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Principles Of Judaism.

A Sermon Delivered at the Synagogue Nefutzeth Yehudah,
At New Orleans, On The First Day Of Pentecost, 5610.

To the name of the Everlasting and Unchangeable God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Redeemer and Saviour of mankind, be glory and adoration from all flesh, even from the rising of the sun to its setting, now and for evermore. Amen.


We are celebrating this day the annual festival of the pro­clamation of the Law of God on Sinai, where amidst the con­vulsion of the elements an assembled people stood ready to receive the will of their Maker, by which they were to be guided, as also their descendants after them. In consequence of this <<173>>it was that in every age the Israelites, of whom we who are now present form a part, did acknowledge their allegiance to this law; and our assembling to-day to worship the Lord, and to read the precepts which He wrote by his own divine power on the two tables of the covenant, proves that even at this late day in our history, the latest which we have ever reached, we acknowledge that we also are willing to remain faithful to the law and the testimony, which were on this day confided to the sons of Jacob. Or else why should we assemble? Why come hither into the precincts which but a few days ago were declared sacred to the God of Israel? Or was it a mockery that we devoted these walls to the worship of the Most High God, the sole Lord and Creator of the universe?

But no, it was not a mockery when your hearts swelled high at the thought that now you had a place fit for the assembling of the faithful, wherein to unite in a brotherly fellowship, to invoke the most adored and adorable Name; you felt in truth that thus you had a point of union where  heart could link itself on heart, and spirit be kindled by a sister-spirit, to elevate itself above the trammels, the cares, the sorrows, the trials of life, unto that pure Fountain whence flow consolation, peace, and aid unto the children of the dust, whose lot is often one of hardship and tribulation. You felt this, and you rejoiced that the work was done, and that within the new shrine dedicated for it rested among you the transcript of the law of the Lord your God, and that it henceforward was to be there as a testimony against you, whether indeed you love your Father in heaven with all your heart, and with all your soul.

And is it now your intention that the mere ceremony of dedication, in which you so joyously participated, is to be all which you mean to offer for acceptance to your God? Did you say you desired solely once to enter his portals, to show that you had a Jewish feeling for the solemn occasion, and then to drop it again as a thing of no practical use, as a weakness of which you had need to be ashamed? If so little be your faith, your absence would have honoured the courts of God far more than your presence; for is He not the same all the days of your life? Did you ever discover in Him any lack of providence, any absence <<174>>of kindness, though you have been provided for and liberally endowed all the days of your life? Why then should you feel devotion but once, or at occasions far apart, when circumstances combine to impose on you the necessity of appearing before God, and to join with those who adore Him?—

No, it cannot be; you entered this house on the day of its dedication with other thoughts than mock devotion; it was not the novelty alone which prompted you to come hither; but you came because it is to your God that this house is devoted, because it is here that your Creator is to be invoked, let us hope for many, many years, even whilst we are compelled to dwell far from the once lovely land in which our fathers had their own national home, where they obeyed the paternal government which their God and King had instituted for them, and whilst not yet we are recalled to Palestine, under the banners of that glorious chief, under whom there will be peace proclaimed to all mankind, and in whose days tyranny shall no more oppress the suffering, and slavery no longer cast its galling fetters around the limbs of the helpless.

You came hither, because as Israelites you had long since desired to possess a house of your own, where you could assemble to worship and adore your Father, where you could have his law proclaimed in your hearing, where you might listen to the words of admonition addressed unto you by the servants of God, whom you may raise from time to time out of the midst of the people to stand in the sanctuary, and to address in your behalf the throne of that gracious and beneficent Parent, whose residence is the universe, and whose penetrating eye nevertheless surveys without fatigue or fail the most minute acts which are done, and the smallest things that exist in the immeasurable extent of his realm.

You rejoiced that it had pleased God to excite the liberal feelings of a worthy son of Israel to establish for you this house of prayer, and you came therefore hither to testify by your presence that you were not indifferent to the important event by which a residence for the law of God was established in this city, so famous for its wealth, its refinement, and its position as the centre of a vast and increasing commerce,—as a port whither ships flock from all parts of this <<175>>continent and distant lands, to exchange the products of this country with those of foreign soils, which have found their way hither. You were delighted that you would no longer appear indifferent to your faith in the eyes of those who differ from you in matters of belief and practice; inasmuch as you can justly now point to this noble and well-endowed building and say, “This is our house of assembly, where we mean to come to show that we feel as Jews, that we wish to act as descendants of Israel.”

And you come accordingly again this day, appointed to commemorate the spiritual birth of our race, on which we were instituted emphatically the children and servants of God, to renew silently, though I trust not the less sincerely, your vow of fealty, your oath of allegiance to your Supreme King, declaring that you will abide faithful to his will, either in weal or in wo; that in joy or in sorrow, in health or in sickness, in life or in death, you will only know Him, only invoke Him, only follow Him who was the God of your fathers, who was the Adored of Abraham, the Hope of Israel, and the Inspirer of Moses.

And indeed this is a glorious day, one well worthy of being remembered, and solemnly celebrated in all generations; no tears flowed when this triumph, this birth of a nation was achieved; no wounds were struck when thus we sprung into being; no slain covered the bloody field, when Israel took its rank as the foremost among the nations of the earth.

And why? Because it was mind which triumphed; it was the glory of the Lord which immediately wrought the change; and though therefore the earth was shaken to its centre, though the rocky mountains were upheaved, though terrible lightnings flashed and fearful thunders rolled—all was yet merely contrived in order; as the prophet says:

לבעבור נסות אתכם בא האלהים ובעבור תהיה יראתו על פניכם לבלתי תחטאו׃

“To prove you the God hath come, and for the sake that his fear may he on your faces, so that you may not sin” (Exodus xx. 17);

or, in other words, to teach us that we are subject to the will and power of God, wherever we are, and that hence we should <<176>>dread doing aught which his will condemns, which his revealed word prohibits unto us.

For behold! our God is not a creature, like anything of which we have any conception, who is wearied with watching, or exhausted by labour; who sees only what happens on one spot, and forgets that over which oblivion has waved its dusky wing; since darkness darkens nothing for Him, since in his presence the past, the present, and the future are all combined in one,—that is, the knowledge of all possible events is clear and open before Him, and because through his power alone all things are sustained, and nothing can therefore escape his vengeance, as all possible objects are from compulsion within his reach and his grasp at every moment of time.

It therefore pleased Him to appear before our forefathers, on this day which we now celebrate; to impress them vividly with an image of his power, which did not, as before in Egypt and at the Red Sea, bring destruction and wo on sinners, but brought them knowledge and instruction how He, the great and irresistible Creator, desired to be worshipped, in order that his creatures might thereby obtain the largest amount of happiness—a beatitude of which no mortal can form any conception, which only the disembodied spirit can attain and comprehend after the perishable has been changed into the eternal—after death has washed away the weakness and corruption incident to our earthly life.

It was accordingly only to impress on the mind of man the knowledge that God is all-powerful and omnipresent; that He is able to accomplish all and to see all that is done; in order that upon every occasion when we are appealed to by our inward feelings to practise any act, or omit doing it, we may place before us the conviction that we are within the immediate presence of our Father, who will either condemn and punish, or approve and reward every deed or omis­sion which we make our own.

It is, therefore, evidently the business of our life, first, to learn what God has taught; and secondly, to omit no opportunity for conforming to this knowledge; since the former would be useless, unless the practice corresponded with it in every respect. To accomplish this, therefore, to ifs fullest extent, it will be merely necessary to tell you to study carefully the words <<177>>of the Scriptures which contain the revealed will of God,—to inquire of the wise and experienced among you as to the manner in which the precepts should be observed, and then to abide faithful to whatever you have thus acquired.

It will be evidently not my purpose in a simple address to recite, even without commenting thereon, all the ordinances which comprise the body of the Jewish law; but I trust that you will indulge me a little while with your attention, whilst I expatiate on the nature of the precepts which constitute our religion. I do not expect to tell you anything which you have not known before, and which you have not often heard; but it is occasionally necessary to refresh the memory, and to reawaken our perhaps slumbering ardour for what is holy and true; and if he accomplishes this, the preacher’s task is done, as he thus follows in the footsteps of the holy prophets of old, and the blessed teachers of Israel in all ages, who added nothing to and diminished nothing from the Law.

Let us, therefore, confine ourselves to a brief review of the Ten Commandments, which have been read to us this day whilst we were all standing to listen to them, even as our fathers stood erect whilst the Lord himself spoke unto their bodily ears from amidst the fire which blazed on Horeb. At a first view, the Decalogue is divided into two parts, faith and practice; and the latter again into acts of religion proper, and deeds correctly termed moral duties.

First, as regards faith. Every constitution must needs have a basis on which its various sections are founded; consequently our holy, fundamental code also needed a resting or starting point from which all other specifications had to proceed. This basis you will find in the first precept, which, strangely enough, is taken by a kindred religion as the mere prologue, so to say, to the ten precepts which we received from Sinai. Without permitting myself to be drawn away into a long discussion of this important point, it is enough for my present purpose to state, that it is owing to a material difference in your respective religions that this curious distinction in the enumeration of the Decalogue has arisen; and that the change by our opponents was perhaps necessary, in order to reconcile <<178>>their peculiar views with the alleged spirit of the Scriptures, as the letter is confessedly entirely opposed to them.

But to proceed: We hold the first precept to be embraced in the verse אנכי ה׳ אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים “I am the Lord thy God, who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt from the house of servitude;” and we consider it as a commandment to acknowledge the existence of the Deity who thus makes himself known to us; and we view it, at the same time, as the foundation of our whole religious system. You all know the circumstances under which we had dwelt for several centuries in Egypt; we had been servants, or slaves rather, subject to the arbitrary will of king and people, and our voice of complaint against cruel treatment had been received with scorn and contumely. In the ordinary course of events but one of two things could have produced a change in our position,—either a successful rebellion against our masters, or their voluntary dismissal of us from their service. Of the first method history furnishes, perhaps, an example, though hardly to the extent of the liberation of six hundred thousand able bodied labourers held under absolute subjection within the reach of the oppressors’ power; but of the other we know of no parallel, certainly not if we take into consideration that the whole mass thus redeemed left at once the land of their former sufferings.

It was, however, neither our force nor our masters’ relenting which liberated us; but a series of remarkable events which compelled the Egyptians to consent, though reluctantly, to let the Israelites depart as Moses had demanded. The residence of our ancestors in Egypt is attested by other evidence than the Mosaic history; their liberation, as there recorded, is the most rational way of accounting for so remarkable an occurrence, so unlike anything known elsewhere; but the most positive proof of the entire truth of all recorded by Moses is to be found in the sudden rise of the Israelitish nation, with peculiar laws, customs, manners, and sentiments so unlike all other systems then known to the world, and since to this day nothing like it has been done to any other people.

The going out of Egypt of our nation was accordingly a matter of the highest moment, transcending all that had occurred since the flood was <<179>>universal on the earth, and swept away the sinful generation which had defiled it in the days of Noah; and as the last was justly ascribed to a superhuman agency, the former also had needs proceed from the same source, that is, the universal Power that governs the world.

If, therefore, the Being who then spoke to us announced himself as the one who had brought us out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude, He at once told us that He is the all-powerful, the all-sufficient in himself, or the Creator of all. Only to Him who had created and does govern all things was it practicable to bend the tyrannical heart to his will, was it possible to coerce obduracy to obedience by the exhibition of irresistible force; and, therefore, He justly founds the necessity of acknowledging Him as the universal God upon the deeds of mercy of which we were ourselves the recipients, and of the truth of which we were ourselves perfectly cognizant.

For, since the laws of nature were in a measure suspended to work the various miracles which then occurred,—and since, notwithstanding this fact, all went on harmoniously as before,— since no convulsion of the regular course of events was observed, except with regard to those who had been doomed to suffer, as the Bible says, “but to all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings,”—it argued conclusively that the Author alone of all things in heaven and on earth could have so organized nature anew for the time being, as it was then observed, which again establishes the identity of our Redeemer from Egypt and the Creator of the universe.

When, therefore, the first words which the Lord spoke to our fathers burst upon their startled ears, they were at once put in possession of the great secret which is the basis of all creation; they were taught to refer whatever is, was, or will be, to one and the same Source, to one and the same Universal Power, to whom all is possible, and who alone governs according to his uncircumscribed pleasure, without the permission, control, or assistance of any other being; and inasmuch as we can fix no date to his commencement or termination, for being mortal ourselves we know only the limit of our own existence, we come at once to the conclusion that this Power is eternal, no less than almighty and <<180>>universal; or, in other words, we were put in possession of the great light of our religion, that God is one, alone, almighty, and eternal, not affected by bodily incidents, and not suffering from weakness and other sorrows connected with mortal life.

How great was this revelation! how ineffable the goodness which vouchsafed it! Behold! the skill of the wise had for thousands of years vainly sought for a solution of the problem of nature; for all search had ended in disappointment and uncertainty; but here, in a few brief words, the Lord himself taught us his nature of oneness, eternity, and power, and we have lived in this knowledge,—it has become our faith, our confidence, our hope, our trust; and though mighty empires have leagued against us to rob us of it, still have we maintained it, and uttered it as our battle-cry against the assaults of mankind, and we have triumphed against our enemies in the name of the Eternal One our Father.

This in brief is our faith, as developed in the first precept of the Decalogue. If we next proceed to the laws of practice, we shall find them twofold, first those which impose duties or restrictions which apparently do not affect our fellow-men, and then those which are obligatory on us as members of the human family at large. The first class of precepts was imparted to us because we live in God’s world, and ought therefore to take due heed that we remain firm in our attachment to Him, and acquire such thoughts as will, in the best manner, remove us from all those ideas which are inimical to an absolute acknowledgment of his unity and power on our part.

Hence the prohibition of idolatry and image worship; the interdict against a false or useless oath by the name of God, and then lastly the institution of the Sabbath, as a constant confession that we believe in the creation of the world by the free exercise of the power of the Lord, made manifest in material objects being called forth into active life or existence by his will acting through his word.

The next class of ordinances embraces those which affect other men besides ourselves, or those duties which relate to man in a social state, in his membership of the human family, or as one of the creatures who, equally with him, are the work of an all-wise Creator. To <<181>>this class we may reckon the last six commandments, which are too familiar to all the world to need repeating now. But how different was it when first they were announced; simple as good morals appear to us, they were not universally adopted among heathens; and alas! even among civilized communities, human honour, human life, human property, are not esteemed so sacred as to be beyond violation on the part of the evildoers; or else we might dispense with prisons and other means to prevent, restrain, and punish crime. But if even it were otherwise, which it is not, and that all the moral precepts of the Bible were known to ancient pagans, it would nevertheless not militate in the least against the expediency of embodying them in the Decalogue; as if they existed at all, which, to a certain extent, I will not deny, they were owing to an early revelation which Noah with his sons obtained immediately after the flood, and may, for all we can allege to the contrary, have been imparted even to Adam, our first parent.

Enough for us it is to know, that the revelation which we have in our hands enjoins brotherly love, neighbourly kindness, and filial obedience, not as mere expedients to make life pass pleasantly, but as acts of resignation to the will of God, who, being the Father of all, commands his children to love one the other.

But as the religious and civil laws are based on the same original foundation, that is the will of God, there can evidently be no rational difference as regards their relative importance to us, unless we had a peculiar method of discovering the intentions and thought of the Creator, except through means of his revealed word. But as we have none such, it follows that to us Israelites the religious and moral laws, as also those which enjoin an absolute faith or belief in God, are all alike holy, important, necessary, and useful, and that we can accordingly not lay claim to the title of religious men, or expect to obtain the blessing of God, unless we obey Him in every particular and be truly that which his word desires us to be.

The exposition of our religion, thus laid before you, is so simple and self-evident, that I trust that should any one not have been convinced before, he will now acknowledge that to be a true Israelite he must do what our ancestors promised in the wilder‑<<182>>ness, “All the words which the Lord hath spoken will we do.” There should be no reserve, no choosing between one observance and the other, no rejecting this as useless, that as obsolete, or the other as incompatible with the fickle spirit of the age.

Our religion in its essentials knows nothing of progress, nothing of retrogression; it is the emanation of the Deity who, in his own wisdom, granted it unto us as a guide to our feet and a light on our path through the toilsome journey of life. How then shall we sit in judgment on the Scriptures, or even the teachings of our venerated sages, to reform, as it is called now-a-days, the practices which have distinguished us from the very first institution of our people as a separate and distinct branch among the human family?

Your own minister has, in his dedication sermon, appealed to you to exhibit in this country, where universal religious freedom prevails, a consistent religious character and a devotion to the interests of Israel. All a stranger in your midst can do is to reiterate the admonition. Be then true to your God, as He has been faithful in his promises. He declared through his messengers that He never would cast off Israel absolutely and entirely, though the transgressions of the same should be manifold. How truly has this been fulfilled. See how fearful is the measure of our iniquity; behold how little regarded are the sacred precepts, how many violate the Sabbath; despise the festivals; eat what the law interdicts, and join in marriage those who owe no fealty to Jacob’s God. And what is more, how many are there who affect to doubt of the ultimate fulfilment of God’s promises, and would desire no better fate than to be lost and absorbed gradually amidst the nations that not long since were ready to slay and torture the fairest and best and wisest of the daughters and sons of Jeshurun.

Yes, were it not for the mercy of God, which, undeserving as we are, protects us, fearful evils would in modern times have been sent over us, even as it was in those terrible periods when the two houses of God at Jerusalem fell respectively under the assaults of Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian, and Titus, falsely called the merciful Emperor of Rome. But be admonished—let the seeming security not deceive you; the Lord is long-suffering, but He, at the <<183>>same time, allows not the guilty to pass unpunished. Fly the wrath whilst yet it is time, seek for mercy whilst it yet may be obtained, and delay not to strive for the forgiveness of our Father on high, whose portals are always open to receive those who hasten thither for shelter from the gathering storm, whose hand is ever stretched forth to snatch from the frowning billows those who call to Him for help from the depth of their sorrow.

Do this, brothers of Israel; do this, sisters of the house of Jacob; and excuse not your present sin by the futile plea that hitherto you acted as you do now; for how can you ask of God to be accepted by Him whilst you will make your own pleasure the guide of your life? There is but one road of salvation to us who are called by the name of Israel, and this is a strict obedience to the law. Let this but prevail among you; be only distinguished in this community as faithful servants of the Most High, and you need not tremble when disease and death invade your dwelling, or when the current of your success is arrested and days of worldly evil come over you. For then you will recognise the finger of God in all which befalls you, and you will have the fortitude, the endurance to bear in the strength of faith and filial resignation whatever He may decree over you; and though your eye may weep , and your heart be ready to break, you will rise above yourselves, conquer even death in the triumph of hope, and exclaim with the sacred writer, “Though He slay me still will I trust in Him.”

But only be strong in resistance to sin, although the struggle be fierce; for in proportion to the difficulty of the conquest will your reward be; and be assured that not a thought will be in vain, not a word uttered without effect, which is spent in the service of God, who will recompense your labours in his cause, and prosper whatever you do in his name.

My task here is done. I have fulfilled the mission on which I have come hither by your invitation. In a few days I must return, for a while at least, to my former post. But let me entreat you not to throw aside as idle breath the words which a stranger to you in person, but a brother in the faith of our nation has spoken to you; and be you and the minister whom you have chosen entire and true before the Lord our God; follow Him in <<184>>truth and sincerity, and may He, in reward of this, bless you and prosper you, and make you a thousand time, as many as you are now. Amen.

New Orleans, Sivan 4th, May 15th, 5610.