Vol. X. No. 2
Iyar 5612 May 1852
Thoughts on the Jewish Ministry
We dwelt in our preceding article, which we trust was read with some attention, on the state of isolation in which all our communities exist, from which it results that we are, up to this moment, destitute of all those things which can spring alone from a close union of many, acting for one common object. We have, as our readers well know, frequently inveighed against the inefficiency of our ministers; but whose fault is it that this evil exists? Is it altogether owing to the material from which the ranks of our Synagogue officers are filled? At a former period we might have been tempted to answer this question in the affirmative, under the full persuasion that were the incumbents in office better qualified by feelings, habits, and education, they could acquire a more extensive influence, and thus, from the very nature of the case be more efficient and useful than they are, and likewise lead their flocks to be more pious and God-fearing than we find them. To a great extent we have not changed our views; we still complain that our public men are not better than they have proved themselves; but we blame them not half as much as we do the congregations themselves, for having never taken the first step even to supply the means of calling forth the talent which would be ready to enter their service, if it were needed.
<<66>>Daily the want is felt more and more, that the Synagogue should be what it was in olden days, a place of instruction and devotion; though frequently it is neither one nor the other; for instruction is not imparted; because there is no one there capable of doing it; and the other element, a heartfelt lifting up the soul to God, is lost sight of amidst the attainment of a more secondary thing; to wit, the raising of the largest possible revenue for the congregational treasury. No, one can feel devout whilst a long list of money offerings is recited; whilst in a monotonous hurried manner, one Hashcabah after the other is uttered forth; whilst the service is interrupted by the various annoyances of whatever kind which long custom and habitual suffering alone have rendered supportable. We know not, indeed, how far ministers are to blame in this; but we think that we do them no injustice in averring that they have not spoken energetically enough in behalf of abating the wrong, if they have ventured to speak at all. But we hope, and trust, that the whole system has struck others as it has done us, and that many who have hitherto connived at it by their silence, have become convinced that it is time to change all this, and to restore to our service the qualities which it now lacks, and this in a manner not to interfere with any form or usage which is based upon a good ancient custom, not to speak even of a law.
We state it once for all, as our old readers know without our telling them, that we are the last, to introduce a single reform feature of the modern kind; even the choir singing is not to our taste; we prefer the hearty Amen and Baruch hoo ubaruch Shemo, from the voice of a whole congregation, to the singing them out by the best trained company of musicians in the whole world. There is something honest, sonorous, overflowing, ay, holy, let us speak out at once, in a unanimous shout of an entire assembly, so that provided it be not too discordant, our unlearned ear can well dispense with the refined harmony of the modern school. We can recall the impression which the singing of the El norah ’Alilah, in the beginning of the Ne’ilah prayer, on the, Day of Atonement, as it rolled forth from the hearts and souls of the assembled faithful (since in truth, all Israel are firm to <<67>> the faith, when)the moment of trial comes), often made on our mind; there is something grand, powerful, subduing in it, which you will look for in vain from the sound of the harp, or the swelling of the organ. Yes, we like a congregational chorus, it is the proper mode of worship, and can be trained also upon rules of good taste and tuneful harmony. Hence we are even on the score of expediency opposed to any new measures to draw people to the Synagogue, by making it more amusing than it has been hitherto. But this does not say that we are in favour of letting abuses proceed to such an extent, as to drive the young and inexperienced away, or to leave those who attend, cold and uninfluenced by what they hear and see done around them. We would offer no bounty to attract; it is beneath the dignity of religion, unworthy of the noble inspiration which should fill us when we appear before our Maker; if we are compelled to confess that we are brought thither in order to be ravished by the magic touches of some experienced organist, or excited by the ardent appeals of a great orator even, should either be the sole inducement of our being present. But it is something very different, so to organize our public assemblies, that devotion and instruction may descend into the souls of those assembled at prayer, and that all may be sent home with their feelings elevated, and their spirits improved by what they have seen and heard. Our ancient forms can effect all this; and hence we demand that they be restored to their former influence and dignity, and that we remove the obstacles which stand in the way at once, and without any lingering fondness for antiquated abuses and worn-out notions, which have ruled long enough, to the disgrace of our religion and the confusion of our people.
We are well aware that the most violent reformers use almost the identical language in urging their destructive measures on the public attention; it is all to bring things back to original Judaism, that their onslaught on our customs and opinions are made; enough, indeed, to sicken any one with pretended purity of motives, when the overt actions show anything but purity.
But notwithstanding this, and although we have for the moment to use language employed by others, we are not going to throw <<68>> our influence into the scale of the destructives, compelled though, as we are, in the course of our inquiry to censure much in the existing state of things: we repeat here, what we have said on a former occasion, our religion, especially its presence in America, owes small thanks to its alleged teachers and the heads of the people. It has flourished not through, but in spite of them, and this from the natural impulse the Jewish heart feels to unite for the upholding of the sacred treasure with all others who have an equal interest in it. This has caused the rise of our American congregations, and the many charitable societies, which are found all over the land. But the rich in purse and the wealthy in the stores of education, have generally been the last to join the movements, and they do generally come in, if at all, when the work is done without them. Some of them are then also willing to take the lead, quite magnanimously of course, and boast of the good they have accomplished, and vaunt of a zeal which is not alone newly born, but sits also quite awkwardly upon them. We do not wish to be understood as holding up the rich and intellectual to scorn, or to excite against them the poor, or to deprive them of the influence which is justly their due; but we do, and mean to, complain of them for their keeping themselves so far removed from all useful enterprises till such times as their co-operation is not needed, and often not wished for. Wealth and intellect should have their full share of importance assigned to them; indeed, their claims to distinction are seldom or never overlooked; but it is too much like servility to perceive the extreme deference exhibited by many when the rich man comes among them, or when a professional person for once deigns to appear in their assemblies, as though a great honour was conferred on them and their cause by the participation of such honourable men in their religions deliberations. It would be, indeed, great cause for congratulation, if those whom fortune or talent places in the front ranks of society, were to be the first in all our meetings, those who are willing to labour on committees and in other requisite capacities, to promote the public good; but, except a few honourable exceptions, this is not the case, and they do not labour with that good will which the exigencies of our affairs of right demand of all our members.
We will explain our meaning a little at length. It is well known that our prayers are in the Hebrew language, that holy speech in which the law was revealed to our nation, which has been the bond of union that has always kept united together our scattered communities, which enables the Asiatic to enter an American Synagogue, and to find himself there in an Assembly of brothers; that sacred dialect which empowers us to refer all arguments advanced against our faith to the original text, and <<70>> to test everything by the undefiled, unadulterated inspiration of the Most High. This language must be preserved, not alone as a learned exercise of the scholar, in the retirement of his closet, but as the holy tongue of the people of Israel, to be employed by them in all their religious assemblies, and in the hours of devotion when, alone and withdrawn from the world, they lay their supplications at the foot of the throne of the Most Merciful, who is ever nigh to hear and to save. The Hebrew language should never be banished, on no pretext whatever, and we would hold as a mortal enemy to our cause, whoever would advocate its banishment, and the substitution therefor of the various languages of the East or West; since even without any other consideration, we ought to have, of right, a dialect of our own, which will distinguish us everywhere as Israelites, as those having an identity of faith and duty differing materially from all other men. But in order that it should be effectual as the language of private and public worship, it must be a living speech among us, readily understood, and universally calling up thoughts in the hearts of those who pray. For what is prayer? It is an asking of God something which is to affect the fate of the individual or community at large. And what should we therefore ask? Something, the purport of which we know not ourselves? uttered in words which have no effect on our own feeling, and which call up in us no emotion,—no sensation, save that of weariness? As things, therefore, have progressed of late years, not alone here, but in Europe also, the Hebrew has in a great degree lost its significance; because people have not enough acquaintance with it to understand it when read aloud, if even they know a little reading, and can translate with labour a few verses of Scripture. The very existence of books, having the Hebrew on the one side, and the English on the other, or the translation on the same page beneath the text, proves that something is wanting, and that a remedy is needed to counteract an evil which the projectors of these works have felt as a burden. Some good may have been produced by these publications, as they enable all individuals to say their prayers at least in the vernacular; at home and in the Synagogue, with some little reference to the <<71>> original, if they are able to read the same. But we ask, Will this method be enough to render the public worship influential on the feelings of the multitude? The answer is too painfully evident, to require its being expressed in words; and hence the next inquiry arises: What is the remedy which is to be applied to correct this crying evil? But the answer is again quite plain, to wit: “Educate all so as to give them a general, if not even a thorough knowledge of the language of the Scriptures and prayers, so that in being present at public worship, the words employed should not fall meaningless on the ear, and not fail in impressing the mind with the responsibility which the petitioner incurs laying his case before Him who knoweth all our ways.”
In brief, we require that in all places the people should appoint competent persons to impart to both children and adults, a moderate knowledge of the Hebrew, so that all may be able to comprehend at sight the prayers and lessons from the Bible, which are read aloud in our assemblies; by which means our own would cease to be a dead tongue, and take its rank again among those called living languages. We may be asked, Whether our advice is practicable? Perhaps not at once, though of this too, we are not certain; but it admits of no doubt, that by degrees much could be done to diffuse more knowledge of the Hebrew than the superficial might expect at first view of the case. Our hopes are founded mainly on the great increase of good school books (besides which the series could be readily extended, if there were sufficient demand for them), which will enable a teacher with moderate capacity to effect what is here proposed, not to make profound scholars, but devout petitioners, when they take up the prayer-book in their hands, from which they may read understandingly, and not utter sounds which carry neither hope nor conviction home to their minds. The want of teachers, also, is no obstacle; for the moment it would be discovered that many are anxious to learn, a large class of those who now are devoted to other pursuits, would apply themselves successfully to an acquisition of the Hebrew, for the sake of imparting it to others, and herein, as in all other cases, the supply would follow the demand. The effect of this course <<72>> would be in the first place to remove the strangeness of the minds of the Hebrew from the minds of Israelites; and by imparting to them thus a branch of knowledge with which many are now totally unacquainted, it would produce, in the second place, greater ability to comprehend the meaning of Scriptures and other religious books; and thirdly, the labour of those who busy themselves with furnishing translations of and comments on the above, would be more appreciated, as their readers would, by comparing them with the originals, be fitter to fix the value of what is offered for their perusal, and they would themselves be able to distinguish between the true and false, between that which God has taught, and the vain inventions of sinful man.
No one will dispute, we imagine, that we have sketched the simple truth in the foregoing, and that the want of knowledge of the language of prayer is a frightful source of want of devotion. It is at the time readily admitted that, in olden days, when the Hebrew was in many places not much better understood than it now is, devotion was nevertheless more displayed, and probably more felt, than it now is in our assemblies. But the times have changed, whether for better or worse we will not now determine. Formerly, we can recall back our days of childhood, and so recently yet existed the different state to which we allude, and for all that we know, it may yet exist in many parts of Europe and elsewhere, people used to recite, with evident unction, whatever the prayer-book contained, little heeding whether understood or not; for it was considered a duty to say whatever had been laid down as a part of the exercise of the respective days, and people seemed to think that there was some peculiar advantage or merit arising from the repetition of the mere words, assuming even that they could not attach to them any definite meaning.
All the responses in the Synagogue, or private meetings for prayer, were then made with an emphasis and energy, of which many cannot form any judgment nowadays; because they had an indefinite idea that all this was at once acceptable, and had a corresponding effect in purifying and sanctifying the spirit; and perhaps they were right; for their intention was to show forth <<73>> their Maker’s praise, to invoke His blessing, and to thank Him for the rod or the light, whichever His mercy might dispense. These ancient Israelites saw in all occurrences the hand of their Maker, and they could, and did, rely on Him in all their ways. This is the essence, although the expression of it may seem uncouth to our more refined taste. Such faith, however, as our fathers displayed we in vain look for in this age of utilitarian notions; everything is measured by its exchangeable value; and religion too the question is often asked, “What use is there in it?” and, as no one can demonstrate the precise value of repeating words without thought, the Rabbis even are invoked, and their principle תפלה בלא כוונה כגוף בלא נשמה, “Prayer without serious reflection is like a body without a soul,” is cited against the propriety of prayers in Hebrew, because people have ceased to apply themselves to the study of the sacred tongue. The premises may be admitted, that is, that prayer requires thought, and that the Hebrew is not as much studied as it used and ought to be; but the deduction hence, that we should introduce the vernaculars of various countries to supply the place of our own, is hued on s false assumption; for true remedy is not in abolishing the Hebrew, but in making it universally understood, which, though difficult of attainment as things now are, is nevertheless within the compass of possibility, and should, therefore, be tried, and we are sure with success, if the attempt be made in seriousness and good faith.
In saying this we do not mean
to convey the idea that prayers, in any other
language than the Hebrew, are inadmissible; for this
notion is not in accordance with the teaching of our
learned men of ancient times who were honest in only
people what was strictly in accordance with
the law. Hence we have, at all times, had prayers
and lessons other than in Hebrew used in our
Synagogues and family circles. The Kaddish,
and other Chaldean pieces, prove this as regards the
prayer-book itself, and the collection of petitions
in the Jewish German dialect, commonly called
Techinnoth (we are not certain that the Portuguese have
anything like this), proves that this view was
But we must stop for the present.