|Vol. VII, No. 9
Kislev 5610, December 1849
After we had prepared our last number for the press, we were put in possession of the first number of our new contemporary, the Asmonean, which has appeared since then regularly, according to the original announcement. As it has thus taken its position among the publications, the object of which is to discuss and defend Judaism, it will have to stand or fall by its own merits, resulting from the industry of the editor and the assistants he may be able to enlist; and as no doubt the projector has well calculated the difficulties beforehand, it would be invidious in us to give him our advice, either privately or publicly, or to criticise his performance, either laudatory or otherwise, since to praise might appear as though we wished to assume a patronising air,— than which nothing can be more offensive,—and to blame would expose us to the uncharitable accusation as though we dreaded a rival, and wished to injure him by the prestige we possessed as the older journal, which has already acquired some reputation abroad, chiefly, we are glad to admit, by the ability discoverable in the articles of many valued correspondents. We commenced unheralded; and with but literary assistance; and whatever success has crowned our labour has been by slow increase and patient perseverance. We little depended upon the courtesy of contemporaries for favourable notices; and now we not rarely find our papers copied, and this without any comment on the source whence they are taken. Upon the whole, it is the best way, since contemporaries are not the best judges of the merits of their competitors for public favour; and hence we trust that this brief <<434>>notice of the Asmonean will be deemed by its worthy editor all that could be asked of us under the circumstances in which we mutually find ourselves, reserving the right, at the same time, should the existence of both be preserved, to comment hereafter freely on the views of editor and correspondents, in the spirit of free and liberal inquiry, in case we have cause to differ in sentiments.
Our object, however, in introducing the appearance of the new journal in our leader, not the usual place for literary notices, is to say some few words on a letter of Dr. [Isaac Mayer] Wise, in the third number of the Asmonean, with regard to the union of the American Jewish congregations, of which a great deal was said in our magazine during the course of last year. Dr. W. begins by rejoicing that a new paper devoted to Jewish interests has appeared, from the fact that such a journal can be of service to the Jews in America. He next avers that America has a great mission to perform, to undermine the thrones of tyrants, and to cause liberty to move upon the vast chaos of overthrown monarchies, crowns, sceptres, laws, privileges, and despotism, and thus to reorganize and regenerate the world. Judaism, he avers, “has, on the other hand, the task of uprooting the foundations of paganism, atheism, indifferentism, and a hundred other isms, together with obliterating the darkness of prejudice and superstition, and then to unfurl upon the corpse of that thousand-headed hydra, ignorance, the banner of truth and enlightenment. An American Jew, you perceive, has a twofold mission, to promote truth and liberty.”
We are as ardent an advocate of liberty as Dr. Wise; and we have shown this, we think, on all occasions when it concerned us to defend our political rights, though attempted to be abridged only in a slight degree, and in points where, but for the exception, the privileges themselves were matters of but small moment. We nevertheless do not see that the American Jew, or the Jew in America—there is some difference in the terms—has any business with an active uprooting of thrones, any more than with pulling down Christian churches, Mahomedan mosques, or infidel conventicles. If his love of freedom and truth, upheld in his own example, will have that tendency,—if the pursuit of his religion will banish ultimately or speedily all other modes of worship,—every lover of his people will rejoice; but he is not to labour as a missionary, with furious <<435>>and intemperate zeal, to effect it.
In the same manner, if the example of the American people could reform the whole world, and make all lands governed by free and equitable laws, it were much to be rejoiced at to behold this result; but it is not the business of the inhabitants of this land to foment discord and internal strife in other countries, in order to promote a crusade against thrones, kings, popes, privileged classes, and antiquated abuses. Hence, we do not see what politics have to do with a journal speaking for Jews and Judaism. On the contrary, we see ample reason why such subjects should be carefully avoided, as being not our concern, if we are regarded as a religious body.
If, indeed, a Jew direct a political paper, he has the same right as any other man to espouse either party he pleases. He may be a monarchist, a democrat, an aristocrat, or a socialist; but only as a man, not in quality of his religion; for which reason we have not, as a journalist, in the first place, rejoiced over the dawn of liberty in Europe during the last twenty-two months, nor uttered bitter lamentations over the disappointed hopes of the many ardent spirits who drew the sword in their righteous contest against tyrants. Not that we hesitated in our preference; for if we have any feeling at all, it is a thorough and absolute detestation of all royalty, privilege, or title, by which one mortal lifts himself above his fellow by a sort of divine right, to which the assent of the governed is not asked nor required; and had we been on the spot, we do not think that we should have remained a passive spectator, and a timid watcher of the progress of events, but joined the popular cause, as did so many of our brother Israelites, wherever the banner of freedom was thrown to the wind. But as the conductor of a religious magazine, our business was, as it is now, with our religion and its progress; and hence we had no space to devote to party politics, nor to rejoice over a political victory, nor to weep over the defeat of the party we had espoused in our own mind. Hence, we repeat that neither we nor any other Jewish journal has any special concern with thrones or tribunes, with churches or mosques, and cannot lend our work to propagandism of any sort—by the by, one of the isms against which Judaism has to contend, as opposed to the silent, and therefore real march of truth.
This, however, is not what we meant to discuss; we desired <<436>>to allude more especially to the union of Israelites, and hence we must break off suddenly, although we could say a great deal more on what we have incidentally touched. But we must proceed. Dr. W. says: “In respect of promoting truth, I thought it proper and advantageous that Israel form a religions unity of his little republics (congregations), that this centre may animate light where darkness yet prevails, that instruction may be brought to every heart, at home and abroad. Therefore I left last year my solitary closet for a short moment, to call on my brethren earnestly and solemnly to unite for the accomplishment of our holy mission, to be strictly combined in one sacred cause.”
Surely Dr. Wise does not mean to say that the plan of union was entirely his own—that the thing was not heard of till he left his study last spring to propound the subject to the German congregations of New York? There is some ambiguity in this; and we fear that the idea of the matter being the work of one man may have had some influence in producing the disastrous result of which the Doctor speaks in his next paragraph.
“But, sir, ashamed and disappointed, I had to retire from the stage of public activity; my call died away, my design was misinterpreted, the cause which I warmly advocated was misrepresented, and all the pious efforts of my orthodox friends proved a total failure!”
Indeed, this is news to us; a total failure! Do you call it nothing that in New Orleans, Mobile, Albany, New York, Richmond, and Philadelphia, eight congregations appointed delegates to a union meeting? That several delegates were on the spot from the far distant South, to participate in the deliberations which the measure might call forth? Do you call it nothing that all over the country the matter was discussed, and that it has fixed itself firmly in the public mind, so that it requires but prudence and perseverance to carry it at length triumphantly over the opposition of its opponents, and the misgivings of its friends? We will not strongly criticise Dr. Wise’s words, that he retired ashamed and disappointed; but we cannot avoid asking, for what ashamed? disappointed in what? What had he done to be ashamed of? What right had he to expect more success than we and our associates had done when we issued a printed circular containing a plan of union eight years ago, a plan which was furnished to him several months since? It would be curious, <<437>>indeed, should a new proposition be acceded to at once; and a new thing it is, unlike any other which has ever been carried out among us before; if we except the former יום or Diet of the Westphalian congregations when they met every three years to arrange the congregational affairs of the whole country, and for the election of three provincial Parnassim, and a provincial clerk.
This union, of which we heard much when a mere child, and of which unfortunately we know too little, must have fallen into disuse about the time of the invasion of the French, when the constant wars and political troubles no doubt operated against the assembling of the distant congregations in a central place. But independently of this single provincial assembly we never heard of any other as having existed among the Jews, and perhaps there are but few among our numerous readers who have any knowledge that a union similar in some respects to the one which we had the pleasure of proposing eight years ago, existed before in any country.
Is it strange then that people should hesitate? should inquire? should wish to learn more before they gave in their assent? On the contrary, to us it would appear, that a hasty gathering, a premature development would have shipwrecked the whole plan, and placed insurmountable obstacles in the way of a permanent union. As yet most congregations do not know what they require; they are yet too new to feel their own strength; they have sprung so suddenly into existence, have only so lately known each other as Israelites, that they have no correct idea of what they most stand in need, and what they can accomplish.
We can assure Doctor Wise that not even he has endeavoured so often and so variously as the Editor of this Magazine to rally the American Israelites to union; but even the Publication Society, which intends to furnish cheap reading to all in return for the donations and subscriptions received, has failed to obtain the public support, and this in the most numerous congregation in the country, where thousands of dollars are raised every year to supply the physical wants of the people.
Are we, therefore, ashamed? No, God forbid! we glory in the share we have taken in arousing the public attention; we have a pleasing retrospect in anticipation for having pointed out a means of improvement which will, if not now, be at last gladly adopted as a lever for advancing religion, and to lift up the people from <<438>>the slough of ignorance; and if there be a shame, let it fall on those idlers, on those indifferent ones who love to live at their ease, and care not for the sufferings of their fellow-Israelites. Disappointed indeed, we are, that such self-evident propositions for promoting the public good should have remained unheeded; but what of that? shall we therefore withdraw? shall we not endeavour to let the plough pass again over the trampled down furrows, if at first we were prevented from scattering the seed which is to produce us a rich harvest?
But continues Dr. W.: “Therefore do I sit again in my solitary closet behind the barricades of vast tomes of antiquity, and study restlessly dead letters to forget the living presence, to forget the shame and disappointment which I experienced.” Surely this is a good method to banish shame and disappointment and worthy of a scholar, worthy of a man of Israel. If the world frowns on his efforts, what nobler revenge can he take than to withdraw to his study to search for information amidst those tomes of antiquity where are stored such vast amounts of learning, such experience of the sages of the East! No doubt, should he be spared, the recluse will thence emerge before long with the fruits he has gathered, and the experience he has acquired; and we cannot be fair wrong in saying that before many months Dr. Wise will be prepared to offer the world a work on the Jewish religion, which will deservedly draw upon it and the author the regard of the public.
He next says: “I am candid enough, sir, to know, and sufficiently meek to confess publicly, that I myself am the real cause of the disappointment. A stranger, unknown and unnamed as I am, scarcely able to read and write the language of the country, having no popularity, no especial renown either for piety or learning, could not possess the confidence of the people; the most energetic words and efforts rather tended to arouse the suspicion of the true-hearted; it was feared that I probably had a design of my own to be effected by such convention, or that I, probably a heretic, or at a least a wild reformer, intended to overthrow the rock of venerated Judaism; and, making machines of my own of the majority of the delegates, I might accomplish what I liked and what orthodoxy disliked. But I was innocent of any such chimerical motives, and so I retired disappointed, yet with <<439>>a pure self-satisfaction of having done what I could; I am to blame for not having studied circumstances enough.”
So far our learned friend. He must excuse us to comment again on his words. He is possessed with the idea, if we may take his evident meaning, as though the scheme of a convention were his own entirely, and that it would have succeeded at once but for some real or imaginary fault of his. But in both he is labouring under a mistake. We cheerfully acknowledge that Dr. W.’s call to the ministry originated with him only; but he will no doubt have the candour to confess that he was led to reflect on the subject through conversation with the late Mr. Lindo. (We refer to Occident, vol. vi., for September, page 308, under the head “Union of Israelites,” and to the article on “Association,” in the October number, pp. 313-321.) Dr. W.’s call appeared in page 431, et seq., in December, and was prefaced by some remarks of our own; consequently no one who cared at all about the matter could be either so base or so ignorant as to accuse Dr. W. of wishing to arrogate to himself the power of moulding the convention of ministers to suit his own purposes, or of influencing the delegates of the congregations, as the subject was afterwards modified in the circular issued in March. (See Occident, vol. vi., pp. 576-583.)
We decline recapitulating what was said in the various articles, referring merely our readers to the same. In all of them, however, Dr. W. appears justly as a powerful advocate of the measure; his views are given as his own; but he was not suffered to stand as the solitary advocate; for so far as our own words could do it, we seconded him with all the energy and earnestness we are capable of. At the same time we took especial pains to state that the whole was but a continuation of the original measure proposed years before, and emanating from the congregations at Philadelphia, although we confess to the paternity of the draft of the preamble and resolutions as afterwards given in the Occident, vol. iii. p. 222 to 227.
Mr. Lindo was aware of this movement, as every serious reader of our Magazine must have been; the subject was too important to slip by unnoticed; and as he had acted a conspicuous part in England, and knew all about the British Board of Deputies, he advised a similar incorporating of all the various bodies here into one for general purposes. Whilst in Albany, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, <<440>>and perhaps elsewhere, in his journeying through the country in the summer before last, Mr. L. urged his views on various individuals, and delivered an address on the subject in the Portuguese Synagogue at New York. He anticipated the co-operation of that, the first congregation in age in the country; and hence we among others awaited its action. But after Mr. Lindo had left, the echo of his words died away, and the trustees and people of the Kahal Shearith Israel did nothing and said nothing. So then, though Dr. Wise was new to them, others were not; and besides this he is not so unknown, nor so unappreciated as his modesty may make him believe. Without boasting of a large circulation, which we have not, our readers are of that class that their approbation is worth something; and the manner in which Dr. Wise handled the subjects connected with our religion, proved him to be a man neither of common intellect nor common information. We do not flatter him, any more than blame him unduly in speaking plainly and frankly what is the simple truth. He was, therefore, not unknown to those who objected to the meeting of delegates; and as for their fear of his want of orthodoxy, either expressed or implied, we rather imagine that this also had nothing to do with their refusal.
Years past, as we have said already, and as our friends know, the subject was broached, when Dr. W.’s presence did not terrify these timid gentlemen; but it was the same cry,—they could not trust the people to meet; they feared some indefinite evil for Judaism, some fatal blow to the prominence which they held among the Israelites of America, though they utterly failed to show how both or either could be affected thereby. It is curious how all ancient abuses, either of commission or omission, are afraid of popular assemblies; they have an instinctive dread of being dragged before the light of day, of having the prying eye of curiosity directed to their movements, or rather their standing still, and they will do anything, almost yield all, sooner than meet face to face those whose strength of mind they dread, before whose indignant appeals they would have to maintain an inglorious silence.
No, Dr. Wise! it is not the dread of what evil you might do, but because the prevalence of mind is feared by those who cannot tolerate the light, which induced them to oppose our movement. Not that it may not have been averred that <<441>>our friend is not very sound or orthodox, or that we would allege that we could agree with him in all the ideas he has broached; we will candidly confess that some doubts have been freely expressed concerning some of his ideas, and that we have already publicly expressed our dissent of them.
But was the convention to be Dr. W.’s mouth-piece only? Was he to be, or can he be the autocrat, and are his dictates to be merely registered by the whole body to be elected? Is there no one to raise his voice in opposition? Is all to be the doing of one man, however powerful in mind, however good, however eloquent? We, for one, protest against such an absurdity; and no one of all the objectors who knows us, personally or by character, can for a moment suppose that we could be a willing tool, a negative instrument of any human being, no matter who he is. It is folly, therefore, to seek for the failure in the reasons assigned by Dr. Wise; they are to be found rather in the unprepared state of the public mind, in the uniform slow progress which all truths make. It was premature, and so we told many of our friends in private, to convene the convention for the last summer, but it was full time to make a commencement; and thus we have ascertained that a respectable number of congregations will join the meeting, and only the timid will now withdraw, when a partial success has been obtained, for no better reason than that all which has been deemed desirable has not been accomplished.
We are so used to slow progress, that we, differing from Dr. Wise in his complaints, have ample encouragement for ultimate success, though we do not imagine that it will be immediate. The Jews are a curious, a cautious people; they dislike experiments, and the timidity consequent on ages of oppression, endured all over the world, has taught them to imagine danger where none exists. Besides this, they are even here a trading people, a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon styled the English; and a merchant’s caution is certainly too proverbial to require any elucidation from us. Now it will take time to overcome this national and mercantile cautiousness; but when this has been once done, our friend will see, in one, ten, or twenty years, the union of Israelites accomplished as a matter of course, as a thing without which they will no longer allow themselves to be governed.
In his last paragraph, Dr. W. addresses the editor of the As<<442>>monean as the advocate of a unity in concert with our humble self, and says: “Therefore take that great standard out of my feeble hand, and represent it to the people. I give you my best thanks for the timely succour. You have revived my hopes to see speedily realized what I was too weak to accomplish; you have convinced me, however, that my words did not entirely die away, that many a noble heart has kept them in the treasury of his memory. You gave me additional evidence ‘that Israel is no widower.’ Stand steadfast as a man and an Israelite by your sacred promise, and I am almost sure (that) God will bless it with a happy issue. Immutable constancy in the work of truth was, always crowned with blessed consequences by the benign Fountain of Truth. If you think it advantageous to the sacred cause that I leave again my solitary closet, then call on me, and though opposed by the prejudices of a world, I will render my assistance. It is true, I lost the battle; my hosts lie slain on the battle-field; but I have saved the mighty banner, under which yet new forces may assemble. But if you think my co-operation (as I do) injurious to the sacred cause, then say it frankly and openly, and henceforward I will be dumb, I will continue to forget myself, to subdue and to bury my wishes; but with the glorious triumph of union I will triumph too; when this grand statue shall be erected amidst the American Israelites, I will rejoice likewise.”
And then with his good wishes to the editor of the Asmonean, Dr. W. concludes his letter. Truly we are sorry that our friend deems all his hosts slain on the battle-field; but we fancy that one of his soldiers has escaped to tell of his own decease, namely, the editor of the Occident. Besides this, there are others, to wit, our correspondents who advocated the cause, who are yet spared, and we doubt not are able and willing to break a lance in a fair field and with equal arms against all comers of the opposition. We may feel our wounds sore enough, there is no denying this; but our worthy captain may look around him—we have not quitted our position, not moved an inch—and if he will open his eyes, he will behold the same standard yet streaming in the wind, with its beautiful motto in bright letters, “Union for the sake of Israel.” Defeated, say you?—slain, think you? No, thank God! there is no defeat, no slaughter; we have gained all that could be gained, and we wait for farther victory.
<<443>>As to the resigning the standard into other hands, we hardly know how to treat this; our leader should have a care—there may be mutiny in the camp about this. No, we will not consent, we will not retire, we will not acknowledge a truer defender than ourself; we care not how many rally round it, we shall not be envious at millions who flock to its rescue; but no one shall drive us from beneath its folds; no one shall force us from the mount on which we helped to plant it: and there let it wave till the good fight is fought, till the victory is won.—As regards the prejudices against Dr. W., we at one time thought that our advocacy might be injurious also; we are almost sure that it is so, since there are always those who fancy that every one who advocates any measure of public utility does it for his own advantage. But we were urged on, nevertheless, by a higher sense of duty than mere personal popularity, and we are not withheld now because public odium might attach itself to our name. We have grown too old in battling with difficulties to turn back for trifles; and if Dr. W. will listen for once to his companion-in-arms, he will endeavour to outlive the suspicion which he fancies attached to him, by proving it unfounded and unmerited.
We have not yet so many brave warriors of the rood cause, that we can permit any one of them to withdraw from the field; those whose march is upward are yet too limited among us to suffer us to leave one of them in retirement. We repeat it, there is no cause for despair; and if we but urge, on all favourable opportunities, the cause of congregational union upon the people, it will ultimately be carried into effect.
So far from despairing, we beg all who feel an interest in the subject to continue their advocacy; perhaps the first propositions were crude and impracticable, though we think far otherwise; still, if some other plan can secure the public favour, we are willing to adopt it, and give it our influence, however little it may be. Truth may be freely discussed; it is error only which shuns the eye of light, the lantern of investigation. Greater and graver matters than a simple union meeting have had a worse commencement than our movement, and still they ultimately were successful. Why, then, should we not hope for a good issue, notwithstanding a temporary defeat? No, we will not believe that our people will never see the good, and that when seeing it they will be false to themselves by not adopting it.
It is possible, <<444>>indeed, that neither Dr. Wise nor ourself is the fit man to unite the people. Well, what of this? It is no matter, so the union tales place; and we agree with him, that we shall feel a triumph in the result, though its ultimate accomplishment succeeds in other hands. It is the benefit of the masses which is to be considered, not the individual who leads them on; and then at last glory will always attach itself to the pioneers of any movement; and we shall be content to be remembered as one who meant well to his people, and loved them because of the truth that abides with them, namely, the holy law, which is their best legacy from their heavenly Father.
We beg pardon of our readers, for the seeming personal character of this article; but we thought it necessary, not for our sake, but for that of the subject matter under discussion, to place it in a true light before the people, believing that in this way we shall best secure it a favourable hearing, when we prove that it was not for the sake of one or the other man that we engaged in it, or opened the Occident for its discussion; but simply because we believed that a thorough union would best subserve the interests of Judaism in America, prevent schisms, and lead to a lasting friendship among the various congregations. Should our magazine live another year, and we be spared as its editor, we mean to resume the discussion; since we sincerely believe that many individuals are with us even in those communities which have not sent in their adhesion, and that the others are firm in their attachment. Again we repeat, what we said on another occasion, Judaism has but one motto in America, and this is “Advance!”