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The Wars of the Lord

By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).

The Suspension of a Mohel

(The Jewish Messenger, New York, Heshvan 12, 5625,
November 11, 1864.)

New Orleans, Oct. 27th, 1864

To the Rev. S.M. Isaacs and Son, Editors of the Jewish Messenger.

Gentlemen: - It seems that you have no regular correspondent in this city, otherwise he could give you matter enough to have also New Orleans mentioned in the domestic column of your valuable paper. I take, therefore, the liberty to forward you some short items regarding religious affairs in New Orleans.

About two months ago Dr. Illowy sent an official letter to the מהלים of this city, in which he requested them not to circumcise in future any child born from a Christian mother, though the father is an Israelite, for the following reasons:

1st. It is evident that the circumcision is not performed לשם גירות (for conversion), but only for the purpose of being entitled to a portion of ground on the Jewish burial place in case of death, and according to the law, the ceremony of circumcision can be performed only לשם גירות, after which the ceremony of טבילה (immersion in a מקוה (mikveh)) has to follow, whilst among all those already circumcised children of Christian mothers, of whom some have already reached the age of five, and others of six years, there is not one that had טבילה. Though Dr. Illowy explained to some of the parents that their children can not be regarded, by law, as Israelites, as long as טבילה is not performed, the father, but not the mother, would yield to the exigency of the law.

2d. Since the circumcision is not performed לשם גירות, the מוהל not only that he acts contrary to the law, but he also transgresses the prohibition לא תשא by making a ברכה לבטלה.

3d. Suppose everything would be done according to the law, both טבילה and מילה, what, however, has Judaism to hope of a child educated by a Christian mother and an irreligious father? Have we not enoughבנים משחיתים of our own, who would not know that they are Jews were they not circumcised? Why shall we, under the cover of religion, increase their number?

Dr. Illowy made the above explanation to the Board of Trustees, who assisted him, and two of the מהלים, who are members of the congregation, were notified that it is the desire of the Board that they should act according to the decision of the Rabbi, to which they agreed. But the third מוהל wrote, two weeks after he had received Dr. Illowy's letter, a very insulting answer, in which he declared, that he has done so before, and will continue so to circumcise all children born of Christian mothers. Dr. Illowy, after having received that insulting answer of the מוהל, declared him publicly in the synagogue as פסול, having forfeited his right as מוהל, and being in future unfit for and unworthy of that holy office.

This event gave rise partly to a dissatisfaction amongst the friends of the מוהל and those whose wives are strangers, נכריות, to our nation, and partly to a dispute among impartial individuals about the correctness of Dr. I's decision. Permit me, therefore, Gentlemen, to lay before you and your learned readers, three questions:

1st. Is it permitted, according to the law, to circumcise the son of a Christian mother and an irreligious Jewish father, though we know beforehand, that we have not a spark of hope that the child will ever be brought up as a Jew?

2nd. Suppose it be not permitted, has any Rabbi the right to declare a מוהל who acted contrary to his decision in said question as פסול and unfit to perform in future the ceremony of circumcision?

3rd. Suppose the Rabbi has such a right to declare a מוהל as פסול, is then the פסול resting only upon the מוהל, or is it likewise sinful in every individual who allows such a מוהל to circumcise his child.

Hoping that you will grant these questions a space in the columns of your valuable paper and let us hear in the next number of the Messenger your own opinion, as well as those of other learned men in Israel, I can assure you, Gentlemen, that by so doing you will restore the peace into the hearts of those who are now dissatisfied with the decision of Rev. Dr. Illowy.

אחרון אחרון חביב: There were this year over fifty סכות  in our city, of which over forty were built by the members of the congregation "Shaare Hesed", Rampart Street, whilst three years ago, when Dr. Illowy arrived in this city, there was but one סוכה, built by the sexton of the Portuguese congregation, in the yard of the synagogue. Though, it is true, that the rev. gentleman worked indefatigably, with patience and perseverance, to keep the word of G-d alive in his community, still it must be admitted, that praise enough cannot be bestowed on Samuel Friedlander, Esq., President of the congregation, not alone for the powerful support which he is to the Rabbi, not alone for the able management through which he made the congregation flourish, and increase to such a number of members, that the synagogue, spacious as it is, has no more room for any new-comers, but also for the strictness and conscious care with which he watches the sacred altar of G-d, that it be not desecrated by the unholy fire of reform; he stands at the doors of the synagogue like the cherubim before the garden of Eden, with the flaming sword in his hand, granting no admittance to those of whom G-d said: 'לא יבואו בקהל ה. This is probably the principal cause that the goats commence now to separate themselves from the sheep, צאן קדשים, and seek a better pasture, where they can find food entirely agreeable to their taste. I need not tell you any more, that a "Reform Society" will soon be organized in New Orleans; the "Knight Templars" already show great activity, and circulars for that purpose are already distributed.

H.I. Almony.

  1. We readily endorse the decision of Dr. Illowy respecting the admission of the sons of a non-Israelitish woman into the covenant of Abraham.

  2. The authority of a Rabbi in this country, being unfortunately limited by his moral influence, Dr. Illowy had no power to enforce his decision by preventing a מוהל from acting as such. If the Israelites of any city are willing to have the functions of מוהל exercised by a man pronounced unfit for good and sufficient reasons, it is a fact, however painful and deplorable, that there exists no acknowledged authority to restrain their "liberty of action". Outside of his own synagogue, a Chazan or Rabbi in America is invested with no power whatever, beyond expounding the law. - Editors, J.M.

(The Jewish Messenger, New York, Shevat 7, 5625, February 3, 1865).

Editorial remark: We have heretofore called attention to the controversy agitating our co-religionists at New Orleans on the subject of the Mohel who had been suspended from duty by Dr. Illowy, the Rabbi of the congregation. It appears that the Doctor had been called upon to retract his position, and a communication had been made to him by the officers of the congregation with which Mr. Goldenberg was identified, demanding a withdrawal of his censure. Dr. Illowy requests us to publish the following reply, which he transmitted by Rabbi [Samson Raphael] Hirsch, of Frankfurt, and other high authorities. We have already stated our conviction that the Doctor's course was dictated by an earnest purpose of serving Israel, and perpetuating the purity of the rite of circumcision, and was in accordance with correct precedent:

To the Gentlemen of the Committee from the Congregation "Shaare Tefilla" in New Orleans:

Gentlemen: - I hereby most respectfully acknowledge the receipt of your favor dated the 28th of December, in which you request me, by order of your congregation, to recall what I have publicly pronounced against Mr. Goldenberg, a member of our congregation.

Believe me, gentlemen, and the Almighty, who seeth into man's heart, He alone knows it, that I never felt the least animosity against the person of Mr. G., and would my conscience tell me that I have done him wrong, I would not hesitate a moment to ask his forgiveness, and revoke my declaration, but since I am perfectly convinced that I have acted fully in accordance with our sacred code, I regret my not being able to comply with your desire.

I further beg leave, gentlemen, to state before you the case in its true shape, that you may be better able to judge whether that what I have done was in consistency with duty, law, and justice, or not.

It is very true, as every one who is but slightly acquainted with the Hebrew language, without being a theological scholar, can read in הלכות גרים, that the male child of a non-Israelitish mother can be admitted into Judaism, and brought into the covenant of Abraham; and there is no need to hear first the opinion of European Rabbis about it; every layman will know how to decide this question. It is, however, not to be overlooked that the admission of a child into Judaism is subject, like that of an adult, to the condition that the ב"ד must first be at least apparently convinced that there is no other motive that impels the proselyte to embrace Judaism than true and sincere conversion.

I have further to remark that, though the law permits the proper authority to admit a non-Israelite into Judaism, it is still not more than a permission granted by the law; by no means, however, can it be regarded a מצוה, a religious duty enjoined upon us; because experience has shown that in all ages proselytes have done Judaism more harm than good; as Rabbi Helbo says, Yebamot 109, קשים גרים לישראל כספחת, "Proselytes are as hurtful to Judaism as leprosy is to the body." Rashi Niddah, p.11, explains this passage with the following words: שישראל לומדים ממעשיהם.

In another place we read - הגרים מעכבים משיח, "The proselytes prevent the coming of the Messiah". (Niddah p.11)

Rabbi Isaac said, "Misfortune after misfortune shall befall those who admit non-Israelites into Judaism". רעה אחר רעה תבא על מקבלי גרים, to which Tosephot (Yebamot, ib.) remark: "Though it seems to be a מצוה to make proselytes, for, if otherwise, Joshua would not have made Rahab a Jewess, and likewise would Hillel not have compelled with the desire of the two heathens to be made by him Israelites; still these are quite different cases. Joshua knew from the character of Rahab, and so knew Hillel from the character of the two heathens, that they will one day become strict and faithful Jews: יודע היה הלל שסופן להיות גרים גמרים.

After these remarks, allow me yet to add, that we are, to our deepest regret, sufficiently convinced that of all these non-Israelitish mothers in this city, who consented that their children be entered into the covenant of circumcision, there is not one that has done so from the pure motive, to see her child worship one day the One only G-d of Israel - a religion which she herself denies in word and deed, but they did so to please the Jewish grandparents or their Jewish husbands, (who themselves have no other motive than that the children be entitleג, in case of death, to a piece of ground on the Jewish burial place). They would, however, not allow the טבילה to be applied to them; though I explained to some of them clearly that without the טבילה a child of a non-Israelitish mother, can by law never be regarded as a Jew, though it be circumcised; it was, nevertheless, refused, because they do not want to have their children baptized as Jews. They consent sooner to have them circumcised than to be נטבל, baptized as Jews, for in their religion, the baptism is the principal and most important act.

Now let us see what are the consequences of the circumcision of these children, (of whom there are in our city about twelve of different ages, from five months up to twelve years, to whom tevilah was never applied). They will pass as Jews and marry daughters of Israel, because they are circumcised, though circumcision never made them Israelites. But, more than this, what must be foreseen, is, that the children of these marriages will be regarded by law as ממזרים, of whom G-d says: 'עד דור עשירי לא יבאו בקהל ה. Using the expression ממזרים, which may sound badly in your ears, I must refer to Talmud Yebamot, p. 46, where we read as follows: "Rabbi Hiyya came to the city of Gabla, there he saw several daughters of Israel married to proselytes, who were circumcised, but had no טבילה, and when Rabbi Johanan heard of it, he said to him (to Rabbi Hiyya), go and call out in the synagogue that the children of these people are ממזרים, who are forbidden to come into the congregation of the Lord."

And now allow me, gentlemen, to ask you another question: what shall one day become of such children, even if they would have both טבילה and מילה? Educated by a Christian mother and an irreligious father, who publicly violates Sabbaths and festivals, and whose table is desecrated by all kinds of forbidden food, as is the case here, which cannot be denied; the mother goes to church and the father has neither church nor synagogue; in the parental house, the child can not perceive even a slight tine of our religion, no other Sabbath than that of his mother - the Sunday - for the father has no day of rest at all, neither on Sabbath nor on Sunday: be sincere, and say, would it not be much better for these poor children to let them be what their mothers are, Christians, than convert them for appearance's sake into Jews, which they will never be, and enjoin upon them heavy duties, which, as you yourselves know, they will never fulfill? Can there be anything more detrimental to the cause of Judaism than to make such Jews?

Mr. G. propounded simply the question before the different rabbis, whether the son of a non-Israelitish mother can be admitted to the covenant? Of course they must answer in the affirmative. But had Mr. G. stated all the abovementioned circumstances, then, I am sure, that there is not a man in this world, who has only a spark of justice and religious feeling in his heart, who can approve the admission of such children into Judaism, for we would only educate them as enemies to our religion, which last is far more respected by true Christians than by irreligious Jews. In vain would we inflict bodily pain upon the poor creature, and commit a grave offence against our holy religion, morality, justice, and humanity.

There, gentlemen, are, in short, the reasons wherefore I ordered the מוהלים not to circumcise in future children of non-Israelitish mothers, but Mr. G., on account of his circumcision fees, (for were it religious scruple, he would surely not go on שבת to auctions and would not arrange a ball, as he did, on the eve of the last עשרה בטבת), was not satisfied, and declared in a most insulting manner that he has done so before, and will in future, in spite of reason and religion, continue to do so; and it is, therefore, that I publicly declared him unfit for the holy office of a מוהל.

That I had the right to do so, gentlemen, I refer you toחושן משפט סימן ד' סעיף ו, which reads as follows:

וישש רשות לבית דין להחמיר עליו שלא ימולו את בניו ולגרש את בניו מבית הספר ואשתו מבית הכנסת עד שיקבל הדין

(see פתחי תשובה ad locum).

Hoping that this letter will convince you that I acted in obedience to my duties,

I remain, gentlemen,

                                          Most respectfully yours,

                                                                                    Dr. Illowy

New Orleans, Dec. 29th, 5625.