|Vol. VI, No. 12
Adar 5609, March 1849
The Strength of Our Religion.
O Lord! who hadst compassion on our fathers, and didst lead them forth with almighty power and an outstretched arm to purchase them unto Thee for a people of thy inheritance, as it is this day, deign to regard us also with thy visitation of mercy and grace, and let our memorial ascend before Thee for our good and our happiness. Look on our fallen state, that we have sunk from the high position of thy favourites, and become a people despised and lowly, as though we were cast off from thy mercy. Yet are we the same descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel thy servants, as were those who received thy law when coming out of Egypt, and we are still thy witnesses, testifying of thy glory and thy unity, and still ready to follow Thee whithersoever thy providence may direct our steps.
O Father! hear us then in our dispersion, and let thy light truly and safely guide us; let thy wisdom inspire our mind, let thy word be fixed in our heart, and let our mouth overflow with thy praise. Let us entreat Thee also to build up the breaches of Zion and restore her desolations as aforetime; when we will let incense ascend on thy altars, and lead sacrifices again to the residence of thy glory. Nations then shall drink of the stream which quickens us; people shall imbibe the wisdom which now strengthens our spirit; and thine, O God! shall be the kingdom, and the names of idols shall be abolished from the earth, and truth shall overspread every land, and all shall feel and acknowledge that Thou, O God of Israel! hast created all flesh, hast called forth every spirit, hast given life to all that lives, and art alone in power and glory, uncreated, unequalled, sovereign God, Lord everlasting, Saviour omnipotent, the Father eternal, from ever till time shall be no more. Amen.
It is now twenty-four years ago since this building was opened, after being rebuilt from the foundation, and dedicated <<584>>anew to the worship of the God of Jacob. The hymn then pealed for the first time in this house, and the unity of God was proclaimed as the watchword of the congregation assembled within these walls, and they declared themselves thereby as members and confederates of the family of Israel. Of the many who then filled the seats a large proportion have silently sunk into the grave, and their voice is heard no more in our assembly. But the same spirit which induced them to labour in erecting this house, which filled them with joy when they saw it completed, still dwells among us, and we are here to declare on this anniversary again, as on previous similar occasions, that we are of the same brotherhood of faith and hope as were those who erected this house and left it as a legacy to their successors.
Mighty changes have since then passed over the earth; empires have been overthrown; new opinions in religion and politics have made themselves deeply felt; thrones supposed to be immovably fixed have been moved and hurled to the ground; science has achieved new triumphs in the field of discovery and improvement; and all this within the memory of comparatively young men; and nevertheless with us the change has been light, and has not cast the decay of age over our religion, and we follow the path which our fathers followed, and are again here to call on the name of the Most High, and to speak of his deeds which He wrought in Egypt, and of the signs which He displayed among them, and we still emphatically feel that He is in truth the Lord Eternal, to whom alone we are to direct our prayers, whose law alone we are to consult as our rule of life.
It is indeed but a short time, comparatively speaking, since the consecration of this Synagogue; many of you well recollect the day and the hour when first they heard here the deep notes of devotion from the man they had chosen as their messenger to the Hearer of prayer; they yet recollect the beautiful anthems which re-echoed joyfully from many a tongue joining in praise to the Father of his people; yet in the age of the world it has been a period of unusual activity, and events have crowded each other as they rarely do even in the most turbulent times, and infant ideas have since acquired a giant form, and have filled the earth with their fame. Everything has been anew subjected to a searching inquiry, and what had been defended before and been <<585>>considered beyond dispute, has again been dragged forward from its repose and probed to its very foundation. The events of the day, however, are the mere exponents of the secret influences which have been at work; and though many may be astonished when viewing the terrible revolutions lately witnessed as isolated facts, the calm inquirer and he who watched the gradual development of the latent mighty thought of popular power, will find nothing very remarkable in the event which was clearly stepping hourly more and more forward, produced as it was by the effervescence of mind which had long since commenced, and to arrest which nothing was capable at all within the power of the civil and religious government of the earth.
Judaism has been assailed likewise amidst all this din and clamour; many predicted that the development of new thoughts would prove fatal to its isolation and to the hold it hitherto had on the mind of its followers; many also have united their exertions to produce a mighty effort to withdraw our members from a union with us, and to offer them all sorts of inducements to surrender their adherence to our faith; many farther have arisen among ourselves, to diffuse strange notions, and to establish views not formerly received among us, and have alleged that new measures must be supported to save a wreck of Jewish principles, and to maintain a remnant of Israel’s descendants.
But though so much has been effected, as I have said already, in the demolition of ancient things among other sects, and even the removal of what had been established with so much labour, and blood, and treasure, and wisdom in modern times, Judaism has thus far stood the test of revolution, assault, and faintheartedness with admirable strength and power of resistance, and the enemies without and within have to this day, for which the Lord be thanked, exhausted their labour in vain; and though it is no doubt that many have already swerved, and that others yet will undoubtedly follow the same evil example, there need be no fear of an impending destruction of our people.
Those who only look at the surface may fancy that they see symptoms of decay; because they aver that the changes from oppression to liberty will induce many to yield quietly that religion which they convulsively clasped to their bosom in times when mankind endeavoured to deprive them of it by force; that the more enlarged intercourse with the world <<586>>will cause a gradual fusion of our nationality amidst the people where we reside by our taking in marriage those differing from us in ancestry and belief, by which means our descendants will be mingled up with others and be no longer distinguishable; that the progress of ideas will sweep away the mutual prejudices entertained by Jews and gentiles, and that the former will then insensibly drop their peculiarities when the line of separation is reduced to an almost inappreciable thread.
These may be the opinions of indifferent investigators, when looking with surprise at the magnificent panorama of mighty events which are developing themselves daily before their eyes; but if so, they have not well understood the peculiarity of the Jews, nor the characteristics of the gentile world. Great as are modern events, they are not altogether unprecedented; there have been before this times of quiet and enlargement for our people, although they lasted but a brief space; and we have yet to learn that the ease of the present will endure much longer. But even if it should, that does not say that the Jew will for this reason not value his characteristic mission any farther, and yield his religion to the common demand for equality and fraternity, as though this sacrifice were necessary in the new acquisition of liberty.
People forget, perhaps, that religion has no part to play in the mighty and terrible drama which has of late been enacted; at least it has no business to interfere actively and visibly in public affairs. Modern nations have so long made the profession of certain religious dogmas the arbitrary standard of political power, and have made all sorts of privileges dependent on the profession of opinions sanctioned by the state, that they cannot yet see that when they emancipate themselves from this odious tyranny, the sufferers from the long ages of exclusion have nothing to yield when invited to partake now of human rights.
If it be necessary for us to reject any part of our religious views, not to mention the totality of our faith, to be entitled to equality in all things, what, I ask, have we gained by the change over which we rejoice? Tyrants of ancient days, from Nebuchadnezzar down, asked only of us that we should fall down and worship the idol which they had erected; it was only what they called doing a harmless thing which they required; we should only become like them, and then we might have life, wealth, <<587>>power, pleasure, or whatever we might desire, even the privilege of persecuting our former brothers of Israel. And now shall it be required of us to surrender, for instance, our confident hope in the coming of the son of David, because this belief militates against the idea of a perfection in human wisdom, against the assumption that mere human reason can establish the kingdom of peace, and secure in the best manner the sum total of human happiness? If this be so, then is there no perceptible difference between the tyranny of kings and democracies, or between the intolerance of inquisitors and philosophical dreamers.
If our religion must be destroyed, it cannot make the least difference to the Jew who rules, and what opinions obtain the supremacy; and for that matter, we might prefer one tyrant at a time to the legions of opponents under the present system; for we might ascertain the opinions required of us if a few or one would dictate, but it is impossible so to frame our ideas as to satisfy the vast masses which now rule. But it is freedom which is professed for all; and we too enter into the new state of things, not because we are Jews, but because we are men, and because, whilst we have no right to question any man concerning his religion, and whilst we do not ask of him to modify his opinions to please us, we cannot permit any one to concern himself with what we believe or do in a religious relation, which we have not and cannot surrender to the popular supervision, it being the sacred right of conscience, over which we alone have to watch, and the regulation of which must be left to the law and the customs of Israel, as expounded to us by our religious teachers.
Now it is possible enough, nay, it is well known to be so, that many will prove their worthiness of political liberty by making all sorts of concessions, and by explaining away all the features of our belief which appear perhaps somewhat harsh to non-Israelites. But this is likewise certain, that it will be more in the first commencement of the new participation in political privileges; but that when the thing has become somewhat old by habitual use, the thinking portion of Jews will revert to the instruction of Scripture, and profess anew what is taught there, to the exclusion of all new philosophical speculations. It is also true that prosperity is a severe trial to our people. Persecutions they can face with indomitable courage; they are a brave race, and for <<588>>endurance and persistency they are unequalled among mankind. In Egypt, in Babylon, in Persia, and in Rome, they remained distinguishable and united among the heathens; and when the Nazarenes and Mahommedans arose successively with new and modified doctrines, some few in comparison to numbers were seduced away from their allegiance, but the vast majority either perished nobly upholding their faith, or lived through poverty, contumely, abhorrence and disgrace, and worshipped their God in humility and the want of every earthly comfort. And when, from time to time, the hand of persecution relaxed its tortures, and when Jews were found the companions of the kings and the nobles, the trusted servants of the crown, or the confidential physicians of pontiffs and priests, they, for this sake, did not, as a class, prove false to their opinions. Again, I say, that some could not bear this prosperity, as others succumbed before and since to the terrors which surrounded them; but they have proved the exceptions, and hence their example need not inspire us with the fear for the future, which some enemies of Israel would uselessly inspire us with.
But let me call your attention, brethren, to one remarkable circumstance, and this is the inveterate hatred which has been always felt for the religion of Israel from the earliest history of our people. It was the same in Pharaoh who knew not the Lord, the same in Balak, king of Moab, who misled Israel to sin, the same in the bloody tribunals of the middle ages, and again the same in the societies for the seduction of the Jews from their faith, of which we have heard so much of late years. Pharaoh, Balak, and the Inquisition did, in a measure, succeed in their various ways to work mischief to us, and many of us fell at the different epochs in which the above flourished in their schemes of wickedness. Should, therefore, the enemies of the present age meet with some little success, and obtain occasionally a lukewarm sinner or a hireling renegade to join himself to them, we may be assured, nevertheless, of one thing, that we have lost no strength by this severance from us of an unworthy member; he has gone to those who will overwhelm him with kindness and embraces, whilst we are rid of a traitor, one false to God, false to his brothers, and false to himself. Admit, even, that his conversion should be sincere, so much so as to be above suspicion, <<589>>then we have lost one who could not defend his ancestral religion, who had no heart for the law of Moses, who understood not the glorious principle of the Unity of God, that glorious principle which will ultimately prevail from one end of the world to the other, as it is solely the true mystery of the creation; since from, the highest planet, the most distant constellation, down to the minutest dust which flits in the sunlight, there is discoverable one uniform gradation, a single and uniform design.
Now it is the repugnance of many to the principle of the Unity as professed by us, which is the key to all the efforts made for our extermination, and to the hope constantly expressed that at last the means have been discovered of effecting it. So whilst there are, I am glad to acknowledge, thousands on thousands who wish to make us free on principles of humanity and justice, there are, perhaps, as many others who acquiesce in the movement solely from an inimical feeling to Judaism. They have seen from history and experience, that persecution and exclusion riveted but the closer the bonds which unite us to God; so they then deem it a duty to try the opposite extreme, and to see whether or not a perfect equalization of Jews and gentiles will not induce us to forego our identity, and become like them.
It is with us as it was with Samson. We, like him, are asked, “In what does your great strength consist?” But it is not, like him, an outward token, but the inward spirit which constitutes us Jews; yet like Samson’s personal prowess, it depends upon the will of God, and on the condition that we follow the orders which we have received. We must not, therefore, fall asleep on the lap of a false Delilah, of a gentile invitation to yield ourselves captives to the charms of the world, as though a new era had commenced, and vigilance were no longer requisite. For if we do so, we shall be left, for a season, to the tender mercy of our new confederates, and the spirit of God will depart from us, and only after violent sufferings will it revisit us, perhaps to kindle again into life at the very moment only when we are compelled to bid farewell to the earth and its enjoyments.—This is told you, that you may not be disheartened at occasionally hearing of a defection from our ranks. It is deplorable, deeply to be regretted, that an Israelite, the humblest of his tribe, should be false to his faith; but we should regard any apostasy arising from the present state <<590>>of freedom, even if perpetrated by the greatest and most influential, as nothing fatal or particularly remarkable; since, at all times, there have been sinners and transgressors, and for all that the lamp of Israel has not been quenched.
The Scriptures, brethren, are a true record of the past and the future. Other writings may give a faithful narrative of the occurrences which have taken place; we will assume that human information may be able to grapple with facts, though even this is somewhat doubtful, to judge from the ill success which historical investigations have so often met with. But the recesses of the future are absolutely locked up, and inaccessible to human ken. Not so to the eye of God; for this pervades all which will be, and there is no uncertainty to shroud from Him the events which are coming. Nay, they have come already, so He announces them; because there can exist no conformation of events and circumstances to preclude their coming to pass in reality, just as his knowledge has foreseen them. If, therefore, the Scriptures speak of the eternal duration of a precept, we need feel no alarm about its ever ceasing to be respected. Eternal it must be, because it is so stated; abrogated it cannot be, unless it be limited by some other circumstance announced and conditioned by the same authority.
Now it appears from inspection that Judaism, in its peculiar precepts, has received the stamp of eternity from the Author of our being, and hence it is proved indestructible in the wisdom of Providence. You have been told before, but it cannot be too often repeated, that the phraseology of the Bible is not one of accident but of design. Its omissions are of importance as much as what it contains; and its precepts are of that character that they have to be so understood as the words in which they are given convey them to us, not as arbitrary reasoning would perhaps wish to make them. If, then, it is said in the Bible that we shall do so, but not otherwise, we must implicitly follow the commandment, and not reason it away by any fancy of our own, however ingenious it may be. Nor must we be deterred by the assertion of others, that it is not necessary for us so to act, as to place a bar of separation between us and the world; since the law in obedience to which we allege to act, could not have meant it so particularly as we deem it to be. But this much we may safely allege, that as the law is <<591>>both imperative and prophetic, both relating to conduct and indicating futurity, it teaches this important principle, that its precepts are infallible and not to be repealed, and that, at the same time, they will be always obeyed by the true descendants of Israel, which term comprises all those who will remain true to the religion of their fathers during all the changes and vicissitudes which have been, and are, impending over us. With this preface let us briefly elucidate the verse 24 of Exodus 12.
ושמרתם את הדבר הזה לחק לך ולבניך עד עולם׃ שמות י״ב כ״ד׃
“And you shall observe this thing, as a statute unto thee and unto thy children for ever.”
When was this announcement, which, as said, partakes of the nature of prophecy and precept, made? The reading of the context will answer you, At the time that the Israelites were still in Egypt, but expected to be permitted to quit the land of their bondage through the threatened slaughter of the first-born. Freedom was not yet theirs, it was only in anticipation. The taskmasters were subdued, to some extent, by the terrible plagues which had been inflicted on them. They were, nevertheless, still powerful to hold in bondage their slaves who had served them well for near two hundred years; and had the deliverance not taken place, as promised, it would have been utterly impossible for the Israelites to have observed the Passover, of which institution the precept in question speaks, neither then nor to perpetuity, as is here enjoined.
But what was the result at the time? The deliverance did take place at the precise hour and in the manner indicated; and ever since the Passover has been observed, both as a national mark of thanksgiving to our great Deliverer, and as a token that we accept Him as our Sovereign and God, and acknowledge no one besides Him as having power in heaven and on earth. Our encounters with adversity of all kinds have been fearful enough to try the strength of our attachment to our Father; and notwithstanding our frequent backslidings, we have not altogether forsaken Him, nor have denied our fealty to Him to adopt a stranger God. And when a man, from our own midst, arose, and proclaimed himself, or was by his followers acknowledged, a part of the godhead, and when mighty nations, unknown when we went out of Egypt, adopted <<592>>the new system thus introduced on earth, and threatened us with all the terrors which fiendish malice could devise; and when bloody conqueror arose in the plains of Arabia, and announced himself as a prophet of a new message in the name of the Most High, and waged fierce warfare against those who refused to acknowledge him and his mission; and when other inventions of men were offered to us, to forego our testimony to the truth of God’s Unity: we stood firm, if not unshaken; and every spring season, in its annual return, saw us celebrating the Lord’s Passover, even as we were commanded.
And what mattered it to us how few there were left who could thus glorify the Lord? Each man felt himself the representative of the Patriarchs, and each woman knew that she bore in herself a lineal descent from the mothers of Israel, those noble matrons who stood side by side with their glorious spouses to proclaim the power of the Creator in periods when darkness overspread the earth, and when the light of truth flickered, at times, like an expiring lamp, being fed only by the efforts of a single family.—This has been our course for a very long period; and the faith which was so firmly rooted, so beautifully upheld, has not been left unfruitful in its effects, and at this day the followers of the God of Jacob are more numerous than they have been probably since the destruction of the temple. They have increased even in the measure men attempted their destruction; and they have survived the perils which all thought would make an end of them.
And thus have we been brought to the present period in our history; for though yet persecuted in many countries, we have obtained freedom in many others, and the secular sciences are open for our competition with other men. The period of transition is already nearly past; and though severe blows have been struck by the ungodly against our union, and though some have endeavoured to produce sectarian divisions among us, still we may freely say that no success has attended these unholy efforts. The newness of freedom may, perhaps, have inspired some of these movements; but we are daily getting more used to it; and before long we shall look round, examine our position, and fall back upon the word of God alone as our standard, and reply to all opponents, in the language of Scripture, that our law, with all its peculiarities, was given to us and our descendants for ever.
Fri. Shebat 3d, January 26th, 5609.