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Synagogue Reforms


It may be that our readers will pronounce us tedious for resorting again to a topic which we endeavoured to illustrate last year, and which they, perhaps, think has been sufficiently discussed, and has thus lost all charm and novelty. But our remarks have had so little success in awakening universal attention to the point at issue, and still are we penetrated with the conviction that we were and are right, that we cannot rest, without urging again our views on the people; and let them pronounce approval or condemnation as they may think fit, at least we shall not have to censure ourself of not discharging a solemn duty, which we deem incumbent upon us.

It is evident to all who are attendants or visitors at Synagogues, that much is needed to render the place one of that decorum and devotion, which it was intended and ought of right to be. The acknowledgment may be called imprudent, that one connected with the Synagogue should confess to abuses but no disease is ever cured by denying its existence, and it is only by looking it boldly in the face and investigating its nature, that we can devise ways and means to remove it. Our people, many of them at least, enter the holy place of worship, as though they came there for amusement, and as though the object of their appearing there was not to humble themselves before the Lord of life. But for what purpose are Synagogues erected? Evidently for devotion. And what is devotion? Simply reverence for the Supreme, of which prayer is a component part, and this a very material one. How can devotion be displayed? Solely in a quietness of demeanour, as though we were sitting in the <<110>>presence of One for whom we felt fear, awe, and respect. There can, however, be no feeling of devotion, when the sacred quiet becoming the place is absent, and when the reverence which one individual feels is chased away by the unbecoming conduct of another. But it requires no argument to prove the right which each Israelite has to be devout in the house of God, and the consequent claim he has upon all others who come there not to disturb him in his devotion, nor to do that which will cause him distraction, and prevent him from concentrating his thoughts upon the all-important business before him.

One great evil, which is indeed the most obvious, is the extreme irregularity with which people repair to the Synagogue. This is an abuse against which all pious Israelites have constantly inveighed, and one which is as clearly condemned by common sense. We are told to endeavour “to be among the first five who enter the Synagogue, and of the last five who quit it;” but if gentiles enter our places of worship, and see the irregularity in the arrival of the Jews so commonly prevailing, they might indeed be induced to suppose that there is a sort of license for this mark of disrespect, and want of appreciation of our duties, to be met with in our religious books which treat on the subject of worship. But the very recommendation to be early at Synagogue, to be sedulous in making the proper responses, to listen devoutly to the recitation of the prayers by the minister, and to follow the reading of the law with the closest attention, prove that our teachers never contemplated the very convenient manner of attending which has so extensively taken root among us, that it is looked upon as a part of our system.

Another abuse consists in the evil practice of quitting the Synagogue during prayers, whether to return or not, which is so generally remarkable in the best of our congregations. Persons who can spend three hours at a concert or theatre, find themselves greatly inconvenienced by staying that length of time in the Synagogue; and private admonition fails totally of arresting the sin. Let any one be ever so attentive to his prayer-book, and have no other thought than the glory of his Maker before him, how can he avoid being disturbed seriously by one or more pushing by him to reach the door, which is often done in indecent haste?

We will gladly concede due freedom to all who <<111>>come to worship, if necessity or indisposition compels them to quit, that they may then quietly go out and return in the same unostentatious manner; but this should be the exception, not the rule,—whereas there are many now, and we regret to say that they are not rarely elderly men, who are not irreligious, and ought to know better, who make it a regular practice to run out as soon as the Haphtorah begins, as though the reading of the Scriptures were of no interest to them. There is no reason to allege that they find no pleasure in hearing the Hebrew which they do not understand; for this would apply to the whole service with equal force; besides, the translations of various kinds, in all the languages of Europe, are easily accessible, and if one cannot follow the Hebrew, he should be the more anxious to have the proper lesson before him, say in English or German, that he may be edified by the words of Holy Writ which are read to him as a message from Heaven. In this connexion it must not be overlooked, that the indifference which some would-be-religious persons display to the reading of the Scriptures, produces an equal state of indifference in others, who, seeing so great an anxiety, evidenced to escape from the Haphtorah, will ultimately imagine that there is no use in it, and hence rush themselves out from the Synagogue as soon as the Maphtere commences reading.

No one will venture to assert that we could not teach proper respect for the sanctuary to our younger members; that disorder is a natural instinct of the Jew;—such nonsense requires no refutation. It is, however, only the evil example of some older Israelites, whom the authorities of the congregations have too much respect for to arrest their malpractices, which prevents the enforcement of a uniform propriety of conduct among those for whom no such delicacy would in all likelihood be felt. But again it must be considered that every day those who are now of an age to be controlled with propriety become older, and daily grow more towards that class of men whom age renders respectable, and whose faults are thereby sanctified. That no one grows venerable in a day, is certainly true; but venerability is nevertheless of daily growth; and, therefore, respect for age in a matter of the kind under question, should not weigh the least in the consideration of those in whose hands the people have reposed the superintendence of the house of God.

<<112>>Some indulgence might,  indeed, be extended to those who labour from some physical infirmity, irrespective of their being old or young; but no privilege for being disorderly, inattentive, or disturbing others, ought to be accorded, as a matter of course, to any one.

This disease of uneasiness at public worship, is evidently a contagious one, as we have hinted already, and as the experience of every candid person will convince him; it is, therefore, the evident business of all congregations who really come to worship and not merely to go to the Synagogue as a matter of ostentation, to see that all worshippers, which term includes all Israelites, shall have no evil example set them, which would in the least tend to distract their attention whilst they are assembled in the sanctuary.

Let the door  be ever so softly opened, and let this be of but a single occurrence during worship, still the eye is almost involuntarily turned to see who it is that enters. But suppose this entering to occur for the space of an hour of more, and with a loud and boisterous slamming of the door, and with a searching afterwards for prayer-books and the like, and then superadd a somewhat noisy manner of taking the seat: and we leave it to the candid judgment of any one to decide whether there can exist proper devotion among so much disturbance?

There may be occasions which will plead as an excuse for coming late, as sickness in the family, or indisposition on the part of the individual himself; but then late coming should be the exception, not the usual rule. Now we say it with shame, nevertheless boldly, there are Israelites, both male and female, who seldom or never come in time, who seem to think it a species of sin to be present when prayers commence. It may perhaps be that some portions of the prayers have never been heard by them in the Synagogue, for the simple reason that they are recited at the commencement of the service; and still they would be greatly shocked were one to accuse them of the want of a proper respect for religion. They have so many excuses for their lateness in coming: the service is for them so long; and this or that has to be done before they can think of leaving home; this or that stranger or friend has to be called or waited for, that it is impossible for them to be so early as those who are differently situated.

We do not mean to recite all the excuses <<113>>we have heard offered at various times, but only a few of the most prominent, to show that we are not entirely unacquainted with the various pleas for doing this great wrong. We call it a great wrong; because, if public worship is really what is claimed for it, the associating of the faithful to humble themselves as one man in the presence of God, (and who can gainsay that it is so indeed?) it is self-evident, that this humbling should be conducted  in the manner which will give it the deepest influence on the mind of the worshippers; whatever, therefore, tends to disturb the solemnity befitting the occasion, is in direct violation of the intention of worship; whereas, it is the true test of a pious mind that it feels its dependence on God, and therefore seeks his aid in all cases of trouble and affliction. Accordingly, whatever excuses are offered, are merely an extenuation of an acknowledged evil; but we fear that habit has become so inveterate with many, that they have ceased to feel any shame, let them appear when it suits their pleasure or convenience. But it is evident that we need a reform in this particular, and that if individuals do not effect it of their own accord, the congregations should accomplish it by means of especial regulations tending to obviate the scandalous want of propriety which has become a reproach to Israel. We will gladly acknowledge that the evil is not of the same magnitude in all congregations, and that a certain improvement has taken place in some others upon the former bad habits. But there is too much of it yet, more so indeed than would be tolerated in any other than a Jewish assembly; and as it has a very deleterious influence on the rising generation, whatever that may be, it certainly behooves us to show an example which may be safely followed by all young Israelites, who in their turn, will be able to preserve among their children that decorum which ought alone to prevail when men are in the presence of their Maker.

Look at the meetings of the gentiles, how they hasten to their churches when the time for meeting is about to arrive, whether they are summoned by sound of bell or the lapse of time; and then behold the Jews dropping in at the Synagogue before or after the commencement of the service, as it may suit their tastes or convenience; and what would a disinterested spectator imagine? but that the Christians went to church with their whole <<114>>soul, and from a deep-seated conviction. whereas the Jews went because it was a sort of duty, which has to be discharged in some shape or other, but which is all the time very disagreeable to them. We do not say, God forbid! that there is less religious feeling, less sincerity, among us than our neighbours; but it is certain that their zeal is exhibited more palpably than ours is, they have and show more regard for public opinion than we do, and in short, that we think too little of the decencies of public meetings, however we may deem them necessary to our temporal and eternal happiness. We feel there is not earnestness enough among us; but we also believe that there would not be a whit more among the gentiles if they dreaded not each other, and feared to incur a mutual censure if they did not respect what the public demands. Now the paucity of our numbers prevents us from having a public opinion to act on our conduct; and hence there may be as much sincerity or even more among us than others, though these show a better spirit than we do. They are urged by a host of learned ministers; by floods of religious books; by a constant succession of religious meetings and assemblies of all kinds; by conventions and councils; whereas Judaism has to draw its breath and live, though its individuals are scattered in handfulls in every corner, often without hearing the voice of a minister admonishing them once a year, without  a variety of religious books, without concert, without extraneous urging. The wonder is not then that there are evils, but that in despite of all its dangers and difficulties it has progressed, we speak of this country, to the point of development which it had attained. But it is our duty not to be satisfied with a mere vegetation of our faith; it must live vigorously and stand on a proud elevation before the world. We no longer need to hide our faith in a corner; we need not any farther to erect our house of worship in an obscure corner; we need not now conceal our doctrines for fear of popular violence; consequently we ought also to elevate our religious character in the general estimation, if even there be no other ground for it, though the reasons, which should induce us to this reform, are of a far higher order,—the duty which we owe to our Father in heaven, who commanded us “And ye shall reverence my sanctuary,” which evidently means that when there we should feel the reverence and awe which <<115>>become a mortal when he finds himself in the precincts of his immortal Sovereign.

Now we know of not any better method to heighten the devotion of the whole community than attending to the two requisites of which we have been speaking; that is, early and regular attendance, and the quiet remaining in their seats by all the people, old, young, and children, till the congregation be dismissed by the conclusion of the prayers; not, let it be understood, because Christians do so, but because it is a duty equally inherent in the Jewish religion as in any other system of faith, for which no better argument need be sought than the passage which we have quoted which occurs several times in the law. If now it is found that children are either too young or too unruly to sit still during the time of prayer, it would be far better that they be left at home, than disturb their parents and others by their desire for running out. In a circular letter which the present truly learned and pious Chief Rabbi of Moravia, Samson Raphael Hirsch, lately addressed to the rabbis and congregations under his charge, which is contained in the Orient, No. 10, of this year, he says among others: “A particular regard is to be directed to the children, that they do not disturb the adults by their presence in devotion, and that they likewise should be accustomed from their earliest youth to a reverential and decorous demeanour in the house of God. Children under five years should therefore not be admitted.” Of course it is understood by this that the age of five is one at which a child can be admonished, and expected to amend any faultiness of manner, which is not to be expected in one of tenderer years. So in our Synagogue three years is the limit. But whether at this age or at five years, it is evident from the high authority quoted, which all will respect, whether orthodox, so called, or reformers, because it proceeds from a man who is a true shepherd in Israel, that a quiet and devotional behaviour is absolutely requisite in both old and young, and that an absolute sin is committed by treating the Synagogue with that perfect indifference which so many are guilty of. Jewish ministers indeed should not assume that pride which many clergymen assume; nor should we claim any miraculous sanctity for our places of worship; but when “the messenger of the congregation,” as he is aptly termed, stands up to speak for <<116>>the people to Him who dwells on high, it is fitting for them that they join with heart and soul in the words which he utters; and how can this be done but by a profound attention, constant presence, and an entire silence? And as this is the business of the people in the Synagogue, it is also evident that they should look upon it as the immediate gate of heaven, whence their prayers are more fittingly ascending to God than in their own homes, distracted by the objects to which their care and worldly labour are directed.

We would therefore recommend to the various congregations the enforcement of the following rules:

  1. A punctual presence of all worshippers at the time appointed for the commencement of prayers.
  2. Not to permit any one, whether Israelite or gentile visiter, to quit the Synagogue before the meeting is over.
  3. Not to allow any conversation of any sort during reading of the law and prophets, or during the sermon.
  4. Not to allow any children to be brought in who are too young or unruly to remain during the whole time of worship.

Upon this basis, entire order, decorum, and propriety in worship, can readily be established in our Synagogues, and the people would soon feel that the purity and  simplicity of our forms are fully as much calculated, if not more, to affect the spirit and elevate the soul, as the showy systems pursued among many gentile churches; and in consequence there would be found a greater earnestness mingling itself with our character, than is unfortunately now found among us. It may be said, perhaps, that occasionally, as on the Day of Atonement, the service is too long to permit persons to stay in during its entire duration; but those who are accustomed to attend worship regularly are the very persons who even then find little difficulty in remaining; and experience has shown that those who are but occasional visitors are the most annoyed at spending a whole day in the courts of our God; whilst those who love to stand in the presence of their Maker, can pour out their spirit before Him, and abstain, without too great an effort, from their usual food and recreation an entire day, in obedience to his will.

We have not meant to write a regular essay on the subject, but merely to throw out some ideas for the consideration of <<117>>others, and to awaken the attention of those who are called on to rule the people, to a few simple remarks, which will, under God, be of infinite benefit to our communities, and we hope that these will reform abuses, which are really so, and not check all progress under the specious plea that our fathers did so before us. Let us take caution not to do what is wrong because it was done centuries ago, and to adopt what is right, though it be now the first time that we understand our duty. The last is not the case, as we have said already; and there is therefore no cause for not commencing at once a thorough reform on orthodox principles, such as will render the Synagogue in the eyes of all a place for edification and reverence for God.