|Vol. VII, No. 3
Sivan 5609, June 1849
Letter From Mr. Beckel.
The Convention, Israels Herold, Dr. Lilienthal, The Society of Friends.
The Editor of the Occident asks, in the last number of his periodical, the important question, “Shall we meet?” Every Israelite of this country, who feels himself attached to his sacred faith and to his people—who sighs for the prosperity and progress of Judaism and its institutions, re-echoes this question—formerly with great hope, latterly <<140>>with fear, and now with despair; for, however painful it is to my feelings to say that we shall not meet, it is a fact, lamentable, but true. Why, you ask, shall we not meet? is not union strength, and disunion weakness? Yes it is so; but we have one great party of Israelites in this country, who need no schools and no school-books for the religious instruction of their children; no high schools to educate pious and enlightened men for the ministry; no Bibles and tracts for the information of youth; no hospitals for the sick; no benevolent societies for the poor; they need nothing but money, yes, a great deal of money; and a Synagogue, on the old or rather on no style, with a singing minister, and a burying-place, are the religious institutions which they desire. But some of this party have, perhaps, reformed their Synagogues after a modern plan, beautified the worship with choir and organ, and a military discipline, that they may be pleased for their money, if they happen to come in on the New Year and Kippur or on some Sabbath, if business, being dull, does not require their attention. You perceive they have all they want; wherefore then should they meet?
Add to this the fear that agitates a great portion of that party, that such convention will bring light into the dark labyrinth of ignorance, prejudice, superstition, and bigotry; that perhaps some mysterious ideas and customs of the middle ages will lose their power, some would-be-learned heroes and Hazanim be bereft of their influence, and perhaps of their position, some hypocrites exposed, and, on the other side, the fear of the reformers of that party, that perhaps this convention may not approve of their reform schemes, or found institutions superior to their own in life and spirituality, in harmony with the Jewish laws and answering to the demands of our age; that this convention may kindle a light in Judaism, which may illuminate the real nature of their theatrical fire and show us the difference between religious zeal and earnestness, and the worldly desire to shine, and from that they but play with our dearest and most sacred inheritance; sum up all these facts and you will perceive that we shall not meet.
My words may be severe, but I can prove them by the history of that convention in New York. When Dr. Wise came down to New York to discuss the question before the mass of the people, he found the first and greatest opponent to a convention in Dr. Lilienthal. Dr. Wise preached on the subject, and the whole audience was agitated; they were, all willing to meet, to act energetically for the benefit of the whole, whatever the obstacles or the expenses might be; the boards of the three German congregations met (the congregation of the reformers, styled Immanuel, was not represented,) they solemnly promised to recom<<141>>mend the necessity of a convention to their respective congregations, and to cause the election of delegates. They invited Dr. Wise to come again and discuss the subject before the people.
But, meanwhile, the opponents of the measure became active and set their machines in motion against the plan of union. One part of the people was told the labours of this convention would result in a radical reform, in a thorough change of the established customs and usages. Thus the orthodox party was prejudiced against Dr. Wise and the plans he advocated. Others were told, that the convention could only serve to stop every progress, to hinder every development in the field of Judaism, that in case the convention should try to recommend measures of a progressive and improving nature it would be a vain undertaking, the mass of people being unfit for any improvement; and thus the progressive party lost confidence in the movement.
Nevertheless Dr. Wise came the second time, and advocated the plan before a most numerous audience, in a lecture, which the Occident afterwards published; the enthusiasm was revived, but the reactionists had already dug suitable channels to carry off the stream of enthusiasm. After the close of the divine service the circulars of Mr. Isidor Busch’s Israels Herold were distributed amongst the people, in which everything was promised and which the people accepted with the expectation that this paper would farther discuss the principles and proposals they had heard just now. For the better class, which could not be gratified with an uncertain promise, a society was formed, with the tendency to promulgate light and enlightenment in and concerning Judaism, so that the enthusiasm was cooled, and at last quenched. To speak plainly and openly, we consider this society, under the circumstances and the time, originated in a Jesuitical trick. If you are the friends of your people, why do you form an isolated society? why do you not agitate the people to act by themselves, by their own chosen delegates? did not they show every where the greatest enthusiasm for the holy cause? The system of preparing the people for liberty and self-government has shown itself in recent history as the ostensible state scheme, the political juggle of monarchs and despots. But, so soon as enlightened men arose, and told the people, that they would teach them the necessity of reform, those in power proved how insincere they had been in their professions; and are our modern friends of light also of the same class? can they not trust the people, but must they alone think for them?
Let me now say a few words about Israels Herold, and the society to which, as far as I am judge, the lecture of Dr. Wise gave birth. Is it the intention of the Editor to encourage or undermine religion? If <<142>>the former, he takes a strange method to effect it. He is, I will admit, not bound for all the opinions of his correspondents; but he should take care that no objectional papers be admitted. But has he done so? In his No. 4 he gives publicity to a lecture of Dr. Lilienthal before the Society of Friends, which contains the expression, “We feel that we have completely broken loose from the past, and that for the future the bridge, which might render a return to it possible, is broken down,” without a word of comment. In No. 6 he prints on his first page, as a leading article, a letter from the French Consul at Hayti, containing the following blasphemous words, when referring to those Jews of modern times who have been base enough to change their religion for the sake of office:—“It concerned the liberation of mankind, and to reach that end, it was necessary to make the unimportant sacrifice to exchange, as far as outward appearance went, one folly for the other. The Jew who permitted himself to be baptized, was before no Jew, and afterwards no Christian,—for the apostles of humanity, for the priests of mankind, neither Jews nor Christians are fit instruments,—for this purpose there are needed free souls, and these do not flourish under the dominion of dogmas of whatever kind.”
But the Editor has not a word of comment; and are such rank blasphemous expressions to pass for truth in a Jewish paper? Is it fit that it should give them circulation, slandering the great names of the past by stigmatizing their labours as nonsense, and their acts as folly, and undermining the faith of the present generation, while the Editor cannot find room, and has not a single word to say for the circular, which he has doubtless seen, calling a meeting of Israelites, and proposing measures well calculated to agitate the public mind, from their importance and necessity? Is it requisite to import fancy sketches to fill up the columns of a Jewish press, when there is an abundance of weighty materials close at hand which demand attention? But I hope that Judaism will in future be better served by the Herold, and that this early, indiscretion will not be repeated again.
But, as respects the Society of “Friends” I will say nothing at present, since they have not yet made up their minds as to the course they intend to pursue. I fear that the first lecture of the reverend orator has abated the confidence to be reposed in them; it is truly a beautiful and masterly production; but why at first maintain the necessity of a radical reform in our religion, nay, a complete revolution, and then commence to temporize, negotiate, and assert that we must act cautiously, and fulfil our mission peaceably? A revolution accompanied with peace seems to me impossible; a man who means it truly, who is willing to live or die for his conviction, must not be afraid of a little war; <<143>>he must not temporize for fear of losing a portion of his popularity. What then, let me ask, is the object of the Friends? is it reform or not? radical change, or abiding by ancient custom? is the bridge for a return to the past to be repaired, or to be farther broken down, to make every return impossible?
I have given you, in the above, some of the movements in New York; and as it is but too likely that similar counter influences may prevail in other places, I have every reason for saying “that we shall not meet.” We shall therefore have to be yet longer the victims of isolation; we shall yet longer have to use the Bible of the missionaries, the school-books written by different Christian sectarians; and treatises composed for the sole purpose of scattering ideas inimical to our religion, will henceforward still be permitted to undermine the faith of our youth; ignorance concerning Judaism, its rich literature and history, coupled with inherited superstition, will still continue to furnish a rich soil to nourish the poison plant of atheism, infidelity, indifference, apostacy, and unjewish reforms; and selfish priests will still continue to have a free field to guide their flocks in a manner best consonant with their will or interest; and I fear that it will remain dark, nay, become darker still, because we shall not meet to devise measures to help ourselves against the evils which beset us.
I hope to God that my prophecy may prove altogether false, and that men of sound principles may yet arise, and awaken those who lie asleep in the arms of indifference and lethargy, to a new activity, and a thorough union, and that thereby God and his word may be glorified among us, in this blessed country of liberty and equality.
Albany, May, 5609.