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Opinion of Moses Mendelssohn on the Talmud

(From Dr. J. Heineman’s Yedidiah, Vol. I. No. 1. p. 11.)

By J. E.

Moses Mendelssohn introduces the Reviewer of the German translation of the Mishnah as holding the following conversation with Chaplain Rabé, the translator.

Rabé. I once requested a Jewish doctor, who stood in high reputation among his people, to give me an idea of the Talmud.

Mendelssohn. The Talmud, replied he, is an Encyclopedia of all our laws, manners, and customs, of our faith and our wisdom. You, perhaps, will laugh at this definition, or perhaps wonder at it. I know what a poor idea the wisest among you (Christians) generally have of our knowledge; and, as our cause has never found an advocate, everybody <<564>>could impose upon you what he, either out of ignorance or impure motives, pleased to lay to our charge. To what derision, unjust contempt, and hatred, have these sad prejudices not given rise; and would to heaven! they had not been followed by a train of bloody persecutions. However, I will spare you and myself these melancholy recollections. It is a misfortune for us, that our learned men never took notice of what was written to their prejudice in other languages; and that had they even done so, they did not understand the languages in which they ought to have defended themselves.

R. But, asked I, are those fables which have been translated and given to us, not actually to be found in it (the Talmud)?

M. Most of them, replied he, are actually to be found therein.

R. But can there be anything reasonable in a book, rejoined I, in which such fabulous and silly things occur?

M. We reason just to the contrary, replied the Rabbi. The passages which at first sight appear absurd, amount to about the twentieth part of that compilation. As for the rest, it contains nothing but profound discussions on our laws, our mode of worship, and other commandments of Holy Writ. Ought we to be led to think that men, who have given such valid proofs of their wisdom, should suddenly have lost all common sense, and fallen into absurdities that could not be imposed even upon a child? Is it not more reasonable to take those few passages which appear extravagant, as allegorical representations of such truths which men of all ages have been accustomed purposely to with hold from the people, and to confide them only to men of higher capacities? We are fully convinced of this, and have, in fact, found the sense of some enigmatical passages. Those that we cannot explain, we look upon with respectful silence, and confess our ignorance.

However, continued he, not all these allegories, in which they have shrouded the truth, are so paradoxical as they are usually averred to be. Even their plain, literal sense often contains good moral precepts, which are both useful and profitable. Several teachers have, in this respect, imitated nature, which not seldom envelopes fruit, savoury and delicious in itself, with a hard, indigestible shell, so that we have to undergo some preparatory labour to discover the precious kernel which is contained within the uninviting, bitter, and hard rind.

Could the noble Von Dohm, or Mendelssohn, the philanthropic author of “Jerusalem,” or the transcendent mind of a Lessing, the celebrated author of “Nathan der Weise,”—who so warmly used their pens in favour of religious toleration,—have foreseen what Providence <<565>>has done, in less than a century, to mature their humane ideas, and to realize them in the facts of history, for the benefit of mankind what, gratification would they not have felt!

And the cynical author of “Sur la Tolérance,”* the enemy of all positive religion and religious denominations, but particularly of the chosen race of the “Father of the Faithful,” would, in spite of himself, have dropped his pen, though dipped in venom and gall; for surely he would ha found such toleration most intolerable.

* Voltaire.

Thanks to Heaven! we see, in most civilized countries, the barriers of prejudice broken down. Religion sits majestically on her throne, cherishing, solacing, and ennobling all her children who flock round her and follow her banner, how different soever its colours may appear in the eyes of the beholders; all its children being allowed to see with their own eyes, if their hearts are but true, and they live for and love each other in sincerity and in truth. Our forefathers could not foresee this, as the like had never been seen before.

It is but two years and a half ago that Vienna (from which town our co-religionists were expelled several times, and the last time even as late as the latter portion of the last century), Vienna has seen the ministers of the Synagogue and Church perform the sacred function of burying the dead, who fell victims in defence of the liberty of their country in March, 1848, simultaneously, and the Archbishop of that metropolis offered to the Jewish minister the precedence in pronouncing the funeral oration, on the ground of the latter belonging to a more ancient church.

On a similar occasion, and at the same time, Berlin witnessed the same spectacle. The orthodox Jewish minister, as well as the Roman Catholic and the Protestant, delivered their orisons on the platform of the same church, in the presence of thousands of spectators of the respective different creeds.

In this country, where we are blessed with universal religious liberty, we have seen the House of Delegates of Virginia several times invite a Jewish minister to the capitol, to perform there the functions of a chaplain to the House.

A similar occurrence happened at Charleston, South Carolina. The anniversary of the foundation of the famous orphan-house there, is annually celebrated with great solemnity. The minister of the Beth-Elohim congregation of that place, following the call of a general invi <<566>>tation “to the clergy of all denominations,” repaired to the orphan house, where he was most respectfully received. On account of a heavy rain, divine service could not be performed at the great circular church in Meeting Street, but at the chapel belonging to the institution. During the procession thither, the Jewish minister was politely invited by the Rev. Dr. Cox, who was to deliver the sermon, to offer the prayer, which, according to the programme, was to precede the sermon. Both ministers took their seats in the pulpit. A prayer for the welfare of the orphan children and their benevolent patrons was offered, which was followed by an appropriate sermon. At the end of the ceremony, both ministers, conducted by the trustees, were led in procession back to the house, and invited to a dinner provided for the Board.

During dinner (of which the Jewish minister could of course not partake) equal honours and attentions were shown to both; and, on leaving, they were cordially thanked for their services.

The writer of this is far from desiring anything like an assimilation of the creeds; his maxim is כל העמים ילכו איש בשם אלהיו ואנחנו נלך בשם אלקים חיים. But it affords him more than satisfaction to find that, however strictly we adhere to our creeds, and however strictly we are in duty bound to keep them separate, we yet may unite in love, and implore the assistance of Him who is love, for those who so much stand in need of mercy and love.