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Congregational Government.

A Sermon, Delivered at the Synagogue Shaaray Tefillah, of New York, on Sabbath Balak, the Day Subsequent to its Consecration,

By Isaac Leeser.


Yesterday you were assembled here to listen to the voice of psalmody and thanksgiving, inasmuch as you had been spared to <<446>>see the completion of your ardent hopes; and now the house dedicated to the Holy One of Israel stands finished, and within the veiled ark rests the book of the covenant of your God, yea, your God, who by his great power purchased unto himself your forefathers out of the bondage of Egypt, that they might be unto Him a people of his heritage, as it is this day. Well might a heathen prophet, at seeing the far-outspreading camp of Israel, say:

מה טבו אוהלך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל ׃ במדבר כ״ד ה׳

“How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob; thy dwelling-places, O Israel!” Numb. xxv. 5.

And well may we repeat the same beautiful exclamation, with all the fervour of awakened piety, when, after a short absence or a long separation, we enter again the abodes sacred to the name of the Lord, erected by the sons of Israel in the various places of their dispersion, where the iron hand of power is not laid on them to prevent their honouring their Father by dedicating houses devoted to his worship. Beautiful indeed are those tents.—those temporary structures where the sons of Jacob worship; they speak a language which all the world may understand; they proclaim, in a voice louder than that of the brazen trumpet, that our brothers, let them come from the East or the West, the North or the South, still cling to the ancient faith which was confided unto them; that they are true and steadfast, and are not counted among the nations; that they know of no law beyond the one proclaimed through Moses; that they fear no God, except the Holy One who first called Abraham to his service, and made afterwards his will known to his chosen servants.

And ye have been strengthened in the Lord; have accomplished what you had resolved on, to dedicate to Him a sanctuary, where He might come to dwell among you; and therefore those who see you here assembled may fittingly address you in the words of the holy bard: “Blessed be ye who come in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the house of the Lord;” we wish you success in the good work that has been accomplished, we wish you success in all the good works you may purpose yet to do; <<447>>till the evident satisfaction of the Most High may be manifested over you, and the labours of your hands stand firm and established through his favour.

Do you ask for higher reward? Surely not: there is nothing exceeding it. The peace within which the grace of God produces, the holy satisfaction, which is felt over every duty accomplished, is surely a higher recompense than mere power enjoyed over others, or mortal praise proceeding from insincere lips, or monuments erected to grudgingly-acknowledged merit out of perishable materials, which, daringly called indestructible, barely survive a single night when assailed by the storms of heaven. And then, when God is with you, if you have acted so that He can approve, how prosperously will all your good intentions meet their accomplishment! Religion will flourish in your midst, and though even worldly wealth and success may be denied for the wisest of purposes, the humble life which you are destined to lead will be full of those heavenly joys, the foretastes of a blessed hereafter, which no king on his throne can experience unless he feel the same humility before God, which your faith demands of the lowliest among you.

Let as now endeavour to trace out some of the ideas which are included in the main one of dedicating a Synagogue to divine service. The first which will strike you is the principle of union which is required before even a single stone can be laid. One individual cannot build a house of prayer, unless he be gifted with immense wealth; and even if such a one be found,—one who is willing to spend his means liberally for this holy purpose,—it is still questionable whether, under all circumstances, it would be advisable for a community to permit his doing so. But generally speaking, at all events, it is necessary that many men combine with a settled purpose for the sake of collecting funds, and properly expending them in order to build the house of God. One may give much, the other may give little, each according as his means suffice, or as his liberality impels him; and when thus the expenses are secured, there must be a plan for building devised, materials must be procured, labourers engaged; and only when all these have wrought for one well-defined purpose, when one mind has directed all their efforts, can the well-<<448>>finished enterprise be discovered in the beautiful proportions which now greet the eyes of the beholder, and the structure be ready to receive the worshippers, anxious to enter its portals for prayer and humiliation before God.

Union alone can perfect the thought which at first was merely an undefined idea, perhaps, in the mind of the originator; and only by following it out in all the various branches needed in the undertaking can success crown the fond expectations of the pious servants of the Most High, when desiring to erect unto Him a sanctuary whence instruction and consolation may flow unto those who confide in his mercy.

The second idea embraced in the work is PEACE,—that sentiment of good-will towards each other which hallows every work, which renders all the blessings of life more instinct with heavenly light. If a union of purpose in planning, arranging, and erecting the outward sanctuary be absolutely requisite before the building can be completed: there is no less demanded mutual bearing and forbearing with one another’s foibles and offences, and a mutual concession of views in the government of the public affairs. Every one cannot be right, nor is it likely that every one is altogether in the wrong in any proposition he may make. The only method of proceeding is to ascertain the opinion which is favoured by the majority; and though those composing the minority have an undoubted right to complain, to endeavour by all peaceful and proper means to induce a sufficient number of those opposed to them to embrace their opinions, so that they in their turn may become the majority: they have, till this be effected, no right whatever to take exceptions to the views which have been adopted as the rules of the congregation, but they are bound to abide by and to uphold them in all their vigour, as though they had not only approved, but had actually originated them.

Whatever has been resolved on is for the time being the law of the congregation, and, as such, it demands the acquiescence of all the members, and they should accordingly never threaten a withdrawal from the general body, or put obstacles in the way of the proceedings from the mere impulse of offended vanity, because at a meeting the measures proposed by others were adopted, whilst those they offered were rejected.

There can be no question on the other side, that a majority should not rule with a high hand; that it is wrong for a number to combine before proper deliberation to carry a measure at all hazards, be it acceptable to many others or not. The rule is, that a majority of one is as good as one of a hundred; but it is surely unwise for a bare plurality of voters to force their perhaps crudely-digested plans upon their associates, though these have good reasons, in all likelihood, for their dissent. Power is one thing, propriety and right quite another. As said, the minority must, and, for that matter, should quietly submit to resolves lawfully arrived at, when an opportunity has been given to hear the dissent freely stated and fairly canvassed. At the same time, those who have the power ought to endeavour to conciliate all sides, and never attempt to govern a congregation by PARTY.

As soon as this is done, then farewell to all love, all union, all peace. We should meet as brothers, all having one uniform end in view,—the promotion of godliness, the spread of the divine kingdom, the sanctification of every son of Israel in and through the law and commandments revealed to us through Moses and the prophets; and whatever tends best to promote these ends is alone to be followed out in our congregational transactions. No one should presume to be better than his neighbour; and if he be richer, wiser, or more respected, that is something for him to be grateful for; but it is no reason why he should look with disdain upon one less favoured; he may argue, he may plead with his fellowmen to forego their prejudices, and to join him in views which he deems honestly to be better in their tendency. But never let him use threats, violence, or unlawful combinations never let him, for the sake of carrying a favourite measure, close his ears to appeals not to proceed hastily and without sufficient cause.

Something really good can wait a little postponement; a useful measure of reform will ultimately be carried, despite of some temporary delay; and, though we all may individually regret the slow progress certain wholesome measures make, notwithstanding our efforts to induce the public to adopt them, we ought neither to urge them forward prematurely, nor to be angry with others for not adopting them at once; nor, on the <<450>>other hand, ought we to relinquish them because of our first disappointment; but we should bear with patience the ill-success of our endeavours, and try to seek a more fitting opportunity of inducing a public acceptance.

One of the greatest trials of those who have the management of our congregations does consist in the perversity of many of the members, who, always dissatisfied with any measure which they have not themselves proposed, endeavour to create disturbance and dissatisfaction in others, who, but for their animadversions, would have passed the matter over in silence, and, perhaps, without feeling anywise aggrieved by them. It is perhaps difficult to deal with such as these, either through means of persuasion, or by passing by their machinations with silent neglect; they are in all likelihood too obstinate to understand forbearance, and too restless to permit silent disregard to put a permanent check on them. But even with these there is no occasion to proceed to the extent of open hostility.

Conciliate them, brethren, if such are among you, which I hope, however, may never be the case. If there are any grounds for complaint which they can justly urge, endeavour to redress them in time; remove every species of burden which may lie heavily on those whose means may be circumscribed, and never let a brilliant scheme of any sort induce you to rush hastily upon expenditures which the public resources cannot easily defray.

Give, in short, no cause for fault-finding to the vast majority, who are always rightly-thinking people, though once in a while they may be misled by demagogical would-be leaders; and, if you do this faithfully לשם שמים, you need never fear the restless beings under discussion, who are unfortunately to be found in every community, from the few members of a household to those who compose the masses of a mighty empire.

But if your object is to carry your measures with the high hand of authority; if you forget that you are stewards merely appointed over the house of God for the general good, that only by promoting this you can really be benefited yourselves; if you imagine that the confidence of your brothers, which has raised you to dignity, places you at once far above their cognizance, and your acts beyond the range <<451>>of their scrutiny: then know that you are unfaithful servants, they who “do the work of Heaven slothfully,” and no good can result from your measures, and no respect can attach to you because of your office; nothing but evil can spring from your administration, and the sooner then you quit  your station, the better for the public good, the better for yourselves, unless you will brave the wrath of God, who, whilst watching over the great concerns of mankind, does not pass by unnoticed the affairs of each and every community of Israelites in all their dispersions.

It should be your serious endeavour to follow the advice of one of our ancient doctors of the Mishnah, who says: וכל העוסקים עם הצבור יהיו עוסקים עמהם לשם שמים  “And all who are busied for the congregation should busy themselves with them for the name of Heaven,” by which expression our Rabbins always meant to convey a pure disinterested act, performed as a duty which we owe to God, and for the faithful performance of which we are directly responsible to Him who knows the actions and motives of man, and is always ready to punish or reward just as our conduct may deserve.

It is accordingly not the office which the public administrators should desire, but the benefit of the people; and hence, if they find that they cannot carry the measures which they believe necessary and useful without exciting more than a passing discontent, if they have just cause to expect virulent opposition and personal enmity to spring from their proposed line of conduct: they ought to transfer back their authority to those from whom they received it, so that no act of theirs may give cause for enmity or controversy in the councils of their constituents. There is snore dignity acquired in thus relinquishing a post which has lost its power of effecting good, than, by triumphing over opponents, run the risk of estranging the good wishes of many. If the people prefer, your administration to that of any other party which they could select, they can easily express this preference by calling you again to the places which you have voluntarily vacated; so that on no possible ground of true expediency can you ever be justified to urge forward hastily with measures of doubtful propriety.

On the other hand, as said before, the individual members of the congregation have no right what<<452>>soever to expect that the directors shall yield to every whim or fancy of theirs; to postpone acts for the public good simply cause they do not like or because they have not originated them. Nor have they any just reason to withdraw from public meetings because men obnoxious to them have been elected to office, or because, despite of their opposition, a resolve has been adopted against the sanction of which they have earnestly laboured. There is, it is true, a limit to this; for if the acts of the public bodies should unfortunately be such that conscientious scruples are involved in yielding thereto: then opposition will be a duty; and if this should prove of no avail, then a temporary withdrawal may become excusable or even necessary. But where mere expediency or a difference about electing one or the other person is concerned, there is no question but that a cheerful acquiescence in the action of the public becomes the bounden and sacred duty of every individual member.

It is only by such a mutual concession that peace in any community can be preserved, and useless contention be avoided. It is only thus that men can meet and concert measures for their own and the public welfare; for then those whom the Lord has blessed with wisdom can step forward to counsel in any matter in which deliberation is requisite; for then only can those who have wealth contribute the requisite materials, knowing that they will be well and wisely applied; and those who are entrusted with the execution of any scheme can proceed cheerfully with the work, because they are confident that they will meet with encouragement and approbation from the public voice, and be aided by all when assistance should become necessary. It is only when union and peace reign among us that we can hope to see education flourish in our midst; since, to effect this, counsel, pecuniary means, and an upholding of the rules to be adopted, are required to enable us to progress with the good work of refining the intellect, diffusing knowledge, and implanting religious information among infants and adults. And by this means solely can we combat the injurious effects of the so-called spirit of the age, which has already attempted, and threatens to do yet more so, to rob us of our religion, by weakening our faith in its <<453>>tenets and by abridging the range of observance; for our children must be taught to know the ways of their God, and to have a clear understanding of the scope and tendency of his precepts, before they can withstand the arguments of sophistry and a pretended wisdom, which is based solely upon denying all that is ancient, which would subject everything to the caprice of fashion and change, even the unchangeable and the eternal Word of our heavenly Father.

It is only through union and peace that the friendly relation of man to his neighbour, as enjoined in the law, can be maintained; because then only do we behold a friend and brother in all mankind; then we see the poor only to aid him; we behold the naked only to cover his shivering limbs; we perceive the mourner solely to bring comfort to his aching spirit; the bondsman’s chains appeal to us to relieve his limbs from their burden, and even the sinner claims at our hands that we share with him the bread of life,—even the knowledge of the mercy and truth of God which dwells within those who have been faithful to the obligations of religion.

Whereas disunion and enmity estrange brother from brother, arm the daughter against the mother, and produce contention between the husband and the wife of his bosom; and where this state of things prevails, no charity, no philanthropy, no compassion for the sorrows of each other, no sympathy with the degraded state of our fellows, can find a place in our breast, and religion languishes, and humanity weeps, because the foundations on which they rest have been pulled down by the greatest enemies which our mental peace can know.

Well therefore said our wise men: “The Lord could not find  any vessel containing so much blessing as peace; wherefore the Psalm affirms, The Lord would give strength to his people, He therefore blesseth his people with peace.” These are the words of the sages and teachers of Israel, based upon the superior wisdom of the records of revelation; and it is well for you, brethren, at the present moment when, through union and liberal expenditure, you have erected this house of prayer to the name of the God of Israel, and have assembled here to lift up your voices in praise and prayer before his awful presence, to reflect <<454>>deeply upon the work you have done, and to strive that the great blessing of peace may not be banished from you through any fault of yours; that no act of oppression or of injustice may drive the humblest strangers from the portals of this house; and unite hand and heart, counsel and action, that nothing but brotherly union and a peace founded on the fear of God may reside within these walls, so that all who come hither to worship, whether they be residents of this town or strangers from a distant land, whether they be sons of Israel or those who are not of Jacob’s descendants, may exclaim, in the words of the sweet singer of our own God-favoured race, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” seeing that you are brothers in faith and united by the bonds of peace, concord, and union.

Another idea which is connected with the erection by Israelites of a Synagogue is that of godliness. It is not for the sake of ostentation that we are to build houses of prayer; not that we may be equal to our gentile neighbours in the possession of handsome meeting-places; but that we may be enabled to assemble on a spot especially dedicated to the Redeemer of our fathers, there to pour forth our orisons, and there to be strengthened in faith and obedience. We wish to meet there with our fellows in belief and hope; we wish to be animated by their example, and humbly to endeavour to influence them in return by our own words and deeds. We wish to meet with those worthy to be called Israelites, and we trust fervently that our joining ourselves with them may contribute in a measure to render us acceptable to the Deity.

But how can we accomplish this acceptability? Is it merely by appearing here or elsewhere at stated periods to be seen of men, and to exhibit ostentatiously our festive garments, our costly jewels, or at best our public liberality? Are we to come before God in the pride of external trappings, of whatever kind they may be, it matters not which, and then say that we have done enough, when we have erected to him a handsome house? when we have appeared there becoming our station in life? when we have there distributed of our wealth for the public good? Perhaps there may be many who deem that by acts like <<455>>these they have done all that is demanded of them. But if thus any one of you reasons, he mistakes the truth; he is  lamentably deficient in all that which God requires of him before he can be received in favour.

No objection can be made to our coming in an outwardly becoming manner when we assemble for prayer; but the inward beauty of holiness must not be wanting to falsify the handsome exterior. No one must come to show himself among the faithful whilst he neglects the precepts of the law; it is not religion to be a constant attendant at prayers on the Sabbath, only to quit this house to attend to secular affairs, to business or amusements; to be devout at Synagogue, whilst at home you devour forbidden food, or neglect to train your children in the pleasant, peaceful paths of your faith; for such hypocrisy would only expose you to the vengeance of the God who hates falsehood, and who does not tolerate ostentatious sacrifices accompanied by iniquity.

Your meeting here is in fact declaring that you acknowledge yourselves servants of the Lord; you assemble here to present yourselves to the King of the universe, the Master of your life, the Creator of your spirit. Serve Him then in singleness of heart, in purity of soul, in devoted faith, in meek submission. Go to the Synagogue to pray and to meditate, and issue thence improved in your sentiments, and add the grace of private conformity to public adoration. Every deed thus performed will tend to improve your spirit, and render the next step in piety easier and more pleasant.

And when the house of God thus tends to incite one by the example of the other, if the prayer offered up in the community of the faithful enters deeply into the whole being of the worshipper, if the law proclaimed in the hearing of all finds response in the willingness of the awakened conscience, and when all present resolve to be faithful to all which the Lord asks of them: then can you truly affirm that godliness has sprung from your dedicating a dwelling-place unto the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; his spirit will mingle itself in your assemblies, and the peace of Heaven will invigorate your souls, and union and harmony will strongly bind brother to brother, and conduce to render the perilous journey of life more <<456>>pleasant and less arduous than otherwise it would be, seeing that the helping hand is held out to the needy, the foolish are instructed in the way of salvation, and the tear of anguish is dried up by the holy words of consolation.

And should this result be found among you, beloved brothers in the Lord, through this house, which will henceforward stand open to the descendants of Jacob as the GATES OF PRAYER, whence their orisons may ascend heavenward unto the throne of grace and mercy: well may you say, in the fulness of gratitude and devotion when you enter here: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling-places, O Israel!” seeing that nought but truth, union, peace and godliness are the emblems for life of those who have, by erecting this structure, avouched themselves as servants of the Most High God, the Creator and Redeemer of Israel who in his own good time will fulfil his promise of salvation unto his people and prove before the eyes of all nations that He alone sanctifies Israel, when he will establish his sanctuary in the midst of them for ever; on that glorious day when the captives will be gathered unto Zion, and the Messiah, the prince of peace, will rule on earth in equity and justice, overshadowed by the power of the Lord and upheld by his mercy. Amen.

And now, O Lord our God! who hast so miraculously dealt with thy people, whose goodness is displayed over all creation, as our eyes behold this day, we beseech Thee to have regard to these thy servants who are gathered this day in the new habitation which has been erected unto thy pure and holy worship, where they of the seed of Israel may repair, to offer up unto Thee prayer without guile, and praise without a deceitful tongue.

O! how great is the thought, that mortal man is permitted by thy own expressed will to build a house for the dwelling of thy spirit! behold, the whole world cannot embrace thy essence, and yet Thou willest to dwell in a sanctuary, the work of the hands of man, for even according to thy unending greatness is thy miraculous condescension. But Thou, Holiest, Purest! demandest sanctifying spirit, in order that man himself may hallow his labour to make it acceptable unto Thee.

Aid us then, O Father! in our struggle with our sinful nature; come and dwell within our heart, that, assisted by thy undeserved grace, we may progress in sanctification, and become <<457>>indeed of those who are fed by thy dainties, the pure light of truth, which illuminates the souls of thy saints, of those who walk with Thee, whose sins are forgiven, and whose works ascend up to Thee as agreeable savour upon the great altar of the universe, where from every creature there arises the unanimous exclamation giving assent to its belief in thy existence, inasmuch as every being, in all parts of imaginable extent, confesses itself to have sprung from thy potent word, which called forth the world from the depth of the fearful darkness of non-existence. And, O Source of eternal light! accept the humble deeds which we can offer; look not to our transgression, but, according to thy mercy, forgive where thy justice condemns. Free us also from the ills which beset our path during our pilgrimage, and give to each of us his daily bread, and endow all with wisdom to understand the pure truth of thy holy law, so that, understanding our responsibility, we may subdue the stubbornness of our heart of stone, and walk before Thee in the humility proper to fallen, sinful man. And upon this house shed thy blessing! let much peace dwell therein, and may it prove indeed a minor sanctuary, whence may issue much knowledge and consolation to those who confide in Thee and hope to see thy glorious return to Zion, the city of our desire, the home of our scattered tribes, where they are to dwell and never be plucked again from their inheritance.

But not for our sake, Father! but unto thy own name give glory, lest the gentiles say, “Where now is their God?” whereas Thou art indeed the God of our fathers, in whom we alone will trust, the Lord of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel, to whose name by praise and glory, from all flesh and spirit, even from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof, from the beginning of the world to its ending in heaven and on earth, now and for ever. Amen.

New York, Friday, the 25th of June, Tamuz 11th, 5607.

Note.—The preceding sermon was delivered a little more than three years ago by the editor of this magazine, at the consecration of the new Synagogue in Wooster Street, New York, known as the Gates of Prayer, or Shaaray Tefillah. It may seem curious that so strange a subject was chosen for that occasion, when other preachers would, perhaps, have spoken on some purely religious theme. But the very occasion, and the then position of the community, seemed to the writer to demand that he should endeavour, if possible, to prevent the carrying on of a lawsuit which a few members had threatened to wage. The congregation had been constituted under peculiar circumstances, which it is needless now to state: and having been invited by the proper authorities to speak the day subsequent to the dedication of the <<458>>house the writer thought himself, as he was not under the influence of either party, to denounce the spirit of strife which had displayed itself, as he had confidently learned when it was proposed to sell or lease the seats in the Synagogue.

His position having enabled him to become acquainted with the nature of the difference in opinion existing, he deemed it his duty to rebuke both sides for acting in a great degree, without due reflection on the fatal consequences which must ensue, were they both determined to be right at all hazards. He is happy to say that he had not miscalculated the probable effect of his address.

On the day following its delivery one of the leaders of the opposition called on him and, after a long conversation, he learned from him on what conditions he would stay the law proceedings, which he had commenced, as he averred from no other motive than the upholding of justice and right. Armed with this information, he next spoke to persons belonging to the other side; pointed out to them where they were in the wrong, and how, by a little prudence and a mere nominal concession all difficulties might be arranged.

And, as the writer had advised, so it was done; on Monday, all legal proceedings were withdrawn on both sides, without carrying the disputes any farther than the mere preliminary proceedings; and he had the satisfaction to feel that his boldness had done  some good and that he had succeeded in restoring peace and harmony among brethren.

He would not have recurred to this, were it not that of late interested parties had spread reports, as though the editor of the Occident were affected “with an unfortunate temperament” and “irascibility,” which needs has “to peep out.” He can well forgive the littleness which induces an editor to publish reflections on the fair fame of another; but surely that man who once yielded to the reasoning of this other, should be cautious how he casts aspersions on the character of one, against whom he knows personally nothing, and whom he has never had an opportunity to appreciate properly, either as a writer or public officer. Perhaps he repeats at second-hand the slanders which he had heard or read from others; but, if he is a Jew at all he should recollect that the Ten Commandments say, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour;” and well may we mourn for the times, when the innocent, defenceless in their isolated position, have to complain of injustice from private men and public bodies, and constantly see an aggravation of the wrong as though each addition could excuse the previous acts of crying oppression.

Philadelphia, November 11th, 5611.