|Vol. I, No. 10
Tebeth 5604, January 1844
The Demands of The Times.
by Isaac Leeser
To a disinterested observer, the state of the American Israelites must present itself as anomalous in the highest degree. There are congregations scattered over an immense surface of country, from the snows of Canada to the tropical heats of Guiana, and one community knows absolutely nothing of the state and the wants of the other. Every thing is not only conducted on an independent footing, but at times with an utter disregard of the best interests of our religion. What the majority resolves upon is the law; and the enactments are now and then diametrically opposite to a sound construction of our laws and ceremonies. And for the same reason mere tyros in religious knowledge not rarely are the very persons to speak of reforming a system of which they scarcely know the first principles. We do not know that these reflections have presented themselves to the general mass of our people; but certain we are, that it requires only a very small share of penetration to discover the existence of the evil when once the attention has been directed in this channel. No one can be more partial to the independence of each Synagogue in its municipal regulations than we are. It matters not what names are given to the directors, whether they are termed adjuntas, trustees, or wardens; it is of no importance whether the treasurer belongs to the board or not; whether the members vote directly in matters relating to the business of the congregation, or delegate this power to a representative body whether large or small. But it is of the highest importance that the effects of legislation should be uniform, and be based upon strict Jewish principles, and conform in every essential to sound and liberal views of religion. Let it be understood, that our religion is essentially uniform; for the difference between the Portuguese, German, and Polish congregations, is much more trifling than one would be led to believe if he were to judge from the silly prejudice which is often discoverable among them; and refers only to some few variations in the Book of Daily Prayers, pronunciation of the Hebrew, and the different additions which the respective congregations have permitted to the regular form on particular Sabbaths, the festivals and fast days. There may be, in addition to this, some minor points of observance which distinguish the various denominations; but it would be folly to dignify them with the name of sectarian differences, which in reality do not exist, if the subject be rightly viewed.
It is an evil certainly that, in small communities especially, Israelites do not unite to form one large respectable Synagogue, in place of weakening their strength and wasting means uselessly in keeping up separate establishments for the Portuguese, German, and Polish customs. But it is a far greater evil that there should be no unity of feeling where Synagogues of the different denominations do exist; or that different towns do not combine to effect a general object, because the imaginary lines of separation place, as they aver, an insurmountable obstacle in the way of a union of the disjointed members which now constitute our American congregations. But how short-sighted are all who think and act so; who suffer themselves to be led away by petty motives and little views, which are a disgrace to thinking manhood! We have long since severely suffered from the spirit of littleness which animated the gentiles towards us; they could not tolerate that we should differ from them in matters of faith, though our conduct was always such as becomes men who wish to live at peace with all the world, and to pursue the even tenor of their way without molesting any other person in his rights or privileges. Yes, this was the cause of much bloodshed, and it led to acts of inconceivable barbarity; until at length the persecutors themselves were compelled to commiserate the lot of their victims, and to cry out "Shame!" over the barbarity which they themselves had displayed. We confess, that this malign feeling has not yet died away in all lands but it certainly has subsided in many countries, especially in the United States of America, and the European colonies adjacent to this happy republic; and here one would have thought, that Judaism ought to unfold itself in all its beauty, and exhibit to an admiring world all the traits of a generous emulation of doing good among its various professors; that it would here, if any where, have thrown aside the shackles of prejudice, and that brother would have held out the helping hand to the brother, to aid him in accomplishing all that is good, righteous and holy. Here, one would have thought, that they who had fled from the oppression of European tyrants, inflicted on them because they are Jews, they who came hither with the beloved of their heart to be united in the bonds of holy wedlock, because in their native land this union was regarded as a crime, would have united heart and soul to prove that now, since they are free to wed though they are Jews, they have truly a high regard for the religion which caused them to become exiles from their native land, and that they mean to show their devotion to their ancient faith in a land where no dark-souled tyrant stands ready to forge fetters for them because they are sons of Israel. But these evidences of a religious union are utterly wanting; each person almost pursues his own course of aggrandizement and love of gain without troubling himself about the good cause of religious truth of which he was born a witness—about that ancient fellowship which is far more to be prized than the patents of nobility awarded by the caprice of a sovereign, or purchased for gold from some venal court. These are plain words; perhaps offensive to the self-love of some timid being, who sees the evil, yet is afraid to sneak. But it is time to speak out, and we trust that our words will not give offence, and only lead to reflection upon that which is too self-evident to be denied. We do not despair of the republic of our religion, or else we would be silent, and throw a veil of oblivion as far as we would be able to do so over faults which we knew no means of remedying; but in truth we believe that the ancient spirit is merely slumbering, and only needs rousing to bring it back into active life. Would! that we could thunder in every ear, stir up the dormant energies of every heart, in order that all might listen to the word of instruction, and every spirit be made quick in the work of regeneration. But, alas! Few only are willing to be instructed, the many think there is no disease, they dream of peace while there is warfare. And still it is these few who must be stimulated to the work, though their number be extremely small; they must urge, and entreat, and guide whomever comes in their way, that day by day the band of devoted servants may increase, until that righteousness shall prevail in every place, and religion be made the chief business of life, whereas now it is postponed so often and so glaringly to mere worldly pursuits.
To the wise and thinking pure worldliness is something so revolting that he could not submit the energies of his mind to a pursuit which has nothing spiritual in its nature or tendencies. It is, therefore, inconceivable how so many of our people can permit themselves to be so engrossed by matters of mere business as to neglect to so great a degree as they do their spiritual welfare. There is surely nothing inherent in the nature of Israelites why they should be so enthusiastic in the acquisition of wealth, which nevertheless so universally eludes their grasp. It is no doubt the force of circumstances which by long oppression engendered gradually the baleful love of gain, which our enemies wish to represent as characteristic of our race, so much so that the name of "Jew" is used as synonymous for "rich" and "miser." It is disgraceful that we do so little to throw off the ignominy which thus attaches itself to us; it is cowardly that we are content to sit down with this opprobrium resting upon our fair fame. It would be of little moment were this state of things merely to affect our reputation in the eyes of the gentile world. But the evil reaches far deeper in its destroying force. Religious sentiment is fearfully suffering under its influence, and it is for this that we would invoke the aid of all the brethren of whatever degree and station. In a matter which concerns all so nearly as does the state of religion, there can be no uninterested parties; it is every body's business, and every body therefore ought to do something in its behalf. No one is so humble but he may exert some influence, especially if sincerity arms the tongue with persuasiveness, and lends enchantment to a consistent course of life. And let no one say that words fall idly upon the ear of an unwilling listener; yes, he may turn his head away; he may let wrath kindle up in his heart to hear himself reproved or corrected; but the words of truth have nevertheless been spoken, and they will not fail of effecting something, however little this may be. Of one thing the humbly pious may be convinced, that they who are gifted with eloquence, whose lips drop the honey of words that burn—who appear before admiring crowds, and see hundreds flocking to be instructed by their oratorical power, feels but too keenly how little they can effect, how small the work they actually do perform in the arresting of vice and the propagation of the good; for they stand humbled, are sick of the very praise they obtain, because they perceive that so little reformation is produced by the labour of giant minds—by exertions that well-nigh wear out the frame that the spirit may soar upwards. All such as these can do is merely to give an impulse to the direction of the public mind, and it must be left to the individuals to accomplish what the leaders have commenced; and the individuals alone can carry round amongst their associates what has been enkindled within themselves of the holy spirit of true devotion.
But shall we act as isolated beings? without concert, without union, without energy? Are there none who are willing to give up now and then their own pursuits to aid in the cause of religion? Shall wisdom for ever call at the top of the streets and the many be unwilling to heed her invitation, to enter her abode, to taste of the viands she has prepared? Let us hope that this may not be; but that, though by slow degrees, the conviction may become rife in the minds of many that there is a world to live for, holier, purer than earthly life; that there is a pursuit sweeter, truer than the acquisition of wealth; and that all who so feel may unite their energies of soul, and combine the influence of their respective stations to aid in the good cause which is now suffering from the slothfulness of its servants, and the active energy of its enemies. It is time that petty jealousies arising from a difference of denominations were banished far, far from among us; for are we not all sons of Israel? all children of the same noble stock? all taught by the same wisdom? all servants of the same One God? Why, then, that distance between families? why that ill-will between congregations? It is enough to cause a philanthropist to weep over such short-sighted folly as we daily witness; it is enough to excite the hopes of our enemies that now they see clearly a means of breaking down the faith of Israel, seeing how little union there is among us here; where we are at liberty to worship our God as our heart dictates; seeing how many from sheer indifference prefer the union with the gentiles to the fellowship of Abraham's household. Mothers, fathers, and teachers ought to weigh well the awful responsibility that rests upon them in the premises; and the leaders of the congregations should see to it that something be done to do honour to the law, and that due glory be rendered to our Father in heaven. The evil, they may be assured, is pressing, but is not yet past all remedy; and with a good trust in Him who has always protected Israel, let all unite, and the result will be glorious, and the reward sure, as is the goodness of the Lord unto those who love Him and seek for his favour.