Home page Jews and the Mosaic Law Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library Shopping Mall of Zion AHAVA Hero Products 250x250


The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Essay III

To "A Professor of Christianity."

You will easily believe me, that I received much real satisfaction from reading your reply to that part of my "remarks": in which I asserted, that not one single moral doctrine was for the first time taught in the gospels; as you have so well preserved that gentle spirit of forbearance, which should characterize generous opponents, who are both aiming for the attainment of truth. If your conduct in life corresponds with your sentiments as avowed in your reply, (of which, however, I have no doubt,) I shall be very glad to hail you as a friend, and extend to you the right hand of fellowship, though we differ in our religious opinions. — You shall, therefore, receive that courtesy from me which you have displayed; and I beg of you to consider none of my strictures as personal; for although you are altogether unknown to me, since I have never heard your name even, I yet feel a high regard for a man so generous and mild. These being my sentiments, you may ask, why I should reply to you then? But please to consider, that thinking you had erred, I deem it necessary to remove the impression which you may have left upon the minds of the public concerning our religion, which is the more expedient at the present moment, as I understand that the subject under consideration has lately excited deep and universal interest throughout this city among the thinking and intelligent citizens.

In the first place then, you do us no more than justice to believe, that we can be good citizens and kind neighbors, no less so than the followers of the gospel, for this has been proved by the experience of ages; and I can assert, without the least fear of contradiction, that, wherever the Jew was kindly treated, whenever he received any benefit from a gentile, he was always ready to acknowledge the kindness of his benefactor; as ingratitude towards man is not a trait in our character, though we have frequently acted ungratefully towards the Deity, for which we even now suffer our punishment, in the dismemberment of our nation, and the loss of our land. But notwithstanding we have been gradually dispersed over the whole face of the earth after our expulsion from Palestine, we are nevertheless, emphatically speaking, Israelites, the same now, which we ever were; we possess the same laws, the same customs, nay, retain the same features even, which we had in our own land, and through all the revolutions and changes of time we have preserved our national identity. All the celebrated nations of antiquity have, I may say, moldered away, for there was no living principle in their constitutions; and in vain does the astonished traveller look for the people which built the Egyptian pyramids and temples; Greece and its ruins remind us that a wise and powerful nation once existed there; and Italy presents to the searching eye of the antiquary only the remains of a nation which once dictated laws to the whole civilized world. But though Palestine is no longer the land possessed by the people of God, yet can the true representatives of its ancient possessors be met with in every country, who are essentially one people, though scattered throughout all the countries of the earth; and their preservation as one nation is owing to the living principle of their constitution, a constitution given them as a special gift from their Maker. — All nations have ever admired this close bond of union existing amongst us, and the unanimity with which we have always, under every vicissitude, resisted any interference with our moral and religious duties; for on no account did we, or can we, suffer any stranger to advise us in any matter of conscience, if we deem his advice contrary to the standard of the Mosaic law.

For this our constancy we have been abundantly vilified, have been called obdurate Jews who wilfully resist the light of the gospel; and we have even been considered as inimical to the Christians, because we would not, could not, embrace Christianity. — I must confess, we are determined never to change our faith, and of course we must be considered by Christians enemies of their belief; but though I admit this, I utterly deny that we do think ourselves permitted by our religion to hate the Christians themselves; on the contrary, we believe ourselves bound to live in good fellowship with all men, no matter what their belief may be.

You seem to think, my dear friend, that the gospel has the superiority over the Mosaic law, in so far as the former commands universal love, while the latter prescribed love for the children of Israel alone. But is your position correct? Or is what you say true, that the Jews so understood the commandment: "And thou shalt love thy neighbor like thyself?" You say, the Jews must have interpreted the law so, as they had frequent wars with the surrounding nations, and they thought themselves obliged to slay the inhabitants and to plunder their property. — But pardon me, my friend, you have misunderstood the Jewish law, or you have forgotten the precepts of the Old Testament, The law relative to war is found in Deut. chap. xx. v.10-19 inclusive, and is in the following words:

"If thou comest nigh unto a city to make war against it, thou shalt proclaim peace unto it. And it shall happen, if it answer thee peace, and open unto thee, then all the people found therein shall be tributaries unto thee and serve thee. But if it will not make peace with thee, but will wage war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it; and when the Eternal thy God has delivered it into thy hands, thou mayest smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword; but the women, and children, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, namely, all the spoil thereof, thou shalt take unto thyself, and eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Eternal thy God has given thee, &c. &c."

I am well aware that my translation differs from the English version, as the English Bible says: "Thou shalt smite, &c." which I have rendered "mayest;" but I have preferred to adopt the interpretation of some of the Rabbins; and the passage thus rendered gives only a permission to slay the garrison, those capable of bearing arms, but forbids, on any account, to injure the women and children, who cannot participate in the war, from the nature of their weakness and dependence. I do not believe that any man can make any objection to the interpretation I have just given; and every one I trust will then acknowledge, that so far from our law allowing the massacre of the inhabitants of the countries at war with the Jews, it tended greatly to soften the rigors of war, as carried on in ancient times, since it prohibited the molestation of the women and children, when even in Christian countries the former are not always exempt from violence; and surely I need not bring examples from history to prove this, as, alas! examples are too often met with, and many scenes of violence have been enacted by warriors calling themselves Christians, which present instances of atrocity too horrible to be related.

A second enquiry presents itself: "Did the Jews think themselves bound to go to war with their neighbors, or was it only in cases of necessity that they were embroiled with other nations?" Without hesitation I answer: That war was considered amongst us as the greatest evil, and was only resorted to, to repel invasion, and to secure the peace of our boundaries. (For proof read the books of Samuel and Kings.) "But was not David a conqueror?" True he was; but was he the aggressor? Or rather, was he not forced to war by the Philistines, Edumeans, Syrians, and other nations? Did they not invade his country, and insult the ambassadors whom he had sent with a letter of condolence to the king of the children of Ammon? Was he to stand by and see Israel slaughtered, whom he was appointed to govern like the shepherd governs his flock? Was he permitted, I ask you, to see the wolves come amongst the flock and bear some of the unoffending sheep away? Was he, again, permitted to see the ambassadors of the people of God ill-treated by a barbarian king and his barbarian people? — And, to conclude my queries, did not the Almighty Protector of Israel sanction those enterprises by giving David success in all his undertakings? Can any human being believe, that God would be so partial, so unjust, as to give the Jews success when they went out beyond the borders of their land to pillage and slaughter their unoffending neighbors? — No! No! The divine Judge would not encourage such deeds even amongst his people, for all the world is His, and the life of one man is as dear to Him as the life of the other, and He is no respecter of persons, no favorer of the oppressor; but He is ever ready to save the weaker from the hands of him who is more powerful.

But you will say: "Were not the Jews a warlike people, lovers of strife and fight?" Again I answer, no; for we read in Levit. chap. xxvi. v.6: "And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will remove the evil beasts out of the land, and the sword shall not pass through your land." — And in the sixth chapter of Judges we find Deborah alluding to the great want of warlike instruments among the Israelites; and if a person reads the book of Judges, which comprises a history of three hundred years, he will discover, that war was a more uncommon occurrence among our ancestors than among any nation of antiquity, or even modern times! — But what I intend to prove is, that peace was considered by the Jews as the greatest blessing which the Almighty in His kindness could bestow upon them. This doctrine was taught them by the Mosaic law, since God promised them peace as a reward for their obedience to the divine will; and in the book of Judges we find, that whenever the Israelites were doing the will of Heaven, they had security and peace; but whenever they deviated, they were punished with war and desolation: and it is recorded, that God sent the surrounding nations to oppress them, as a punishment for their disobedience; and the Philistines, in particular, were for many years the oppressors of the Israelites, and were not subdued till the reign of David.

I hope, my dear friend, that I have proved to your and every candid man's conviction, that we [have] abhorred war, and thought it always a curse, and never considered it a pastime or an employment worthy of the generous and brave youths of Israel; whereas you no doubt know that, in the middle ages, Christians of every rank and age studied war as a science, and practiced it as a game for their daily diversion; and I suspect that the horrors of the tilt-yard occupy yet their due share in the history of chivalry.

But you may say: "That the Jews kept at peace with their neighbors from policy, from fear of consequences arising out of a state of war; that, however, towards individuals of the gentiles they were illiberal, thinking themselves not bound to love them." But if you will only examine the sacred books of the Mosaic law, I do not doubt that you will confess your error. We read in Exodus, chap. xxii. v.21: "Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Ibidem, chap. xxiii. v.9: "And thou shalt not oppress the stranger; and you well know how a stranger feels, for you have yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."

In Leviticus, chap. xix. we find the following:

v.33. "And if a stranger sojourn in your land with you, ye shall not vex him" — (neither vex him with words, nor do him actual wrong).

v.34. "But the stranger who dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born amongst you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God."

Here, then, my dear friend, you have a complete refutation of your opinion, that the Mosaic law did not enjoin universal love. Now do tell me, do you find any passage equally decisive with the foregoing, in any of the gospels? Can it now be said that the gospels have any superiority over the five books of Moses in this respect? But I will not rest here, and will go a little further, and tell you, that the Mosaic law looks even farther than your gospels in the protection of the oppressed part of mankind, namely the slave; for it is written, Deut. chap. xxiii. v.15 and 16: "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant who may escape unto thee from his master. He shall dwell with thee in the midst of thee, in any place which he may choose, in any one of thy gates, where it pleases him best; thou shalt not oppress him."

You may perhaps be disposed to confess that the Old Testament does contain the doctrines which I have advanced; but you will say that the Jews did not understand them so — in fact, you have partly said so already — you have asserted it, without proving it further than by referring to the general history of the Jews. You know, however, that it is very easy to make assertions; but they cannot stand unless supported by substantial proof. I will therefore first deny your assertion, and then bring proof of the truth of what I advance.

We all know that the temple which Solomon built was finished in the four hundred and eighty-seventh year after the promulgation of the law on mount Sinai; and of course we all must admit that the opinion at that time prevailing, concerning the meaning of any part of the law, must be considered as a pretty correct standard by which to ascertain the meaning the Israelites attached to the law, which was then, as it is now, our guide through life. It is a lamentable fact, that the Old Testament, particularly the historical part, is but little read by the Christians; and therefore do we find men of learning, nay, preachers, having an inadequate acquaintance with the sacred books of the Israelites. I will therefore transcribe a portion of Solomon's prayer in the temple at its dedication, as contained in the eighth chapter of the first book of Kings, v.37-43.

"If there be in the land famine, if there be pestilence, blasting, mildew, locust, or if there be caterpillar; if their enemy besiege them in the land of their cities; whatsoever plague, whatsoever sickness there be; what prayer and supplication soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house: then hear Thou in heaven Thy dwelling-place, and forgive, and do, and give to every man according to his ways, whose heart Thou knowest; (for Thou, even Thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men;) that they may fear Thee all the days that they live in the land which Thou gavest unto our fathers.

"Moreover, concerning a stranger, that is not of Thy people Israel, but cometh out of a far country for Thy name's sake, (for they shall hear of Thy great name, and of Thy strong hand, and of Thy stretched-out arm,) when he shall come and pray toward this house: hear Thou in heaven Thy dwelling-place, and do according to all that the stranger calleth to Thee for; that all people of the earth may know Thy name, to fear Thee, as do Thy people Israel; and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Thy name.: — (English version.)

I know very well that the last part would have been enough for my purpose; but I extracted the first one also, to show to those who may not be so well acquainted with the Bible, in what manner the wisest of men prayed for the nations who do not belong to Israel: he first prays that the Supreme Ruler may listen to the supplication of the penitent Israelite; and then, when he who is no son of Jacob comes to pray in the sincerity of his heart, because he has heard of the glory of God, he also may be graciously received, and have that granted unto him for which he has petitioned the throne of grace.

We find, in the second book of Kings, that Elisha healed the leper Naaman, though it is well known that the nation to which he belonged was frequently at war with the Israelites; thus we find him assisting not alone a gentile, but even an enemy. What, then, becomes of your assertion, that the Jews did not practice acts of universal benevolence? Let me advise you, my dear friend, to read the books of the Old Testament well before you venture on such dangerous ground again, as asserting things about us Jews which you might not be able to sustain with incontestable proof when called upon.

In support of your assertion concerning the beauty of the gospel, you introduce a few verses from the sermon on the mount, in the fifth chapter of Matthew. By do doing you have imposed upon me an invidious task, that of attacking in some manner the Christian religion, when I should have been very glad to have let the gospels rest. But I am now called upon to defend the tenets of my faith, and I dare not, therefore, shrink from the responsibility thus thrown upon me, although this happens without my desiring it.

Let me premise, that the religion we profess is divided into three parts; first, duties towards God; secondly, duties towards our fellow-men; and lastly, duties towards ourselves. The duties towards God require of us the belief in the Creator, confidence in His protection, hope in His salvation, and the observance of those statutes which He has made known to us as His law. The duties towards our fellow-men consist in acts of charity and benevolence, and in abstaining from injuring them in their persons, property, and honor. Duties towards ourselves are: self-preservation and self-defense; by which I mean, that first, we ought not to depend upon others for our support, if we are ourselves capable of earning a living; as it is beautifully said in the Proverbs of the Fathers: "Sweet is the learning of the law combined with labor, for to be engaged in both makes us abstain from sin;" and secondly, that we ought to be careful of preserving our health, and therefore any unnecessary exposure of ourselves is unlawful. Self-defense also demands of us to conduct ourselves so that we shall not be exposed to the hatred and violence of others; but if in spite of all our endeavors, we are molested and violently attacked, it is lawful to prevent our adversary from injuring us, (or even others,) and if he attempts to kill us, it is even permitted to slay him if we can prevent him in no other manner: in support of this position I refer you to Exod. chap. xxii. v.2.

Again, it is a settled point with us, that not one commandment, or part of a commandment, of the Mosaic law, was ever repealed, or can be repealed, except in the same manner as it was promulgated; that is, before the whole nation of Israel, in the same manner as the law was given on Sinai. These preliminaries are a sine qua non, without which no argument, however ingenious, can stand the test of Jewish criticism. Let us now apply this rule to the chapter of Matthew in question, to test its correctness. In the outset, he, whom the Christians call the Messiah (Christ), says himself: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill, &c. &c." Here, my dear Professor of Christianity, you have it from what you must think the highest authority, that the gospels must, in every particular, conform to the Mosaic writings, which, let me repeat, were given by the Author of all the government of Israel; and as you believe in revelation, you must acknowledge that these writings contain the best code of laws that can be devised. Well, then, when Matthew says: "Swear not at all," the Christian writers are puzzled how to explain it so as to reconcile it to the Mosaic law, which permits oaths under certain circumstances ("And by his name shalt thou swear"); the learned Doctor James Beattie, therefore, explains it, as if its meaning were "any unnecessary oath," which, however, can hardly be the intent of this passage. — What Matthew says in the same chapter from verse 38 to 41, I am bold to assert, has not been fulfilled by fifty men from all Christendom ever since Christianity was established; and if these doctrines were adopted as the general rule of society, every wicked person could with impunity despoil his unoffending neighbor; and let me ask you, can this be the will of God? For that purpose did He command the election of judges, if it were not to see the innocent righted? And have the Society of Friends, who, more than any other Christian sect, endeavor to obey the commandments under consideration, ever acted up to the letter of them?

In the forty-third verse of the same chapter Matthew says: "Ye have heard it has been said, thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy, &c." Now pardon me, my friend, when I beg of you to tell me in what part of the Old Testament, or any other Jewish writing, this sentiment is to be found? Hate our enemies? — Heavenly Father has it come to this, that thy children, who have suffered for ages persecutions without number for the SANCTIFICATION OF THY HOLY NAME — who have been slaughtered like the sheep that are dumb before their shearers, without murmuring, without repining — shall thy children, O our Father above, be accused of hating their enemies? Do they not pray to Thee daily: "To prepare the world for thy kingdom, Almighty God! To cause all flesh to call thy name, and to bring to Thee all sinners of the earth — that all may receive the yoke of thy kingdom, and that Thou mayest speedily reign over all for ever, for thine is the government, and for ever and ever Thou wilt reign in glory?" — Again, we are commanded in Levit. chap. xix. v.18, that we shall not avenge ourselves, nor even, as we rabbinical Jews understand the word ____ Tittor (translated in the English version "nor bear any grudge") to tell those who have offended us: "Look here, though you would not do me the favor I asked of you, yet will I not do like you did to me, — here is what you asked for." — In Exod. chap. xxiii. v.4-5, we are positively enjoined to assist our enemy, when we see him in need of our assistance. — In chap. xxiv. v.17, and chap. xxv. v.21, of the Proverbs of Solomon, he tells us: "Rejoice not when thy enemy falls, and when he stumbles let not thy heart be glad; lest the Eternal see it, and it displease Him, and He turn his wrath from him." — "If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink, &c." Thus we see clearly, that the Old Testament enjoins those exalted doctrines, for which you give the gospel the sole credit.

But you will say, [Jesus} Christ lived in the time of the Scribes and Pharisees, who did not act so; who were hypocrites, and deviated from the letter of the law! Indeed! But even here you would be mistaken; for we find the following in the Talmud: "A stranger came to Shamai, and told him: "Rabbi, I wish to become a proselyte; but you must teach me the law while I can stand on one leg;" but Shamai turned him off, not thinking it possible to teach him the law in so short a time. The stranger went next to Hillel, surnamed the elder, and repeated the same request; "My son," answered the Rabbi, "what is disagreeable to thee do not to thy neighbor (or companion,) for thus it is written: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor like thyself;' this is the principal commandment, and if thou observest this strictly, thou wilt easily observe the other precepts of the law.'" — What the Talmud says concerning the punishment of him who makes his antagonist ashamed in public is also found in the Proverbs of the Fathers, where we read: "He who makes the face of his neighbor turn pale in public though he has knowledge of the law, and has otherwise acted well, will not share in the happiness of the future life." What new doctrine then, I ask you again, has the gospel taught to the Jews? Since the Old Testament contains all the practicable moral doctrines, and the Rabbins (Scribes and Pharisees) of the time of the reputed Christ, did invariably preach in the temple and the synagogues doctrines conformable to their textbook, the twenty-four books of the Jewish canon.

I have thus, I hope, made my assertion good, that our law is a perfect model of a moral, religious, and civil code, that there is nothing too much, and nothing too little in it; and in fact, if any man will but examine the wonderful effect it has had of keeping a dispersed nation united, in every sense of the word, he must acknowledge: "That no nation, though ever so great, has such just statutes and commandments as those which the Eternal our God has given to us."

You, my friend, call upon me to do the Christians that justice which I demand at their hands; I am willing to concede all that Christians deserve, and I have already acknowledged, and shall always do so, that I have been very kindly treated by them, and shall always, till my dying hour, remember the benefits conferred on me by some of them. — But while I do this, I must repeat and re-assert, that the prejudice existing against us is highly unjust, and even condemned by that law which you as Christians are bound to respect. This was the reason why I undertook, in the first instance, the defense of our people from the vile and insidious attacks of the Quarterly Review; and the same reason impels me now to answer you, though even here I am very willing to admit the difference which exists between your mode of warfare and that of the above mentioned magazine. — Pardon me one more remark before I dismiss you altogether. Do you know that what you profess about universal salvation is no Christian doctrine? Do you know that it was first taught, and I may say, taught only, by the Jewish Rabbins? — And do you know that if you believe in the gospels, you must renounce this doctrine as not orthodox? How this may be I leave you to settle with the Christian divines; but I must enter my protest against what you say about the voice of conscience; for revelation was given to assist us in forming a correct course of life, and if conscience could of itself effect this, to what purpose was the law then given? — But our opinion is, that our law was given as the standard, to which all nations were ultimately to resort as to a rallying point, till which time every man, who is no Israelite, was to be saved, if he acted according to the light given him, and only observed the precepts of general revelation given to Noah, which are to be found in the ninth chapter of Genesis; and it was therefore the practice of the Jews, whenever they conquered, to make the subdued nation conform to the "seven commandments of the children of Noah," as they are called in the Talmud. — Each son of Israel, on the contrary, is bound to observe all that lies in his power to do, as otherwise he will be punished for good deeds omitted and sins committed.

It would be a great satisfaction to me to be assured that I had effectually removed the ill-will so many feel towards us — that I had contributed a little to make the Israelites more respected in this country, and especially in this city. Let me, however, at the same time call upon my brethren, those who with me believe in the same immortal, unchangeable God; who with me are bound by the same faith; who with me live in the land of the stranger — far, far from the sweet hills of Israel — far, far from the sacred banks of the Jordan — far, far from the holy Jerusalem, the city where God's glory used to dwell; who with me hope to reach a glorious immortality, when God will open the graves of his people, as promised by Ezekiel; — let me call upon them to arouse from their lethargy, to break the chains of listlessness, by which they are bound. Let them draw the bond of union closer — let each man forget the injuries done by his neighbor — and then show the world what Israel can be even in captivity. Let them show their attachment to that beautiful religion which has ever been the admiration of the world, and prove themselves, by conforming strictly to the spirit and letter of the divine law, worthy of that glorious futurity, for which they are destined by the God of nature, by the ever kind Father of Israel!

In conclusion, I think it necessary to make an apology, why I, a young man, who have hardly reached the age of manhood — who, moreover, am a foreigner, should step forward to do that which older and wiser men than myself have omitted to do. But I hope that my justification is contained in the following from the thirty-second chapter of Job, which, with little alteration, is well applicable to the present case:

"And Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, answered and said, I am young and you are very old; wherefore I was afraid, and dared not show you my opinion. I said, Days shall speak, and multitude of days should teach wisdom. But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty gives them understanding. Great men are not always wise; neither do the aged understand judgment. Therefore I said, Hearken unto me; I will also show my opinion. Behold, I awaited for your words; I gave ear to your reasons, while ye searched out what to say. Yea, I attended unto you; and behold, there was none of you that convinced Job, or that answered his words: lest ye should say, We have found out wisdom: God thrusts him down, not man. Now he has not directed his words against me; neither will I answer him with your speeches. They were amazed; they answered no more; they left off speaking. When I had waited, (for they spoke not, but stood still and answered no more;) I said, I will answer also my part; I also will show my opinion. For I am full of matter; the spirit within me constrains me."

Like Elihu I have considered it my duty to speak, because older men did not speak; and I was thus in a manner compelled to assume the fearful responsibility of accepting the challenge, which others neglected to do. I have, like the holy writer, endeavored to abuse no man, nor to flatter any one; but have given, as far as I believe, things their proper names, without intending to give offence to any one; I have tried —

"Nothing to extenuate, nor set down ought in malice."

How far I have succeeded I leave others to judge; and I only beg of all to listen to my defence with patience, and to read my remarks to the end. I dare not hope that which I have written will stand the test of severe criticism; but I request that every fault may be ascribed to the head, but not the heart of

A Native of Germany.
Richmond, Va.
Sunday morning, January 25th,

Previous Chapter Next Chapter