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


Synagogue Reforms.


In our last, we inserted a letter from our special correspondent in England, relative to the improvements required by Dr. Adler in the conducting of the worship in the Synagogues in his rabbinical see. No doubt the greater part of our readers took especial notice of the details, more particularly if they are persons belonging to the German and Polish denominations, for whose government the orders were issued by the chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  And though the authority of the learned divine does not extend beyond England and its dependencies, and the rules do not properly affect the Israelites of the Portuguese form in several particulars: we still think that for all that the missive of Dr. Adler is of great moment to all our brothers in America, and wherever the English language is spoken. There are so many ties which bind together both shores of the Atlantic, the inter­communication becomes daily so much more frequent and certain, that nothing now can be matter of indifference because distance happens to separate the countries; and more particularly is this the fact with religious movements, so that when the impetus is given in one place, the visible traces of the same will be speedily witnessed afar off, wherever there is an opportunity for sympathy to be felt. To all intents and purposes England and all Europe have been placed at speaking distances to us, and the public press is ready to take up the voice which speaks across the ocean, and to echo it back into the most remote and secluded spots of every district, so as to unite into one the Israelites of every country where they enjoy the blessing of free discussion. We say, therefore, that the new regulations of the Rabbi of Great Britain are of the greatest importance to us also, and we express the hope that they will lead to a similar movement wherever required in America likewise. We have not received the pamphlet itself, consequently we are not fully acquainted with the particulars; but the details as given by our correspondent are sufficiently ample to let us see their scope and tendency. We hesitate therefore little in saying, that Dr. Adler has based his reforms upon admitted legal principles of Jewish polity and ancient custom; he has endeavoured to carry back the Synagogue to its simplicity, and thereby taken an energetic step to stop the mania for mere change, which has taken such deep root in many communities. The doctor has admitted, however, that abuses disturbing the solemnity of the worship in the Synagogue do exist, and that it is time to remove them, though some of them have almost received the sanction of being in vogue from time imme­morial. Any stranger entering many a Synagogue, and observing the uneasiness which some persons manifest in their seat, the anxiety they evince for the commencement of the reading of the section from the Prophets (the Haphtorah), or some other part, that they may then go out and hold a chat with others, who have  gone out before, or accompany them from other quarters of the Sacred building. would imagine that Jews do not go to the Synagogue to pray and to be instructed, but to wile away in some mode or other the hours that custom induces them to exhibit themselves in the sacred precincts. To be sure he sees painted in golden letters at the entrance, or over the ark, מה נורא המקום הזה אין זה כי אם בית האלהים וזה שער השמים “How fearful is this place, this is no other than the house of God; and this is the gate of heaven;” or the beautiful admonition of the sage of the Mishna,דע לפני מי אתה עומד “Know before whom thou art standing;” or the sublime words of David, שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד “I have placed the law ever before me,” or whatever other soul­stirring mottoes have been chosen to ornament our houses of assembly; and still he would be induced to believe that nothing could have been more misapplied than these very admonitions, which he finds so thoroughly disregarded by those around him. In fact our opponents have used the conduct of Jews in Synagogues as synonymous with disorder and confusion; and why? not because our laws sanction such outrages of propriety, but because we have broken through the restraints which have been imposed on us, not only by the ordinances of our blessed teachers, but also by the sense of decorum, which every good man of whatever persuasion feels, when he meets his fellow-men in a mixed assembly, omitting even all consideration that in Synagogue we are more in the presence of our Supreme Sovereign, to whose glory the house is dedicated. Hence also has arisen the belief in some restless minds, that the Synagogue, as it is, is incapable of being conducted harmoniously and orderly, seeing that even men reputed pious will quit it during worship, and occasionally indulge in conversation with their neighbours whilst there. The fault, however, no doubt is easily discoverable, though the remedy may not be so easily applicable. It is, in our opinion, in which we follow merely the ideas of many sincere Israelites, to the often undue length to which the service is prolonged, by the introduction of chatters extraneous to the worship, and the long chaunting and singing which many ministers have been in the habit of indulging in, and in which abuse they were not rarely encouraged by their congregation. And we contend in this connexion, that all this can and ought to be altered, and that thus we should and must restore the solemnity which is now so often absent. We therefore thank Dr. Adler for abridging the time of the duration of the service, not by cutting down the prayers themselves, but by abolishing the sale of the Mitzvot (our readers of the German form will understand us), and the limitation of the Misheberach (or money offerings) to a single one, except on special occasions, a reform which Portuguese congregations might safely adopt. The time lost in both processes, that of offering the honours at auction from two to eight times, if not oftener, during the morning service on week days, Sabbaths and festivals, not to mention other times, and the disgraceful competition occasionally got up by men of means, each intent to secure a particular Haphtorah or Mitzvah for himself or friends, and that in reciting a long list of offerings in which the congregation at large can have no further interest than its being a matter of revenue,—we say the time thus lost does not add the least to the solemnity of the worship of the edification of the faithful, but naturally tends to produce tedium and interrupts all thoughts of devotion. We leave it to any one who reflects on the matter, the singular effect of the Shamas of the congregation going up to offer at public sale the opening of the Ark, after the spirit has been awakened to a depth of feeling, whilst participating in the singing of the Psalms of David comprised in the Hallel; it is enough to banish all serious thoughts from the mind at once, and to carry it in imagination to the busy mart of commerce, whence this anomalous custom no doubt originated. Even the manner of distributing the offices by Misheberach from the desk, as practised among the Portuguese, is somewhat objectionable, as immediately after the finishing of the morning service the different offices required should be performed by persons previously notified, and in readiness to attend to them. We know not whether this would be practicable; but that it would be a great and desirable improvement no one who reflects seriously on the subject can well doubt; though at the same time we are candid to admit, that in large cities where the members of the congregation live so far apart, to leave out of question the strangers who are nearly always present, it would be attended with some difficulty to notify all destined to participate in, two or three days beforehand, and at the same time to insure their prompt attendance. But as regards to complimentary offerings, especially on Holy days and Sabbaths, we cannot find a single valid reason for their continuance beyond the mere fact of their being a revenue measure, something like indirect taxation for state purposes. We know that some persons will regard them in a different light, that is, as blessings invoked upon the respective parties for whom they are made. Still even in this view we imagine that to make them over the Sepher during the time of public worship is entirely out of place, especially since money in a definite manner is mentioned, and an account taken thereof in some way, though writing is prohibited on the Sabbath and festivals. The greater part of our readers are familiar with the various methods of perforated boards; boxes with tokens; books with cut slips, &c., by which means this singular task is performed on the holy days of the Lord; but to our simple view of religion this is all wrong, let the contrivance be what it may. We will not say sinful; for we do not wish to be understood as condemning what so many good and great men have sanctioned by their silence, if not recommended by their advice. .There may have been a time when the distress of the people compelled the rulers of the Synagogue to resort to indirect modes of raising a revenue, since persons may be stimulated to be liberal during the hours of worship, if they have been successful immediately preceding the Sabbath, &c., and thus be induced to purchase freely, or to offer largely, urged by a profitable transaction just realized, when otherwise but small contributions might be expected by demanding a subscription, or a voluntary assessment at the beginning of the year. But in every other point of view public offerings are totally objectionable; very often the public are disappointed at the small amount given by some rich man, who is perhaps in attendance but once a year, and when he is called to the law, simply on account of his wealth, postponing for him some other person who attends punctually all the year round; or they are amused at his ostentatious liberality in making up this once for the seasons when he is absent; or—but what is the use of transcribing all the objectionable features of the system, which present themselves to our mind? We may at a future period point out others; but at the present time we only wish to speak in reference to the reforms of Dr. Adler, and to show their great importance, though to some they may appear but small matters. We consider them, on the contrary, of great moment, and if carried out in perfect good faith, they cannot fail to constitute the base upon which the restoration of the dignity of the Synagogue may safely be predicated.

Let us sketch a plan for revenue, independent of the so-called voluntary offerings, when in fact they are compulsory, the persons having the honours during the service and those called up to the law being expected to offer, and their not doing thus being considered, and under present circumstances justly so, as an evidence of illiberality. It is but proper that the persons who attend Synagogue, whether members in full standing or mere seat-holders, should pay for the seat they respectively occupy, and the congregations have an undoubted right to exact, under proper penalties, the payment of the annual assessment thus accruing. As it is most likely that the expenses will not be covered by the seat-money, it would be advisable to try at least whether the members and seat-holders, including among the latter females and minors, might not be willing to subscribe an annual contribution which would fully equal the average of the offerings now made; and if a list could be secured for a period of years, say from three to five, subject only to the contingencies of death and the loss of means, then we should be enabled to dispense with money-offerings in the Synagogue, the congregations not requiring them as a means of defraying their expenses. This arrangement, if carried out into practice, would have in addition one happy effect; it would place the public treasury beyond the reach of the displeasure of some wealthy men, who might endeavour to coerce the congregation to elect certain persons as trustees or managers, at the penalty of withholding their accustomed annual offerings unless their will be gratified. We could point out instances where this actually occurred, where the revenues of the Synagogue actually fell off because men not liked by some influential persons were preferred by the majority. But if the subscription should be for a term of years, as proposed above, the dissatisfied could not, if they would, withdraw during the period for which they had signed their names, and thus there would be more regularity in the finances of the congregations. This would then enable the people, at their annual meetings or oftener if requisite, to apportion their expenses, and to regulate their charities and salaries on some fixed principles, and would prevent on the one side wastefulness superinduced by an expected liberal income, which may never be realized, and on the other, that parsimony and injustice not always absent from the transactions of public bodies any more than those of individuals. There could be formed some just idea of their resources, and the people could act understandingly in their public meetings. Another advantage to be derived from this plan would be, that all the members of the congregation would contribute more equally than they now do. As it is, those who attend worship frequently are the highest taxed, as they are the oftenest called on to make the voluntary offerings; whilst those who are habitually absent, and come only on the Day of Atonement or New Year, to be treated then with the respect they think due to their rank and wealth, get off with a few offerings then and there made, which, though larger than those given by others at any given time, are far below the general average; and still, when it comes to voting and appropriating the public funds, there can be no distinction in the rights of the various parties, whether they gave much or little, whether they offered once for ostentation, or were pious and regular attendants of the house of God. We ask all reflecting minds to tell us, “Whether this is right?” But let all tax themselves according to their means, expect nothing of those who are regular attendants at the Synagogue, and the injustice is removed; for the people will vote because they contribute according to their means to the public purse, and have thus a perfect right to dispose thereof as is best in their judgment; since the penny of the honest poor is as much to him as the pound of the honest rich. We only speak of men who associate together, with an honesty of purpose to do what lies in their power for the promotion of the general welfare; and if our congregations are composed of such materials, and we fervently trust that they always will be, the system of voluntary assessment will bring a more equitable tax than that of voluntary offerings now in use. For the present we forbear going into farther details, but may speak more on the subject hereafter, especially if it should be brought to discussion.

But the greatest advantage resulting from the abolition of the old mode of taxation, would be the saving of a considerable space of time, now wasted in making the offerings, which would tend to fix more pointedly to the objects of worship the attention of the faithful; since those unmeaning interruptions which a long list of Misheberach now produces would be removed, and thus leave the mind more disposed to the perusal of the prayers and sections of the laws and prophets, and to make the proper responses which the various forms of Israelitish communities require. And we are honest to believe, that this once accomplished, and that unseemly running in and out put a stop to, our Synagogues would present every where that decorum which is observable in the churches of the various Christian sects, and strangers coming among us would really feel that we consider our houses of worship as “the gates of heaven,” where the faithful can properly offer up their prayers for acceptance on high.—It is otherwise a pernicious error to suppose that Judaism requires not the same outward propriety of behaviour which is demanded by other sects; on the contrary, nothing is more imperatively enjoined by the Rabbins than to enter the house of prayer slowly, whilst bowing towards the ark in respectful adoration to the Most High; not to enter into conversation with each other; to be attentive to the words as pronounced by the minister; to make the proper responses, such as “Amen,” “May His great name be blessed,” &c, “Blessed be the Lord who is ever blessed,” “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory,” and other similar ones, not in one confused cry, which betokens a want of reflection, and is merely machine-like, but with that awe and fear with which we ought to recite the praises of our God. Farther, we are recommended not to pray except with humility, reflecting on the greatness of God and our own sinfulness; and, to insure this, we are also told to be among  the first at he house of worship, and not to rush in at all periods of the service, thereby attracting to us the attention of those already present, and disturbing them in their prayers. We are prohibited from quitting the Synagogue upon any pretence whilst the LAW is open on the desk, nor to return home till the congregation be dismissed by the finishing of the service; and even then we are prohibited from hurrying out; but we are told to retire with a slow pace, as though we were taking our dismissal from the presence of a sovereign; for who is greater than the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be his name? We deem it the duty of the directors of Synagogues to see enacted such rules as will affect the end indicated; and if they do so, honestly, we will venture to assert that devotion would be felt where now the absence is so apparent, and we should become a sample of holiness, in place of being spoken of as indifferent to religion; a consummation devoutly to be desired.

We here close for the present our desultory remarks upon the movements abroad, and we trust that our readers will join us in becoming reformers in the line indicated, to uphold the sanctuary of the Lord, to heal its breaches, and to restore its glory.

(To be continued.)