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The Reform Agitation.

by Isaac Leeser

We have deemed it our duty, from time to time, to protest against the various movements in religion commenced against of late years on both sides of the Atlantic, believing that no good can result from the manner in which they were originated and carried forward. To our view, any reform, to be in the least useful and permanent in its working, should proceed from those who are truly religious, and lead such a life as must challenge the strictest scrutiny. If, however, any measure be proposed by those who are indifferent to ceremonial observances, or who speak disparagingly of the word of God: every one who hears them will at once take alarm, and refuse to listen to any overtures which he has just reason to suppose are not intended to promote but to destroy Judaism. We use the word destroy in a relative sense; there is in good truth no fear of its being destroyed; but we mean merely to convey the danger there exists of unsettling the minds of many on matters of faith and observance, and in this manner destroying the individuals thus affected, by withdrawing them from the path of everlasting life. And we contend that all the agitation hitherto has had this solitary effect, that of making things worse than they would have been without the labours of our zealous reformers. We know that we shall be met by the assertion that they could not have remained as they were; that the progress of enlightenment among all classes of the people compelled them to give way in certain points; that notions, unphilosophical and unscientific, had to be thrown aside from the force of conviction of their being erroneous. But all this has nothing to do with the reforms which we have been called upon to witness struggling into life, fluttering a little upon wings which were unused to a lofty flight, and for the most part disappearing again, because “they had grown up in a night, and in a night they perished.” There is but one of the schemes which has had anything like an extended existence, and this is the temple at Hamburg; but, if one considers the éclat which has been given from time to time to its movements, the immense exertions that were and are yet made to lift its preachers, Salomon, Kley, and Frankfurter, into notice; the publicity given to their sermons; the boast that it would speedily be followed by all enlightened congregations in every part of the world: one cannot be too thankful that hitherto it has done so little, has had so few followers, and has in fact failed to erect itself into a sect of Judaism. And if we, at the distance at which we find ourself from the scene of action, might hazard an opinion, we should not hesitate to assert that its vitality was owing more to the unskilfulness with which the Synagogue at Hamburg was managed than to any great hold the reform had on the mind of the people. But if it even were otherwise, we would still say that the vulgar, the genteel no less than the uneducated, are too apt to be drawn to a place by the attractions it offers; and that as people must worship, and belong to some class of religion, either by their own impulse or the laws of the land, as is the case in all parts of Germany, and among others in Hamburg, they may resort to the temple as more outwardly attractive than the Synagogue, for there are elegant speakers, who, if they teach little, use the most beautiful language in giving utterance to the few ideas they inculcate, whilst the sound of pleasant music acts as a delightful accompaniment to the easy worship which is demanded of the attendants. We are not very familiar with the mode of worship adopted, since we never yet have seen the prayer-book and the order of service adopted, but we presume that but few prayers need be recited by the people, whilst the symphonies on the organ, the chaunt by the choir and reader, and the regular weekly sermon must pretty nearly fill up the whole time, say two hours, spent by worshippers at their temple.

But we go away from our subject; we have no sympathy with this project, more than any other of the new schemes to which we alluded; we merely started to discuss the uselessness of reforms which proceed from suspicious sources. Now let a man say, “I will not attend public worship unless you introduce a new prayer-book, the organ, or the violin, the harp, or any other new fancy,” he at once states his determination that he will worship only on a certain condition; and suppose his wishes are granted, in order to attract him to the temple or Synagogue, or by whatever other name an establishment may be called, especially if the legality of the concession be a matter of dispute: you at once alienate the far larger number, who look upon such change or changes as unauthorized innovations; and instead of gaining one doubtful convert, you estrange a hundred sincere believers, by your timid yielding to the clamour for reform. Reforms therefore, to be useful and permanent, must be first lawful, universally so acknowledged; secondly, they must be gradual; and third, they must be admitted only by general consent. If they fail of either of these requisites, they produce contests, schisms, and alienation of feelings. For it may do well to philosophise upon the trite assertion, that people may differ and yet remain friends; but sad experience proves that contests, both violent and unbecoming, are the usual consequences when in church matters a new scheme is brought forward by which one party is deprived of its just weight and influence. To introduce reforms, therefore, merely to satisfy the clamour of some malcontents, is the worst possible policy; and this idea, policy, is unfortunately one which many understand much better than principle. As a measure of improvement, every thing must fail which is not generally received; and as for giving peace to a community by changes not acquiesced in by all, it is absurd to suppose that the majority,—we mean those who from the nature of things are the majority,—will even dream of giving up ancestral customs and prayers, and adopt in their place customs and prayers which have the sanction only of their being those best liked by the wealthy and fashionable portion of our community. If it were indeed that our poorer brethren, even admitting that all the rich were for change, would be of no importance as Israelites, there might be some cause for disregarding them in any arrangement which the wealthy might wish to make. But we have no idea that either position or wealth can make one Israelite of more importance than another; religion levels all the children of man; before God there is no preference; consequently it would be at once acting counter to the very first principles of common sense, to exclude by hasty legislation, yielding to the clamour of wealth and influence, the many who at length are the bone and sinew of our household. We would be the last to deny to talent, honourable standing, and justly acquired wealth, their proper influence in society; it is natural that those who have superior means will have more weight than those not so well circumstanced; but beyond this we cannot conceive them entitled to the least consideration; when concession would conflict with the interests and just demands of the larger masses of our communities. Now it appears to us, though we may be wrong in this, and if so we will gladly admit of any reply which may be sent to us, that the whole scope of all the reform movements, wherever yet we have heard them, has hitherto been to establish a church for the so-called enlightened and wealthy, a species of aristocracy of talent and wealth, whilst the far larger majority, not being willing at once to surrender to such dictation, have been contemned and disregarded as darklings and enemies of progress. But let it not be imagined that all the talent and wealth are found on the side of reform; far from it; the few only of these also are for the changes, whilst until lately, at least as a rule, the humbler brethren were uniformly, with but rare exceptions, opposed to the new order which the others attempted to enforce.

We have always thought, and have thus far had no cause to change our opinion, that the concerted movement at the Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankford reforms arose from a desire of those who had been long strangers to the Synagogue to have a species of worship which would attract them once a week to the house of God. They found men of talent to aid them with their eloquence, a Zunz, a Friedländer, a Solomon, a Kley, and a Johlson; these men lent the attraction of oratory, whilst the music of Moschelles (we think) discoursed by a well-trained choir, and aided by the organ, charmed the ear during the weekly attendance. To accommodate the prayers to the alterations, they had to be cut down, to bring them within the compass of a reasonable length of time to be spent at devotion; and as the weekly sections of the law were also too long, they too had to be divided into three portions, so as to read the law once in three years instead of one year. No doubt the inventors of this scheme thought they had succeeded to admiration; they fancied that the world would become enchanted by their harmony, order, and eloquence; but as yet the effect has only been a derangement of the mutual good-will that formerly existed; and the feeling of discontent planted thereby in many congregations. From time to time new schemes were started, all more or less impracticable; but no one yet has thought of producing a reform upon religious grounds, to lead the sinners back to the throne of God, to come to worship not because the fancy and the ear are to be amused, but to break the heart with penitence for the neglect of the Divine Will. And we contend that no reform can ever be successful which does not proceed from within; and no matter how many are brought to the Synagogue because, and only because, it is more attractive, it is not to be expected that they will be better Jews for their attendance on public worship. To hear some people speak, one would be led to suppose that the church is every thing, that religion is satisfied if we have sung a few hymns, heard a sermon, and behaved devoutly for two hours every week. But it needs no argument to prove that to be a religious Jew the whole life should be one of devotion, every act should have an unction of sanctity, based as it ought to be upon the revelation of God. Public worship is a powerful lever to cement a union of the faithful; the sermon, if proceeding from a pious and wellstored mind, is eminently calculated to arouse devotional feelings in the hearers; but both are only the means of religion, not the end. When therefore our reformers dwell upon the unsightliness of our forms, they may be right in part; yet their constant denunciation of all who differ from them, their illiberality and intolerance towards those who dare to canvass the reasonableness of their views and projects, have left only bitter fruits of disunion in their train. Reform, we repeat, must proceed out of the centre of Judaism, based upon the law and the tradition; and whatever militates against these is error, pernicious error, and will be scouted by the real friends of Zion, despite of the angry attacks of the so-called liberal reformers. When will this reform take place? we shall be asked; we answer it is gradually taking place now; it is the silent working of reason acting in concert with religion; many unsightly though innocent customs have already disappeared, and all that can be dispensed with will be left unobserved as fast as this may be safe and practicable.

But reform has its limits; Judaism is not a creature of circumstances; it is a positive fact, a revelation; we have ancestral customs which are inseparably connected with our duties; these too must stand. Consequently we can at once determine, though we are for progress, what reforms we will be always opposed to; and we say, therefore, unhesitatingly, that the whole of the scheme of the Hamburg temple, its music, its banishing the reading of the law during the cycle of twelve months, its German hymns, its preaching of an ideal Messiah, its opposition to the bodily coming of the son of David, its viewing Germany as our father­land in a permanent sense, its repudiation of the belief of the gathering of the captives קבוץ גליות are rank heresies, which we, in common with millions of Israel, condemn as inimical to the religion of Israel.

It was till lately but the acts of certain small bodies of men who had raised the standard of rebellion; and the discussion was carried on through newspapers and pamphlets, which might have been readily disregarded on account of the little influence it could in this way exercise upon the community at large. But for the last few years certain of our teachers, who ought to have been faithful guardians on the watchtowers of Zion, in an unfortunate moment, joined themselves to the movement; they perhaps were ambitious of earning a distinction by treading a new path; and hence they lent their aid to denounce our ancient guides and to permit what the letter and spirit of the law prohibited. The effect of this treachery was the assembly of German Rabbins at Brunswick during the summer of 5604, and its repetition at Frankford in the past season. Our readers were made familiar with the names of the men and their doings, and we hope that the great majority of them have seen how unsafe it would be to follow such shepherds, who leave the flock to be devoured, and who ward not off the dangers which constantly beset it. One good effect we expected would result to our religion from these hasty and unwise movements, namely, the opening of the eyes of the people to the dangerous tendency of their trusting such leaders; and we said, in our November number, p. 402, “that we were pleased to see the men of our day come out boldly, as they would thus raise a cry against themselves, which is the best safeguard against the adoption of their vicious policy.” And this effect has been produced already; and we rejoice to state it; not because we would rejoice over the fall of our opponents, but because we would fain believe in the virtue of the people, and the impregnable strength of our religion. The last Orient contains a letter to Chief Rabbi Cahn, of Treves, from his congregation, in which they denounce his participation in the assembly of Rabbins, and disapprove of the sentiments there put forth. The letter is prefaced by the following observations:

Treves in September. The poisonous seed of the Rabbinical Assembly commences gradually to diffuse its pestiferous exhalations in the midst of the most peaceful communities. The bond of love and esteem which embraced all shades of opinion in harmony and peace, is torn asunder, and hatred and contention, hostile feelings and suspicion, intolerance and fanaticism, are the blessings which the Rabbinical Assembly so bountifully dispenses. From our little but peaceful community also, which formerly bestowed confidence and esteem on our Rabbi, and followed his efforts, though they tended towards reform, with a quiet and thoughtful step, peace has departed. Occasion for this state of things was given by the Rabbinical Assembly at Frankford, which our Rabbi attended against the will of the community; well-merited reproofs could naturally not remain absent; and when he made use more than once of the pulpit to make matters of personal controversy, which are from their nature neither instructive nor edifying ,the subject of his discourses, the community addressed to him an earnest appeal, which we herewith communicate to the public.

“From several quarters are these odious contests of the Rabbins with their congregations praised as a species of martyrdom; and it is not unknown that many a Rabbi makes it a matter of boasting not to regard the will of his congregation. It were to be wished that these gentlemen might reflect, that martyrdom is a kind of enthusiasm which the conviction of truth produces on the spirit, and to procure the victory for which men make a total sacrifice of self; but if the so much praised self-sacrificing of our Rabbins should consist only of comfortless quarrels, and of the awakening of the slumbering party-hatred, it is not martyrdom, but stupid defiance.

“The above-mentioned letter is in the following words:

‘To The Rev. Chief Rabbi Cahn, Present:

‘The undersigned, members of the Israelitish community of this place, feel themselves urged by a sense of duty to address you the following communication.

‘The assumption of office of the Chief Rabbi of our place filled all the members of our congregation with joyous hopes; every one felt that for the preservation and elevation of the position of this community there was need of an active, learned, and amiable leader; and it was thought that such a one might be found in you. The commencement of your official activity was not calculated to diminish this hope; it was rather increased, when people convinced themselves that you undertook to discharge your duties with zeal, and the moment did not appear any more far distant, when, through this unity of feeling, the construction of a new Synagogue might be effected, through which our divine service should receive a more worthy form.

But latterly you changed your direction, inasmuch as you have, without consulting the suffrages of the congregation, already twice taken part in the so-called assembly of Rabbins, which consists of men who have renounced Rabbinical and positive historical Judaism, (die ausser halb des rabbinischen and positiv-historischen Judenthums sich befinden.) You took part with these innovations which have risen to the surface in the latest times in Judaism, and made these innovations a constituent part of your exertions.

‘You went even yet farther; you publicly defended the correctness of this your view, you attacked those who did not share the same, and you employed the pulpit for both these purposes.

‘We, the subscribers, who are penetrated with the conviction of the correctness of the revealed religion which has been handed down to us from our fathers, and of its dogmas, deplore deeply that you, Rev. Chief Rabbi, whom we would gladly have found as our leader in this matter, do not entertain the same opinion with ourselves; but we deplore to a yet greater degree that you appear to have resolved to inculcate these your views by means which are calculated for nothing else than to destroy for ever the precious peace of our community.

The pulpit, Reverend Sir, is a post entrusted to you; it is entrusted to you to labour therefrom for the welfare of your congregation, and the most indispensable foundation of this welfare is peace.

‘From the pulpit, in the holy Synagogue, there should not be discussed any public concerns, but solely true religion and moral doctrines, and then those only which can edify and conduce to true religiousness. The least of all subjects should personalities and private differences be touched upon. All this you disregard now totally; you mean to force your convictions on others; and when you find no susceptibility for these your exertions, you make attaches, and offend the members of your congregation who think otherwise, and for all this you employ the pulpit, which has been entrusted to you only for sacred objects.

‘We trust in the God of our fathers that He may incline you to yield that which we recognise as erroneous doctrines, and which we must declare as such after the views of many ancient Rabbins. We demand respect and indulgence for our religious views from you; we hold them to be true and correct; you ought not, therefore, to con­tinue, through panegyrics bestowed on the known tendency of the Rabbinical Assembly, to attack these our views from the pulpit, and to censure that which is holy to us all.

‘Do not become yourself, Reverend Rabbi, a man full of prejudices, and a reckless zealot, in your endeavours to rid religion of prejudices.

‘The peace of our community, the prosperity of the same within and without, are objects dear to us beyond any thing else; do not destroy for us this peace; discontinue the mode of proceeding which you have lately employed; this it is which we beg of you, and to effect which we address these lines to you. You will convince yourself of this upon careful reflection, and therefore approve of the present step, which has been taken only out of love for that which is sacred to us, and acknowledge it with equal love and esteem.

‘Treves, August 14, 1845.’ [Here follow the signatures.]

From the above it will be seen how the people have taken in hand the false preaching of the reform Rabbins; and who can doubt of the issue of the contest? The people, indeed, require leaders; but thank God, we are not sunk so low but that we can see when we are led safely. The Bible is not so difficult of understanding, nor is the tradition so much a sealed book as our modern guides pretend; and we for one always thought that we shall be protected and sustained as a nation despite of the wickedness of those who ought to set a bright example. But our space admonishes us to close; and we will do this by giving a brief extract which we find in the November number of the Jewish Intelligence, just received, detailing the fate of another of the twenty-nine who this year so strangely represented Judaism at Frankford.

“Dismissal of the Rabbi of Brunswick.—The ‘Operpostamts-Zeitung’ for Oct. 3, contained the following announcement under date of Brunswick, Sept. 29:

“‘The Jewish community of this place, where the first Assembly of Rabbins was held and feasted in the year 1844, has broublit a complaint against its Rabbi, Dr. Herzfeld, on account of the hostile expression respecting the holy Scriptures* in general, and the Pentateuch in particular, made use of by him at the late Assembly. These representations on the part of the Israelitish community have led our Government to remove Dr. Herzfeld† from his office.’”

So, then, Dr. Herzfeld has had to feel the full weight of that liberty which he was one to praise; the Messiah is yet needed to emancipate us from the power of arbitrary rulers. In this country, where church and state are not connected, the removal of a minister could not be thought of on the part of government; but it is different in Germany, where, in most of the states, the civil power controls even the clerical offices; and appointments and removals are made without the consent or will of the people if the authorities choose; and with their consent if the people happen to coincide. In the instance of Dr. H., however, it appears the congregation petitioned, and this for their disapproval of his course; and we appeal to this fact among others as a justification of the confidence which we have always expressed, that the reform Rabbins misunderstood the position of Judaism when they so actively embarked in reform upon the clamour of a few wealthy, learned, and noisy persons. There are divisions of sentiments on minor subjects, and always ought to be; but, for all that, we are one people, and will be found true on the day of trial.

* See Occident, vol. iii., p. 405.

† This report is not confirmed by the latest Jewish papers from England, nevertheless, it is likely to be true.