Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


Judaism and Freedom of Will.*

A Reply to Talmid’s Essays

* This letter is one of a series which I intend to publish in answer to Talmid’s Thoughts on Deuteronomy. The cause that prompted me to enter into this controversy was to prove to our Christian friends that we Jews do not adhere to our faith blindly or obdurately; that we are not afraid to examine Christianity; but that we are at all times ready and willing to adduce our arguments against it whenever we are called upon, and wherever our tongues are not muzzled by legislative enactments. Would to God that my own people would study a little deeper the tenets of our holy religion, and be prepared at all times and on all occasions to state their reasons for following Judaism, so that it may no longer be said ידע שור קנהו וחמור אבוס בעליו ישראל לא ידע עמי לא התבונן “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel knoweth not, my people doth not understand.”

Note by the Editor.—For the same reason that our friend H. G. agreed to discuss the principles of our religion with a Christian clergyman, did we consent to open our pages to the reception of the different essays which we have already published on the subject, and which may yet follow. Religious periodicals have too much borne the character of the political press, presenting only one side of the question, they being nothing but the organs of a party. But we consider Judaism as too holy and firmly established to be injured by free discussion; hence many articles have found their way in The Occident which many may have thought out of place; but which we think legitimate in a work which professes to, and shall, if we are blessed with the opportunity, shed light on the principles we hold as true.—We must correct a misapprehension which is entertained by some. The Occident, Jewish as it is in every sense of the word, is not therefore a Jewish organ, in the sense which is generally attached to the term. We admit of no control on the part of a one for anything which appears in it. We are the sole editor and proprietor; it is our own private enterprise, and are only responsible to all readers alike and our own conscientious convictions for its contents. We receive the support of no party.

My Dear Talmid:

When first you proposed to me to enter into a correspondence on the subject which gave rise to your “Thoughts on Deutero<<540>>nomy,” I had no idea of their being expanded to their present length, nor did I sufficiently appreciate the momentousness of the question at issue between us. In developing your ideas, however, I find, that instead of its being Predestination versus Unqualified Free Agency, it is Christianity versus Judaism. Although I never shrink from defending my faith,—to which I adhere, not because I have inherited it from my forefathers, but from the purest source of conviction,—I candidly admit that I never court such controversies. Since, however, I have undertaken to defend the position which  I then took, namely, that man is not an involuntary and passive machine in the hands of the Deity, as regards his moral actions; that the regeneration which Moses predicted, after pronouncing the blessings and the curses, is to come from man himself without any extraneous agency: I am now ready to fulfill my pledge. I shall first treat the matter philosophically, and see how far common sense will assist me in establishing my principle. I shall then adduce my arguments from holy writ, which 1 hope will convince you that the spirit of the Mosaic dispensation followed by the prophets, is entirely at variance with your notion of spiritual regeneration.

You have very graphically portrayed the man without faith (see Occ., vol. v. No. 1, p. 22), the abandoned sinner. You have truly depicted his awful and wretched condition. That he is responsible for his sins, you surely admit; that there is no salvation for him, without true and sincere repentance on his part, you do not deny. According to your system, if it should not please the Almighty to inspire him with faith, to infuse, as it were, a new soul into him, that man is eternally, irretrievably lost, and doomed to eternal perdition.  He (that man) alone can never work out his own salvation. Truly may we exclaim חלילה לך מעשות כדבר הזה השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט “It is unworthy of Thee to act in this manner. Shall the Judge of the whole earth not do justice?” Is it reasonable to suppose that God should punish a man for his iniquities, when it only lies with Him to send contrition into his heart, and thus save him from such punishment? Figure to <<541>>yourself two persons equally steeped in crime; the one, without his own instrumentality, is blessed with spiritual regeneration, he is saved, and after his dissolution eternal happiness awaits him; the other, left to perish in his evil ways, is doomed, yea, unconditionally, irrevocably doomed; and all this because it pleased God to favour the one and not the other. Tell me in candour, would not a human judge, acting in a similar manner, be considered most arbitrary, and capricious, if not whimsical? Would, he not disgrace his calling? Would not such conduct fill every breast with well-merited indignation? And shall we ascribe a quality to our Creator (blessed be his name) unworthy of flesh and blood? Does not your system entirely deprive us of our moral responsibility? אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא. The most righteous on the earth is not entirely exempt from sin; whether this originates from the first sin of Adam, or that it is to be attributed to man’s inability to subdue his carnal propensities, which are the great incentives to sin, is a question I do not now wish to examine. All I wish to know is, how is this sin to be forgiven? Is it by penitence and contrition? by sinning no more? You say, No; all this avails nothing; he must be regenerated, he must have faith; but this faith and regeneration must come from God. Then, I ask, can He in justice punish a person for not possessing that which He himself withholds from him? You remember how beautifully Maimonides argues about the expression of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil;” that this term does not imply that man was ignorant of what was right or wrong previous to his sinning; for in that case, says he, it would have been improper to command him anything, since when a command is given to a person, it is necessary that he should understand its import, and that he should have the power to execute it, neither of which would have been the case had Adam really not known what we generally understand by good and evil.

Let us now examine the covenant of Abraham. The learned and reverend editor of this periodical, has already pointed out the error in the English Bible translation of the words שכרך הרבה מאד.* It is unnecessary to adduce any arguments to prove its <<542>>fallacy, as you have (in a private conversation with me) already admitted the translation to be wrong. I shall only quote one additional proof, which is that, according to the King James’s translation, “I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward,” Abraham’s reply, “Lord God, what wilt thou give me while I go childless?” would be entirely improper and out of place, since God having already told him “I am thy great reward,” he ought not to have asked for anything else in this world. But, according to the proper translation, “I am thy shield, thy reward is exceedingly great,” Abraham’s answer comes in very appropriately:

“What wilt thou give me?” meaning of what use are all thy earthly gifts “while I go childless,” and there will be no one to enjoy them after me, except a stranger who is to be my heir. It appears to me that this perversion of the original text was not accidental, but was purposely made, to establish the doctrine of Calvinism; for I am willing to confess that the James translation of the Pentateuch generally is one of the best extant, and it seems to me impossible that the translators should have made a blunder which would not escape a Jewish schoolboy ten years of age.

* My brethren of the house of Israel, does not this prove the imperious necessity that we should have a translation of our own, one entirely Jewish? Here is a sentence of three words, which King James’s translators have entirely perverted for the purpose of establishing a certain doctrine. However rare such perversions may be in the Pentateuch, they are innumerable in the Prophets and the Psalms; and this then is the Bible to which the Jew unacquainted with Hebrew has to refer. It may be said, in answer, that we can have no authorized version; that no translation, be it ever so faithful, would ever be accepted amongst us as a standard authority; that it is a duty incumbent upon us to study the original. Granted; but at all events, until the time comes that we shall all be learned in the law, and all good Hebraists, let us have something that we can put confidence in. Surely it is not the want of talent that has hitherto prevented such a translation to come to light, but rather the apprehension on the part of the projectors of incurring a heavy pecuniary loss, which would be a poor compensation for so necessary and stupendous an undertaking.

It being conceded that the proper translation of the text quoted above is “thy reward is exceedingly great,” it proves incontestably that the promise made to Abraham was not a mere caprice on the part of the Almighty, but according to the principle כי אתה תשלם לאיש כמעשהו “for thou rewardest every man according to his deeds;” and how can it be otherwise? Suppose your doctrine to be correct, that Abraham was a sinner at first, like the rest of his contemporaries, but that God had selected him out <<543>>of the multitude and inspired him with faith, not on account of his own merits, but that for some inexplicable reason he is blessed and happy in this world and in the world to come. The rest of his generation remain in spiritual darkness, and die like the brutes; but are nevertheless punished for the sin of idolatry and their general unbelief. Would they not have just reason to say before the throne of mercy, “If Thou hadst poured the spirit of grace upon us, as thou didst on Abraham, we would have been his equals, but now that Thou didst withhold it from us, Thou shouldst not chastise us for that over which we had no control.”

I know the ready answer to all such kind of difficulties, “that we ought not and cannot scrutinize the actions of the Almighty.” But Abraham, with all his faith and humility, when he presumed that God would destroy the righteous with the wicked of Sodom, did not scruple to exclaim חלילה לך השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט “It is unworthy of Thee; shall the Judge of the whole earth not do justice?” And did God manifest any displeasure at the expression? Did he rebuke him for it? Certainly not, but on the contrary conceded to every request of Abraham, and assured him that if only ten righteous persons could be found, He would spare the whole place for their sake. I never could conceive how it is possible that He who calls himself אל ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת could act in a manner which by us (poor mortals, full of imperfections) would be considered unjust.*

* You make a sad mistake in supposing that the expression וחנתי את אשר אחון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם “I will be gracious,” &c., implies that God will be gracious and merciful to whom he likes, without regard to the merits of the person; for that would not correspond with אני אעביר כל טובי על פניך “I will cause all my goodness to pass before thee;” secondly, He ought, according to your views, have said וחנתי את אשר אחון ושנאתי את אשר אשנא which would be more in keeping with the capriciousness you asciibe to Him.

But let us examine the history of Abraham, and see if we cannot establish the fact that the favours showered upon him by the Almighty were not undeserved. Brought up by idolatrous parents, we see him first cheerfully obey God’s command to expatriate himself; he leaves parents, friends, country, in fact everything dear upon earth, behind him, and commences a wandering life. At every place where he alights, he builds altars to the Lord, and proclaims the name of the Lord, (which, in my hum<<544>>ble opinion, means that he taught and lectured to the people on the unity of God, thereby endeavouring to wean them off from idolatry.) Where do we find in history a nobler specimen of disinterestedness than he evinced in the recapturing of the king of Sodom’s property? Where do we meet with a more pure and implicit faith? When God promised him a posterity as numerous as the stars of the heaven, notwithstanding its physical impossibility, he still “believed in the Lord, who accounted it to him as righteousness.”* And after the realization of that promise, does he hesitate to sacrifice that beloved and only son at God’s bidding? Does he even ask for what purpose? Does he ask, How can thy prediction of כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע that “in Isaac shall thy seed be denominated,” be realized, if I slay him? No! but with a steady and unflinching purpose, he goes to the place which the Lord had told him, and even keeps his young men at a distance, lest they should prevent him from consummating the divine will. Well indeed does the text remark והאלהים נסה את אברהם  “and God tried Abraham,” (not tempted,) for what greater trial or probation can a person undergo, than with his own hand, to sacrifice his own, only and darling child, in whom all his hopes are centred, through whom the whole human race was to be blessed? Go through the land, in its length and in its breadth,—search in every place, from the palace to the cottage, and show me the man thus willing to sacrifice his only treasure, and I will admit that Abraham was not deserving the promises. But He that looks into the heart of man well knew that none other than Abraham would have obeyed in a similar instance. The angel of the Lord therefore tells him, “By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, that inasmuch as thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only one from me,—that I will greatly bless thee, &c. And all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in thy seed, in reward that thou hast hearkened to my voice.”

I am, dear Friend,
H. G.

New York, Shebat 1st, 5608.

* Why should this belief be accounted as righteousness, if it came by inspiration? There would have been as much merit in it as in Balaam’s blessing the Israelites.