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Dr. Wise and his Congregation


Under this head we gave, in our last number, some remarks of our own concerning the reported doctrinal defects of Dr. Isaac M. Wise, the letter of the President of his congregation, and a statement made under oath before a Notary Public at Charleston, concerning some public declaration made by Dr. Wise, pending a controversy held between Dr. Raphall and Mr. Poznanski. All the characters in the case are sufficiently well known to the generality of our readers to make it evident that we very reluctantly opened the Occident for any such a publication; not that we do not condemn the neological notions of an impersonal Messiah, and the affirmation of a mere belief in the immortality of the soul in contradistinction to the resurrection of the dead, but be<<307>>cause, first, we feel a high regard for Dr. Wise and his talents, so greatly developed as they are in a comparatively very young man, and were hence unwilling to give him pain by any agency of ours; and secondly, because we foresaw that other statements would be drawn into the defence and replication, which have nothing to do with the doctrinal controversy in question. Any one acquainted with the course of public business among American congregations, as the editor of this magazine is, knows, at first sight of any dispute, that not always the best motives are the basis of an apparent earnest zeal for religion and the welfare of the people.

How matters stand in the present case is not difficult to decipher. There are parties in the Albany congregation—one a reformist, the other professing to be orthodox. Now, the friends of Dr. Wise allege that Mr. Spanier, the president, and others, have a personal ill-will to Dr. Wise, not because he is a reformer, but because he boldly reproved the gross conduct of some men, whom he has thus provoked, and Mr. S. wishing the office vacated for some relative of his own. This is the sum of the allegation of the reverend doctor’s friends, that it is not religious zeal, but a mere personality, which has elicited the appeal to the public in the Occident and the Asmonean. They communicate to us certain doings of the editor of the latter paper, which we do not choose to publish, as we mean not to interfere with our cotemporary, for we should at once be taxed with wishing to injure him, for the sake of increasing our circulation, a charge which we do not care just now to bring down on us.

But the acts of baseness (which, if true, ought to cover the perpetrators with everlasting infamy) alleged to have been committed against Dr. Wise, do not unfortunately contradict the statement which we laid before the public. They only prove that the doctor is an ill-used man, and by no means clear up the difficulty of the case. To our apprehension, Dr. W. would have stood in a glorious light, could he, in the face of the persecution, for so Mr. Beckel’s letter to us exhibits the case, have been able to prove that nothing could be alleged against his views regarding Judaism, that no appeal could possibly be made from the majority of his congregation to the people at large. It is confessed that four-fifths of the Beth-El Kahal are strenuous supporters of Dr. Wise.

When lately he returned from Charleston, where he had been elected as minister of the reform congregation, he was urged by a large number to remain at Albany, and the sum of two hundred dollars voted in addition to his former salary. The President, we are told, declared that the treasury was not able to afford it; but the <<308>>members, by a voluntary subscription, at once contributed the sum required. This proves how strong the attachment of the people towards their pastor, a feeling honourable alike to both parties.

When now, in the face of this, a conspiracy is batched up against the Rabbi, for such is Dr. W. in his flock, because he has in the lawful exercise of his authority prohibited the people from eating of the killing of the former Shochet, whom he had suspended for causes which he deems sufficient, in which, to confess the truth, if we are correctly informed, we entirely coincide with him; when he is dragged before a court of law on a suit for damages for doing duty in the premises boldly and fearlessly: we say that those who have been active in such procedures deserve the condemnation of all right-thinking Israelites; for these acts cannot be justified by any plea of heterodoxy, for that must stand on its own ground.

If, in addition, it be true, as reported to us, that a man in authority attempted to stop Dr. W. in his functions, by merely informing him that he had been suspended, and then to prevent him delivering a sermon as is his custom, we must unhesitatingly pronounce our utter abhorrence of such unauthorized acts. The minister, whoever he be, is not a hired servant to be dismissed at a moment’s warning, or to be browbeaten and ordered about by the civil officers of the congregation. What business has the President, in a common-sense view, with the pulpit or the reading-desk? Let him preserve order, see that decency prevails during worship; and with that he ought to be satisfied. If it unfortunately should happen that either Rabbi, Reader, or Minister merits being suspended or removed, the sentence, if there be one, ought to be communicated to him before the service commences, nay, before the Sabbath and holy day, for these should be should be devoted to mental no less than bodily rest; and why should the persons who perform the highest functions known to our religion be the only ones excluded from the joy in the Lord which the sacred days are primarily intended to promote?

No error of Dr. Wise, we assert, can justify any such outrage, and we deeply regret, we almost blush, to be compelled to make the statement, that this should have occurred in a congregation professing to be Israelites, and more yet, that when the people thought proper to vindicate the honour of the man they had elected—wisely or unwisely is not the question, he being at all events the man in whom they had confidence—by an appeal to the laws of the country to protect him against the recurrence of the like indignity, a man who is said to be a Parnass of one of the New York city congregations, on being asked by the <<309>>court, “Is it customary with the Jews to abuse their ministers in such a manner could answer, “Yes, sir, we do not care about our ministers; we just as leave abuse them as not.”

What can the world—what can Jews themselves think about the manner in which our ministers are regarded, if a public statement, like this, could be made by one who is in authority, who does no doubt think himself elevated far above the preacher and expounder of the word of God; for is the latter not merely a scholar? does he not receive a salary? “O, vain man, dressed in brief little authority!” might we justly exclaim; and how long since is it that scholarship is of no value? that the fortuitous election to preside over the business affairs of the people confers the authority to insult those whom the law of God declares shall be honoured and obeyed in their teaching? and how can their teaching be obeyed, if they are degraded into the servile tools of civil power? If such should unfortunately become the general sentiment of the people, no one ought to assume the station of public teacher; and far more honourably and usefully would the man of learning be employed to dig the field for a bare subsistence than to expose himself to be abused at pleasure. But we are happy that these degrading views are not participated in by all congregations, though in most, the respect usually shown to the spiritual leaders is not equal to what Christians do under similar circumstances, nor what of right it ought to be, irrespective of what is done by others than Israelites.

Dr. Wise’s friends farther claim for him, that he has brought a chaotic body of men coming from every part of Germany, without feelings in common, and animated by sectional prejudices, into union, so as to form a respectable congregation of one hundred and fifty members. That his preaching is energetic, and full of holy fire and instruction. That many have been brought to respect the Sabbath and the other sacred days, whereas formerly they were indifferent to the Lord’s rest. That not content with the learning he acquired in Europe, in the cities of Prague, Pressburg and Mantua, he devotes his nights to study to an extent which induced those who value him to remonstrate with him on his over-exertions. That he has laboured faithfully and well to propagate instruction among the children, and that he is the main stay of the congregational school, which is flourishing notwithstanding the late deplorable occurrences All this, we confess, tells well and much in praise, of our fellow-labourer’s great usefulness, and it should induce his opponent “to be to his faults a little blind,” if even they cannot extend kindness to his qualities.

Now, as to the subjects properly at issue, Dr. Wise acknowledges that he did answer “no” to the question respecting the resurrection of the body; he does think the matter involved in obscurity as developed in the Talmud, but is willing to admit himself in the wrong if convinced of error. Now we deem that we can find enough of Biblical reasons without resorting to the Talmud to prove the doctrine to be a revealed truth, and we trust that we shall be enabled to establish this in the future; this month we merely give the commencement of the discussion, and hope to continue it in connexion with the coming of a personal Messiah in future numbers. As regards the coming of the son of David we will quote the words of Dr. W. in a letter to us: “That I answered no to the question on תחית המתים is true; but according to the best of my memory I cannot say that a question on the Messiah was asked or answered at all. I lectured on that subject several times, but none of those signed to the certificate were present. The restoration of Israel was never doubted, even by honest Christians; but the משיח (Messiah) as described by the Talmud, and as living in the imagination of the pious ancient Jew, cannot be found in the Bible. I cannot find it; but if anybody can show me this משיח in the prophets, I am ready to yield and not before. I write now on this subject, and thus try my utmost to find this renowned personage in the Bible, but I cannot find it; I should be very much obliged to anybody who will find it for me in the Bible.”

So far so good; Dr. Wise distinctly says that he cannot find the personal redeemer alluded to in Scripture; but is willing to adopt the belief if it can be made clear from Scripture, we should judge solely, as he excepts to the imaginings concerning this point by the pious ancient Jew. Well, we are ready to adopt the challenge, and have therefore commenced the discussion in the Occident by laying down our premises, which, as the reader will perceive, are solely Scriptural. It may appear utterly presumptuous in us to accept the challenge not alone against Doctor Wise, who at all events is honest and bold in his avowal, and does not shrink from publicly stating his opinions, but against a whole school of our neologists, who imagine that nothing better can happen than a universal diffusion of the monotheistic idea among all mankind; but in the present instance diffidence would be quite misplaced, for an advocate of Judaism, the belief of the ancient pious Jew, must not fear to meet its opponents, from whatever quarter they may come.

We promise Dr. Wise one thing, that having no personal feelings against him, least of all men living, and always abhorring personalities, we shall conduct our part of the discussion in an abstract <<311>>manner, taking up the subject point by point, as though it were entirely a new inquiry, on which not a word had been written before; and thus elicit the truth as nearly as we can do it. We shall be ready to accede him all possible space for a reply and to state his objections, and we at the same time are willing to allow those thinking with him to come to his aid, whilst we invite the orthodox also to assist us, as it surely is more commendable to teach than denounce without giving any reason except that of authority, which is not a very cogent convincing proof in the present age of the world.

In the letter referred to from Dr. W.’s friends, our remarks introducing the certified statement of Messrs. Hart, Rosenfeld, and Valentine, are characterized as in a measure lending our aid to destroy one of the few men of intellect of our nation in this country, and that what we said was not a very flattering comment on our worthy friend. We appeal to our readers whether we said the least personal of Dr. W., and whether if it had been any thing else but a doctrinal subject, the article would have found a place in the Occident. We unhesitatingly say, no; if there is a personal difference between a part of a congregation and its minister, the public press is not the medium for its discussion; the meeting room of the people is far better calculated, especially if the minister has so large a majority in his favour, and his opponents are as represented, the least important.

And even as regards doctrinal differences we deem the press useful only to discuss them, so as to excite an examination of the question, and to give the delinquent an opportunity to alter his views upon conviction, or if this be impossible, to warn the people, and to caution them against the adoption of error preached by those in authority. There may be instances where an appeal to the public is quite admissible, where a great wrong has been unjustly suffered; but in the present instance, though we must condemn unhesitatingly the conduct of the president, if the statement submitted to us is true in every respect, still we cannot avoid saying on the other side that the minister is even more to blame for adopting neological doctrines, which the pious and ancient Jews deem subversive of their religion. We pity him that with all his learning he has not been able to discover the truth of Maimonides’ creed; but he ought to have asked others to enlighten him, if this be possible, before he differed so widely from the great luminary whom he himself so highly and so justly reveres. Perhaps he makes also a difference between Rambam the philosopher and the religious teacher; we for our part should grieve to see any cause for such a distinction in that great character; his silence, should it actually exist, in his Moreh, with respect to the two doctrines in question <<312>>can only be owing to their not belonging to his inquiries into the nature of absolute religion, and not to any philosophical doubt in the premises.

In conclusion, we must again repeat our regret at the space this article occupies in our pages; but we could not refuse admitting the complaints of Dr. Wise’s friends, and in justice we must also defend our own position from the assumption of having done him any wrong; and sure we are, that in his own mind, Dr. W. acquits us of all blame.