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The Burton Street Reform Synagogue, London.


The establishment of any reform, or the movement taking place among the Israelites all over the world, is a proper subject of discussion for any religious periodical advocating the principles of Judaism. Hence, it need not cause surprise that we have frequently taken public notice of the reform movement, commenced in London, which resulted in the establishment of a separate or secession congregation, called the West London Synagogue of British Jews. But independently of public considerations, we have ample cause for our interference on other grounds. A gentleman with whom we had a personal acquaintance some years ago, when on a visit to this country, and with whom we had exchanged several letters, informed us in one of them that he had joined the movement. As was natural, we replied to him, in the main deprecating the secession, even if there were some cause of complaint. Among other things we objected to the abolition of the second days of the festivals, by the mere will of a few private gentlemen, who, however respectable, could not be trusted with improving our system. At the same time, we freely acknowledged, that to our view, the keeping of double holidays was one of the weakest of all our observances, the cause of their introduction having, in a measure, been removed. Nevertheless, we stated our convictions, and do so now, that arbitrary changes in this case would lead to no good result, and that hence it would be a useless innovation, especially as the Scriptures, by the examples they furnish, do not prohibit our keeping additional days. Regarding the prayer-book to be formed, we objected that it would be nothing but a human invention; and whilst admitting the prayer-book in use among all Israelites not to be divine, still we could not think of abolishing it for the production of any new men in whom we could not place the confidence we have in our old teachers. We only quote from memory, not having kept a copy of our letter. It is needless to say that our advice was not taken, though no offence was given to our correspondent by our candour. In the process of time, the prayer-book of the Burton Street Congregation was ushered before the world, and its birth was heralded by an interdict, issued by the heads of the German and Portuguese congregations, against its use. We never understood that a formal Cherem, or excommunication, (which would have placed, according to custom, the delinquents, for the time being, beyond the society of the faithful,) was pronounced against the persons worshipping after the new form, and we so understood upon inquiry, because an impression was current, that the book and the people had been interdicted. The prohibition to use the new prayer-book, we consider to be a proper exercise of the prerogative of the heads of the Synagogue; they are placed in this position to be watchmen for the house of Israel; when they see danger, they are bound to give warning. But we objected, and wrote to a distinguished gentleman, at the head of the opposite party, that, according to our humble opinion, too much importance had been attached to the whole secession proceedings, and that a simple notice or circular, cautioning against the use of the new prayer-book, without entering into a denunciation of its authors, would have been enough and much more proper.

So far our private acts. We never sought to interfere, but we could not avoid writing a reply, when the question had been brought before us first by one of each party. We do condemn what we consider a useless and burdensome law of the Portuguese congregation of London, imposing a Cherem upon all who establish a Synagogue within six miles of Bevis Marks (the site of the Synagogue Shaar Ashamayim); still we doubt whether this excommunication is of that grave kind which almost leaves the sufferer religiously dead. Be this as it may, there was a necessity for altering this law, as a Synagogue was required at the west end of London, to enable the many Israelites residing there to attend religious worship at least once every Sabbath. Why this permission was not granted, we do not know; perhaps the directors of the old Synagogue thought that reform, not a place of worship, was desired. But unless we greatly misunderstand the Jewish community of London, such a permission would have been ultimately granted, had the matter been urged respectfully, and without heat; perhaps some slight modification in the manner of conducting the worship, we should judge, might have been allowed without any infringement of our ancient usages. But it seems both sides were to blame, the reformers in demanding the right to introduce changes, the others in obstinately refusing every thing. The separation then took place. And scarcely had the minister pronounced his introductory or consecration sermon, when missionary societies, both in England and America, rejoiced over the separation, as though it were an approximation to Christianity. It was upon discovering this, that we took for the first time public notice of these transactions, in a note to page 102 of our Vol. I. Our friends in England will recollect that about the same time an advertisement appeared in the French Archives and two German papers, asking for a minister for St. Thomas, on the plan of the Burton Street reform. In consequence of this, when the Rev. Mr. Carillon returned to St. Thomas to resume his ministry, we admitted a letter which he wrote us, and prefaced it, with a few, what we thought, necessary remarks. (Vide Occident, Vol. I. p. 346.) Soon after this, we received a sermon preached by the Rev. Mr. Marks, which, as it contained a complete refutation of the unsoundness of the seceders upon fundamental doctrinal grounds, we hastened to insert. It was not our fault that some correspondents thought proper to animadvert upon Mr. Carillon’s letter, and upon the supposed course of Mr. Marks’s congregation; for we think that free discussion, especially where all are equally interested, ought not to be abridged. As soon as Mr. Marks became aware what was thought of his movements abroad, he wrote to us two letters for publication, which we gave in the first and second numbers of our second volume. Some animadversions sent to us upon these letters we declined inserting, thinking that enough had been said on both sides, in a fruitless controversy. Still we think that a few remarks which we appended to Mr. Marks’s letters, gave offence in certain quarters, when we think that we treated the reverend gentleman with a great deal of courtesy. But this can be of no interest to our readers, so we pass it over, with but one remark, that in this as in our whole course as editor, we are perfectly willing to lay our conduct open to the examination of a disinterested person, to whom we will accord all the explanation requisite, and apologize if we cannot convince him or his friends, of the correctness of our proceedings.

Thus matters stood when Mr. Elkin, of London, a gentleman who stands high amidst his congregation, wrote to us a letter upon the subject of the controversy, which we did not immediately publish, although permission had been given us to do so. When, however, we accidentally made some remarks, which Mr. Elkin thought unjust to his party, he sent us another epistle, which we gave in our eleventh number of last volume, together with an abstract of the previous letter, to wit, such parts as would plead as the best justification of the secession. But certain parts we could not give publicity to, since, in admitting a a defence of the Burton Street Synagogue, communicated without an official stamp, by a gentleman on his own responsibility, it would have been evidently unfair to reflect upon others not in this country, and to render our periodical thus an arena for the settlement of distant disputes not connected immediately with religion. We are perfectly willing to discuss religious questions in the abstract, with persons in the farthest east, for this concerns all Israelites; but upon matters of municipal regulation we cannot enter, unless we are personally conversant with the subject. Hence we could not give currency to a part of Mr. Elkin’s letter which censured severely the conduct of the managers of the Portuguese congregation in London; especially since, to our conviction, the entire truth of the charges would not justify the establishment of a new mode of worship. Mr. Elkin, however, has thought proper to publish his letter to us in extenso, in the London Jewish Chronicle, with long explanatory notes, under date of March 21st. In this he has acted under the impression that the parts omitted by us were requisite for his defence, and that of his associates; and although we think that we ought to have been written to before Mr. Elkin gave publicity to a letter which, from one of the concluding paragraphs, was left to our discretion to publish or to withhold, still we will readily believe that he has acted from the supposed necessity of self-defence. This publication has, however, produced a sharp reply from H. Guedalla, Esq., in the Chronicle of April 4th; but as we have not published any of Mr. Elkin’s charges, we of course cannot undertake to discuss the merits of Mr. Guedalla’s rejoinder. Still we cannot help remarking that Mr. Guedalla appears perfectly correct in his supposition, that a small measure of reform would not have satisfied the gentlemen who asked for change, or else they would not have carried measures so far as they have done. Mr. Guedalla is farther right in saying that no good can result from a farther controversy, and that all parties would best consult the interest of Judaism; by seeking peace and pursuing it; had this been thought of in the commencement of the movement, had the different parties endeavoured to approximate, had the ascama (law) against the erection of a new Synagogue been early revoked: who knows but that, differences though great, and reforms though ardently called for, peace might have been maintained between the various Israelites of London. But unfortunately, one party asked too much; the other, it seems, would not yield; and now each one thinks himself right, and condemns the other. Would it not be wise to endeavour to produce a conciliation? The revocation of the interdict against the prayer-book can hardly be expected; no Rabbi can conscientiously approve a ritual that was professedly framed without rabbinical authority; but surely we trust that its supporters are not so bigoted for the mere work of the day, as the prayer is, as to refuse all concessions because pious Israelites were cautioned not to use a work for their devotions not sanctioned by the heads of our church. And since both Mr. Elkin and Mr. Guedalla have done us the honour to send us their letters, we trust that we shall not be deemed officious if we ask of them in this public manner, they both being sincere friends of Judaism, to draw near unto each other, to endeavour to heal the breach so unfortunately existing. We are placed at a distance, and we can thus judge how fatal a blow they give to our holy faith, by contending against one another, and wasting their strength, which ought to be unitedly employed against foreign opponents. In our private letter to Mr. Elkin we conjured him for peace; we do so again; and we trust that the ultras on both sides will be inclined to listen to reason, when such men as Mr. Elkin and Mr. Guedalla unite their efforts to heal the acerbity of feelings, which an estrangement of some years’ standing has produced. With these remarks we take leave of the subject at present.