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Dr. Raphall on the Post-Biblical History of the Jews


Dr. Raphall, who, as our readers well know, is at present the Preacher of the Benai Jeshurun congregation of N. Y. visited Philadelphia lately to deliver his course of lectures on the post-biblical history of the Jews. The same courtesy extended to him last year by the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, in furnishing him the large hall for the delivery of the Lectures, was again granted this year, and it is both a token of respect to the learned doctor, and a gratifying evidence of real liberality of sentiment, to grant the hall for lectures during some portions of which it must become necessary to come in some degree in conflict with the popular ideas of religion; and it must not be forgotten, that though the University is not a sectarian institution, the whole board of managers, we think, are of the popular societies, the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches, with hardly an exception.

In accordance, therefore, with previous announcement, Dr. Raphall presented himself before a highly respectable audience, though not as numerous as it ought to have been, on Monday evening, the 29th of October. He commenced by stating that the lectures which he was about delivering were owing to a request made of him in 1847 by the managers of the Polytechnic Institute of Birmingham, England, where he was at that time preacher and head master of the Hebrew National School, to deliver a course of lectures on the post-biblical history of the <<468>>Jews,—a subject much less properly understood than it of right ought to be. Dr. Raphall at once stated that in the discussion of his theme he would often have occasion to deviate from the usual authorities, who mostly copying from each other, only perpetuate the errors and misstatements with which the first writers started.

In this connexion we may add, that of late the learned Jews of Germany, Italy, and France have done much to elucidate the history of their people, and we may point with pride to Zunz, Jost, Salvador, Rapoport, Furst, Beer, Frankel, Gratz, and others, who have exhibited much that was formerly known in an entirely new light, and brought forward from oblivion, by close investigation, more yet that was inaccessible to the public. The Talmud, Midrashin, and almost unknown manuscripts, have been searched for their historical treasures; and the time is just dawning for the accumulation of authentic facts, from which, at some future day, the true narrative of our eventful existence may be compiled. Hence Dr. Raphall did act wisely not to copy the usual histories, but to resort to Jewish authorities for the details which they alone can furnish.

Dr. R. in his introduction, dwelt upon the heroic character of the Jewish people, on their active patriotism, contempt of life, disregard of danger, and their passive yielding to death sooner than, by any act of apostacy, purchasing a worthless existence. This truth and steadfastness to the law have proved themselves characteristics of our race since our re-entrance into Palestine under the lead of Zerubabel, in the year after the creation 3452, that is, 536 prior to the vulgar era.

Dr. Raphall spoke of the policy of the Persian kings in making Palestine a frontier country, after their defeat by Cimon the Athenian and their treaty with him, in consequence of which they had to keep no ships in the Mediterranean, and not come within three days’ march from the Greek colonies in Asia Minor. But, admitting that this could have operated on Xerxes and Artaxerxes Longimanus, the Artachshast of Nehemiah, owing to the victories in 469 and 450 A.C. and the alleged peace of 449; it could not have affected the views of Cyrus, near ninety years before that treaty, nor those of Darius Hystaspes, fifteen years later than Cyrus’s decease; nor again of Artaxerxes himself, nine years preceding the period in question; since, according to the best chronology accessible to us, Ezra returned to Palestine with his colony in 458.

Nehemiah, indeed, feeling for the desolation of his ancestral city, obtained, on his own request, fourteen years after Ezra’s immigration (444), the permission to repair to Jerusalem as satrap of the king; <<469>>still, if we follow the strict interpretation of the Scriptures, it was not policy which moved Artaxerxes, but the result of divine favour, which the cupbearer obtained from his royal master. It is possible, indeed, that the state wisdom of the Persian monarchs may have closely tallied with their benevolence to Israel; yet did not this prevent our forefathers seeing in their tolerant rulers men to whose interest they ought to remain devoted; and this especially, as they were permitted to govern themselves by their own, the Mosaic, code.

But we are admonished that we are overstepping the bounds of a reporter, and entering the field of criticism; and we may almost appear to differ at all with the learned divine who has, no doubt, made the subject his constant study for several years past. Still, if we are in error, Dr. R. can easily correct us, and we shall be pleased to be instructed by him.

The rest of the first lecture was occupied with the description of the gradual encroachments of the Syro and Egypto-Grecian kingdoms, the successors of Seleucus and Ptolemy, in Palestine, after the country had, with the remainder of the western portions of the Persian monarchy, fallen into the hands of Alexander. We observed that Dr. Raphall fully credits the legend of the high priest Jaddua’s having met Alexander outside of Jerusalem, though some doubt it; we confess that his reasoning left but little to cavil at, and, despite of the somewhat miraculous tint of the narrative, we may adopt it without vouching for the truth of the seeming supernatural. Let us, however, ask, “May not Jaddua have calculated with some certainty on the influence which he as the Priest of the Most High might have on the susceptible heart of Aristotle’s scholar? Is it not likely that the great Peripatetic had a strong adherence to the monotheistic idea of the Jews, of which to a certainty he could not have been ignorant?”

Dr. R. rapidly sketched the inroads of Grecian philosophy among the Jews, and how this secret enmity to religion became an auxiliary to the persecution which Antiochus Epiphanes waged against us; and indeed it was then as now, that we had more to dread from the influence on our passions which the free life of our opponents presents to us than the direct effects of the most unrelenting persecution; the latter we either resist, if we can, or endure patiently, whilst to the former we are too apt to lend a willing ear. We will not spoil his description of the Asmonean war, and the manner in which our people bore themselves in the struggle; Dr. R. gave ample evidence of his acquaintance with history and tradition in his sketch, and all we had to regret was that <<470>>he had to content himself with the few touches of a master, instead of full particulars of that eventful struggle which resulted in the restoration of the rule of the Scriptures over Israel, till it sunk under the blows of the Roman legions led by Vespasian and Titus.

In his second lecture, on November 1st, Dr. R. gave a description of the Asmonean kingdom, the rise of sects among us, the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, vindicating the latter from the obloquy which many love to cast on them; next the introduction of the Romans under Pompey, as arbiters in the dispute between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, which was at length succeeded by the accession of the Idumean Herod to the Jewish throne.

The third lecture was delivered on November 5th, and comprised the rule of the Herodian family and the destruction of Jerusalem. Dr. R. spoke that evening nearly two hours, and, notwithstanding this unusual length of time that he kept the audience together, an almost undivided attention was preserved to the close. Again we regretted that so much was crowded into one lecture, and that he had not divided it into six or more, so as to exhaust the subject far more than he did.

During the course of this he briefly exhibited that Josephus was unquestionably more the friend of Rome than of his own people, and that the high tribunal at Jerusalem greatly erred in sending him as governor to Galilee. Dr. R. had not the time to contrast the defence of Messada under the zealot Eleazar, when all had been lost, with that of Jotaphata, where the true fight for independence should have taken place. It was indeed our misfortune that, whilst we needed all our strength to defend our state against the most wily and merciless foe that ever oppressed us, we had factions that destroyed each other, and a few traitors, who could look with composure on their country’s downfall, decry its heroic defenders, and praise the ruthless conquerors who did not hesitate to throw thousands into the arena to fight with savage beasts, and sell thousands of others into hopeless slavery.

During the course of this lecture also, Dr. R. spoke of the character of Pontius Pilate, the Procurator for Rome over Judea, sent out by Tiberias’s minion Sejanus. Certainly, if such were the Roman governors, no wonder Palestine, Germany, and Britain rebelled against their conquerors; and history only is too full of instances of the tyranny of Roman governors over the subdued provinces. In connexion with this topic, Dr. R. introduced the trial of Jesus as it is alleged to have taken place. In saying that he washed his hands and that of all Jews of that transaction, he stated that, if he should take the few hints in the Talmud for our guide, Jesus did not live at the time of Pilate, but of Alexander Janaeus, the Asmo<<471>>nean (when the Sanhedrin was composed mostly of Sadducees), and was contemporaneous with Simon, the son of Shetach. This assumption would completely upset all that the gospels relate of the matter, and hence would militate greatly against their credibility.

Of course this is nothing to us, either as an individual or Jew; but we could not agree with Dr. R., that the majority of the Sanhedrin being Sadducees when Simon was permitted to return from Egypt, whither he had fled, can at all affect the legality of the proceedings. In one of our preceding volumes we furnished the opinion of Mr. Salvador on this topic. We have not seen the reply of Mr. Dupin; but, if we read aright the account of Matthew, we must pronounce in favour of the justice of the sentence, whether this took place under Pilate, when the Sanhedrin was composed of Pharisees, or under Janai, when the majority consisted of their opponents. We cannot at present enlarge on the subject, but should be pleased if some of our learned correspondents would take it up, and discuss it as its importance deserves.

Dr. R. on the whole, said little of the rise and progress of Christianity, for which, however, we cannot blame him, as his audience was composed of persons of various persuasions, hence it was best to pass it almost with silence.

The fourth lecture, on Wednesday the 6th, was occupied with giving a narrative of the wars after Titus, and a description of Barkochaba, who was so strangely confided in by the great Rabbi Akiba. Might it not be that this sagacious Rabbi merely wanted to make him the instrument of a successful struggle against Rome? This hypothesis seems to us more reasonable than to imagine that one so truly great as the martyr Akiba should suppose the nameless adventurer to have been the promised son of David. Dr. R. next gave an account of the rise of the Patriarchate in Jamnia, Tiberias, and elsewhere in Palestine; the composition of the Mishna; the schools of Babylon, and the redaction of the Talmud through Rabina and Rab Ashi, and their immediate successors. He also referred to the overthrow of Palmyra, ruled by the Jewish queen Zenobia, who endeavoured to reconcile the Church and the Synagogue. He also spoke of Julian, the apostate, and expressed great doubts of the truth of the legend that he should have given permission to rebuild the temple.

Of the Kabbalah we thought he gave a very unsatisfactory account; of course, unless a person be acquainted with it he cannot describe it; but we really were always under the impression that much scattered information is to be discovered in various works, directly referring to it. The book Zohar, one of undoubted antiquity, contains a great deal of that peculiar philosophy and speculation which constitutes the speculative Kabbalah; and we <<472>>doubt whether the working Kabbalah ever was professed by the Talmudists, such as Rabbi Simeon Ben Yochai, and his son Eleazer, who are the reputed authors of the Zohar. And though later modern investigations will ascribe this work to Rabbi Moses Abulefia, of Spain, who probably lived in the eleventh century: still there is no question that there must have existed a book named Zohar, having all the main elements of the new work of that title, or else Abulefia, admitting that he is the author, could not have palmed his own labours upon his intelligent countrymen, the Jews of Moorish Spain.

The fifth lecture, on Monday, the 11th of Nov., reviewed the rise of the Mahomedan power in the East and Spain, following as it did on the general corruption of Christianity in the East. Incidentally, also, Dr. R. introduced several instances to exhibit the bravery of the Jews in defence of their native lands, where at best they were only tolerated. For instance their defence of Arles against Clovis, and of Naples against Belisarius; thus proving that the state need not fear to trust its Jewish subjects or citizens, who will at all times be true to the government that protects them, and their aiding the Moors in their invasion of Spain was only owing to the terrible cruelties to which they were exposed. He also alluded, when speaking of Mahomed, to the legend which we but lately thought fabulous, that Abu Bekir should have been a Jew, Rabbi Meshullam, son of Bostenai Gaon. But the history of the East is so filled with romance that everything is credible. He also spoke of the rise of Jewish literature in Spain, and of their final expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella, when at least 400,000 of our people quitted the land which they loved, the literature of which they had so greatly adorned.

The sixth and last lecture was held on Thursday, the 14th, in which Dr. R. sketched the history of our people for the last 350 years, the particulars of which are more accessible than those of the others to the general reader. We wish to make but two remarks. He stated that the first Jews settled in North America at Newport, Rhode Island, where they had a burying-ground in 1660. But there is a document in existence, we are told, which proves that they were settled in New York at least in 1655. We have long since endeavoured, but in vain, to obtain a copy of this paper, which is said to be a petition of the Jews of New Amsterdam to the governor to give them the rights to which their brothers were entitled in Old Holland.—Again, concerning Mendelssohn, Dr. R. intimated that he translated the Bible into new German; but M. himself only translated the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Song of Solomon, and the Hymn of Deborah. We doubt whether the <<473>>other books of the Bible were newly translated in his lifetime though since his death many partial or entire versions have appeared.

At the conclusion of this lecture the class organized as a meeting and returned their thanks to the learned divine, who had given such great satisfaction, and requested him to repeat the course or to give another in this city at some future day. In his response Dr. R. intimated his willingness to appear another time before a Philadelphia audience, and spoke feelingly about the dignity of the Jews and their right to the respect of all the world.

We are not able to do more than give the above meagre sketch of the very interesting instruction Dr. R. conveyed to a highly intelligent audience, who listened with pleasure and attention; and as we think that it is the first time these lectures were delivered in this country, we presume that other places will have the opportunity of profiting by them during the course of the winter.