|Vol. VII, No. 2
Iyar 5609, May 1849
Shall We Meet?
We have taken every pains within our power to bring the subject of the propriety of a convention before the public, and to invite the co-operation of all our communities as far as practicable. We proposed in the advertisement which we inserted and in the circular which was issued in connexion with several gentlemen of New York, Albany, and Cincinnati, the eleventh of June as the time for assembling, and up to the time of writing this, we have received the concurrence to the plan of the following congregations: Mikveh Israel, of Philadelphia, Bnai Jeshurun, of Cincinnati, Beth El, of Albany, Nefutzoth Jehudah, of New Orleans, and Shaar Hashamayim, of Mobile, who all have elected or promise to elect delegates to attend the meeting. The congregation at St. Louis have also given their assent, but have not appointed a delegate. It may seem surprising that distant congregations should have been heard from already, whilst those close at hand have not yet replied. Perhaps before closing this number, we may receive farther information; which, if we do, we will lay before the public in our News Items. But we cannot disguise the fact that the proposal has been received with less enthusiasm than its importance deserves, and so far as appearances go, there seems not much probability that the convention can meet at as early a date as the second week in June, unless the adhesion of the yet not heard from congregations should come in much faster than we have any right at present to expect. But the project has now been brought prominently before <<62>>the American Israelites, and it is not probable that it will lose its interest by a little delay, if even this be needed; and we fervently hope that the union of at least a considerable number of congregations will take place within less than one year from this date.
Let us speak of the subject calmly and rationally. We do not expect a very great deal of benefit at the outset from a union meeting, since the interests and views are entirely too diverse to promise an immediate good result. But the very presence of so little harmony in action demands that an effort should be made to bring the elements into contact, so as to cause by degrees a suitable fusion for all purposes where a union is requisite or even desirable. It is almost superfluous to reiterate what we have said before, that we should deprecate any proceedings which would injure the independence of the congregations; but, we will repeat it however, that so far as we are concerned in this movement, it is proposed merely to unite for a common benefit, to recommend measures for the acceptance of the various bodies, not to legislate for them. We know there are the sectional feelings of the Portuguese and Germans; a difference of views between natives and foreigners; but what do they amount to? Is there any tangible reason why they should not unite for a promotion of religiousness among all classes? Admit that should Portuguese and German delegates meet together, they could not discuss with the same views the measures of church government arising from the difference in their ceremonies and customs. We should be glad to see such a bar placed on the exciting subject of altering the form of worship which some might perhaps be inclined to advocate; the convention of Israelites of America has no business with it; for if it is to be discussed at all, it must be left for men learned in the law to determine how far it may be compatible with our laws and the authoritative decisions of our wise men; since questions of religion, which in itself is a science as well as law and medicine, cannot be submitted to the arbitrament of those who have not studied it in all its bearings and ramifications. It appears perfectly absurd for a few intelligent men, (we will concede them intelligent,) but who can lay no claim to extensive information upon the subject they are discussing, to pronounce judgment with confidence and without hesitation, where the most learned are afraid to form an opinion even. An assembly such as we pro<<63>>pose is not a fit body to take up the subject of reforming the worship; of the two evils we would sooner leave it to the arbitrary action of each individual community; since in that case the mischief would be confined to the one which institutes it, and leave the others at liberty to follow in its wake or to avoid it, as they may find most suited to their circumstances and ideas of propriety. But we should regard a general reform by the authority of a convention as the greatest evil which could by possibility befall our people. In using the word reform, we employ it in the sense which it usually bears in the present age,—a violent change and a substitution of new notions in the place of well-established customs and opinions. Against such a movement as this, we ought to strive by all possible means, as it would produce only unmitigated mischief. But there is another reform, which looks to the removal of municipal abuses, as we may term them; and this is such a legitimate business as may properly come before the convention; and as it concerns not any religious acts proper, nor has any bearing on the form of prayer, we see no reason why German and Portuguese Jews could not unite in one common effort to establish a better state of things, without yielding in the least their peculiarities, or their independence.
It is, however, laughable, were it not that the results of the sectional divisions are so disastrous to us, to watch the ridiculous pertinacity with which some do regard the trifling variations which separate the Israelites into different classes. If the Christian public were told that the difference between German, Polish, Italian, and Portuguese Jews, merely consisted in the manner of pronouncing the Hebrew, in a little divergence in the prayer book, in slight discrepancies to be found in a few sections of the prophets (Haphtoroth), whilst in the main there was a perfect conformity in faith and practice: they could scarcely be induced to believe, that this could cause an estrangement of feeling, and the erection of separate places of worship. We for our part cannot see any good cause for Jews to regard each other with jealousy, although we are at present attached, and we will add from preference, to the Portuguese form so called. But this does not seem to be the view of all those we have come in contact with, and with whom we have discussed the propriety of a general convention. They seem to be afraid of each other’s too great <<64>>preponderance; of being overwhelmed and out-voted by the vast majority, or the influence of the other party. And suppose it were so? Say that for instance, the delegates of the German congregations should have a large majority, and that they thereby should be enabled to carry their favourite measures: what evil would then result to the general cause? Are we to act together as Israelites having one great end in view, or as partisans having little sectional jealousies to gratify, and to which all other considerations must yield, before we can think of the general good? Assume, for instance, that at the opening of the convention there should be eight representatives of Portuguese, and twelve of German congregations, and that thereby, through a combination easily effected, the presiding officer should be selected from and by the latter to the exclusion of the former,—we ask, what injury has resulted to any one from such a choice, providing always the person elected should be fit and capable in the discharge of his duty? We suppose an extreme case; but it is by no means certain, nay it is not probable, that a combination among all the German congregations would or could be effected; on the contrary, we have the fullest confidence that the new communities would defer, generally speaking, to the long-established ones, and yield them cheerfully the post of honour, if it were desired, provided only it were not demanded in an authoritative tone, as though the others had no rights.
But all this is nothing to the purpose; we only refer to it, because we know that some such objections may be made, on the around of the intolerance of a majority. The question is not “Who is to rule?” but “How shall we meet and endeavour to effect the general good? to promote religiousness? to unite the scattered elements of greatness which already exist and which are daily increasing?” To our mind, there is no doubt that the great strength of the various sects resides in their union, in the compactness with which any movement is urged forward. Let the question arise about distributing the Bible among the people: and it is discussed in open convention or at a large town meeting at the least; it is resolved to raise the funds for the object contemplated, whatever that be, and the work is as good as done. The money is forthcoming, and the distribution is effected as a matter of course. We will not assert that all the projects of our <<65>>Christian neighbours succeed so readily as just now said with truth in the case of the distribution of the Bible; but many movements have been thus helped forward, and it is morally certain that nothing but the assembling of the people in conventions and town meetings, could have enkindled the enthusiasm which resulted in the manner indicated. Now we venture to assert that there is nothing in Christianity, or its institutions, or its requirements, which has anything so very greatly exciting to the masses; these are reached by a combined system of action, which is essayed and repeated so often till the hoped-for effect is produced; and so well do the leaders of the people, whether laymen or ecclesiastics, know this, that their motto is “Agitate, agitate;” they do this early and late; in doors and out of doors; through the pulpit and the press; through public and private appeals; and even when success has apparently crowned their efforts, they do not rest satisfied, but keep up the spirit they have excited by the same means by which they first called forth the public attention.
Look at the Sunday School, the Bible, the Publication anniversaries; the Missionary conventions; the Church assemblies; the Temperance festivals; look how they bring together the greatest, the best in the department of public speaking, whether they think the orators religious or not, provided only they can make a graceful appeal: and then tell us whether the managers in all these enterprises do not well adapt the means to the end in view, or whether they are indifferent about the fate of the projects with which they are connected, leaving them to sink or swim as best they may.
Now we charge on our people, both of America and England, the sin of supineness in letting their noble institutions to struggle with unparalleled difficulties without an effort to rescue them therefrom, when a little concert would effect everything which could reasonably be expected from our limited means. We occasionally hear well-disposed persons deplore “the days that are gone,” when everything was so much better, when people were so much more religious, when this or that dereliction was not witnessed. But ask them what they have done towards providing a remedy, and they will say, “That our religion is good enough as it stands; that there is no necessity, no propriety in the invocation of human help to aid it in its straits.” We admit to the full that our religion is the holiest and best system <<66>>which ever blest the earth, but we also assert that it was given to us as our heritage, and hence it is our business to see that it, our patrimony, be not damaged by any neglect or act on our part. It is not enough that we prize “our goodly portion;” we must guard it against assaults by open violence or secret machinations; we must watch for it, labour for it, and contend for it, if necessary, and hence we do not do enough if we merely act for ourselves, and live as religiously as possible, if we leave others to go astray without an effort to reclaim them.
It may be said that this is the business of the ministers only, who are appointed to teach the people. But we deny this, deny it most emphatically. It is the duty of the ministers and of the people too, and all labours of the first are perfectly useless whilst the others stand idly by and think that they have nothing else to do but to support the first in the offices which have been conferred on them. For it is the very apathy of the people which acts like a clog on the mind of the public servants, especially as they are so entirely powerless by the laws of all the congregations in the country. They have no vote in public meeting; they are elected mostly for a limited period, and frequently chosen for not a single qualification which belongs to the popular instructor, but merely for simple ministerial duties, which are as different from improving the religious state of their flocks as anything can well be imagined. The ministers too, where they possess, more accidentally than designedly, the necessary qualifications, are not treated materially different from those nowise qualified, farther than the friendly feelings of the people may prompt them to act; the minister remains and is the more official servant of his congregation, and nothing more; he is made and unmade by the popular breath, and this holds good with but two exceptions in the whole country, so far as known to us, and these are the Hazanim of the congregations Shearith Israel and Shaaray Tefilla of New York, the Rev. Messrs. Lyons and Isaacs, for they hold their appointment during good behaviour. Even if the gentlemen who have rabbinical functions, we doubt whether they have any permanent appointment; and, unless we err, Drs. Wise, Lilienthal, and Kohlmayer, and Rev. A. Rice, hold their offices under very unsafe tenure. In fact, the whole number of regularly appointed ministers of all degrees is very small, quite in <<67>>disproportion to the number of the communities which they apparently represent; and we leave it to the candour of all to answer us, how much can be expected, legitimately, from a body so inefficiently organized, and from individuals so unfortunately circumstanced? You expect devotion to a calling which barely exists, and you expect distinguished talents when you have done nothing to call them forth; but have on the contrary often done all in your power to repress the ardour of those, who, despite of the difficulties of their position are anxious to serve you well and be worthy ministers of the religion which you profess.
No; we maintain, the people themselves must rouse up to labour for their faith; we care little for the especial benefit as likely to result to the ministers, though we are ourself a member of the fraternity; but we urge Israelites, for the sake of themselves and their sacred faith, to do something to place the means of religious instruction within the reach of all, so that no one should be left in ignorance of his duties. The ministers are only elected to supply a public demand, and communities are established and Synagogues are erected, because men find that religious union and public worship are necessary for their spiritual welfare; they feel a yearning to rise above the world, and to enter into a union with their Maker; hence they ought to see that the cause for which they unite, should not suffer from any neglect of theirs, and that those they appoint should not alone be capable, but worthy* likewise, and that when such are found, <<68>>they be duly supported and encouraged in the discharge of their duty. But how is it now? are the means at your command to appoint such persons? and if you have them, do you support them duly, so that their efforts are not rendered almost nugatory by the interference of unauthorized persons, of those who have really no scientific knowledge of religion? We speak of a scientific knowledge in contradistinction to a popular one, in the same sense as we would apply the term in reference to medicine, or law, or any other attainment. It is not enough for a man to practise medicine from a simple perusal of a dispensatory, nor to appear at the bar after having read Blackstone’s Commentaries. It is equally unsafe to trust religious decisions to any one who has merely read the Bible, or even the comments, say in the original languages, without having made himself deeply intimate with the spirit which breathes through the whole system of faith, belief, doctrine, and practice. And still we seem in this country to care very little to call to our head, men thus qualified, or to support those who come nearest to the high standard here given, as though our religion required neither expounding nor being enforced with energy on the public mind.
We say therefore this must be altered, and altered radically; the evil must not only be approached with caution, but it must be cut out with resolute hands. But to effect it we need union, a combination of all the communities in this country; who, in order to raise the standard of religion, must contrive a common process of action, and pledge themselves solemnly to uphold whatever they may resolve upon. They must contrive to have more religious instruction; more diffusion of knowledge; more publications affecting Judaism; and more fraternity and more community of interests than now exist. We are at present nothing but fragments, isolated bodies without a concert in anything; no schools, with few exceptions, deserving the name; and still, no one will say that a change is not greatly needed. Now, we hold it self-evident, that the action of single congregations cannot do any good whatever; no union can be thought of, where <<69>>no community knows what the other resolves on. But let delegates from a number of organized bodies assemble, let them compare ideas, consult on what is required: and, though they cannot have any power to legislate finally for those they represent, they can, nevertheless, return home and tell those who have sent them, what has been proposed as useful and proper by the best talent among us; for we hold it as not to be doubted, that the delegates will be those in whom the people can justly place confidence. As we said, such a contention cannot agitate the question of reform; because, from its very constitution, it is not able to entertain it; but it can do what a council of learned men must fail to do: it can harmonize the action of all the various bodies now scattered over the country, and discuss measures which individual congregations cannot, but which when united they can readily, accomplish. We have spoken before this of an ecclesiastical authority, to which body all strictly religious questions should, as of right they ought to be, left. As it is, let any congregation elect a religious chief, and we ask, where is his authority? where are are his decisions recognised? Just by those who have elected him, and by none else. But, choose men of eminent talents, known for their piety and religious fervour, and we believe that no individual or congregation would think of slighting an authoritative opinion proceeding from such a source. We want such a body to watch over the local ministers; we need the same to prevent unworthy or incompetent strangers being chosen to corrupt the people instead of improving them; we require the same to be devoted day and night to diffuse knowledge on the most important concerns of life, and this without being subject or controlled by individual communities, but being armed with the confidence of the general body, to be able to reprove without fear, and to speak with a certainty of being attentively listened to. Not that we desire them to bear rule over the people, but to attend to such duties as shall be assigned to them by general consent, and by authority of laws specially framed to govern the body so created.
It may be said that this is a new feature in our ecclesiastical affairs; that no such a limited ecclesiastical or rabbinical power has ever existed anywhere. True; but our position in America is also widely different from what it is in other countries, or from <<70>>what it has ever been before in our history. The institutions of this country are essentially democratic; the power of a paid priesthood is justly regarded with suspicious caution. It is, therefore, that while advocating a proper supervision of men learned in the law, we want them to be limited by well-understood laws and in strictly defined boundaries, so that in the discharge of their functions they may harmonise with the spirit of the American constitution, at the same time that they watch over the religious interests of their charges. We are not prepared to say at once how an institution may be created, able to solve the problem proposed; but we doubt not that there will be no difficulty in contriving it, should it at once be resolved to do so.
Next, do we want proper religious schools. They too require to be placed under a general system, by which alone proper school-books can be produced among us. It is not a sectarian thing we require, but to bet rid of sectarian influences introduced among us under the guise of school histories, geographies, and reading-books. No one who has not given the subject a proper consideration, can appreciate the great extent to which this faulty and pernicious practice is carried. Therefore, we say, establish Jewish schools, that impartial reasoners may be enabled to write or compile books, by which your children will be taught the sciences, without imbibing a hatred of their people and religion.
We want a high school where religion is to be taught as a regular science, whence might issue those who are to be our Hazanim, our teachers, and our ecclesiastical councillors; whence the Israelite who is to devote himself to commerce or a trade, to the bar or the practice of medicine, may go forth fortified with such a knowledge of his faith that he may be able to meet without danger the infidel and those belonging to other systems of religion; a school which may shed its benignant influence on the female sex likewise, and arm our maidens and matrons with the strong weapons of religion, to be ready at all times to defend the good cause, to draw thence comfort and support for all the trials of life, that they may understand the full force of the truth which is with us, and never swerve to the right or the left to seek for consolation and spiritual support from any other source save the religion of Heaven which is within our custody. <<71>>
We want a union of our charities, to enable us to rescue the orphan and the stranger from the snares of vice; we require hospitals, where the poor Israelite may seek and find medical treatment and brotherly kindness without being required to transgress his religion. Singly, no congregation, we fear, will be able to effect any such desirable enterprise, but combined, what is there beyond the power of the already existing bodies in this country to accomplish? It is true, a convention will not be able to lay a tax on the people, nor is it desirable that this should be; but the delegates may recommend to the congregations which they represent, or to their individual friends, to be active in thus doing good. And shall it be said that nothing can be done by this means? We are not of those who would utter such a libel on American Israelites; we believe them capable and willing to do a great deal, provided they know their own strength, and this they can only learn when they meet in a friendly convention, and compare the statistics and the resources of the various communities scattered over the land.
We therefore ask again, “Shall we meet?” and it is for the congregations to answer either affirmatively or otherwise as they may deem proper. We trust that they may do it affirmatively, and they may command our services in any way we can prove useful. We have recommended the 11th of June as the time for meeting; but should we not receive the adhesion of a sufficient number of congregations by the middle of May, it will be impossible to call the convention for the above date; we shall nevertheless not give up the subject, but continue to urge it with all our strength, and as soon then as we shall be certified that a meeting of delegates can take place, we will address a circular fixing finally the day of meeting. At the first assembly of the delegates it is most likely that only a constitution for farther proceeding will be adopted; but in so doing there will be laid the foundation of a permanent union of American Israelites, and should we then meet hereafter, measures now appearing merely a a dim and distant shadow, may and will be brought forward as absolute realities, and posterity will bless those who built up religion here on a firm and unshaken basis. One thing we can safely aver: we are not afraid to trust the people, since we know that the Lord’s spirit is always present to aid those who assemble <<72>>in his name, and only such a meeting we contemplate—only to promote good, to encourage what is good, to check what is evil; and we doubt not that in after years men will wonder how they could be indifferent to a movement so rich in blessings. We say therefore to the friends of the measure, “Rest not, be not discouraged though now defeated, for the end is worth the struggle, and success must at length crown the efforts which you at first commenced amidst the doubts and misgivings of many, and the fears of others.” The word is “Onward!”