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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).





A Defence of the Revelation of the Pentateuch, and of the Jews for Their Adherence to the Same.

by Isaac Leeser,

Reader of the Portuguese Jewish Congregation of Philadelphia

"I said to those who derided, deride ye not;
And to the wicked, raise ye not the horn."

Psalm lxxv.v.5.





Principal of the Jewish Institute in Westphalia.

Respected Friend,

No apology will be necessary for inscribing this volume to you. The friendship with which you were kind enough to regard me when yet a child, is sufficient warrant for me to hope, that a work of maturer years will not be received with indifference by one, who, though from his varied learning well capable of judging, will yet be indulgent to errors, and perhaps misapprehensions, almost inseparable from youthful productions.—It had been my intention to have dedicated this first production of mine, to my late venerated teacher, Rabbi Benjamin Jacob Cohen, your friend and my benefactor; but since it was the will of our Father in heaven, to deprive me of this excellent guide of my infancy, and the world of an active friend, and religion of a zealous defender: I know no one, to whom I could with more propriety dedicate it, than to you. Perhaps you may find, that the sentiments, imbibed in part under your excellent instruction, and which were dear to me when I had the pleasure of daily enjoying a friendly intercourse with you, are yet remembered and cherished by me, at this distance of time and place. If so, you will doubtlessly be pleased at the discovery; and you may be assured, that to receive your approbation will be one of the most pleasing fruits, which I can hope to reap from my labours.—Farewell, dear friend, and believe me, that I find a great degree of consolation in the idea, that the Almighty has preserved you, whilst He has deprived me of my first teacher and friend; and that it shall ever be cause of joy to be informed of your welfare and prosperity to

Your obliged servant,



This book, now for the first time published, was composed more than four years ago, whilst I was engaged in pursuits quite uncongenial to literature. Many a time, after a day of active application to business, have I spent the hours of night in writing. Books for reference I had but few; and the reader will therefore excuse the brevity with which many points are treated, which no doubt would have received more attention, could I have had authorities to refer to. In some respects this may have been an advantage, as it prevented me from being too much trammeled by the opinions of others. The reader may be assured, however, that since my residence in Philadelphia I have omitted no opportunity of correcting and altering many passages which I thought required it; and even while the work was going through the press I have made a great number of additions and alterations, at times amounting to nearly an entire page. With all this care I do not flatter myself that the book is free from fault, nor can I even say that it meets my own approbation in every instance; for many a sentence had to pass as it stood, because I did not discover its defectiveness till it was too late. One thing, however, I hope, that no error in point of fact, and no great want of connection in reasoning, will be discovered; at least I have done all I could to avoid it. It becomes me not, however, to be too solicitous of engaging the favourable opinion of the reader: the book itself is before him; and let him condemn or approve, as he may think proper after mature reflection. In conclusion, I must remark, that vanity had but a small share in inducing me to make public a book laying so long dormant; the reasons assigned in the preface, written at Richmond on the day it is dated, are yet operative, as no book of the kind required has made its appearance since then. But my own opinion of the humble value of my labours has not been changed; and I therefore insert the preface, though in some respects it is not quite as applicable as it was four years ago. To say that I should not be highly delighted if I meet with approbation and success, would be the excess of ill disguised affectation; but I may freely say, with justice to myself, that a fair criticism, even if it should strip my work of all value, will not be at all unwelcome to me, although mortifying to my self-love; the object of my enquiry and of this publication is the search for and maintenance of truth, but not the acquisition of fame; and as the humble inquirer for truth, I dare not be offended if I have been found wanting either in talent in my search for her, or in capacity whilst engaged in her service.

Philadelphia, Tishry, 5594.[1834]


In presenting the following pages to the consideration of the public, I deem it unnecessary to inform them who and what I am; but, at the same time, I think it incumbent upon me to disclose the motives which induced me to add another theological work to the many already in existence; that it may not be supposed I undertook this difficult task from the mere love of writing, and of becoming an author.

Some time last fall (1828) a gentleman of this city showed me an article in the London Quarterly Review, in which our nation (the Jews) were very much abused, and their moral and religious character shamefully vilified. Though I felt very indignant at the time, I deferred noticing it publicly, until the article in question was republished in a New York paper, of the 26th of December last. I then thought it was high time to notice it, as I verily believed that its circulating without a reply would be extremely injurious to the interest of my brethren in this country. I therefore undertook, without being solicited by any one, the task of refuting the accusations it contained. I was at first very doubtful of success; but I had soon the satisfaction of discovering that my feeble efforts had met with favourable notice. A few weeks after the publication of the first essay, I was gratified with the mild and temperate piece which appeared under the signature of "A Professor of Christianity." After replying to him, I understood that several persons at a distance had read and approved of my labours. I must confess that I felt pleased at this mark of approbation from strangers, which I in the first instance hardly expected to receive from friends; but since it was so, I came to a determination to republish my two essays, to rescue them from the perishable state in which they had appeared. It being hinted to me by a friend that in that case I ought to add some proofs in favour of our observing the proper day of the week as the Sabbath, I followed his suggestion, and began immediately to embody my thoughts relative to the truth of the mission of Moses; and though I intended to say but little, the subject grew by degrees under my hands, till it assumed the shape in which it is presented to the indulgent reader. I had scarcely commenced, when I saw the reply of the "Professor of Christianity" to my second essay, but was prevented from answering him then, on account of the editors of the Richmond Whig (in which paper these four essays first appeared) having closed their columns against the further continuation of the controversy.

Whatever opinion may be formed as to the merits of this my first work, I would beg my readers not to pronounce me guilty of presumption, in attempting to write on so grave and difficult a subject, as theology. My motives are simply these. I have beheld with grief and shame the efforts made of late by many, who dishonour the name of Israel, to lessen the respect our nation has ever felt for the law of Moses and the traditions of our ancestors. I waited, but found no one in this country, older than myself, attempting to enlighten the minds of my brethren; I could therefore no longer remain silent — I felt called upon to act, and I obeyed the inward call, not unmindful of what Hillel the ancient said: "And in a place, where there is no man, try even thyself to be a man." (Avot II) The infidel, indeed, clothed in his panoply of unbelief, thinks himself invulnerable, he defies the word of God, and exultingly asks for proof of the truths of revelation. But in times of old the Philistine Goliath was conquered by David, who, armed with a sling only, but coming in the name of the God of Israel, threw the stone, which entered the head of his powerful and armed antagonist, who sunk before the future king of Israel. Even so have I attempted to approach the armed infidel; who knows, but God may effect some good work through me, for He is ever powerful to assist them, who rely upon Him in truth and sincerity. — I dare not even flatter myself with the hope of success; but if I fail, I may console myself with the idea, that I have been defeated in a good cause; this disappointment may even stimulate me to make a second attempt, when I shall endeavour to avoid those faults which caused my failure in this first undertaking.

The liberal Christians (and to those alone I address myself) will easily discover, that the little I have said in relation to Christianity, was indispensably necessary to my plan. They moreover cannot be offended, at a liberal and candid view being taken of their belief by a Jew; for if he is wrong, they can easily reply to him; and I will just remark, that any strictures or hints, in relation to this book, shall be thankfully received by me, provided they be made in the spirit of candour and conciliation.

The body of arguments, as far as the plan of arranging them is concerned, is altogether mine, as are also many of the arguments themselves. I will not assert, that the same have not been used before; but I may say with truth, that I have not intentionally borrowed from others. I consulted no books, besides those mentioned in the text, and even those I had not always before me; but quoted perhaps as often from memory, as from actual inspection. Be that as it may, I can assure the public that I have advanced neither argument nor assertion, which I did not subject to frequent examinations, and have asserted nothing which I in conscience did not believe founded in fact to the best of my knowledge. It would be the height of presumption in me to say, that I have made no mistake, for that only can be the case with inspired writers; and if I err not altogether, I do not remember to have read any book from a profane writer, where some error or other had not been committed. Should I have the good fortune, however, to see a second edition of this work called for, I will make those corrections and alterations, which may have been discovered to be necessary.

In some places I have followed the English version of the Bible, in others again I have attempted to translate the original myself; either because I did not consult the English at all, or because the common translation seemed to me incorrect.

No man can be more aware of the difficulty of doing justice to the subject under discussion, than myself; yet this did not deter me from the attempt, it rather stimulated me the more; first because I never saw a book in the English language written by a Jew, that treated of the evidences of his religion, if perhaps we except David Levy's answer to Thomas Paine, and Rabbi de Cordova's little book, Reason and Faith: and therefore I resolved to write, with the hope that some person more capable than myself, might undertake to discuss the subject, as its importance deserves, and follow up with more success, my humble beginning. — And secondly, having been taught by men distinguished for learning and piety, I thought that perhaps the instruction I had received from them might be made as beneficial to others as it had been to me.

These are the reasons and motives, which governed me in writing; but neither fame nor emolument was my object; for how can any man gain either by appearing as the champion of the hated and persecuted Jews? I was not however deterred from doing, which I conceived to be my duty, by the fear of ridicule or hatred; and I believe it to be obligatory upon every Jew, to defend his principles and religion from the obloquy generally cast upon them, at whatever hazard to himself. I must therefore entreat every liberal Christian, deist or Jew, to read what I have written in favour of our laws and ceremonies, and not condemn them before he knows some of the reasons which can be urged in their favour even by so obscure an individual as myself.

If I have succeeded in establishing the truth of our faith, let not the honour be ascribed to me, but to the excellence of that law, which can be defended so easily and with so little information, as I possess; but if I have failed, let not our law be rejected on that account, for though I could not do it justice, there are many amongst the descendants of the patriarchs, who are every way much better qualified to do so than


Richmond, Va. Sivan 9th, (June 10th,) 5589. [1829]

O Lord of the universe! Who endurest for ever, we adore Thee; for Thou art the Creator of all nature, from Thee all, that is, derives its existence, and Thou hast the power to do with this, thy creation, as Thou pleasest. Thou changest the order of nature, as Thou desirest, without deranging its harmony; for Thou, nature's architect, knowest the secret springs of all existence. All is sustained solely by thy will; and if Thou but speakest, all must be annihilated. — O Fountain of eternal life! Who didst choose our forefathers to be thy people, have mercy upon us their descendants, though fallen and degraded through our sins; let thy wisdom enlighten our minds, that we may understand the ways of thy law; that we may live according to thy commandments, and be worthy of thy love and protection! Hasten Thou also the time of our redemption through thy anointed, and show again, as thou hast promised, that thou art the God and Redeemer of Israel, when Thou displayest for a second time over us thy protecting arm, before the eyes of all nations. Amen.

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