|Vol. II, No. 7
Tishry 5605, October 1844
The Demands Of The Times.
by Isaac Leeser
In our last number we endeavoured to prove that the want of religious practice in many places, is owing to the absence of proper guides. Now, let us look around and observe what other societies have been, and are doing, for the propagation and confirming of their opinions, and we will have some idea what we ought to do ourselves if we are really desirous to see Judaism flourish in its vigour and beauty; and though we are not permitted to borrow their method, nor to follow them step by step in all their movements, still we may learn wisdom from then, and adapt to our case some features, which are based upon rules of wisdom and sound policy.
Let us premise that “to let alone” may be, in some cases, very good policy; too much meddling and interference with the business of individuals is wrong, as leading to the destruction of individual freedom, and not rarely fails of effecting the good which the actors in such movements may honestly contemplate; but we may, on other hand, be too much on the other extreme, and let an evil come to maturity for want of a timely co-operation to remove it by a united effort. We will, therefore admit, that among many Christian Societies, there may be too much interference with each other’s conscientious scruples; but this does not prove that there is not a great deal of sound wisdom in their manner of handling great questions of general concern.
In the first place, there is hardly any Christian Society which does not strain every nerve to have an intelligent and virtuous ministry, composed of men who would honour any calling by their acquirements and general good conduct. There are, no doubt, exceptions; but the very universal surprise expressed whenever such an unworthy personage presents himself, proves that the greater portion at least, of those who do officiate as the ministers of the various denominations, are intelligent and pious men.
Now it requires no great experience to convince any one, that among the English-speaking Jews at least, including England and her dependencies, no less than the United States of North America, there is hardly such an institution as a Jewish ministry. We know well enough, that each Synagogue, wherever the number of the congregation is sufficient, is presided over, or rather served, by an officer elected to fulfil the ministerial duties demanded by the rites of our religion; he reads the prayers and the the laws, attends marriages and funerals, and is present where his services are officially required. He perhaps visits the members of his congregation at stated periods, and renders himself generally acceptable by his gentlemanly demeanour and good religious conduct. But what are the qualifications which have hitherto been demanded? A particular acquaintance with the chaunts and sacred tunes of his peculiar Minhag* and some general knowledge of Hebrew; of course, his religious character must be unexceptionable; but, beyond this, who did ever ask for any thing more ? It is with pleasure, that we acknowledge that some other qualifications are now looked for; but how long has this demand existed? And how many incumbents come up to the standard required? It is now fifteen years ago, since the writer of this was summoned from private life, to take, unexpectedly to himself, the charge of the congregation which he has served ever since. But, instead of an examination into his fitness, by previous study and the due acquirements for the office to which he was called, he was merely required to read the service for three successive weeks; when, without any farther inquiry or examination, he was installed into office. We are perfectly willing to acknowledge that it is a difficult thing to be proficient in the correct performance of the service, and we fear, that despite of a fifteen years’ practice, we are far from perfect, and much behind most of our contemporaries in this respect; but still we leave it to the candour of our intelligent readers to decide whether an acquaintance with mere routine of duty, and a correct manner of reading ought to be all, or is in fact all, that should be, or is required of our readers. Our American and English brethren are sighing for the bread of life; and who is to distribute it to them? to whom are they to apply for information in the dearest and holiest concerns of life? Their ministers, as a rule, (for there are exceptions we gladly acknowledge,) are not themselves fitted for the task; and to whom else can they apply, with any degree of confidence to be properly enlightened? We shall, perhaps, be answered, that there are in every place men who have much knowledge of religion, and who will be at all times willing and ready to inform their less learned brethren. But there are many objections to such a dependence upon irresponsible persons. First, their reputation is generally a matter of uncertainty; they may, or may not be highly learned; for who knows the extent of their acquirements? who has examined them? who testifies to their general good character? Secondly, if even all these questions should be answered to their advantage, it would still be optional with them to gratify the laudable curiosity or not, just as it might suit their humour of the moment. And thirdly, they are naturally not accessible to all the brethren, alike; and hence, though some few, who are intimate friends and neighbours, might be properly instructed through them, there would be a far greater portion who could never learn nor hear what these erudite men have taught concerning the ways of the Lord. We decline looking for any more objections; since those just stated are amply sufficient for our purpose, and exhibit, we think, beyond a doubt, that we too, require a proper ministry, independently of the usual reader of the Synagogues; men, who are to teach the people, and are to be ready at all times to inform any inquirer concerning the great truths which are entrusted to the safe-keeping of Israel; men whose general knowledge of sciences and the holy things especially appertaining to the sons of Jacob would place them in the front ranks of the educated classes of society, and whose sterling and approved piety would not yield, in the least, to those of the church dignitaries of any other part of the community.
But let us look round among our various congregations, and see where such men are? Where are the preachers who are to be the leaders of the people? Where the ecclesiastical chiefs who are to instruct? The persons who are capable of delivering sermons and actually do so, are but few indeed, and, with all, their qualifications in this respect would not have placed them in their position as ministers, unless they had been qualified to, and in fact did, officiate as the readers of the service likewise. Now, with the desire for instruction, has sprung up a demand that the readers should likewise be preachers; and the general inquiry is, “Why cannot our ministers do as Mr. Nathan or Mr. Rosenfeld, or the Messrs. Isaacs, or Mr. Marks, or Dr. Raphall does?” In good sooth, it is asking that of people, which they have never applied themselves to, and which, from their education, they are the least qualified to furnish. For we say it without invidiousness the few whose names we have enumerated, are hitherto the only regular English preachers with whose names we are familiar, and if we add, Mr. Carillon of St. Thomas, who lately quitted office, Dr. De la Motta of Charleston, who however, is not in office, he having acted merely without election or compensation, and Mr. Poznanski, who also preaches occasionally, though not as frequently as might be desired: we have exhausted all those who, have given instruction in this manner; and the occasional sermons which are delivered in English and American Synagogues by others, are merely by volunteers who, once in a while, give an exhortation to the assembled brethren, and their productions do then also partake too much of the nature of an oration, and too little that of the sermon. There are, besides the above, only about three known to us who preach in German to the brethren of this denomination in America, to wit: Mr. Rice at Baltimore, Mr. Michelbacher at Philadelphia, and Mr. Mertzbach at New York; and with these few exceptions, the immense number of Israelites scattered over the American continent and islands, and we may include England, Scotland and Ireland, are without public religious instruction, except on few and rare occasions, and this not from any fault of the incumbents in office, but simply, because they have never been educated for the purpose.
We have spoken about the qualifications and duties required of our ministers, and for them they are amply qualified; but for what purpose should they acquire what was formerly not demanded? and where, this is the GREAT question, could they obtain access to such information as would enable them to become religious teachers? We say it, with heartfelt sorrow, there is no school either in England or America, where a Jewish student of theology could be educated, or whence he might issue forth as an able representative of his religion, and a ready expounder of the Word. Formerly, this was the case also in Germany, and the other parts of the continent; the sermon was a rare thing, and a preacher, as such, absolutely unknown. There were Darshahnim, or allegorical expounders of scripture and Talmud, or Mocheechim, exhorters of the people; but a regular and classically educated orator was nowhere to be found. With the revival of classical knowledge among the continental Jews, a taste for pulpit eloquence also revived; and the excellent custom of public instruction, in vogue during the second temple and the times of Tanaim and Amoraim, or the doctors of the Mishna and Talmud, thus finding advocates, it was not long before men of high attainments stepped forth to respond to the call, and they taught the people in words of glorious eloquence, such as have seldom been equalled, never surpassed among any of the various classes of Christians. We have to boast of a Zunz, Sachs, Hirsch, Phillippson, Mannheimer, Salomon, Kley, Plessner, Wolff, Jolowicz, and many others in Germany; Wogue and Fabius in France, besides others in Italy, Holland and the northern parts of the continent, whose names are not familiar to us; and all these bright examples prove, that it requires but an incentive to urge the Jewish mind to an eminence as high as ever reached before by the descendants of Israel, or those of other nations. We will admit in these premises, that several of the names cited above have lent themselves to the innovating party, and have wrought what we term injury to our good cause; but they are with all their faults Israelites, and carry aloft the banner of our faith to the admiration of the world; they have done wrong, but they may have been led away by the consciousness that something must be done, to seek in unauthorized changes for the remedy, though this was done unwisely, for the wide-spreading indifference to the dictates of our blessed religion. They responded thus erroneously to the spirit of the age, as they understood, and yet understand it; for all the names we have mentioned belong to the living; but we cannot deny for this reason their claim to be numbered among Israel. And gladly as we could wish that there were no breach among us, joyful as we would be, could we assert that all our teachers enforced the Word in the same manner; we must not overlook the fact that even the reformers have shed a halo around the name of Israel, which we are by no means willing should be lost to us. No doubt the evil will in process of time cure itself; there will be an assimilation of opinions, and the rough outlines of hasty reform, called forth by the too great ardour of some persons to place themselves in the front rank before the public, will be worn away by the action of more calm deliberation and more mature thinking, when the future good may cause us to dwell with a melancholy satisfaction on the acts of the past; for we have no doubt, that in this, as well as other occurrences which befel us, “Men may think for evil, but the Lord will think it for good.”
We know well enough, that there are to this day, many who do not value sermons much, believing that the general diffusion of religious knowledge will effect more than mere partial teaching through oratorical displays, if these be even of the highest order. And to confess the truth, we adhere in the main to the same opinion. But there is one question to be answered: “Where and how can our population, both old and young, both male and female, both rich and poor; both learned and unlearned, obtain the much desired religious knowledge? Where are our schools? our libraries? our books?” Yet, unless we have all these, there can be no thought of a general acquaintance with religion; and even with them, we still maintain, that though a universal diffusion of knowledge had taken place, neither sermons nor fervid religious orators would become useless; as, in conjunction with domestic and school education, they would exercise an influence over the mind of society, which we now can hardly have any idea of. What does any one think would be the fate of protestant Christianity without the constant appeal to the fear and reason of its professors from the ten thousand pulpits which scatter information and admonition many times during every week? Who does not discover in the army of religious orators, a most powerful arm for the upholding of any system to which their well-stored minds are directed? We candidly admit, as we have said already, that there is a great deal of truth in the objection to orators; “that they are not every thing which we require, and that we can dispense sooner with them than with education.” But we think it at the same time unquestionably true, that a well directed, powerful appeal to the feelings of an audience, or a bold denunciation of a flagrant wrong, in the manner of the prophets, by a fearless and unblemished preacher, cannot fail to have a little effect, and to leave some impression, however slight these may be. But if even there should be no immediate impression produced, still words spoken have singular effect, they are abroad on their mission; and an idea thrown out, as it were, from the rich abundance of a devoted soul may kindle a fire in the heart of many, which will not be quenched, though it blaze not forth until after many days.—Perhaps some may farther object, that if we admit “that orators have power for good, they may have it likewise for evil.” This is certainly true, and we have to this day to deplore much injury which we have suffered from the misdirected eloquence of some of our great names, names which we have enumerated among our list of highly endowed orators. But there is no unmixed good on this earth; and if we have any confidence in the holiness and stability of our faith, which we are sure no Israelite is without, we cannot for a moment admit that any permanent injury can be inflicted on our system by unworthy men, whilst the Word is free, and those who really love their faith are ready and able to battle with the weapons of truth for the holy cause. Our religion has ever been one in favour of freedom of discussion, and those who know our rabbinical writings must also admit that on the bravest subjects differences of opinion were willingly tolerated, and no one has ever been denounced as a heretic for differing in some points with the majority of his brethren. We cannot at present go farther into this question; but we appeal for the justification of what we assert to those better acquainted with the subject than we pretend to be.—At all events we know that some persons have received lasting religious impressions, even to the production of a change of life, from words spoken in a sermon, and from words comitted to the press, which went forth on their silent mission over the face of the earth; and we cannot doubt that if sinners could only be made to resort to the house of God, we should be able to boast, equally with the Christians, of revivals in our obdurate members. They are human, and are influenced by human affections; why then should they not be able to succumb to the truth, when so many gentiles can be influenced with the doctrines which are enforced from their pulpits?
But we must leave this discussion and revert to the query “Whence are our preachers to come from in America and England? whence are our youth to draw the religious knowledge which is to qualify them to know their duty and to impress it on others?” It is no answer to saw that we have the Bible to resort to; for this the Christians have as well as we, and still they deduct such doctrines from the Sacred Text, as would, if admitted, prove the destruction of our system and of our nation. We need not impress upon the reader’s attention, what the dogmas of Christianity are, nor that they are firmly believed in by its followers. What then constitutes the difference between Jews and gentiles? Nothing but their education, and perhaps the idea of the unity of God inherent to a greater degree in those of the seed of Abraham than in the descendants of other families. But of this we cannot speak with any decree of confidence, for there are descendants from apostate Jews who are, to all appearance, as sincere believers in a trinity, as are original Christians; on the other hand, the secret Jews of Spain, have preserved the knowledge and practice of the faith of their fathers, whilst they outwardly simulate a profession of Christianity.—But to such an unsafe guide, as an inherent idea on any subject, we cannot rely for any religious conviction; and if therefore, we wish to preserve Judaism, we must resort to the only means in our power, and this is, as we have said, education in its most extensive bearing: that is education at home and education at school. Our youth, both male and female, should receive a thorough training from parents and teachers, in all the dogmas and duties which belong to Israel; and those of our young men who have the capacity, ought then to be educated that they may step forward as public teachers of the Word of God, to urge their brethren in the way they should go. We want ministers, so also do we want an enlightened community; upon the ignorant, fanatics may be able to work, and produce an effect which is both striking and melancholy; but an educated and virtuous man requires an educated community for his field of labour, provided they are in a measure prepared to understand what he lays before them. We moreover want native ministers, men born to speak the language of the country, who have sympathies and feelings in common with their congregations, who have personal friends and relatives to assist them in their arduous labours and to obtain such as these, we must educate them, and we say it boldly, we have not done our duty till we have made every effort to accomplish this result.
But the extent to which we have carried our remarks warns us to stop for the present; so we again break off abruptly, and recommend the whole subject to the calm consideration of our benevolent and pious fellow Israelites in every place where the want of a good ministry has been, and is felt at the present time. We invite our friends to discuss the subject in our paper, wishing that something may be elicited for the benefit of our common cause, the ancient religion of Israel.