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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 14

The Jewish Commonwealth.

It will be self-evident to every one, who but glances at the Decalogue, that its precepts are the foundation of the whole Mosaic law. If we search through all the statutes of this code, they can be traced to one or more of the precepts of the Decalogue; and thus it will be seen, that though but ten commandments were made known to the Israelites without a mediator, it may yet be said that all the remaining civil, moral, and ceremonial ordinances are contained and comprehended in them, and it may therefore be maintained, that to a certain extent the whole law was communicated to the whole Israelitish nation. — As an illustration of this let us consider the duties towards God, as we find them detailed in Deuteronomy, in connection with the first precept.

If it is once solemnly impressed upon our minds that we owe our being and our preservation to the Almighty Creator, Who liveth for everlasting, and Who reigns through all eternity, we must be impressed with feelings of awe at His greatness, with sentiments of admiration at His wisdom, and with gratitude for His kindness and mercy. All this will lead us to adore and love this great Being, who shows us kindness when we act righteously; defends us from danger and injury, when we are menaced; and forgives us our transgressions, when we repent of our errors. Have we thus established the love of God in our hearts, we will naturally desire to do something, by which we can manifest our love, and to let our feelings be displayed in our actions. But as we can neither injure God by our misconduct, nor benefit Him by any thing we can accomplish, since He is so far elevated above us in power and beatitude: we can do nothing else in requital of His goodness, we can show our love in no other manner, save by listening with profound attention to His instruction, which is contained in the revelation He has given, and regulating our lives by the records of His will.

This idea is beautifully illustrated in the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy, commencing at the twelfth verse. There is not perhaps in the whole Bible, though full of passages strikingly grand for their beauty and force, not another passage more calculated to awaken religious awe in the soul of man, than the one we are speaking of. It places before our eyes the relative position which man bears to his Maker in the strongest light. God is exhibited as the greatest conceivable being, in possession of the immensity of space, and of every thing animate and inanimate contained therein; man among this infinity is almost nothing; and still he is told, that his case, his life, and his wants are objects of importance to the Deity, from whom nothing is hidden, be it ever so insignificant. Further, that obedience, love of God, and justice and kindness towards others, are deeds which will propitiate the favor of the infinite One, and that this exhibition of piety is a thing desired of man. Who will not now be willing, so to say, to oblige the Creator? Who would withhold obedience, when man can gain to great a prize by it? But I need not comment on a passage so very lucid in itself, and will present it therefore entire to the reader, and let him compare it with the idea advanced, that through the whole Bible the same chain of thoughts and precepts is continually kept in view.

Moses had been reminding the Israelites in a preceding part of the address he held to them a short time before his death, of the many benefits they had received from God, and how often He had pardoned their sins; and then proceeded to say:

"And now, O Israel! What does the Eternal, thy God, ask of thee, but to fear Him, the Lord thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Him, the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul; to observe the commandments of the Lord, and His statutes, which I command thee this day, that thou mayest fare well. — Behold the heaven, and the heaven of heavens belong to the Eternal thy God, also the earth, and all that is upon it. Only in thy ancestors did the Lord find pleasure, and He therefore chose their descendants after them, namely you, from all the nations, as you see this day. Lay then aside all wickedness of heart, and be no longer stubborn and disobedient. For the Eternal, your God, is the God of gods, and the Lord of lords; the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who respects no face, and receives no bribe; who rights the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, to give him food and clothes. And love you the stranger, for you yourselves have been strangers in Egypt. — The Eternal thy God thou shalt fear, Him thou shalt serve, to Him thou shalt adhere, and by His name thou shalt swear; He is thy Glory, and He is thy God, who has done for thee these great and wonderful things, which thy own eyes have seen."

If we mortals now only considered how much we owe to God, that He not alone gave us existence, but also a law, to make this existence beneficial to ourselves: should we not of our own accord, and even without the certainty of punishment for transgression, be diligent in the study of His law, careful in the observance of His statutes, in short dedicate our whole life to His glory? And how are we commanded to act? To imitate God in His acts of mercy, as far as we can. Is He merciful? So shall we be too — is He good to all mankind? So shall our love to the human race be universal, and not confined to any particular sect — Does He show us benevolence without any possibility of remuneration? So ought our charity to be, proceeding from feelings of love, pity, and goodness of heart, but should never be practiced for the sake of fame or reward — Does He teach the world how to act rightly? So shall we also be ever ready to diffuse the knowledge of truth and of our holy law; in fine, to be loving God and be perfect means to practice universal charity! How then can the freethinker, or even the atheist, ridicule our law as superstitious and injurious to society, when he sees the love of the stranger and the protection of those who need our protection, enjoined at the same time with the observance of the ceremonial law (statutes of God)? Let me tell him, that we think not that man good, who says his prayers at the appointed time, is a regular attendant at the place of worship, but is unmindful of the duties towards man; but only him we call a good and pious man, who besides being a devout observer of the laws relating to the worship of God alone, is also a philanthropist, and protects the orphan, is kind to the widow, comforts the distressed, is charitable as far as lies in his power to the poor, and is liberal, and just, and forgiving to the affluent. — I cannot stop to quote passages for every part of the foregoing assertions, since the Mosaic law is so replete with exhortations and injunctions on these points, that they are to be met with in almost every chapter; it is moreover my hope that every one, who reads this defense, may be induced to read the Pentateuch through with profound attention, and long quotations can be of but little use, not to say tiresome, to most readers.

If we take the foregoing in connection with the five last precepts of the Decalogue, it will be apparent, that our law is very careful in guarding the rights of every person of the community, from the chief of the nation down to the humble stranger who has no permanent dwelling. The rights of every individual are so well defined, that no misunderstanding can take place. — When we yet had a government of our own, every man was in fact upon an equality with the most exalted of the nation, and the governors were raised to the dignity they possessed only by the choice or consent of their fellow-citizens. The Israelites exercised the right of meeting in primary assemblies, without permission of government, and of discussing public matters, also of petitioning their governors for the redress of grievances, long before a republican constitution of that kind was known amongst other nations. (See 1st Kings, chap. xii.) Every Jew was eligible to any office he was capable of filling, with the exception of the service at the altar, and the watches in the temple, and singing whilst the sacrifices were offered. But even here the Israelites proper had a share, as well as the priests and the Levites. For besides the twenty-four divisions of the two latter, there were representatives chosen from among all Israel, who, being likewise divided in twenty-four companies, were obliged to stand by, whilst the sacrifices were going forward. These men were selected from the most wise and virtuous, and were called אנשי מעמד (Anshe mangamahd). — Although none but the male Levites were allowed to sing the psalms in the temple, yet were the Israelites, and even females, permitted to accompany the singers with instrumental music. So that even in the temple worship and the sacrifices, each of the three divisions had their particular rights assigned to them, which were on no account to be invaded or usurped by the other.

It has been intimated, that the institutions of the republic of the North American confederacy are of modern invention; but this cannot be admitted as altogether founded on fact, for the Mosaic code was evidently intended to form a republic of freemen, who were all equally entitled to protection from the government. The government of the Jews was in the strictest sense of the word a government of laws, and not of arbitrary rule. It is true, our constitution is not the work of the people themselves; but then it has that advantage over every other yet invented, that its laws have never, to this very day, required the slightest amendment or repealing, as it is well known, that the wisdom of every precept it contains has been proved by the experience of every age. It is almost needless to compare our laws with those of the other nations of antiquity, for none of them ever enjoyed any rational liberty; and besides it is, if I do not err, universally admitted, that truly free governments have only been formed among nations, who enjoyed, at least to a certain extent, the light of revelation. And the late French revolution proves, more than any argument I can adduce, that no nation can be free, which has not a proper respect for the Mosaic code; and the virtuous republic of Switzerland as clearly demonstrates, that a people truly regardful of the word of God must ever be free, for a thorough knowledge of it is the best safeguard any nation can devise for the upholding of its liberty and the crushing of tyranny, whenever it should dare to rear its dreadful and blighting head. — But without religion liberty soon degenerates into frenzied licentiousness, and instead of a government founded on reason and equal rights, despotism and the spirit of faction will govern the land with a bloody sceptre and unrelenting oppression!

Though properly speaking it does not belong to a defence of our law to describe our judiciary system; yet can I not refrain from inserting a few particulars in relation thereto. — Money matters were decided by arbitrators, chosen by the parties themselves, each appointing one, and these two selecting a third; and these three, thus chosen, pronounced judgment; but appeal could be taken, or rather contested points of law and equity could be carried before the high court or Sanhedrin of seventy-one in Jerusalem. In matters of corporeal punishment, or trials for life and death, the number of judges was twenty-three, and if there was but a majority of one vote for finding the criminal guilty, he was forthwith to be set free, as a division of thirteen to ten was necessary for the conviction and condemnation of the accused. If a man was once condemned, his sentence could be revised to save him from death; but if a man was once acquitted, though there should afterwards have been found the most positive evidence of his guilt, he could not be tried again for the same offense.

We thus find some of the provisions of the laws of the American republic practiced already three thousand years ago. — Every contested point of law of whatever description, civil, criminal, or ceremonial, was finally decided upon by the Sanhedrin, and their decision was to be strictly obeyed. (See Deut. chap. xvii. v.11.) To establish any cause, it was necessary to produce at least two lawful witnesses, who were obliged to testify as to the fact, that they had seen it, and forewarned the person who committed the act, previously to his doing so, or admonished him to desist while engaged in the supposed crime. They were interrogated separately, so that one should give no clue to the other; in this way any discrepancy in the testimony must have been easily detected, in which case, if the difference was a material one, the accused was acquitted. In case the witnesses could be convicted of having offended against the ninth precept of the Decalogue, they were to be punished with the same punishment the person by them accused would have suffered if he had been convicted; and no pardon durst be extended to false witnesses (Deut. chap. xix. v.21). — No man could act as judge, if he had seen any crime committed, or in money matters, if he was capable of giving testimony for or against either party; even the president of the Sanhedrin, emphatically called the judge (chief justice), could not sit on the bench, but was obliged to give his evidence before the inferior judges; so that every case must necessarily have had a fair hearing, and every man accused of crime an impartial trial.

I have said that no rational liberty was enjoyed by any heathen people, and thinking that some proof may be required of me for this bold and unqualified assertion, I shall take the liberty of comparing a few points of Solon's laws, which are, I believe, the most liberal of the ancient systems, with those of Moses, whose fate it has been to be so much cried down and denounced. Every liberal man will agree with me, that it is dangerous to entrust one class of men with particular privileges over any other class of the came community, or to use the figurative language of a great philosopher and statesman now dead, "to provide the backs of one class of the community with saddles, that they may be ridden by the more favored class." — If Solon's laws had this tendency, then I hope, that their superiority over our laws will no longer be asserted by any man, whose boast it is to be the supporter of universal liberty and equality of rights.

I shall not waste much space and time in investigating the subject at any great length, but shall content myself with picking up a few facts, as I find them related in Gillies; Greece (vol. ii. p.93 and 94). He says, the Athenians were divided into four classes according to the property they possessed, and that the lowest class, though they had a right to vote in the popular assemblies, yet could never become members of the senate or Areopagus, or hold any magistracy whatever. Now let me ask, what great use was the power of voting to the commons, when the senators had the extraordinary authority of deciding what business should be laid before the popular assemblies? And had they not the right of convoking these very assemblies? Then again the senators had the power of passing laws, which were in force for a whole twelvemonth, without even consulting the people at all about them; they possessed the chief part of the executive power; the senate alone could build ships, equip fleets and armies, and seize and confine state criminals; and to crown all, they could examine and punish several offenses, which were not prohibited by any positive law! — I am not disposed to pursue the subject any further, not being engaged in writing a dissertation on the Athenian laws; but let me respectfully ask all Americans, who have so justly a great horror of all ex post facto laws and constructive treason, how they would like to have their representatives in congress invested with power to examine and punish offenses not prohibited by any particular law? — Away then with the cant of these men, who prefer Solon's laws to Moses's code, solely because Solon was a Greek and Moses a Hebrew, and claimed no merit for those excellent laws, made known through him, because he said, and said truly, that they were not the fruit of his own invention, but the expression of the will of God! I had thought, that the world had grown too liberal and too enlightened to act so foolishly from ignorance; to what cause then are we to ascribe that silly praising of the Greek and Roman legislators and the rancorous abuse of the Jewish code? Is it malice? Hatred towards the Jews and aversion to individuals belonging to other nations, what can be said in exculpation of those of our own people, who act the parricide by ridiculing Moses and despising his code? It must be considered equally improper, as for a person to be pleased with every thing abroad, and to find fault with every thing at home, solely because it is at home. And it may be likened to the conduct of fretful and too much indulged children, who spurn every endearment of their own mother, but are pleased to excess with the most useless and trifling toy from the hands of a stranger. — But is such conduct becoming men and philosophers, who say they search for truth? Shame! Shame! Remember that you have not all the wisdom and all the knowledge to yourselves, and you would therefore do well to draw some lessons from that book, which confessedly contains the best code of laws, ever devised for the government of mankind.

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