Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


The Results of Union


The more we think of it, the more are we convinced of the necessity of a greater degree of union than ever has yet existed among us. We may weary our readers with our appeals; but we can, nevertheless, not pretermit every suitable opportunity of urging them to think for themselves on the all-important topic of their religion. Let them look at what occurs around them; and what do they see? Precisely what might be expected: some congregations having no ministers, others seeking some one to preside over them; some reforming this custom, some the other; whilst some profess to be attached to the ancient order of things, and others desire nothing but change. And what do we see in respect to individual religion? Again, what might be expected: a great degree of diversity in conduct, much greater than it ought to be, greater than it would be, had we an authorized church government, which could exhort and admonish with the weight of popular support to give importance to its appeals. What are now the local ministers, even the best of them? Nothing but the breath of the people; appointed by them at their own pleasure and option, and generally reducible again to the common level by the voice of those who elected them.

Now, we entirely approve of independent congregations, of the free choice of the respective delegates of the people to the Throne of Grace, as Jewish ministers should of right be, agreeable to those whom they represent. But we entirely dissent to the propriety of choosing them for arbitrary qualifications, which each separate <<530>>community judges of for itself, without any regard to the opinions of other Israelites. So also do we thoroughly disapprove of the state of dependence in which the ministers are kept. If they reprove eloquently and fearlessly their flocks, they run the risk of being left unprovided for on the first opportunity which offers itself to have them pass before the public criticism; and we have yet to learn that it is right to expect more self-devotion and disregard of private interests among ourselves than other communities. We candidly assure our readers that we detest a hireling ministry where men assume office for the sake of a genteel support to be secured to them from the public treasure for their clerical services; such as these, educated to look, as soon as they have finished their studies, to a public preferment, may aspire to the same without having any more zeal or sincerity in their profession than can be conveniently exhibited outwardly for the sake of obtaining the requisite popularity, and consequent patronage. But this does not say that those who have been chosen, because the people have confidence in them, shall be kept in a state of subjection absolutely impairing their usefulness. It is true that, occasionally, you meet with men who are fearless like the lion; who will go on their mission of duty regardless of all injury likely to result to themselves. But you have no right so to tax human frailty, or to expect of your ministers an almost superhuman devotion. When a man looks at home on the helpless wife and tender babes depending altogether on his support, and then feels that his continuance in office depends on the will and pleasure of those who elected him: how can we expect of him to risk his whole dependence by speaking to the unwilling ears of his electors bitter words which must in all probability not prove agreeable to them? You may say what you please, that a minister, to be worthy of his calling, ought to be above paltry considerations for things of this world. But you wish him to be an angel, whilst you permit yourselves all the indulgences, both moral and physical, which your fancy can desire. You live in fine houses; roll at ease over the frozen ground in your carriages; you send your children to schools and academies to learn all the elegancies and sciences of modern times; but your minister must support himself on a bare pittance, though you expect of him to live becoming his station; you ex<<531>>pect him to be high-minded, bold, and independent, while his heart is distracted with care for the dark prospects of his household; and at length you expect that he will reprove not you, because you do not want that, for are you not quite holy in your estimation?—but all others who offend against religion: whilst at the same time you would each join in a crusade against him for exceeding his authority, in speaking too fearlessly the message of life with which he is charged in virtue of his office. Every one can doubtlessly recollect instances where the like has occurred; and we therefore ask him on his conscience, is there no remedy?

We think that a religious and independent ministry can be established without limiting the independence of the congregations; but it can only be done when the minister, once chosen, is secured against the malevolence of a few whom his religious teaching might offend; and when congregations will elect only those who have, by a strict examination of their past course and attainments, proved themselves worthy of being placed at the head of the people. But the very evidence of qualification ought to proceed from some competent authority, from those fully qualified to decide on the amount of attainments which should be required for a Jewish minister. And how is this to be done? Simply by a duly appointed central religious authority, to whom all matters of question as regards our duties should be referred; not so much a council of Rabbins, as are the Chief Rabbi of England and his dayanim, as a committee of men selected by the universal voice of Israelites in all parts of America, as those in whom the people have the confidence to refer to them the questions concerning Judaism which may recur from time to time. It would be premature in us to speak of the constitution of such a central religious board; but this much we may state at once,—that it would be highly useful were a resolution to be adopted, that no one should be appointed to become a minister of any congregation who has not been approved of as competent after a careful examination by these ecclesiastical chiefs. Such approved ministers might then be chosen by all places where there are vacancies, and their office should be secured to them, as is the law and custom of the Jews, although frequently not acted upon in this country and elsewhere, during good behaviour; by which means the people would be secure in being well <<532>>represented, and the public servants would be enabled to follow up the dictates of their conscience without the fear of man, and speak boldly and act independently, as becomes those devoted to the service of the Most High.

But the very foundation of such a board, and consequently of such a ministry, must be laid in a firm union of all the American congregations, to be represented by a suitable number of delegates to form, if you will call it so, a Chamber of Deputies. A delegation sent out and confided in by the various congregations would be amply competent, whether they be the present ministers or lay delegates, to recommend to the people such regulations for general action as their wisdom might find good after an interchange of opinions, and a deliberate consulting of each other’s views and experience. Let us suppose that one of the measures should be the appointment of an ecclesiastical chief, with two or more assistants, to constitute together a board on all matters relating to public worship, marriages, divorces, and the usual legal questions which should be decided only by those who have made the law of God their study through life; we ash what could be better than this very feature in our internal administration? would it not give consistency to our religious prosperity? insure a faithful execution of the ceremonial law whenever a case of doubt should arise, and provide us with means of having a clear evidence of the qualifications of candidates who might wish to become our ministers? We care not how much you circumscribe the authority of the board,—whether you will allow them any control over the various Synagogues and their officers or merely grant them the right to advise; or leave them at last no other power than to answer when asked a question, and to grant a certificate of qualification, or to refuse giving it, as circumstances may demand, when required to examine candidates for the offices of minister in general, or Hazan, Shochet, lecturer, or teacher in particular: it is all the same so far as the public is concerned, provided we have those whose decisions and opinions will have such weight and authority that no one will dare lightly to gainsay the answers elicited or traduce the character of those who give them.

But how is it now? Let those answer who deem a union unnecessary, or as threatening danger to Jewish institutions. We <<533>>will enlighten them in the mean time, till they can settle the matter to their satisfaction. When a case of conscience occurs, we have great difficulty in having it elucidated; we have but few to whom we have a right to apply, or who are properly authorized to act in the premises. But a decision has to be given; and the consequence is, that it is either disputed, or it must be verified by an appeal to some European Chief Rabbi, not to those among us, who have perhaps equal knowledge as those abroad, because the latter are legally and truly in authority as judges under the law of God, whilst the former are merely learned but not accepted by the people.

The humble writer of this has had, before this, to decide grave questions on the spur of the moment, to the best of his abilities and information, in abstruse questions of law and fact, a branch of study for which neither his education nor his attainments by self-improvement in the least qualified him; he had, nevertheless, to break through his positive determination to confine himself to that for which he was qualified and elected. The consequence which might be expected was as stated above: an appeal had to be taken to the authorities at London; and it was only after repeated applications that an answer was at length obtained, after several years’ delay, from the present Rabbi, Dr. Adler, in the main affirming the legality of the opinions given as above. All this is evidently wrong. We are admonished to apply, in all matters of doubt, to the judge who may be at the time in office. (See Deut. 17.)

Now, whilst the Israelites lived together in Palestine, one chief tribunal was alone sufficient to decide in all cases of doubt, and an appeal from the local tribunals could be easily and speedily carried up to Jerusalem. But now, when we are scattered all over the world, it seems to us a grave imputation against the zeal and intelligence of any considerable body of Jews to be without a tribunal of their own, and in their immediate neighbourhood, to which they could refer at all times, and  receive proper answers as a right, not as a gracious favour. Our readers are not, perhaps, aware, that the Chief Rabbi of England as a rule will not answer a minister or any private person from abroad, and only attend to questions emanating officially from a congregation. Perhaps necessity may have imposed this restrictive rule on the gentlemen in authority there. We are not willing <<534>>to be made the instruments of casting censure on those whom we respect, and whose decisions have, for us, binding weight  and authority. But we say it in all due deference, that for one. we want some generally acknowledged chief residing among us, and thereby accessible to us and all other Israelites, whenever something occurs of which the decision is not as readily within the reach of general information.

It is an error that local ministers are or can be perfectly versed in casuistic theology. The field is too wide to be embraced by one who gives it not his constant attention. But the minister of every congregation, though not, of course, excluded from participating in deep study, is necessarily too often interrupted by official outdoor duties, to devote sufficient time to become a proficient in all that is needed; especially if he unites in his own person the office of reader of the Synagogue and preacher, and superintends, if occasion demands, the religious education of the younger branches. We really wish that the minister’s time should be wholly occupied in the discharge of public duties; that he should be wholly devoted to his calling; and for one we ask for no remission of labour, whenever it can be made useful; and we will do our colleagues, everywhere in this country, the justice to maintain that all of them are devoted to their duties, and as efficient as their circumstances will permit them. But no one has a right to expect of them a perfection in all things; and hence, attainments beyond their reach ought not to be looked for in them. We say, therefore, appoint some of superior knowledge, to be a higher court of resort to the local ministers, that they may be properly guided in all matters of doubt, and be watched over in turn by those whom the are bound to respect, by inclination and duty; whilst the people would have the same means of attaining a higher knowledge of divine things, and have an assurance that the ministers with whom they are in daily intercourse, are deserving of their support and confidence,—as we will not believe that a Jewish ecclesiastical chief would be wicked enough to wink at any misdeeds of his subordinates, and screen them by the weight of his authority from the deserved censure of the people.

The establishment of a regular ministry is, however, but one of the fruits of a union of congregations. Other matters, in which we are now totally deficient, demand our attention, and we owe <<535>>it to ourselves to remedy evils which are to be reached by a proper effort. Our readers must know, as well as we, that a considerable number of native Israelites have been lost to our persuasion through an intermixture with the gentiles. Mind, we do not say conversions, for these are rare indeed; but we refer to a gradual and insensible decay of Judaism in themselves or their guardians.

Especially has this been the case with the poor on one side, and the rich on the other. Extremes in this have met, as in other cases; and the cause probably may be found in the fact that the former had no means of religious education, and the latter fancied that the Jews whom they knew were not worthy of forming an alliance with them, wherefore they sought a union with those foreign to our faith. Poverty is a severe trial to any man’s consistency; but not less so is wealth. The poor may from some cause or other be excluded from society; the rich exclude themselves from those they fancy inferior. Yet in the eyes of the Lord they are all alike; and hence the manifest injustice of excluding and being excluded.

The poor and the middle classes must be raised, to be placed on an equality with each other, and then to be made equal to the rich, not by equalising wealth, not by lowering the elevated, but by raising the standard of humanity in those below, that they may be placed on a higher platform. We want to level upward, but have no fancy for a levelling downward. The rich may, for all we know—for we cannot estimate the feelings which we never had the means of experiencing in our person—the rich then may fancy that they are superior in all things to those less endowed with gold; the children of such may imagine that they are better than those of poorer parents; and thus we may have among us already an aristocracy of wealth, or rather, one based on wealth in actual possession or already flown away; for even the recollection of former importance in the family endows the descendants with a large idea of superior importance, and they cannot, for all their present poverty, resolve to treat as equals those who are yet humble or are already rising in importance. We acknowledge this more in sorrow than in anger, that we may have difficulties to encounter in placing firmly our lever for the improvement of society; as the means to effect this could be most readily obtained from the rich.

Nevertheless, the effort ought not to be <<536>>pretermitted to lift up the people; and we therefore tell them, from the deepest conviction of the truth, Educate, educate—all—the rich, and the poor, and those who form the large and intermediate class. But educate in religion chiefly; it is not alone the beginning, but also the best of wisdom. It is the priceless jewel which will teach the rich the vanity of his possessions in comparison with its worth, and will impress on the poor the value he holds in the scale of humanity. We must, if possible, repress the pride of wealth, and encourage the aspiring hopes of indigence. We must teach both that they are Israelites, and that the safety of the happiness of the first, and the best earnest for the success of the others resides in religion, and this the religion of Israel.

Yet how will you effect this on a great scale? Simply by the establishment of good schools in all cities, towns and hamlets where Jews are domiciled; and where this is impossible, by supplying at least books, to enable parents to impart some knowledge of religion, its principles and duties, in the home circle. All this, however, requires union, one of purpose, and one of means; the smallest contribution must not be neglected, and the least advice should not be scorned. It is the age for small things to grow, now no less than formerly. So let a foundation be laid by union, however humble the beginning may be; but let us watch the growth of our institutions, and never permit ourselves to take one step backward.

Yet, if we wish to proceed at a pace perceptible to dur own eyes, we must form a union on a large scale; bring together the energies of Israelites all over the country, and establish nurseries of piety, without loss of time. We therefore plead for a convention of true men of Israel, to hasten to the rescue of those sinking, or likely to sink, into the slough of infidelity, indifference, or false belief, and to build walls of protection against the approach of a foreign enemy, and the attacks of those who know not the law of our God. It is possible that if schools are established, it will be a long time before we can acquire for them the confidence of those who have hitherto sent their children to gentile seminaries. But we must not be deterred, on that account, from doing what is obligatory on us; and if we prove our establishments superior to others, as with Heaven’s help we could readily do, it will not be long before prejudice and indifference will yield to better <<537>>reason; and we may at length hope to see all Israelites gathered together to learn how to fear the Lord their God all their days.

Another thing in this connexion, which is also much needed, is an asylum for children of vicious parents, of those who cannot afford to teach them, and of orphans cast upon the cold charities of the world. It has been agitated in this and other congregations to establish such an institution by local means. But all efforts hitherto have signally failed, or what has been done, appeared more like a caricature than an earnest attempt at a commencement even. The rich, if we have any such in this country, perhaps there are none, have not yet stepped forward to offer any endowment worthy of the name, and the individual Israelites are not yet numerous enough in any city, except New York, to undertake it by general subscription.

But it would be well were an assembly of delegates, of all American congregations, to deliberate upon the establishment of such an asylum by a general contribution of all their constituents. There must be children of the description of which we speak to be met with in all towns, and it would be easy, very easy, we should judge, to raise sufficient funds to enable a central board to establish a judicious Foster Home in some proper place, whither all the children who lack parental care might be sent to be educated, in every sense of the word, as the adopted of the Israelites of the United States. In this manner many, who have now no prospect but to be worthless and irreligious, could be educated to become useful men and honest Israelites; and they would live to bless the benevolent and ready hands that snatched them from destruction. With such a home there might be connected a refuge for old and decayed Israelites, on whom the hand of misfortune has heavily fallen. Now, these are occasionally sent to hospitals and poor houses of the various towns, where they are, no doubt, as well treated as circumstances will permit. But they are in a measure compelled to transgress our dietetic laws, and we think it wrong to tell them thus in effect, “Go ye and worship strange gods.”

We earnestly hope, that means may be devised to surround the unfortunate with Jewish aid and Jewish sympathy; we want that when they are dying, their last moments may not be disturbed by fanatical conversionists and false sympathizers; we want that their dying couch shall be watched by the faithful, to <<538>>say with them Shemang Ysrael, as comports with our hopes and our faith. And all this is within our power, of us Israelites who live in free America. If we are not rich, we are not poor, on the other side. Each one can spare a trifle; some expenses might be retrenched, if people are once sincere of doing good in the execution of their duty. Only union is wanted—one united effort aided by a council of intelligent and God-fearing men, and the thing is as good as accomplished.

Our readers will thus see that much, very much, is to be done by a union of Israelites, besides reforming Synagogue matters; in fact, all theological questions ought to be adjourned to a very late day, till we know precisely what improvements can be introduced in perfect accordance with established usages; and this can be done only when we have a well-organized ecclesiastical authority, without whose decisions nothing should of right be undertaken.—We, indeed, do not know whether any of our colleagues and the various congregations share our views. But this cannot affect our opinions, which we have formed deliberately, and express here honestly. We should be happy, indeed, to see them all adopted as the basis of general action; but we shall not the less join any effort at a union of the congregations, if our ideas are not accepted. 

But we say, in all candour, that any Synagogue reformation, except such a one as looks to raising the standard of decorum and propriety, cannot be supported by us or our journal; without belonging to those called hyper-orthodox, we, nevertheless, see nothing in modern reforms to excite our admiration; and, besides this, the Portuguese form of prayers, the original manner of worshipping God in this country, admits of no abridgment, and as a minister of this ritual, we are bound, beforehand, to enter our protest against any effort which might have that tendency. We do not say that some repetitions are absolutely necessary; but they are to a surety perfectly harmless, and there is no necessity to make a regular assault on them. There are, on the other hand, things which should be otherwise constituted; we have spoken of them before; and as they neither touch law nor custom, we have no objection to see them duly discussed, and if found wrong, altogether abolished.—In the mean time, we neither advocate the establishment of the office of local Rabbis, nor will we oppose it; but so far should we <<539>>be glad to have the institution of accredited teachers of religion introduced in this country, that we may have a proper guidance on all occasions, as we have said above. The local ministers ought, however, to be able to address their flocks on the concerns of eternal life; and, therefore, we hope that the standard of qualification will be raised, unless the congregations could support a reader as well as a preacher. We could add much more; but we think that our views on this subject ought not to be a secret to those who have read our magazine with attention; and then we reserve to ourself the right to discuss the matter again hereafter.

We thought it, however, proper to say what we have done, because we have received several communications in respect to the proposed assembly, which we give in another part of this number. We thought first of commenting on them separately; but on reflection we wrote this article, exhibiting our own views, and leave our friends to exhibit theirs; and let the Jewish public weigh the matter well, and act understandingly.—A friend suggests that Rosh Hodesh Iyar next might be too early for the meeting, and proposes Rosh Hodesh Sivan, the 22d of May. To this we say, that so little has yet been done towards bringing the meeting together, that it cannot take place, unless much more is done, either on the first of Iyar or Sivan. We know not, indeed, whether anything will be done this year; but this much is certain, that something will and must be done before long, let the opposition come from what quarter it may. In the mean time, we again beg of all laymen and ministers desirous of promoting  the meeting to correspond with each other, and Dr. Wise, the first proposer of it at this juncture; and then let them inform us what steps they have taken, and when they mean finally to meet. They shall not find us wanting, if we are spared by a benevolent Providence.