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Reforming and Deforming

(Continued from issue #2)

Again on the same old subject!” we hear our readers exclaim. Even so, kind friends; we return to the charge, if not to slay the living, at least to bury the dead, and to perform the last sad rites to the departed. But no—our simile will not hold good altogether; neither reforming nor deforming is dead among us, and however often defeated, neither the orthodox nor the newer lights have abandoned the contest; nor needs it be; parties prove one thing at least—they show that there is life in the masses; and sooner would we witness the strife of factions, unholy as it is, than see the dead calm of inaction pervading all,—a fair reflex of the glassy surface of the salt lake of Sodom, lying dead and undisturbed, basking in its absence of life and the living in the brilliant sun, which sheds ceaselessly its scorching rays on all around during the long summer months, on the naked rocks, and the quaking plain which stretches elsewhere away from the shore.

We say, give us anything sooner than such a state of peace; it is the emblem of death, nay, it is death itself, where all the limbs are stiff and rigid in the helpless and hopeless condition of inaction. Do we then regret the presence of party among us? Yes. But would we prefer it to absolute indifference? Most assuredly; for even admitting that evil must result from the defection of many upon by-paths prohibited by and inimical to religion, still the ultimate result must be to ani<<160>>mate and agitate those who otherwise would not think; it will produce a spirit of inquiry, and the next step will be the adoption of that which is good, and the rejection of the bad and useless.

In saying this, we trust that no one will suppose that we approve of party spirit, or, in other words, that antagonistic mode of action which sees no good except in its own small circlet which it marks upon the surface of the water of life; for we are foreign to any such contracted notion, and have hence no sympathy with those who are so narrow-minded and so enamoured of self, since all persons who act from such a prejudice imagine themselves the centre of wisdom, the head and front of all that is good and noble.

No,—we abominate party spirit; and we refer only to the existence of party where all profess to, and perhaps do, conscientiously contribute to the common welfare. Now we can well imagine that men may honestly think that our religion requires improvement, that we, the stand-still party, as we are called, are behind the age; that the salvation of Israel depends on remodelling our system by the light of progress which practical science has of late developed. But, in so doing, we say but little in claiming for those who agree with us, as much honesty and candour as the others demand for themselves; and if they are sincere in asserting that progress is absolutely necessary for our preservation, we surely are not less so in stating, that, first, no great changes are either admissible or necessary; and, secondly, that granted even they be needed, great caution should be resorted to before they are determined on.

We therefore detest that ultraism which would on the one side stamp all lovers of the ancient order of things as enemies to light and progress, and on the other stigmatize the reformers as apostates, and as those placed beyond the pale of Judaism; for even admitting that the latter do advocate doctrines not sanctioned by our religion, we hold it self-evident, that whilst they do not formally renounce Judaism, the Synagogue should not exclude them as beyond its pale. We will admit, that there may be occasions when it becomes absolutely necessary to sever <<161>>a diseased limb from the body, and to exclude a violent heretic (we use the term in the most extensive sense) from the communion of any society; whether political or religious; but not till such a violent proceeding becomes necessary, till all other remedies have been tried in vain.

Let us look at the matter calmly, and how does it present itself? Simply thus: we are at best but a handful of people, held together by no political bond of union, and only adhering to each other by a community of descent and belief. If now some of us do differ, and that even radically, about certain opinions belonging to and emanating  from our system, whilst we all adhere to the main practices commanded in the Bible, and which characterize the house of Israel; where is the use of pronouncing a formal anathema against them? Do we purpose to improve or to drive them from the Synagogue? If the former, milder means must be employed; if the latter, all argument falls to the ground, and it is then merely the power of the majority which will make itself felt,—a mode of proceeding utterly opposed to the mild spirit of the prophets, the original basis and creed of Israel.

“But shall we then tolerate all sorts of schismatics and their ideas?” ask our readers. Indeed we hardly know how to answer; we would rather say yes, tolerate all, but endeavour to convince the world of the correctness of your views by sound and scriptural arguments, and strive to lead back to the safe ancient method all those who from worldliness or ignorance have peradventure strayed far away. Above all, let us guard against one thing, which will be most pernicious and promotive of error, and this is to make the reformers martyred heroes, by exhibiting them to the world as suffering from the intolerance and bigotry of ancient Jews.

There is generally in the human mind a feeling, though we know of instances of a contrary character, in favour of the persecuted; men will think that those who are denounced in unmeasured terms are the aggrieved; that those who are violently opposed must have the best reason on their side; and though both positions may be the reverse of the truth, still it would be well not to change our respective positions in public estimation, and give our Jewish opponents the advantage ground.

Moderation, calmness, persuasion, gentleness, may do a great deal towards soothing down the acerbity of feelings, and bringing the two extremes together in harmonious contact; but let each one stand aloof from the other in a hostile attitude of isolation, and you widen the breach and produce that very schism which in one breath you deny to exist, and with the other render incurable. With our own ears we have heard a venerable preacher assert that there is no diversity of sentiment in Israel, and that we are identically the same all over the world and during all time; but barely had the sound died away—it was still vibrating in our hearing—when we learned from the same authority that persons who rejected certain doctrines were no longer to be counted as Jews. We do not impugn the sincerity of the dis­tinguished son of Israel in any one respect; for to all practical purposes the Jews are identical in doctrines, hopes, and practices; but, alas! it will not do to assert that there are no dissentients at present in our midst, or that unbelief, in the true sense of this hateful word, has not taken deep root among us!

One thing it is to admit the existence of an evil, but quite another to meet it boldly, and to take up the proper arms to arrest its progress, and to cause it to retire from the field of action. We admit, then, that false notions, subversive even of our pure religion, have taken deep hold on the minds of many; but we despair not of their being readily arrested, if the teachers of our nation do but act in the fear of God, proclaim plainly the doctrines evolved from the Scriptures, according to the teachings of our blessed predecessors, and unite as one to propagate the truth, not oppose each other from petty envy or desire for office, as though the minister himself, the teacher, were everything, the cause, however, and suffering Israel as nothing in the balance.

In saying this, we reflect on no one in particular, but speak in terms of unqualified condemnation of the lust for office and preferment, where men compete for the public suffrages, denounce each other as incompetent, unfaithful, and inefficient, and use all subterfuges and contemptible tricks, admissible perhaps in a political contest, to make themselves agreeable to the majority of their expected constituents. Such conduct is unworthy of <<163>>teachers of religion, unworthy of the high and ancient name of Israel; and congregations should frown down any and every such an attempt to carry the bitterness, personalities, and rancour of partisan strife into their church elections. And if such be the contestants for public favour, not one of them deserves to be chosen, not to mention for the station of minister, but for that of the most menial employment even, for they cannot carry forward in truth, as sincere servants of God, the joyful message which our fathers received at Sinai.

No,—we must have union, concord, peace among our accepted teachers, or else their usefulness is impaired, and they may as well remain silent, for all the good that may be expected of them. But give us bold men, true men, those who fear God and eschew the evil, who will speak through good and through evil report whatever they feel to be the word of the Most High, and they will be able to grapple with the demon of the hour, and overcome him victoriously, “because they trust in the name of the Lord.”

Now, as regards the second point, of pronouncing the schismatics beyond the pale of Judaism, we do not say that some strong passages cannot be found in our ancient writings sustaining such a position. But we question the wisdom of the procedure, nevertheless. We know we shall expose ourself to the charge of lukewarmness for our candour; but this does not terrify us from performing a duty we owe to our cause, as a former teacher and a journalist for the time being. Although a journalist is a new feature in Judaism, still he has become, through the mutations of the times, an important element in public discussions; and he is a powerful instrument for good or for evil, just as he may employ his talents and opportunities. He is the preacher of the masses, who visits them periodically in their abodes, speaking to them through their eyes in a language both popular and attractive; it requires generally but little learning to follow him in his disquisitions, and hence arises the influence he gradually wins over his readers, and the facility with which they adopt his ideas as their own.

But let us not digress from our position; we said that, as a journalist, we had duties to perform to our cause which we should execute without flinching, <<164>>without regarding whether our magazine may suffer, or we be exposed to personal injury by the course we pursue. The Occident has lived quite a number of years, despite the slight support it has everywhere received; and we are still alive, although we should long since have been annihilated, if slander and a goodly quantity of persecution could have effected this result.

But no matter of self; enough that we will, whilst we can speak, have but one object in view, the peace and welfare of our people; and in this respect we say, that it is unwise to place an insuperable barrier to the reunion of the discordant elements now existing in our midst; and we are sure that our ancient sages would not have lent their countenance to any harsh or prescriptive measures, under the present aspect of things. We could enumerate many sayings which they have left us, for instance, “Elisha was punished only for having thrust aside Gehazi with both his hands;” or, “although a man have sinned, he is still an Israelite;” and again, the beautiful saying of Beruriah, the wife of R. Meir, “the sins shall cease from the earth, but not the sinners,” and the frequent exhortations to penance, of which all our writings are full to overflowing.

And even should the passages inculcating an opposite course far outnumber the others, we would still lean to the side of mercy, and pity where we most condemn. Religion would not suffer thereby; orthodoxy would lose none of its value; but we should have a door open by which the repentant ones might re-enter the portals of the Synagogue in full community of faith and practice. Kindness has been so rarely employed as an instrument in polemics, that it is worth the while to make the experiment among ourselves, to see whether or not it would accomplish all and even more than is expected from it. Suppose even it fail completely of success, we are then precisely where we would be with a repulsive demeanour, that is to say, both would have resulted in failure. Show us the first man who was convinced by denunciation, and we will yield the point; and hence we say, do not refuse the name of Jews to those even who differ materially from the true and righteous standard, at least till all other means have first been tried.

No one need tell us that we should not exhaust our compassion on the transgressors; that offended truth and violated principle also demand our consideration. Most true; nothing can claim more strongly our entire assent. But unfortunately, those persons who are so fierce against opinions, are very often extremely tolerant to open violations of great moral acts; they have no concern with people’s actions, so their doctrines are but right; and one is often fairly disgusted with the constant repetition of the word orthodoxy by persons who are so careless about a strict conformity.

Judaism has but one orthodox principle, and this is whatever our religion teaches; and hence there can be no excuse for orthodox principles whilst the conduct is heterodox. Away then with the sympathy for theoretical piety whilst the conduct is so contrariwise, and hence also away with that blind subserviency to ancient usage when the heart is full of infidel notions which are rioting there without one effort to eradicate them.

We must be both inward orthodox and outward conformists, and only as such can we lay claim to be true chil­dren of Israel. We have then nothing to advance in defence of a false expounding of doctrine, nothing whatever, though such a course is alleged to be more in conformity with the progressive spirit of the age than a holding fast to ancient doctrines; and we will go all length with any of our contemporaries to counteract that erroneous teaching which has been witnessed so often of late. But in the name of mercy, let us be prudent; not condemn the uninstructed because they may be in error, and not cause a greater wrong to be committed through a heedless overzeal, which can only consume the patient, not cure the malady.

Let us attract the unwary to our side by an exhibition of the holiness of our religion as practised by the adherents of ancient rites; let our Synagogues be examples of decorum and devotion, and let us take heed that our youth be properly instructed in the language of our worship and is their religious and moral duties in general: and then we may fearlessly appeal to all lovers of change to forego their darling notions of assimilating Judaism to Christianity, or any modern system which may happen to be the fashion of the day, and we shall require no <<166>>anathemas to induce them to return to a proper mode of thinking and acting.

We shall be told that in matters of religion we must assent to received opinions and rules of conduct, not argue upon their vitality or validity; as it is enough that they exist, and as Jews we are bound to adopt them without cavil or question. This position is true also in the main; but how are we to prevent people from reasoning on religion? from questioning each other, if not their minister? can we place shackles on the intellect and prescribe to it what to investigate and what to adopt without inquiry? Surely, we need not adduce any proof that such an assumption, as the affirmative to these questions would require, would lead to the greatest absurdity.

It is true, that the believer is bound to adopt all that his religion requires or teaches, but how are you to make him a believer in case he is none? by denunciation? by telling him “believe or expect condemnation?” by informing him beforehand, that unless he receive all you offer him you will hold no communion with him? that he shall be an alien to you, excluded from your place of worship, unless he assent to all of which you have conviction? Think a moment, good and zealous friends, if Judaism can thus prosper, if it can gather strength in free countries, where all opinions are, or should be, fearlessly canvassed, in an age when all ideas in the moral and physical world are subjected to a constantly repeated bold search, to discover the least lurking error, however unimportant; and if you have pondered well on all the bearings of the case, answer us candidly and truely, whether your or our method will best convert sinners or draw the uninitiated to our standard.

We will concede you the same honesty of purpose which we pretend to possess ourself; but do not, in the name of truth, imagine that we, and those thinking with us alike on this point, are in the least less sincere than you, or less attached to the good standard of Judaism, as displayed in the thirteenth article of the Maimonidian creed, than the best among you all. There is, by the by, a fatal error pervading the minds of many enthusiastic men, which is, that they can find no excuse for others differing with them; and the man who dissents in the least from their fan<<167>>cies, from their mode of thinking, from their manner of acting, must needs take the wrong side of the question, though there are reasonable grounds for indulging in some difference of opinion.

This arrogance will not be injurious, if it merely is the expression of a vanity, which, however offensive in society, is at least but a harmless exhibition of an assumed superiority, which, though it makes the pretender ridiculous, cannot seriously affect the world at large. But when it is exercised in religious matters, when it exhibits itself in one or more who pretend to be exclusively the censors of the morals and opinions of the age, it should be boldly met and checked, if even it be exerted in a good cause.

True piety disdains such aid; Judaism requires mildness, meekness, mercy, to assist it in triumphing over the world, and it will not do for it to flaunt in the trappings of a persecuting creed after it has suffered so much from the evils of persecution and has triumphed solely through the hold it has upon the affections of its followers. It has stood the test of a thousand fiery trials from its enemies; it has survived national apostacies without number; it has overcome the baleful effects of ignorance in its followers—an ignorance, we mean, in worldly matters, superinduced by the malevolence of the enemies of Israel; it has sustained unshaken the great danger of its supporters being compelled to resort for ages to degrading pursuits, all others being denied them by their tormentors; and should it now need the aid of those means which its opponents employed against it? does it require the assistance of bigotry, fanaticism, exclusion, anathemas, and the like, to prevent it from perishing? We rather think that those who go for mild measures have the right with them, whilst the others would bring discredit on their faith, and be the means of diminishing its followers.

But we may be asked in return, “Would you go to pray in a schismatic Synagogue? would you enter there to exhort the people whilst they are engaged in their devotions, conducted, as they are, in a manner which you condemn?” We are frank enough to answer emphatically “No;” we will not pray with them because we could not fix our thoughts to devotion whilst we saw before our eyes that which distracts the attention; we could <<168>>not admonish the people in a manner a teacher should speak, whilst we witnessed practices which we must, from our conviction, disapprove of, and behold a doctrine displayed which we believe in sincerity to be in contravention of what the Bible teaches.

We will not denounce them, nor shut them out from a participation in our rites should they come to unite with us in prayer in our places of worship. But we cannot go to them; they have voluntarily withdrawn from our communion; there let them remain till they bethink themselves and return to the true and ancient standard; and they have no right to expect that we—viz., those who reject their innovations—should unite with them, or do anything by which it might be inferred that we favoured any schism whatever its nature may be.

This is no illiberality, no persecution, as some might be inclined to consider it; but still there are those who will at once be excited to wrathful feelings, so soon as they discover that there are men independent enough to tell them candidly that their movements, not being approved of, cannot be countenanced by those who condemn them. Yet, surely, there is no ground for such anger. Must every man forego his honest convictions, because they might give offence somewhere? must one submit to all sorts of notions, because  they are breached, say by friends and relatives? and still we do not see how we could give greater countenance to any system of worship, than by even appearing where it is practised, when our very presence would prove that though we condemn it we could adopt it, say even but for once, as our method of worshipping God.

In the same manner can no one who condemns such a state of things appear there and teach in public the people assembled together at their usual devotions. He cannot divide himself into two, preach as an orthodox and unite in prayer with the schismatics. He must be either one or the other, and the very idea of an orthodox dissenter in Judaism is an impossibility, a sort of nondescript in our history. We know that the Talmud and Maimonides, together with other authorities, are invoked to prove the legality of the changes which the most violent even have introduced; but it is somewhat curious, to say the least, to seek for arguments from the Rabbins to contradict rabbinical <<169>>authority, or what is worse yet, to make them sponsors and responsible for radical changes attempted even in the plain and evident teaching of the Scriptures.

We do not mean to go into any explanation just now, or to prove our assertions; but we are ready to do both whenever we are called upon by those whom our remarks may touch. We trust that no one will presume these remarks to be personal; but where the field is so narrowed down to a few actors, it is utterly impossible to say anything which may not appear to be levelled at some one. But as we expose our own person to animadversion and remark by our frankness, no one can justly blame us for losing sight in this important discussion of everything but principle. Men in this connexion are comparatively nothing, and they must yield their importance before the magnitude of the question.

In short, we mean not to be personal; and we are ready to let all who feel an interest in the matter speak for themselves in our pages, and shall not grieve if they overthrow all we have been saying, so only they come with sound argument and courteous language. But both these requisites must be kept in view if people will write for us. Mere assertion proves nothing; and ascribing unworthy motives to others will not help the cause one advocates. There is irritation enough existing in all parties without the addition of extraneous matter with which the questions have nothing to do; and whoever cannot argue without forcing them forward, fitting though they be or unfitting, had better leave the discussion alone, as such a champion causes more injury to his supporters than to his opponents.

All, however, that we meant to say was this, that though extremely tolerant of a contrariety of opinions, we cannot conscientiously compromise our own convictions to give the appearance of countenancing error in others, and that they have no right to regard those as illiberal or inimical who will not join with them in worship. Our ancient Synagogue is, therefore, the only place where all can unite together in one assembly; for, however, the reformer, so called, may lack his music, his modern hymns, his abridged prayers, his half Jewish preaching, he can discover nothing to offend his conscience, nothing in which he cannot <<170>>sincerely join, unless indeed he have gone so far as to deny one or more cardinal points of our faith; and if this be so, how can he expect the ancient Jew to worship with him?

If reformers, indeed, wish for union, to be truly one people with their brothers, let them discard their modern notions, notions which spring up like the mushroom in the night, merely to perish before the speedy advance of some other newfangled theory. Whatever is true, is true always, but whatever fluctuates, whatever is swayed to and fro by the popular breath, is evidently of the unstable nature incident to all error. And thus, though reform is but, at the most, only forty years old, it has presented more variations than ancient Judaism has done for more than two thousand years, since it assumed in the main its present distinctive features.

This is no idle rhapsody, but sober truth, a truth which no sophistry can gainsay, which no honest man will be bold enough to deny. Before therefore, reform can avail anything, it ought at least to assume a definite shape, not present itself in all the fanciful colours of the harlequin or the failing and indistinct shades of the rainbow. Agree upon something, ye brothers who fancy that a change of system alone can save Judaism, and then let us hold a council of wise and God-fearing men to investigate if your remedy will relieve the patient.

We have had enough of quackery, enough of organs and abridged prayers, enough of choir singing, enough of new hymns, quite a plenty of languages of the various countries, a Babel has almost been introduced into the Synagogue: and pray, where is the improvement?

We have indeed a reform, God forfend its spreading in the house of prayer; but where is its corresponding influence in the house? in the family? in your own persons? Come, for once act like men of sense, and let the word of God not be to you like a melody elicited from a musical instrument, which escapes into the air and is felt no more; come and show that your abridged prayers are not for the sake of hastening home from the house of God to enable you to attend to your pleasures, but that you really meant that this measure should awaken you to holier thoughts, to a more pious life; and if this be the result, although we do not see what connexion there can be between the two, we will confess that <<171>>your reform has been of some use; but till then do not ask us to join you in prayers; be not angry when orthodox men refuse to appear in your temples to preach there the word of the Lord.

If you are truly anxious to hear them, resort to the places where their appointment or inclination forces them to be; you can there drink in their instruction, you can there be refreshed by the water of life which they are commissioned to offer to you; and fret not over them that your acts have placed a barrier between them and you which they for the moment cannot and should not overleap. Imagine not that for so doing they are your enemies; they are your friends, the friends of Israel, the friends of mankind; their doctrines are the doctrines of peace, their admonition points out to you and all the paths of salvation. You need not fear of being contaminated by the simple doctrines of your religion; they are but few, and they are defended by reason, and its teacher, the word of God; and you need not tremble for the correctness of your deeds whilst you follow truly and faithfully such a guide on your path of life.

We have a great deal yet to say to our readers on the subject which we have taken as the theme of our present discussion; but we are admonished that we have spoken enough for once, and hence we must now lay it aside to resume it again at some future day. It will be apparent that we have found fault with both extremes of parties among us, and no question we shall earn but small thanks for what we have said and done; but this is nothing to us; when speaking of our religion, both as a teacher and a writer, we never yet looked to any consequences which might thence result to our unworthy self, it was merely our subject which engrossed our attention, and it mattered net whether we might rise or fall thereby.

And now that our future path seems beset by more than usual difficulties, when we literally cannot divine by any wisdom of our own what a kind and beneficent Father may point out to us as our future field of action; now when a dark cloud has settled upon our horizon, seemingly shutting out any perception of a course of conduct we ought to pursue as our line of duty: shall we fail in what is required of us? shall we falter in a career which demands more than usual vigilance because it has been self-assumed ? No, we cannot, we will not; <<172>>to the latest day of our course, as long as we are at our post, we will speak fearlessly, and not side with any party when that party is to blame. We have always sought the welfare of our people; from early boyhood our heart swelled high at the wrong and oppression which Israel had to endure; our first efforts as a public writer were made in defence of our outraged rights, at a base slander heaped upon our contemned race; and thus we have consecrated our pen this far to one topic only, to speak in defence of universal freedom for all, and to disseminate the doctrines which we hold as the most precious and sacred gift of God.

In the same spirit we speak now; let the world condemn us or praise us, it shall neither depress us unduly, nor elevate us in our estimation; we mean only to discharge a duty which is obligatory on all the descendants of Abraham, to promote the welfare of their religion and their people. For our part we shall be rewarded enough if our contributions to Jewish literature are found acceptable, and so that when we are dead impartial men may say with truth, “This one faithfully laboured to produce peace in Israel.”