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Judaism and its Principles.*

*This article is the introduction to a proposed series illustrating the idea of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead upon scriptural grounds.

It may be presumptuous in one who is, properly speaking, but little more than a layman, both by position and education, to undertake discussing so grave a theme as the one we have proposed; but we are, nevertheless, induced not to shrink from the self-assured task, as we mean to take our stand on scriptural grounds solely, in which mode of arguing neither philosophical knowledge nor a deep acquaintance with antiquarian lore is required. It is not here the question what Aristotle or Descartes, Leibnitz or Newton, Rousseau or Voltaire, Steward or Spinoza, Mendelssohn or Kant, Fichte or Hegel, nor what a Saadiah, or Maimonides or Albo has said, but what the word of God, the sole standard, the only measure of right among Jews, has taught and revealed unto us and all mankind.

This confession of our little, or rather absence of, acquaintance with philosophy may cause the learned Thebans, of whom the world has a sufficient number, to turn aside from our opinions as of no value to their highly cultivated intellect; but we beg them and others not to be so self-satisfied with their acquirements which are at length but the inventions of men as fallible as themselves, and often the assumption of learned ignorance, assumed for want of a true acquaintance with things, and which a subsequent generation may <<266>>have ample cause to reject as unsupported by sound argument. We say this not to disparage learning and acquaintance with the higher investigations in the powers and workings of the human mind; but only to assert that so far as religion is concerned all such things are but of secondary importance. Knowledge is a most worthy and useful handmaiden of religion; but it is folly to elevate it above its real teacher, the wisdom and truth that spring from the teaching of the divine will.

Judaism, to begin then, has been variously stated, especially in modern times, and it has been said to be based on various and differing principles, if every one’s opinions are to be taken as a standard. Pre-eminent among our teachers of religious philosophy stands Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon, the great Rambam of the Jews and the Maimonides of the gentile world. Both his extensive learning in the philosophy of the ancients, his thorough knowledge of the theological works of our people, and his elevated position as the chief medical adviser of the Sultan of Egypt, gave him a rank in Israel which few were ever able to attain, at the same time that they rendered his fame more extensively diffused among the rest of the world than that of any other Hebrew who has lived after the destruction of the temple. He has been commented on by the scholars of all countries, and has been translated in various languages; and both as an authority in Jewish legislation and the doctrinal views of our people, he has been quoted times without number. But we have not a sufficient acquaintance with his writings, which have, owing to our isolated position, not been generally accessible to us, to discuss them as they deserve; and we shall, therefore, have occasion to make use of the kind assistance of some of our learned correspondents, should we long continue at our post, to enlighten our readers with regard to the subject.

All we can do is to glance at the legacy which all Israel, learned and unlearned, have received from this wise physician and religious teacher. We refer to the CREED, as it is found in our catechisms and prayer-books, and which has been viewed as a standard of orthodox Judaism for the last six hundred years. We are well aware that even during Maimonides’ lifetime a severe controversy was waged against him by some Rabbis of France; but, unless we greatly err, it <<267>>was not against his creed, but against some of his philosophical views, embraced in his Moreh Nebochim, which work, perhaps not correctly understood even now, is the cause of much learned disputation among those capable to handle the subject with all the dexterity which literary gladiators alone know how to employ. We are neither wise nor learned enough to speak of the merits of the contest; we leave this to abler hands, together with other matters, for which we can merely hope to be the purveyor for the public.

Our readers need, therefore, not to fear that we shall trouble them with any controversial views laid down by various writers, whether Maimonides made a correct enumeration of the principles of religion, or whether in strict truth there is any particular doctrine more fundamental than the other; for in the first place such learned trifling, even were we fully competent to the task, could lead to no result, and secondly,   because we agree with the assertion of those, who say that the whole Bible is fundamental, and whatever principles, doctrines or views it teaches, whether they be one, two, or a million, are all alike true. This does not say that the thirteen articles of our usual creed are not all true, but that they are only so because they are scriptural, and that any other principles which you, kind reader, or any one else, can evolve from sound scriptural arguments are equally to be received by all orthodox, or more properly speaking, correctly believing, Israelites, as those embraced in the hymn Yigdal.

It is evident enough to all endowed with common sense, that if a discussion can be legitimately narrowed down to this simple ground of argument, a great and general acquaintance with controversial and metaphysical books is neither requisite nor desirable even; for if the Scriptures speak to us in an intelligible style, and if they are with all the last resort, the highest court of appeal, they are all-sufficient for this purpose, that is, to determine what orthodoxy means; and the subject being thus limited, any extraneous learning, or any flight into regions not requisite for its elucidation, will rather prevent than hasten our coming to a just and speedy conclusion.    

Suppose, for argument’s sake, that any great scholar, say Mendelssohn, should have alleged, in some <<268>>book, that revelation were incompatible with human reason (which, however, he has not done, so far as we have understood his writings), what, we ask, has that to do with the question? is, therefore, revelation impossible? is it, therefore, not consonant with Scripture? On the contrary, we would be compelled to say that a highly learned, wise, and, if you will, a good man has made a declaration which is not supported, nor supportable by the best tests which God has placed within our reach, sound common sense and its teacher—the revealed word which He has entrusted to us.

We hope that our premises are understood. We do not allege that men cannot be, and are not often, mistaken in respect to what the Bible teaches; we do not say that many absurdities have not been entertained, even among Jews, which were fortified by scriptural arguments; but that, after all, we must come back to the Bible as the best light within our reach; and that a literal, fair, and unconstrained reading of the original text of the Bible, is the last and only true arbiter in regard to duty and doctrine. We may, nay, we should, listen to the teaching of men superior to ourselves in learning and wisdom; but the moment they transgress the limits and teach us what the Holy Scriptures contradict, then must we not hesitate which side to choose, as little as the children of Levi hesitated, when Moses, after the people had made themselves a calf of molten gold, stood in the gate of the camp, and called out, “Who is for the Lord come to me.”

Those devoted servants in the day of general apostacy were told to gird on their swords and slay each his brother, his friend and his relative, who had rebelled; even so should in these days be the conduct of the true Israelites of all ranks and degrees of learning; each one should gird himself with the two-edged sword which the word of God places in his hands, and strike down error, whether preached by friend or foe, by Israelite or the stranger to our race. What is it to us who falls? It is the battle for the truth which we are called on to wage, and whoever is stricken down by the irresistible weapon which the true believers wield, let him perish; it is his own sin, his own self-love, his own presumption, and his own forsaking of the holy <<269>>standard, which have laid him low; for we strive not for victory to adorn our brows with the laurels of conquest, but that the ancient faith of Israel may be vindicated, and the people still live on as the witnesses of God, in the same manner they were instituted from the beginning.

Let us not be understood as rejecting commentaries and elucidations of the Scriptures, or as admitting the right of private judgment in matters of faith which some sects claim; for authority among Israelites is of great value, and we are bidden in Holy Writ to apply to the judges for the time being in matters of controversy, of whatever kind they may be  “matters of contest within thy gates” (Deut. xvii. 8). But at last the judges themselves were but the expounders of the Bible; and if now there are those among us who wish to make our faith nugatory by introducing philosophical deductions of reason, mere human reason, instead of what God has taught, it is evidently our business not to accept this philosophy of Judaism, or rather Judaism dressed up in the vain trappings of Aristotle of old, or Hegel of the present day, without seeing well and carefully whether it squares exactly with the words according to which our ancient judges pronounced judgment and delivered into our hands the doctrines which they had themselves received.

We acknowledge that this in a measure opens the way for private judgment of the Bible; but it is not an arbitrary carrying into the text whatever each individual may wish it to convey, but an inquiry into the nature of any proposition which is laid before us for acceptance. It certainly requires a certain amount of previous study and training to enable a person to carry on this investigation; and it may be presumptuous in any one to offer himself as a guide in the premises; but if the opinions are given with moderation, without the pride of a teacher who throws off his dicta which must be received under some indefinite penalty, and if good reasons are assigned for the judgment thus timidly presented to the world, no injury can result to the cause of truth, if even one as humble as the writer of this essay ventures to propound his views in a department where the greatest intellects of all civilized nations have contended for the <<270>>meed of approbation, in their alleged contest for what is right and true.

Let us turn to Deut. xiii. 1, and we shall find this great principle laid down as our guide in all things: “All the word which I command you, this shall you observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, and shalt not diminish therefrom.” This evidently says that all Scripture is fundamental; the whole or none is to be received as a standard, and by it alone must everything be judged. As a commentary to the great principle thus authoritatively laid down, the great prophet continues to give us three distinct ordinances with regard to a deviation, either in teachers, friends, or people, from the standard of the law. From verse 2 to 6 we have the manner of proceeding with a prophet, either actual or pretended, who advises the worship of strange gods of whatever kind, and he supposes even a case where such a deceiver should be empowered to work a miracle or give an extraordinary sign or token in confirmation of his false mission. In either case we are told, “Thou shalt not listen to the words of this prophet or this dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God but proveth you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

And he next adds: “After the Lord your God shall ye walk, and him shall ye fear: also his commandments shall ye observe, and to his voice shall ye hearken, him shall ye serve, and to him shall ye adhere.” The punishment of the deceiver with the highest penalty known to the laws is next ordained, and the reason assigned is that the delinquent meant to inflict on his hearers the greatest possible injury, which is the forsaking of the true way of life which the Lord God has commanded us to walk in. From v. 7 to 12 we have the mode of proceeding in case a relative or friend should appeal to us to swerve from God, either from affection or any other cause; again we are told that we should have no pity; the criminal is not to be screened by our love for him, or the long existing ties between us; for the duties to the Supreme should outweigh all earthly considerations. From v. 13 to 19 is the law with regard to an entire city which should, through the advice of wicked men, become an apostate to the law of our Father: <<271>>in which case we are told that, in order to prevent the evil from spreading, all contained therein should be doomed to fire and the sword, as it is better that the perishable should perish at once, sooner than the existence of evil should remain unchecked, and spread by the power of contagion over the yet healthy portions of the body politic.

As a farther amplification of this ordinance we may turn to the eighteenth chapter of the same book, where we will find the promise of the spirit of prophecy to be dispensed to those in whom the Lord may find pleasure, and deputize them to go abroad as the teachers of his people, and their guides to the highest spiritual excellence. We read: “For the nations which thou shalt drive out listen to the observers of clouds and conjurers; but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not given thee the like. A prophet from thy midst, from thy brothers, like unto me, will the Lord thy God raise up unto thee,—to him shall ye listen. All as thou didst ask of the Lord thy God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, I wish no more to hear the voice of the Lord my God, and this great fire I desire no more to see, lest I die.” Without entering deeply into the question, we may readily see that God here told us, that we should not practise superstitious rites for the sake of diving into futurity or uncovering hidden things. But if it would please Him that we should know the future, or the hidden present, He would send unto us a man like Moses, inspired by higher wisdom, and infallible in speaking the truth.

We had, ourselves, all been made such prophets when we stood in one grand national assembly, drawn out in the mighty array of an entire people, making a covenant of everlasting obedience with the Lord of all, who promised at that time to be our protector, and to permit us to call Him our God, thus “the Lord Eternal, the God of Israel;” we all had heard the words which embodied the whole essence of the truth necessary for the well-being of society, and which teach us, at a single glance, the main principle of Divine worship, as well as the nature of the existence of the Deity; still we had also felt the weakness of human nature, when thus confronted, so to say, with the Majesty of Heaven; we had sunk, in our own feeling, <<272>>into our proper insignificance; the glory before us was too great for our endurance; and hence the reluctance of the masses to witness again what no human eye had seen before their time. We begged, therefore, that He who knows the heart might vouchsafe to select a messenger, from time to time, to tell us what the Lord had said, which we then would obey and do. Was this request unreasonable? Vain mortals might say that those who feared, themselves, to be taught by the highest Wisdom, could not merit any farther light; but he who knows our frame, judged not in this wise, but promised to do according to our words, receiving the wish for godliness as the highest offering which we could present for his acceptance.

The mission of the prophets was therefore accorded; but, observe, they were to be like Moses, sons of Israel, mortal teachers, men of the people, only elevated above them by the possession of a higher piety, and more extensive mental endowments, and they were to speak according to the law of God as revealed in the presence of the nation, and as it was afterwards perfected by the subsequent commands given to the father of the prophets.

Therefore says the text: “And the Lord said to me, They have done well in what they have spoken. A prophet will I raise up unto them from the midst of their brethren, like unto thee, and I will place my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all which I shall command him.” What this can possibly be, in its general nature at least, not in the particular message for each time, we have been shown in ch. xiii. 1, &c. Therefore the Bible demands of us, with justice, that we shall punish the presumptuous prophet who shall dare to speak a word in God’s name which God has not commissioned him to speak, or who should speak in the name of other gods than the Lord of Israel. The event of non-fulfilment of the prediction is the test of the falsehood when the prophet utters anything in the name of God, or when it is evidently in contradiction to the received revelation; for this must be indicated by the double expression ולא יהיה הדבר ולא יבא, “And the thing cannot be nor will come to pass;” that which cannot be is what contravenes the Scriptures, and that which cannot come to pass is a false prediction, which no event can verify.

This now simply was the object of the mission of the prophets to confirm the people in our religion as received at Horeb, and to foretell those events which it behooved us to know for our hope and our guidance.

This, however, proves the position with which we started, that whatever is taught by the prophets must be accepted as true for belief and conduct by all Israelites. We demanded instruction, first, from the mouth of the Most High, immediately, without the intervention of messenger or prophet, that is, a man sent to the people to speak to them in behalf of the one who sent him he was called therefore נביא Nahbée, which is synonymous with orator, speaker, or reciter of verses, for instance, in Exodus iv. 10, Moses excuses himself for his unwillingness to undertake his great message to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to demand the libera­tion of the Israelites, upon the plea that he could not speak fluently, being both a stammerer and slow in speech, otherwise; the same is repeated in substance when in Egypt he was ordered again to appear before the king, when he was told (vii. 1), “Behold I have made thee a god (chief, superior, judge) unto Pharaoh, and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet נביאך,” which was explained, Exod. iv. 16, “He shall serve thee as a mouth,” or one who should speak for him.

So also in 1 Samuel ix. 9, we read: “Anciently it was custom in Israel when a man went to inquire of God he used to say, Come and let us go as far as the seer ראה; for the prophet נביא of the present time was anciently called seer” Ro-ay. We have, therefore, full evidence that the term Nahbée did not signify an inspired man, at the time of Samuel, but must have signified either an orator, poet, or a person who recited the religious lessons which were taught in the schools, probably established by Samuel, or at least under his patronage. This will appear as a correct explanation of 1 Sam. x. 5: “After this thou (Saul) wilt come to the hill of God where there are the outposts of the Philistines; and it shall be as thou comest there to the city thou wilt meet a company of Nebeeim (prophets, or rather poets, reciter) going down from the altar-height, and before them will be a psaltery, tabret, flute, and harp, and they shall be reciting (מתנבאים); and there shall rest upon <<274>>thee a spirit of the Lord, and thou shalt speak with them, and thou shalt be changed to another man.”

In verse 11, in speaking of the fulfilment of Samuel’s prediction, we are told that those who knew Saul previously, said to one another, “What is this that hath happened unto the son of Kish; is Saul too among the poets?” The term Han-nebeeim used cannot mean among the prophets proper, as in that case the word used, haro-im, the seers, as that was the proper designation of inspired men in those days.

There are other passages which could be cited to prove that the word in question had often the meaning here spoken of; but it is of no doctrinal use to carry the argument farther; as all we wanted to say is that when we first left Egypt we earnestly wished to be taught without an intermediate agent; but when this wish had been once gratified, we requested, in the second place, to have a human messenger to speak to us the message, which he was to receive from the Most High (Exodus xx. 19). The elevated and elegant language of prophetic inspiration merely added dignity, to the words which the faithful servants of God were to communicate, but was by no means necessary to stamp them with the seal of truth or authority. This was entirely owing to the nature of the ideas they had to convey; and that we find the most beautiful language which ever flowed from human lips in the writings of Moses, Isaiah, Micah, and others, only proves, that in choosing his servants, the Lord selected those whom the world even had to acknowledge as the most deserving, cultivated, and intelligent among their fellow-men.

In this twofold instruction, first direct and then indirect, we have accordingly an undeviating standard of truth presented to us. For we have a means of comparison by which all we may hereafter hear can be actually and faithfully compared. It is not to be supposed, even on the score of mere human reason, that God would employ so much impressiveness and pomp to instruct an entire people without the intervention of an agent, unless He meant to lay down permanent rules and principles, which should be unalterable from their very nature, however the details, or minor observances to be enforced under the rule of the great constitution thus made known, might be liable to <<275>>changes thereafter as his wisdom might dictate.

For instance, the first precept, “I am the Lord thy God;” which enjoins the belief in the existence of the Deity, according to our received opinion, and we have the best reasons for the correctness of our construction, as without any other argument we may allege that the verse (Exodus xx. 1) “And God spoke all these words, saying,” is the preface, not the next succeeding one—we say, that this first precept must either be true always, or it never could have been. We are told to acknowledge our God, who had proved to us his existence. What can subsequent events or ages add to this truth? can they increase his power, and can they augment his happiness? or on the other hand, what can subsequent events or ages do to lessen this truth? can they take away any of his prerogatives? can they circumscribe at pleasure his omnipotence? The proposition must be absurd to the commonest understanding; we, therefore, say with justice, that herein we have a degree of comparison to prove the soundness of any system with respect to its ideas concerning the existence of God. For we may say, that if its ideas are identical with ours, they are of course correct, being the same; but if they diverge in the least, if they invest God with attributes of humanity, give Him an associate, render Him fallible, unfaithful, or whatever would derogate from his pre-eminent purity and goodness, they must be false and unsound, and cannot, therefore, be received by us; or else we would be compelled to assume that we were always wrong, or what is the same, that we were erroneously taught by God himself concerning his own being at the time he vouchsafed to be himself our teacher: and who will maintain so absurd a proposition ?

(To be continued.)