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


Religious Education.

To the Editor of the Occident.

Sir—In times like the present, when all sects are buckling on their armor to fight the cause of their religion, in an age like ours when the finger of innovation threatens to erase the landmarks of our venerated faith: it behooves every man in whom the latent sparks of religion are not extinct, to arouse his co-religionists to stern and unflinching duty. Adopting this principle, and acting in its strict spirit, I propose in this effusion to redeem a pledge, "that in my next I intended to speak of the apathetic state of our ministers on the subject of religious education." In order that my way may be clear for the intended dissertation, I deem it necessary to explain why I leave the beaten track of my official employment, and occupy those pages of your periodical which some persons might like to see filled with more pleasing matter. In a word, then, I am a Jew, animated by patriotic zeal to serve my people, and use the pages of the Occident for purposes as holy as they are sincere. A good and gracious God has thought fit to place me in a situation far above my merits, a sacred appointment for the "care of souls." I am anxious to accomplish something beyond the pale of my own congregation and know of no better vehicle than the Occident for giving vent to my well-grounded, if not learned opinions.

He who hath an eye to see, an ear to hear, and a heart to feel, cannot fail to be impressed with our ultimate glorious destiny, "the ingathering of our people;" yet it becomes a subject of heart-rending grief, when we reflect on our present degenerate condition, considering that we live in a land "fair and free." The question forces itself on the imagination: "What have our ministers done for the cause of Judaism? what for the cause of religious education?" The question will be answered thus:

"They have done all they are empowered to accomplish, their engagement sets forth certain duties in the Synagogue, and this is the extent of their power; beyond that they have no control."

"We," say the laity, "know how to manage our own religious matters; all we require of our Hazanim is to use their stentorian lungs to shout for us to heaven." Is it possible that such is the summit of their power? is it really so, that the highest religious office yet among us in America is so insignificant, as to possess no power, beyond vocal abilities, to chant a set number of tunes, to be the registrar of births, marriages, and deaths, to pay a number of visits to their respective members, to have a friendly chat with the female members, and to perform other trifling matters? Is it true that we have so far departed from the custom of our pious ancestry, as to have no shepherd to guide us, none to warn us, no one to strike the sinful with heart-saddening conviction, to cheer others in their soul-desponding moments, to be equally regardless of the opinions and favours of their brethren, and to exhort them to give their children a religious education? Is it plausible that 20,000 worshipping Jews, and Heaven knows how many nominal Israelites, shall remainבצאן אשר אין להם רעה "as sheep which have no shepherd?" Supposing, for a moment, that we are all virtuous and sincere, have we no thoughts beyond the day? No consideration for posterity? Is the rising generation to fall? Oh, sir, with heartfelt satisfaction I appeal to you, for you have done us essential service, as a minister and a champion; but is Philadelphia the whole United States? points not your finger farther South to adduce evidence of ministerial zeal? Alas, far better for sheep to graze by their own instinct than to have such a shepherd. In my mind's eye I look for that priest of old on which all that is good loves to dwell; he was ever first in the ranks, his heart-stirring voice was heard in the heat of battle, rallying their people to duty. And when the din of battle ceased its sounds of death, where then was the priest? engaged in teaching the "way to heaven to" men, women, and children, assembled to be instructed in the leading and essential doctrines of their faith. Religious education was the panacea for every evil; and thus employed, the priest was, indeed, קדש לה׳  holy to God; for the cause of religion he fought; and for that holy motive he would exhort king or beggar. Contrast those times with the present falsely termed "halcyon days;" and where are our priests? our ministers? our guides? Alas, echo answers "where!" all is apathy, all lethargy and slumber, and the voice of reproof is never heard; אלך בשרירות לבי "I will follow the inclining of my heart," is the general maxim; to teach children of things beyond this pilgrimage, savours too much of superstition to be spoken of. If such is the picture of American Judaism, if ministers, with few exceptions, are really powerless, if the Synagogue alone is their fabric: I ask, is it not high time that the stone "should be rolled from the well's mouth," that our present Hazanim should exact farther power, or that additional officers be created? can we without the deep branding shame of self-abasement, without apprehension and alarm, look to the present, and contemplate the future? Israelites, behold your condition, with a population destined for a fourfold increase, with every choice gift of heaven, among a people desirous to see you prosper, for their interests are blended with yours—with these cheering prospects, what are you doing for your children (having disposed of the paid priesthood)? we ask you as men, as priests, as Jews, to bear with us a few moments whilst we continue on the theme of religious education; think not that we intend to speak of your own neglect in heavenly matters; full well we know, that you think you are safe candidates for immortality because you to have a seat in the Synagogue, and your remains will be deposited in a Jewish burial-ground, and we have no desire at present to disabuse such a fallacy; ask your own conscience, and that alone should guide you. But your children is our theme; you love them: when their finger pains, you are in anguish; when accidents overtake them, your mind is distracted; if death should threaten them, your life's blood would be a voluntary offering, if it could cure them: yet you do not think of their precious and immortal souls; and how to account for this apathy is a problem all your ingenuity cannot solve. Think you it is sufficient if they are born within the law, without being taught by the principles it sets forth? Or are you satisfied by sleeping in the drowsy arms of delusion? If either, you are miserably deluded, if you imagine prosperity can crown your efforts, without training your children to religion and virtue. Prophetic declaration affirms the contrary, "When your children shall be taught of the Lord, then shall abundant peace be among you." It is by far of more consequence, and of more vital importance that your children should be religiously and morally good, than excellently learned. If conjointly you can promote learning and piety, it will certainly be most desirable; but unhappily you commence at the wrong end in your system and policy; for this world which is but an hour, you devote a life; for the next world which is a life, you devote an hour. You train your children for every thing but the principles of the Jewish religion; hence all the discordant and lamentable effects. Without appearing invidious, but to illustrate my position, Charleston would not now suffer from dissension, caused by the spirit of innovation, had religious education been the polar star of parents' ambition. How much is it, therefore, to be desired that it were otherwise; that the study of our sacred religion, and a better acquaintance with our sages were more general! Compared with this celestial intelligence, other themes are low and groveling. This study excels all others, as "light excels gloom." Guided by this brilliant light, your children would view those monuments of skill and erudition, and be thereby excited to emulation, to kindle the spark of wisdom, genius, and talent, at those smoldering fires which, however neglected, remain unquenched, destined still to be the beacon of Israel amidst all tribulation. Oh, that my artless words would enlighten our co-heirs of immortality on this glorious theme! how happy shall I be if by the means of this effusion, one additional scion of Judaism shall be taught his religion, the tenets of his holy faith, teaching him how to live here and hereafter. I shall indeed by well satisfied, should such be the result, to be a frequent, if not an eloquent, correspondent, to your pages.

S. M. I.