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The Wars of the Lord

By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).

Whom Shall We Follow?

A Letter to My Brothers in Israel

(The Occident, vol. XVI; 1858-1859).

Brothers! Do not regard it as a foolish presumption, that a man, who has not the courage to confess himself by the signature of his name as the author of his own production, is nevertheless bold enough to address his words, after the manner of the prophets, to an entire people. But it is not cowardice, only modesty which induces me to pursue this course; for I confess, that I am a man whose name is not known beyond the narrow circle in which he moves; I acknowledge that I am a simple, plain man, without merit, without capacity and talents, and dare not lift up my head amidst the learned; since an envious fatality has forcibly withheld me from the domain of knowledge and science; and since I am conscious of my mental poverty, it appears that I should not make a parade with my humble name, which would, after all, be unknown to the greater portion of the readers of this address.

But is it necessary to be a learned man in order to distinguish falsehood from truth? Or does TRUTH not understand to make a road for herself to the hearts of mortals, except through the mouth of the learned? Are not innocence, sincerity, and truth the first inhabitants of the human heart? And do these not maintain there, through all time, their residence, if not banished and supplanted by passion and falsehood? Or is it necessary for TRUTH, the oldest daughter of Heaven, to be mute, because she dwells only in a simple, plain heart? Or must she remain silent when she sees falsehood lift up her serpent head, like the fabled Hydra, and insinuate her deadly poison into a thousand hearts?

Well may I acknowledge, that there are besides me other men who are penetrated by the same truth, and have the same calling to speak in her behalf as myself. Yet does she lose her value, if the one who is not called does what the one, whose duty it is, should accomplish? Or is the former to be blamed, because he feels himself more than the latter, irresistibly led away by the invisible hand of truth to speak in her behalf? Who will censure a sufferer when he gives utterance to his pain through a loud groan, because others, who feel this pain in a less degree, either suppress it altogether or give vent to it merely a slight moaning? Brothers! Israelites! The deep pain of my sick heart it is which compels me to utter a loud cry of grief over the deep debasement of my people, --- yes, my people has sunk deeply; for where is there another that could sink yet deeper than it, which once stood forward, when al the nations of the earth, afflicted with blindness, roamed over the sea of ignorance and superstition, as the lighthouse of mankind, and sent forth its rays from one end of the world to the other, while in its light the nations saw light, and kindled thereon their torches: --- when this people has hurled far away its lamp, and now languishes in dark unbelief?

The people, which has beheld so many nations shipwrecked and sunk at its feet in the stream of time, or beheld them lost in the masses of the majority, and has alone grown old in its faith, --- this people has now, in its old age, cast away that, which has preserved it from perdition and maintained it erect amidst the onslaught of nations, and placed it opposite to them as a man, vigorous and youthful, though ages. Is not this a deeply fallen state? Is it not deeply mortifying when our neighbors say of the people of G-d: "The Jews are nothing but a mean trading people, which has no aspiration for anything besides its trade, to which nothing is sacred except its money?"

How shall we repel such a bitter reproach, which we have had to hear quite too often lately, on the part of our ancient enemies, if we are compelled to confess to ourselves, that very many, quite too many, Israelites of this country esteem nothing holy in their houses, nothing holy in their lives, and stand before the world without a G-d, without a faith? Should we not call it being deeply sunk, if we can assume, that of the great numbers of Jewish youth in this country, scarcely the hundredth part knows of Judaism any thing beyond the name? O brothers! Do but reflect! Our fathers were trodden down, oppressed, banished from place to place, from land to land; were robbed and plundered, and very often they walked, without resistance, like defenseless sheep, to the slaughterhouse of their tyrants; they allowed themselves to be slain and butchered; and their precious life's blood ebbed forth as they joyfully met the martyr's death, only to remain faithful to their G-d and his holy religion; and this religion, which they made our own at so great a sacrifice, is now trodden under foot by their descendants!

Reflect on this, brothers, and do not allow yourselves to be misguided any longer by false teachers, by the faithless shepherds who lead G-God's flock on poisonous pastures, of whom the prophets of the L-rd have said: "You clothe yourselves with the wool of the flock; you feed yourselves with their fat; the healthy ones you have slaughtered; the sick you have neglected; the lost you have not sought for; and my flock you have not kept."

Withdraw yourselves from the false prophets, who only desire to obtain paltry lucre,--- while, however, they do not mean to be honest, either toward you or G-d. Be not offended, brothers, that I speak so disparagingly of those you deem to be saints; you are too much absorbed in business; you can, therefore, not fix your eyes on the dark by-paths of your deceivers, which, however, so not except the searching view of the calm spectator. Permit me, therefore, to exhibit to you, in a clear light, the fluctuating character of your teachers, the baselessness of their doctrines, and the insincerity of their proceedings; and then decide for yourselves whether their doctrines be any thing more than the result of the passions, and the desire to obtain a name and a pecuniary reward; whether they are not the very men who lead you far away from G-d and His holy religion; whether they are not the cunning foxes who devastate the L-rd's vineyard, and cause it to be overgrown with weeds. It is indeed true, that it becomes no man to judge another for his conscientious convictions; however false and erroneous they may be, so long as they exert no injurious influence on the moral life of society; the most which is proper for us to do, is to pity him, that his eyes are too feeble to look unto the light of truth; whilst he who, according to his conviction, stands very nigh to the truth, may pity us, that we, who pity him, are so far removed from the same. Thus, for instance, we can and will not blame him who, faithfully attached to the doctrines of the Karaites, believes only in the letter of the Scriptures, and does not acknowledge the tradition of the Talmud. In the same manner will we not regard as enemies those who, in the sincerity of their heart, well understand the words of the Bible merely in their literal acceptation, although we ourselves hold firmly to the tradition of the Talmud, and obey both the letter and interpretation of the Scriptures. Those, however, merit our just condemnation, those are contemptible and to be regarded as an excrescence of the human family, who act either without any religious convictions, or in an open contradiction to the same, and merely carry on a profitable trade, to their disgrace, with sacred TRUTH; who, like a dishonest shopkeeper, offer every kind of thing as genuine that can be sold as such and paid for in the same ratio; and employ the office of religious teachers in the spirit and with the manner of small traders, and deal with truth as with ordinary merchandise, laying aside what is no longer fashionable, and changing, for this reason, their views, day by day, because they must manufacture their principles anew, to have them always in accordance with the popular taste. We must indeed, concede, that the unprejudiced thinker does not always keep standing still with the same set of ideas; we do not rarely find men who give up in their seventy-first year a principle which they have deemed as an irrefragable truth during seventy years, and exchange it for more modern views; for the spirit of mankind becomes developed from degree to degree; therefore there will arise reforms in religion no less than in arts and sciences; for they are the natural result of progress in the restless activity of the continual development of the human mind. But this would be only then applicable to defend the reforms which have been attempted in the Mosaic religion, if we had any just reason to regard this law merely as form of the spiritual life of the Jewish people, which only resulted from the mental development of its national character. If this were the case, our religion could be justly changed and reformed, with the gradual progressive development of the mind, in the same manner as this is the case with the customs of the various nations. But what right has the human mind to meddle with the eternal, unchangeable, revealed word of G-d? Is man able, with all the progress of his spirit, to introduce a reform in opposition to the word of Almighty Power in the laboratory of Nature? Assuredly not; why then, should he be able to do this in religion, when we acknowledge and accept it likewise as a Divine revelation! And since the Mosaic religion unconditionally demands of her followers the belief in revelation, it follows as a matter of course, that any reform in this religion is altogether inadmissible, and that change is to be regarded as in direct opposition to the same.

This premised, it will be much easier for me, brothers, to exhibit to you the wrongfulness of the striving of your teachers, and the untenable nature of their doctrines.

One of them published some years ago, to his own shame, a work under the title "A History of the Israelitish Nation" in which he furnished, without any disguise, his confession of faith.

I say, "to his own shame" not because he rejected therein the belief in revelation, and believed of the miracles related in the Bible those only which he could drag down into something natural, and explain as simply natural occurrences; far be such an intolerance from me; I honor every mode of thinking which springs from an honest heart. Not do I call it a disgrace, that he did not at once divest himself after he had declared himself a non-Israelite in said work, and continued still farther to follow the calling of a Jewish religious teacher; for this also is a matter of opinion, and every one is entitled to act in accordance with his own views. But scarcely had the book in question quitted the press, when its author was chosen for his present very lucrative office as preacher. As, however, the greater number of the members of the congregation believed yet in the words of Scripture as an immediate revelation from G-d, it was evidently the part of prudence to teach in the manner which was agreeable to the well known views of the community. And although the work contains quite other doctrines, these must naturally be regarded as only the views of the historian, for which the rabbi or preacher is in no wise responsible. The rabbi is permitted to, and can, in his quality as such, teach the very opposite of what he has rejected as historian and inquirer. This was offered at the time as justification. But after this mode of reasoning, a Jewish divine might fulfill at the same time the functions of a Christian clergyman; for he might then reject in quality of the one what he teaches in quality of the other. From this period, however, he becomes so great an adherent of the Scriptures, that he, as President of the Cleveland Conference, projects a platform, in which are constituted as dogmas the divine origin of the Bible, and the interpretation of the Talmud as the only correct and binding exposition. Quitting Cleveland, he makes a campaign against men who, although I am totally opposed to their principles, and do not confess their doctrines, merit, nevertheless, before the whole world, a certificate of honest men, who do not teach otherwise than they think, and who have, for a period of many years, not departed a hair's breadth from their point of view which they had once adopted, and from which no material interests have been able to move them. But as he could gain no laurels in this battle, more especially since the second point of the platform, the acknowledgement of the binding force of the Talmud, has excited discontent in his own camp: the speculative teacher found himself again compelled to enter another path,---so the Talmud was rejected, which satisfied the party again; but the Bible is retained, and must be obeyed literally as the holy word of G-d. Now the contest is turned against the Orthodox, Atheists, and Missionaries, and especially against those who merely take for their guide the spirit of the Scriptures and do not keep the word after its literal sense, and disregard the ceremonies, like the letter of the Scriptures, as dead bodies, and deem them worthy of no attention.

But does he remain steadfast to his principles? No; because duplicity and deceit think differently from day to day, and assume continually other forms; our religious hero therefore alters his views again, and declares, during the late Feast of Tabernacles, in a sermon which was published for the edification of his people in the Israelite, no.18, "that it is a folly to import Esrog and Lulav from distant countries, since we are not to follow the dead letter, but the sense of the Bible; wherefore we would fully obey the intention of the Scriptures, if we were to carry into the Synagogue a basket of fruit or one of flowers, that they might be publicly exhibited, equally as well as with the introduction of the Citron and Palm-branch." Do you not behold the constantly contending knight, how he lies at the feel of those who are his opponents in opinion? How he crawls up to them, as though he was led like a penitent sinner to crave pardon by this public declaration in the presence of the whole world? We do not know today, any more than himself, how he will think, speak, and appear tomorrow, and this humble surrendering may prove itself perhaps tomorrow, as a mere ruse de guerre; but for this very reason my question becomes of the greater importance; How can you, brothers, entrust your and your children's salvation unto such a man, who turns like a bulrush in the direction of every wind, and reels to and fro like an inebriate, and finds a firm footing nowhere? Will you ask to be instructed by a man who plays his own game with sacred truth, who deals with so much levity with the holiest things, who has even no principle, and changes his position constantly? In doctrines which your fathers and forefathers have never known? In doctrines which will entice you away from the word of G-d? In doctrines which represent as fictions the Divine promises through the prophets? Finally, in doctrines which have already robbed you of the faith in the future redemption of Israel, and which will induce you at length to doubt the highest truth? By such a man, who himself believes in nothing, you permit your prayer book to be revised? Allow prayers to be struck out, prayers which are the best to fortify you in the belief in G-d as the benevolent Rewarder of all the good, and as the strict Judge of sin---in the belief in the life of the spirit after death, and in the eternal permanence of Israel as G-God's people, as also in the restoration of the temple of the L-rd, which at present lies in ruins, and of our state, which is now no more? Yes, in order to deprive you of this belief were those prayers which refer to it banished, and those which were left for you were changed in such a manner, that their mutilation may not become clearly visible to the ordinary man; for the addition or omission of a single word in various passages is enough to falsify and disfigure the true sense and spirit of the whole. And to make room for such a patchwork, you will banish a prayer book composed by Israel's heroes? By the most famed teachers of the people, whose spirit survives to this day among us as the ornament and glory of Israel, and whose name will not be blotted out by time, but which one age hands down to the other? By men who did not degrade science into an instrument for their own advancement, or employed religion as a mere means of getting bread? But who are those dark nightly shadows who have dared to lay their profane hands on the hallowed work of these immortal men, and to falsify the same? To the character of the one I have already drawn your attention, and of the second but little can be urged as to his worthiness in the work he has undertaken, and of the third it is enough to say that he is a fitting associate the other two.

Reflect, therefore, on what you do; reflect how thoughtlessly you do throw yourselves into the hands of these unreflecting men, who make use of your weakness and want of knowledge for their mean purposes, and heedlessly destroy the finer feelings of man within you, and render you the slaves of your passions.

Only ask yourselves: "What have these men, who are to be my teachers, accomplished? What have they done for me and others? Have I become a better man through their teaching? Have their words fortified me in virtue and in faith? Have I omitted to do several acts wherein I formerly offended against morals, virtue, and religion?" Ask yourselves these questions, and you will find, that all for which you are indebted to them is --- the tranquility of your conscience, which lets you now go to sleep in an undisturbed rest at night; but this is the whole benefit they have conferred on you. Yet, whence arises this tranquility? Is it owing to the purity of your heart which accuses you of naught? Or is it the noble consciousness not to have offended against G-d and man? No! Do not deceive yourselves, it is neither of these two things; your mental tranquility is something very different. Just as the surgeon often gives a stupefying draft to his patient when amputating a limb, in order to render him callous during the painful operation, while the sufferer becomes aware of his mutilation only on awakening: so do your spiritual doctors understand the art of stupefying your conscience, and to preserve it in a profound stupor of long continuance; when, however, you awake, brothers, you will perceive that your mind has been mutilated! Do, therefore, arouse yourselves and tear from your eyes the bandage which has been bound around them unperceived by you; open wide your eyes and look into the light which those, who call themselves your teachers, desire to hold up before you; only look around you and distinguish between truth and falsehood, between the holy and the profane. Do not suffer yourselves to be blinded by the glare of novelty. Not every old thing is worthless; since what is true cannot, from its nature, be new; for the truth is old, as old as G-d; because G-d is TRUTH. Falsehood, on the contrary, can always be new, appear continually in a new guise; because it always assumes new shapes, and hides itself perpetually under a new mantle.

I, too, my friends, so not desire to swim against the stream, I also do not wish to displace the present and hold fast to the past; we are not able to remain loitering behind alone, when we see how every thing progresses with the age, and yields to its powerful strength, and heeds its demands. Wherever we turn our view we meet with revolutions and improvements. Why, then, should we alone remain deaf to the loud call of the spirit of the age? To the cry "In advance!", which finds its echo over all the globe, and resounds in every heart, and vibrates in every ear? Yes, I too, comprehend this necessity, I feel as all other men do, and I hear the voice which arouses all who sleep, which moves all hearts, and reaches even deaf ears. But can we not progress far enough, if we keep ourselves aloof, both from the superstition and intolerance of ancient times, and from the unbelief and indifference of the present age? Would it not be a true advancing with the spirit of the age, if we were to abolish all abuses and disorder and every cause which could produce them, to form our manners in accordance with the taste of the present time, maintain order in worship no less than in our intercourse with the world, or introduce, if there is need for this, such measures as would secure regularity and decorum in our synagogues, so as to render our worship more edifying and beautiful? Would not this be a reform which would elevate Judaism in the eyes of all nations, and would respond to the demands of the times? Can we not, therefore, yield to progress without rejecting our fundamental truths, or desecrating the holy with wicked hands? Do you call this a reform, if we surrender what for centuries was esteemed by Jews as the foundation of their future happiness, for the invention of a few frivolous persons, who go themselves much farther than they permit you to do, when they believe themselves unseen and out of reach of witnesses? No, brothers! That is no reform; true reform commences with a man himself; and if we would make the commencement of a rigid reform with ourselves, we would to a certainty not venture as far as our bold and unterrified leaders have already brought us.

If there were any truth in their doctrines, whence could arise this great diversity of views among the very teachers? Why do the various Synagogues not adopt the same changes? Why do they render Judaism a system of fragments, of which every one of the six reform congregation has adopted this of that notion as it has suited its fancy? This, however, arises from what has been already said, that untruth assumes different forms, and it accordingly appears everywhere under a new shape, whilst the truth appears always and everywhere alike, and can likewise never be improved; for whatever needs improvement was never a truth; an improved truth is accordingly nothing but an improved falsehood. If, now, our religion is a truth, it cannot admit any improvement.

If you desire to behold clearly the difference between the ways of truth and the footprints of falsehood, I will call your attention to the uniform and firm course of R. Isaac Leeser. He was thirty years ago the first to unfurl the banner of our religion in this country, and to fling its folds high into the breeze; and he taught the native Israelites, who scarcely knew any more of Judaism than that their fathers had been Jews, to know, adore, and reverence the G-d of Israel; he made them acquainted with the misfortunes and changes of their people through all times. They thus became here the most ardent adherents of a religion which they had not inherited from their fathers, which had not become dear to them through habit; but to which they were attracted by the wise instruction of a faithful teacher. For he taught what he believed, and believed what he taught; his words came from an honest heart, full of truth, and he therefore also impressed the truth on other hearts. What he taught then, he teaches still at this day. His then religious position is today the same, his path is now, after thirty years, yet the one he then pursued, and no material interests have been able to make him swerve therefrom. And then look at your teachers, and count the many ways, the many direction which they have followed in a period of five years; count how often they have changed their views and principles in this short space, and adopted those always best adapted to please the majority, and to keep the drowsy conscience in undisturbed sleep!

Therefore, friends do I exhort you earnestly, to listen to the sincere admonition of a brother, who desires nothing but your own welfare; for the whole happiness of man is centered in the tranquility of the soul and the serenity of the mind, which religion can alone confer on you. But the doubter can enjoy neither, and your teachers will render you nothing but doubters; they can give you no certainty. Although you now experience no doubt, and you are to all appearance convinced of the truth of their doctrines, still this conviction will vanish when unfavorable changes take place, when grief and suffering begin to gnaw the weak heart, when distress and misery enter your doors, when long sickness destroys the frail clay tenement, when death threatens a precious life, and the consolation of religion is wanting, but despair takes forcible possession of the spirit. Then will be the first awakening of doubt which rests with leaden weight on your bosom, and poisons the fairest sensations of serenity; then well conscience for the first time be roused out of its slumber, and it will speak so loudly, that its voice, which the soul alone can hear, will cause the heart to tremble. And there stands now the doubter, and asks himself, "Who was right, my old father or my new teachers?" O how gladly would he then turn back to the doctrines of the old father; but he cannot do it any longer, he has departed too far from them, and it appears to him as though the bridge for his return were broken away behind him.

-----Brothers! Keep such an hour far away from you, and return to the doctrines of your fathers and ancestors, which have been preserved for thousands of years in Israel. You will then live happily, and your last hour will be bright and serene.

A Jew of Syracuse