themselves are erroneous, or that the teachers were wrong in propounding them as the fundamental articles of the Jewish faith. We acknowledge, cheerfully, that the main pillar of the belief and acts of the Israelite is the affirmation Our GOD is One. Yet does not this exclude the ideas of eternity, incorporeality, priority, and sole power inherent in the same Being. These are only amplifications of the great idea which has been our watchword from the beginning. The belief in the existence of the revelation of God, its promulgation through Moses, the plenary inspiration of this great apostle of mankind, and the unchanging nature of God’s word, are ideas embraced in the very nature of the truth of the Deity, as we shall, God willing, prove hereafter in separate articles. To affirm then to these, is no burdening the conscience with a new weight, not before resting upon it, in the very name we bear of believers in the Mosaic law. Farther, the belief in rewards and punishments, and God’s omniscience, are again requisite deductions, both from Bible and reason, when we admit ourselves as accountable beings, which the possession of the Scriptures necessarily renders us. The only points of dispute which then could arise, are the belief in the Messiah, and that in the resurrection of the dead. These are not founded on reason as such, but on the words of revelation; and no ingenuity of man can gainsay that both doctrines are taught, as evidently as words can do it, in the books which our prophets have left us as their legacy. At the same time, we are free to confess that we see no necessity for affirming to all this, any more than to the proposition that the sun shines, or that the earth is our planet. As Jews we are affirmed and sworn for Mount Sinai, משבע ועומד מהר סיני; with the promulgation of the law, all the truths it contains become at once our duty to believe, as we are bound to obey all its precepts. The declaration of the affirmant adds, therefore, not the smallest weight, or additional obligation, to what exists without it. The only question is expediency: whether it would be well to produce a striking effect upon the young Israelite at his or her entrance into active life. Many wise and good men maintain the affirmative, whilst others deny either the usefulness or propriety. We, for our own part, incline to the latter view; we are, nevertheless, open to conviction, in case some solid fruits were presented to us as having sprung from this new ceremony adopted from the Christians, and one of which our fathers knew nothing.
Our friend has asked us a few off-hand questions; but in commencing to discuss them, we have been compelled to write a much longer article than we are in the habit of doing, and more extended than our readers, we fear, may be inclined to peruse with attention. But it is unavoidable; it is not always possible to condense in a small compass. We leave the subject unwillingly in the fragmental state in which we have left it; but, we doubt not, that either the minister at St. Thomas, or some other competent person, will take up the affirmative side of the question, and we need not say that any rejoinder will be gladly admitted into the Occident.
In one thing our correspondent is right, that it is dangerous to forge our creed into fetters of faith, as Mendelssohn calls the compulsory affirmation to articles of belief. If our religion had no safer basis than a public deposition before the assembled members of the Synagogue, at the age of fourteen, it would soon fall into deserved decay and disuse. The enemy is not yet at the gates of Rome, and the studied recitation of a few boys and girls would not, in that case, save our republic. Thank God! we are not sunk so far, and however many may fall off, the number of faithful Israelites will not be materially diminished; and for all practical purposes we can continue, in our national and individual capacity, to exercise our duties despite of the apostates and sectarians. This, however, is not what we wish to speak of just now; it is merely on the impolicy of making a religious deposition the test of civil rights. If such a law is allowable only as the arbitrary mandate of irresponsible government, Jews should be the last to submit to it if they can avoid doing so. There is a double absurdity in it; for, in the first place, those who join the Lutheran Church would be equal to original Christians under the Danish laws, and, consequently, civilly better off than those remaining Jews; and, secondly, civil rights would then depend upon professions made at a tender age, however varying the conduct of the individual might be, whilst the truly faithful Israelites would meet with grievous wrong, simply because they have not taken a useless asseveration, which adds nothing to their religious responsibility, this being just as strong without as with it. If people wish to have confirmation, in the name of Heaven, let it be a voluntary thing; do not stamp it as an act above the positive injunctions of Scripture. It is folly, it is wicked, so to treat each other, so to destroy the value of our faith in the eyes of its followers. Let us entreat our friends to withdraw, in time, from so dangerous a course, before they injure themselves irretrievably, and bring disunion in their places of worship, which no after-legislation can heal. Let us have peace and harmony; and let our friends believe us, as one who never willingly deceived them, that all the tendencies of the recent movements have caused religion to retrograde; whatever reforms may be needed must proceed from other sources, and be constructed upon better principles, those, indeed, which are more consonant with the views of our ancient religious teachers, the best friends, in truth, our religion ever had.