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The Proposed Assembly.

Letter From Rev. Jacob Rosenfeld, of Charleston.

Charleston; S. C. 24th Kislev, 5609.

Rev. Isaac Leeser, Philadelphia:

Reverend Sir and Colleague,—In the November number of the Occident [the December number actually--LMB], you very emphatically and urgently suggested that a convention of Jewish ministers be held in New York, for the purpose of devising a plan how to establish a uniformity in our sacred customs, our mode of worship, and religious education, &c. In the last number of your valuable journal, you published a circular from Dr. Wise, of Albany, to the same effect, but intended more particularly to be a “solemn call” to the ministers of the Hebrew congregations throughout the Union, and to such laymen as are learned, and take an interest in the sacred cause of our holy religion, to join said convention, and to give their opinions on this very important subject. The manner, in which Dr. W. calls for the assistance of his co-labourers in the vineyard, is too solemn and too earnest as to allow a sufficient excuse even to the most modest for silence, when silence may be looked upon as indifference. I therefore deem it the duty of every individual whom circumstances have placed at the head of a congregation, however small, and who feels the responsibility of such a post, to state his opinions in this matter, and it is to be hoped, that you, the principal organ, will give it due reflection, כקטן כגדול תשמעון.

Taking all this in consideration, I shall not hesitate making a few remarks on this very serious subject, and state to you my objections to the plan proposed. Before entering; however, on any particulars, allow me to assure you that I have given your proposition mature reflection, and that I should look upon such a convention, if practicable, as the most effectual means of promoting Judaism throughout this country, and establishing that uniformity in all our religious concerns, as well as promulgating true religious principles amongst our brethren, by means of a judicious, religious education, which must ultimately be productive of the happiest results. But, sir, allow me to call your attention to certain facts which you and Dr. W. seem to have overlooked, and which may tend not only to counteract or even overthrow your noble designs, but, what is more, may produce many a schism in congregations which are at present united and prosperous.

In the first place, you must not forget that if a convention is at all practicable in Germany, France, or other countries of Europe, it is <<564>>because the Jewish ministers there are, for the most part, invested with some power from the government of said countries, to enact such laws, and make such regulations respecting Synagogue discipline and other religious matters, as they may deem wholesome or necessary. In this country it is different, the Jewish minister is but a dead letter, because all matters of the congregation, even such points of religion which require deep learning, are decided by a majority of the members, whether they understand anything about it, or whether they take the least interest in it or not. The minister in this country is therefore, properly speaking, governed by his flock, instead of his leading them; and consequently you will easily perceive that you have applied for assistance to persons who have the will, but not the power to promote the undertaking.

Secondly, the Jewish ministers in this country are generally appointed or elected by a majority of members for the short space of one, two, or five years, during which time it is necessary that they study the wishes of every individual member, and endeavour to satisfy all (if such a thing be at all possible), both privately and publicly, lest at the expiration of the appointed time they be discharged by the majority on some pretence or other, and thus lose the means of procuring a living for themselves and families. Now, sir, you will easily see in what predicament your united “call” has placed a number of men whose will is no doubt with you, but who are altogether powerless to do aught, except to give a feeble advice, and even that not, should it happen that a majority of members be against it, for fear of endangering their situation.

Supposing any minister should wish to join your convention, and after applying to his congregation he be refused. Would you think it advisable to join nevertheless? Suppose he obtains permission from a portion of the members, would you be satisfied that the others be forced to submit, and thus create strife and contention amongst them? And grant that he joins with the unanimous consent of the congregation, and yet they are opposed to the proceedings of the convention, and thus prevent the minister from carrying into effect what was considered wholesome or necessary, what good can such a convention do? And, farther, who is to defray the travelling expenses, if the congregation should be unwilling or unable to do so? These and other obstacles have presented themselves to my view, and they must necessarily be removed if you wish to succeed; but as this would be, according to my feeble judgment, a very difficult task, I would suggest to you another plan which, I think, will operate better, and which I recommend to your consideration.

I would suggest to get up a convention of as many congregations as <<565>>you could conveniently get at the North, who shall send their ministers as delegates, and who, so it shall be understood, will abide by all the rules and regulations which the convention should deem proper to make. These delegates should meet at New York or Philadelphia, as soon as possible, and appoint a committee, which, in the name  of the convention, are to invite all other congregations of the United States separately, by letter, to join said convention, and send their ministers as delegates. These letters are to be directed to the respective Parnassim of the different congregations, who shall convene their members, explain to them the object of the convention, which shall be fully and distinctly stated in the letters of the committee; those congregations then who unanimously agree to join, and send their ministers as delegates, shall be accepted; those, on the contrary, who cannot unanimously agree, and, a minority be overruled and forced to submit by the majority, shall not be accepted. For, it shall be distinctly understood, that no schism shall arise through this convention, whose object it is to unite, and not to separate; and the greatest precaution should be used, not to trample upon the feelings of a minority in matters of faith, nor to force persons to yield, where perhaps conscience dictates otherwise. In this manner, dear sir, the minister will be free of all blame, and able to do more for the good cause, than if made responsible for it, whilst the individual members of congregations will more readily yield, because they can exercise their right of voting in the matter, and no schism will arise.

I hope you will give this due reflection, and, if convenient, inform me if my views on the subject are erroneous, or the plan proposed practicable. With the fervent prayer that the Almighty may give you long life, health, and strength to accomplish much good in Israel’s cause, and promulgate true religion amongst our brethren, wherever scattered in this country,

I remain, dear sir,
Your friend and colleague,
Jacob Rosenfeld.

Letter I.

On the Formation of a Union of the Congregations of Israelites in the United States

By Mr. A. A. Lindo of Cincinnati.

In the Occident for December last, under the head, “A Call to Israelites,” the reverend editor and Dr. Wise propose a meeting, the declared object of which is “to bring together all men of zeal and piety, of wis<<566>>dom and knowledge, to consider what should be done for the union, welfare, and progress of Israel.”

Skilful physicians, when called in to a patient, first examine carefully the symptoms that present themselves; thence, tracing the disease to its primary cause, they are enabled to prescribe the proper remedies.

The reverend and learned gentlemen have pursued this judicious course; they have straightforwardly and manfully exposed to view those symptoms that constitute a state of spiritual disease in the Jewish community, and far from blaming, every right-thinking individual will applaud and thank them for having done so; for who among us can deny the existence of circumstances that indicate anything but a sound and healthy state for a people, consecrated, as ours have been, to the service of the Eternal? who, except such as deem it a light matter to subject themselves to be rebuked, as were our forefathers, by Him who neither sleeps or slumbers: “Hear ye deaf, and look ye blind, that ye may see; who is blind but my servant? or deaf, as my messenger that I send? Who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the Lord’s servant? seeing many things, but thou observest not; opening the ears, but he heareth not?”

As a means through which to supply the remedies required by the exigencies of the case, a union of the congregations in these states is suggested.

A public call has been made for all to express, through the Occident, their sentiments upon so important a proposition.

In obedience to that call, and in compliance with the wish of friends, these letters are put forth; their author therefore trusts they will experience that indulgence he is sensible they will need. His ideas, opinions, and suggestions will be taken for as much only as they are worth; and his object being solely to assist his coreligionists in coming to just conclusions on the union in question, he will greatly rejoice at the appearance of other and better views than his for throwing light upon the subject.

Such are his feelings, and by such will all, doubtless, be actuated, when publishing their thoughts, and when assembled for deliberation.

The symptoms of an unsatisfactory state having been fairly placed before us, in order properly to estimate the value of a union of the congregations as a remedial measure, it may prove neither uninstructive nor uninteresting to trace those symptoms to their primary cause.

The French Revolution, of 1789, was mainly brought about by the wide dissemination of the writings of several talented individuals of that country, whose advocacy of free principles, and attack on oppression in <<567>>all its hues and shapes, attracted universal attention, and gained almost universal applause; as a proof that such was the case, we may refer to the war waged by revolutionary France against the rest of Europe, being styled, and not inaptly, “a war of principles.”

One thing only was wanted to entitle the French nation to be hailed as the benefactors of the human race; that thing was religion. They repudiated religion altogether; they would have nothing to do with it!

The shafts of wit and ridicule were unceasingly employed to bring it into disrepute; it was held up as the cause of all that fanaticism, oppression, intolerance, ignorance, and cruelty that had for ages desolated the earth.

This is neither the time nor place for examining the justness of such charges against religion, nor to trace the grounds upon which so many individuals of confessedly benevolent dispositions attacked indiscriminately all religions based on a Divine revelation, or it might be shown that their cause would have lost nothing of its strength, had they avowed it to be founded on the Divine principles entrusted to our keeping.

There was, however, a mighty impediment to their adopting so wise and judicious a course—we could not be divested of our high office, by which we are especially appointed to unfold to the world the banner of just and righteous principles, as the gift of a beneficent God to all men. There would consequently have been a necessity for recognising this as being our high destiny; but to honour thus a people that had hitherto been vilified and calumniated on all sides was, apparently, too magnanimous an act for human weakness to perform.

It was therefore something more censurable than error, when those individuals assumed that through their superior moral perceptions, and the exercise of their mental powers, they had acquired a knowledge of the equitable rights of man; whereas, there can be little doubt that for whatever just notions they possessed upon the subject, they were indebted to the revelation they affected to despise.

The shocking effects of causing men to cast aside that standard of morals, justice, mercy and benevolence, are too well known to need being repeated here.

Thus the good the widely disseminating of sound principles is destined eventually to effect, was, unfortunately, mixed up with that which cannot fail, in the meantime, to produce much evil. This may be in obedience to some mysterious law of our nature, when in a transition state from error to truth, which, however, we cannot stop to investigate, the matter immediately in hand being to show the relation the freely discussing of civil and religious principles, so prevalent since the French <<568>>Revolution, bears to the circumstances that have been brought under our notice, and which are certainly anything but satisfactory for a community whose very existence, as such, is inseparably connected with its religion.

Among the many dangers our nation has been exposed to, since the termination of the Babylonish captivity, not the least in magnitude has been that of their being unavoidably subjected to all sorts of external influences, at variance with their own religious and moral principles; and it has been one of our most besetting sins, to exhibit a too ready disposition to be affected by those influences.

It was in order to preserve from danger the great trust that had been confided to our nation by its God, that the faithful shepherds of ancient days surrounded the Law with those multifarious observances to which the term “fences of the Law,” has been, not improperly, applied; for, while their effect was to occasion the laws, statutes, commandments, and precepts of the written Law to be kept constantly in view, they served, likewise, to render more difficult any intercourse with the people among whom we have been dispersed, and by whose false worships, unrighteous principles, and immoral practices we might be contaminated.

The wisdom and foresight of those who thus provided against an imminent danger, has been signally proved.

On the extinction of the great schools, over each of which had presided one or other of the eminent and pious men of our nation, the congregations, scattered every where, were left to the sole supervision of elders chosen from among themselves, with, sometimes a competent expounder of the Law at their head, whose respective duties were to watch over and promote the spiritual and temporal well-being of their congregation—duties, comparatively easy of performance in those days; for, under the discipline of their numerous observances, our people, with scarcely any exception since their dispersion, and until only within the last few years, had ever observed their law, respected the teachings of their spiritual guides, and, to the utmost of their power endeavoured to think, and act in accordance with the requirements of their religion.

It is a circumstance worthy to be noticed, that the object contemplated by those fences of the law was singularly enough promoted by the illiberal policy, oppression, or by whatsoever other term it may be designated, which caused nearly, if not all the nations to interdict our people, dwelling in any but a certain quarter of the cities to which they had resorted—to forbid their intermarrying, or even holding intercourse of any kind with the other inhabitants, and to close the door against them, of every respectable and honourable profession; for these strin<<569>>gent regulations contributed, in no slight degree, to keep them out of the sphere of those influences against which the utmost anxiety had been evinced to preserve them.

But the time did come when the public voice was loudly raised against acts, disgraceful even to a period of the greatest mental darkness; and it is not to be wondered at that, wincing under the cruelties, oppressions, and insults which, for ages, had been dealt out to them without measure, our people, should have been among the first to greet with thrilling transport the sound of that note which denounced such acts as crimes against humanity.

And who shall say, that this may not have been their reward for having so long a period, and under every temptation and suffering, performed the service to which they had been appointed, in firmly adhering to their Law, and faithfully preserving it in all its integrity, until it proved the means not only of freeing themselves from oppression, and enabling them to take their proper position in society, but, likewise, for exciting so universal a detestation for cruelty and oppression, as might render it henceforward dangerous, if not impossible, for any, but as yet, only half-civilized governments or people to attempt the repetition of acts, such as had been too long and generally perpetrated with impunity in the world?

But was it sure there would be no reaction?

Was there not as much evil as had ever been produced by the abuse of religion to be apprehended from a total dissolution of order, in the social state—from the disruption of the most sacred ties and relations of nature, through the abandoning of the Divine guidance that had been graciously vouchsafed to man, and the consequent substitution of anarchy in the place of rational liberty? Yes; certainly there was, and the elders of the congregations ought, at that critical juncture, to have been alive to this new danger.

In the delirium of their joy, it would appear they overlooked to whom but to their great, good, and ever watchful God they were indebted for this deliverance.

Before Him, they ought to have called upon their congregations to prostrate themselves, and pour out the overflowing of grateful hearts in thanksgiving for that through the spreading of the righteous principles embodied in his Law, so great a change for the better had been suddenly and, as it were, miraculously wrought in their condition.

The history of our nation ought to have impressed upon those guardians of Israel the necessity of using every precaution to prevent their members becoming infected with the dangerous principles then, and <<570>>since, so largely mixed up, and as widely disseminated with those others, which we Jews cannot but approve; since, so far from being new to us, they are the same for the preservation of which thousands, ay, millions of our people have bled and died.

It ought to have been pointed out to the congregations, that as conservators of the sublime truths and principles confided to our care, it would ill become us to assist, with sacrilegious hands, in undermining the sacred foundation upon which they stood. That as the good with which we had been visited was clearly traceable to the convictions those truths and principles had produced in the world, it would be nothing short of madness in us to join in decrying their source—that we should beware, lest by our folly we contributed to bring about such a state of things as might subject us to a severe, but just retribution.

It might, in short, have been shown, that the end is not yet—that if all other nations and states—all other worships—all other systems of philosophy were destined, from their inherent imperfections, to decay and pass away, it had been decreed by the highest Authority that our nation, our religion, and the philosophy it embodies shall survive as the means appointed by the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for the regeneration of man.

But it is to be feared that our elders slept at their post, or were borne along with the stream; for the marked difference between the feelings, sentiments, and opinions of the present generation of Jews, and what prevailed no longer back than fifty or sixty years, too clearly proves, that the principles of deists, atheists, and sceptics, and the example of the worldly-minded have exerted, to a fearful degree, their influence upon many among us.

This was strikingly witnessed, when, it being  impossible any longer to overlook this state of things, a meeting of Rabbis was held in Germany, at which such irreverent opinions were openly avowed, and such disposition displayed for removing almost every landmark of Judaism, as occasioned those of that meeting who held to, and appreciated the religion of their fathers, to withdraw, that they might not, by their presence, appear to countenance even the expression of such sentiments.

The symptoms that constitute a state of spiritual disease in the Jewish community have now been traced to their primary cause. These symptoms present the patient under an aspect for which Jewish history affords no parallel. Hitherto, the chief crime of our nation consisted in abandoning the faith of their fathers to embrace the false, impure worship of idolaters.

Now, our plague-spot lies in the proneness of many, still affecting <<571>>to belong to the house of Israel, to cast off religion altogether; in their downright denial of and avowed disbelief in a divine revelation, thereby betraying the grossest ignorance of their own history and that of other nations, from the remotest antiquity to the present time, as well as of the great mission to which we have been appointed—an ignorance, the less excusable in them, when the finest minds of the age, men of undoubted learning and research, not of our faith, but unshackled by any prejudices whatever, concur in proclaiming the impossibility of shutting the eyes to the palpable fact, that our nation has truly been selected from all mankind to serve some great purpose in the Divine economy.

To this ignorance, or to some more culpable cause, may be ascribed the absence in many of all religious feeling; the lightness with which some abandon our faith, to take upon them another in which they believe as little as they did in their own; the attempts to disturb the peace and harmony, and break up the religious unity of the nation, by the introduction of innovations on our established laws, forms, and customs; the rendering of nationality and brotherhood, terms without any meaning.

Is this an exaggerated portrait? or are we not, unhappily, constrained to confess that it represents, too faithfully, the actual state of things?

The question then arises, By what means shall that state be remedied? farther evils, that may justly be apprehended, averted? and other important objects for promoting the spiritual and temporal well-being of the community, be effectually accomplished?

One thing is certain, we can remain inactive no longer. If those who value their religion will not move, will those who are the cause of this call upon us stop where they are?—will they not rather be encouraged by a continuance of the prevailing apathy and torpor, to persevere in courses highly prejudicial to themselves and to our whole body? Must not those who are zealous for their faith, perceive that their duty, their interest, and their honour demand of them to spring to their feet, and as one man, resolve that so unsatisfactory a state of things shall no longer continue to be a reproach upon us?

Let us then as men rouse ourselves to action—respond, as we ought, to the call made upon us—attend the proposed meeting, carry with us hearts devoted to the service of Him whose great bounties and mercies we are now partaking of largely, and prove ourselves his servants indeed, by performing in all sincerity, when there met, the part he has assigned us in his beneficent plan for the government of man.

If the writer of these letters understands rightly what is required of him and of others on the present occasion—if he mistakes not the objects <<572>>of the proposed meeting: he will not apprehend being considered as at all infringing upon its freedom of discussion, nor of its action, by suggesting that, in order to its terminating in some beneficial result, and not as did that of the Rabbi’s in Germany, it may be indispensably necessary to take means, previously, for making it clearly understood, that as a rule or principle, upon which its deliberations are to be conducted, neither the avowal of sentiments, nor the introduction of propositions at variance with the recognised religious principles, opinions, and customs, of the great body of the nation, be thereat permitted.

It is an established principle in Judaism, that no law, custom, or form, recognised by, and therefore considered binding on the whole nation, can be altered or abrogated, nor can any other be added, unless by an authority equal to that by which they were originally established.

The value of this principle cannot be overrated; it has operated to maintain the religious unity of the nation—preserving it from being split, as other religious systems have been into innumerable sects, and upon points often of comparatively minor importance, each entertaining the bitterest feelings against the others.

On the present occasion, it will contribute to promote peace, harmony, and good feelings, in the breasts of all—to keep their minds free to be steadily fixed on the substantial improvements so much needed by existing circumstances, in the accomplishing of which, instead of proving an impediment, the wisely adhering to it will be found eminently conducive.

An opportunity may hereafter be taken for impressing upon those who may at present question the suitableness of this principle to the enlightenment of the age, that instead of its subjecting us to being “priest-ridden,” as might be their war-cry to frighten us from our propriety, it has been a powerful instrument to preserve us from the degradation, which that somewhat hackneyed term implies,

At the very instant of committing to paper the immediately foregoing sentiments, the Occident for January reached the writer, and he is happy to perceive in it the perfect coincidence between his views and the reverend editor’s remarks, and moreover his pledges upon this all-important point, well calculated to reassure the most timid and scrupulous, that nothing hurtful need be apprehended; but, on the contrary, much good may be expected to result from the meeting in question, which as Mr. Leeser justly observes, is not to be of a legislative, but rather of a suggestive and advisory character.

The duties obligatory on all who are of our faith, may be comprised under the three following heads:<<573>>

  1. That it is incumbent upon every portion of our people, wherever situated, to resort to such judicious means as may be in their power, not only for preserving its members in the faith of their fathers, but also for maintaining the religious unity of the nation against any attempt at schism among them.
  2. That it is likewise their bounden duty, through the adoption of appropriate measures, to provide that their members be well grounded in the knowledge of their religion, and of the high purposes for which they hold it in trust, that their disposition and character be formed upon it, and their conduct such as shall accord with its divine requirements.
  3. That it is equally obligatory upon them, sedulously to watch over and promote the temporal well-being of their members.

Few as are these propositions, they involve matters of such magnitude and consequence, as must at once cause to be perceived the unreasonableness of expecting that, under existing circumstances, they can be met by the sole efforts of the respective Synagogue constituted authorities.

Our numbers in these states are now far from being inconsiderable; they will doubtless be greatly augmented every year; an additional and powerful reason for urging us to have recourse to centralization, to concentration of our strength, whether consisting of piety, knowledge, talent, ability, or influence, in order that Judaism may exhibit itself to the world, what it truly is, “an imperishable spirit.”

If then it may, without offence, be anticipated that for realizing this interesting, this great, holy, and sacred object, the meeting will resolve to recommend “The formation of a Union of the Congregations of Israelites in the United States,” the writer of this letter will deem it his duty, provided the reverend editor deem them worthy of insertion in the Occident, to pursue the subject, by submitting in his future letters his thoughts on the effects likely to be produced by such union, the objects that may be proposed to be attained through it, and the means by which they might be accomplished. He may likewise add a few words on its constitution and organization.

Announcing his purpose to occupy so large a field, he is sensible, may subject him to be thought desiring to forestall others; he feels confident, however, that he will be immediately acquitted of any such ungenerous intention, on his stating his motives to be, that he believes the course he contemplates will have its use; for what he may publish before the meeting takes place, may be found to contain answers to objections of different classes;—that he may not be able to attend the meeting, in which case his published sentiments and ideas might serve to represent him at it; and finally, that the uncertain tenure by which <<574>>life is held, admonishes not to postpone to a future period what can be done to-day, and that consequently he ought at once to put his co-religionists in possession of any ideas he conceives might prove useful to them on the present interesting and important occasion.

A. A. Lindo

Cincinnati, January 5609, 1849