The Wars of the Lord
By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).
A Critique of Dr. Wise's History of the Jews.
Peace be with my Friend, the much Learned Sage, the Exalted Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, of Albany.
Not long ago I saw a Hebrew youngster carrying on his game in the streets, and though I know nothing of his birth and parentage, his appearance and impudent carriage sufficiently testified his not being begotten by wisdom nor acquainted with truth, however smooth-tongued he might speak to men. This youngster I encountered, and questioned him "Whence comest thou? Whither goest thou? What is thy business here? What is thy name and the name of thy father?" He answered "The son of Falseprophet who is generally called Chacham (Sage, teacher) am I, in a pit void of all but serpents and scorpions that bite the heel of horse and rider, was I born; to spread lies and to gather wealth has my father sent me forth. And thus my father said to me, 'Rise, traverse the land in its length and breadth, and traffic therein. Make thyself friends and gain a name for thyself. Should any one, stop and ask, Who art thou and whither goest thou? then say thou, I am an Hebrew; my brethren I seek; to relate to them the history of the children of Israel, and their fortunes from their first origin until this day. But my son, beware lest the zealots encounter thee, for their swords would pierce thy heart. Their throats are an open grave to devour thee alive. Pass their gates; enter them not; but repair to the camp of the blind; them thou will serve for eyes; from want of spirit they will listen to thee and as their eyes are defective in sight, when they behold thy signs they will be astounded; when they hear from thee what they never heard before, they will put faith in thee, and will say: What our father' bequeathed unto us is mere falsehood; what our elders related unto us is not true. Why should we cling to false hopes? Why should we expect the coming of a Redeemer who will never come? The temple that has been burnt, the altar that has been demolished will never be rebuilt; the dead will never rise; those who sleep in the dust will never awake; their ghosts will never behold the light, for nature never departed from her law, and everlastingly, she will not depart from it. Signs manifold, and wonders numberless our fathers beheld; but in it all they forgot tile first at all signs, Nature; though she be the mother of all living. The man Moses, alone, understood her ways and walked in her paths.
It was at her bidding that the sea retreated, and at her bidding the billows returned and overwhelmed the hosts of Egypt. For she, and she alone, worked all the wonders in the land of bondage. Why then should we prove faithless to our mother, from whose breasts we nourished? Her hands are spread out to rich and to poor; young and old, little and great come and take their share, end whosoever needeth may come and enjoy. Why then should we barter her glory for no purpose? Why should we prove so barbarously ungrateful as to despise her bounties? Why should we reject her wool and her flax when woven together? A kid in its mother's milk why should we not eat? Between the flesh of the clean and the unclean why should we distinguish? Who has given the clean and the unclean? Are they not both from one donor? Not in vain has He formed them; but for the enjoyment of man He created them. Moreover, is it with Moses only that G-d has spoken? Is it to the Prophets of the olden times alone that He has imparted His spirit? Does not G-d also speak to us out of fire, out of water, out of winds? Under the cedar on Lebanon, and in the hyssop that clings to the wall, His voice is heard. And we likewise have revelation. Where, indeed, is there a wise man that hath no revelation ? The sculptor, the artist whose works excite general admiration and astonishment, could he produce them without that spirit, imparted by Him who has placed wisdom in hidden parts ? Moses is no more, but the spirit has not departed; it is yet active on earth. Prophets have ceased; but not prophecy, for there is yet vision for the appointed time. Neither Abraham nor Moses, nor any of the prophets saw G-d; for they, like we, had only mortal eyes; but when the spirit of reflection began to move them, imagination drew various figures before them; each one thought and saw, for their thoughts alone constituted their vision."
Thus the youngster spoke to me, and my ears tingled as I heard it. Indignant, I exclaimed, depart from me thou unclean one; cease from sinning with thy tongue. Speak no more, thou art guilty unto death; for thou hast blasphemed the law of the living G-d, and hast loaded His saints with reproach; and the name of thy father thou hast defiled and rendered abominable. But how astounded was I, how terror-struck, when this youngster declared that he was thy son, thy first bborn thy only one, whom thou didst love.
Thou hast done foolishly, O my brother, in sending abroad this thy offspring so green and unripe, to be erring and vagabond throughout the world, spreading temptation, and becoming a stumbling-block in the way of the blind. But as I greatly love thee. I cannot refrain from prouncing judgment against thee. Be not wroth that I thus publicly rebuke thee. It is not with the intention to tarnish thy honor, that I utter these words; far be it from me so to do! Such is not my practice, my only object is to put a stop to the arrows, which thy bold tongue has aimed against our faith, attempting to devastate and destroy the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts. For it is against th law of Moses that thou hast stretched forth thy hand. Against the prophets of the Lord thou hast proclaimed rebellion, and against the tradition thou hast bared thy sword.
Brother ! brother ! How could thy heart entice thee thus to outstep all bounds, to distort the truth, and to shelter under the wings of falsehood, in order to make thyself a name in the land, and to gain the favor of transgressors. Better had it been for thee if thou hadst remained altogether silent, and hadst held thy peace, as thou doest concerning the creation of heaven and earth, and the history of all mankind till the days of Abraham. Such silence would, indeed, have been meritorious, and far more becoming than thy writing.
What wilt thou do co that coming day, when thy Master shall question thee "I set thee to guard the vineyard, but my vineyard thou hast not kept. To be a pastor of my flock I appointed thee. Their fat hast devoured -- with their wool than didst clothe thyself; the choicest among them them hast slaughtered, but my sheep thou didst not tend."
How could it enter thy mind to deny the signs and wonders which the Lord wrought through Moses His servant, in the sight of all Israel, and thus to introduce doubt into the minds of the Lord's people, and to stultify Israel through the means of Israelites? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Or can nature gainsay her Creator, for that he has worked her contrary to rule? Reflect, O my brother! Every human action should have a useful purpose; but for whom hast thou acted, and for what useful purpose? The pious man will live in his faith; the wicked man always did what he pleased. The ignorant man, infirm of purpose, thou hast troubled and afflicted; so that now he halts between two opinions, fainting and with staggering knees, and the responsibility falls on thee.
How art than fallen, O my brother! Thy friends must look upon thee as insane, while thy enemies hoot thee as an infidel guilefully propounding falsehoods. Were I to reprove thee for each of the strange and silly ideas thou hast penned down in thy book, my space would be too limited; and beside, why should I waste time to no purpose! Yet concerning some few of them I would question thee. Tell me now, I pray thee how could such insanity spring up in thy mind, as to assert that the man who struck the hollow of Jacob's thigh was an Arab robber? Is it from such a plunderer, lurking on the highways to murder the innocent, that Jacob would desire a blessing, saying, "I will act suffer thee to depart till thou hast blessed me." (Gen. xxxiii, 27) ? And that the blessing the robber bestowed upon Jacob should have been so highly esteemed by him, that even to this day all his posterity are called by the name of Israel! Nay, still more, the Holy One, blessed be He confirms the benediction given by the ruffian highway robber, and, likewise, calls us Israel. What hast thou to say against the evidence of the text, 'for as a prince hast thou power over G-d ?" (ibid.).
On page 10 thou hast written, "It was not by the command of G-d that Abraham proposed to bring his son for an offering; but his heart urged him, saying, 'Wherewith shall I appear and worship the most high G-d ? The fruit of my loins will I bring him as a tribute ; the soul of my only child will I offer as an oblation, and with his blood will I propitiate the Divine favor'. But when he took the knife to slay his son, nature imperiously cried 'Lay not thy hand on the lad. His paternal love prevailed; the sword was put back into the sheathe, and the led returned with his father to Beer-Sheba". Such is thy statement; but, I confess, I cannot penetrate into thy meaning. The narration in Scripture begins by stating that G-d put Abraham to the test, and it ends by declaring that he stood the test, inasmuch as he did not withhold his son, his only one. But according to thy opinion he did not stand the test, since his love for his son prevailed over his fear of G-d ! And now, pray, tell me, on what authority dost thou found thy opinion ? If on the Torah why shouldst thou only believe half of her narration? If she utter any falsehood do not believe her at all. Repudiate the whole. and say, "Such events never happened at all". But if thy tutor, Thomas the saint, (Paine?) revealed this secret unto thee, who told him. ? Did he live in the days of Abraham? Who teaches thee what thou art to believe in the Torah, and what thou art to repudiate? O, perhaps the spirit of prophecy has alighted on thee, and thou hast a revelation which enables thee to distinguish how much is true in the statements of the Torah? If that be the case it is indeed astonishing; for none of the prophets, from Moses even unto Ezra, were deemed worthy of all inspiration transcending as thine. They all believed in every word and every letter of the law; but, according to thy claim they all were in error until thou didst arise and wert deemed worthy to pick out what is really true from amidst all that the Torah tells us.
Moreover, if, according to thy assertion, the prophets only fancied they saw, but in reality had no revelation or communication from on high, and each of them only gave utterance to his inward meditations, how came Moses to know that Korah and his confederates were not to die a natural death? How came he to know that "to-morrow this sign would come to pass and the Lord make known who is His?" How did he know that the men who went out from Egypt were all to perish in the wilderness, while Joshua and Kaleb, the sole survivors of that multitude, were alone to enter the promised land? Who told Moses that throughout the whole of this vast globe there are but ten species of animals that chew the cud and have cloven hoofs? Who could tell Isaiah or Jeremiah that Babylon would become "truly and everlastingly desolate, the autre of ferocious beasts?" Who could tell Abraham that his posterity were to sojourn four centuries in a strange land? How, indeed, came they, one and all, to knww what they so positively predicted, unless it was imparted to them from on high!
Page 24 on the text, "G-d said to Laban in a dream at right" (Gen. xxxi, 24), thou addest, 'this is only the feeling of parental love that prevailed over his anger as his compassion was moved towards his daughters". Here again thou dost adhere to thy opinion that a man's imagination and inward meditations are the only revelation that is over vouchsafed unto him. But how wilt thou explain the confession Laban made to Jacob, (after having told him he had the power to hurt him) "But the G-d of your fathers spoke to me yesternight" (ibid. 29)? Page 64 thou hast written, the Torah, does not aver that the ten plagues which the Lord brought upon Egypt were inflicted within a short space of time, and in rapid succession; but that, according to thy opinion, thirteen years intervened between the first plague and the last. And now let us compute. Eighty years was Moses old when he stood before Pharaoh; at the age of one hundred and twenty be died, after having wandered about with Israel during forty years. It is therefore certain that all the plagues which visited Egypt must have been inflicted during selfsame year that Moses confronted Pharoah. Page 68 thou hast asserted; all the authority of R. Abraham ben Ezra in reference to the smiting of the first-born, that it was not by the act of G-d they perished, but that the children of Israel assembled and, assassin-like, attacked the Egyptians at midnight, murdering all their first-born! Tell me, I beseech thee my brother, didst thou not feel the blush of shame burning on thy forehead and cheek, while writing these words by which thou hast libelled the reputation of a pious and sainted man, and hast taken his name in vain. Never did so blasphemous an idea intrude on the mind of this rightous man; never did he utter anything so completely contrary to truth and common sense; but in order to gain a ready recognition for thy own fancies, thou didst quote his high and generally received authority. Does not Scripture expressly and plainly declare "The Lord smote, all the first born (Exod. xii, 29)"?
Moreover, if it be as thou sayest, for what purpose did the Israelites slay the first-born of the prisoners in the dungeon and the first-born of cattle ? Let me ask thee, how did the Israelites become able to single out all the first-born, throughout the whole land of Egypt? Did they at the onset knock at each door and halloo, "Bring out your own first-born and those of your cattle that we may kill them ?" Tell me what does Scripture mean by the words "The Lord will pass to smite the Egyptians," and "The Lord will pass over the door" (ibid. 23)? I cannot conceal from thee, my brother, what scoffers say about thee. They compare thee to a debtor who admits part of his creditor's claim, under the axiom of Rabbah, i.e. "He would gladly repudiate the whoe, but that it is not given to man to be so impudent to the face of his creditor".
Page 68, thou hast written on the alleged authority of great sages and teachers in Israel that the crossing of the Red Sea was not supernatural; but that this (supposed) wonder was quite in the ordinary course of nature. At low water the Israelites were saved; at high water the Egyptians were drowned. But reflect for a moment on the following questions : First: upwards of six hundred thousand (persons) besides their children, flocks and herds went forth from Egypt. How could all this multitude cross the sea in the brief space of six hours, that ordinarily intervenes between ebb and flood? Second: had the Egyptian. never seen the sea, that they were so completely ignorant of the nature of the tides, as not to know that low water, ebb, must invariably be followed by high water, flood? Third: the Israelites marched on dry ground through the midst of the sea (Exod. xiii, 22). Is that in accordance with the ordinary workings of nature in the tides? Fourth: what does Scripture mean when it relates, "Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the waters were divided ?"And Again, "Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned" (ibid. 21,26)? If this wonder of crossing the Red Sea was effected by the ordinary flux and reflux of the tide, what occasion was there for Moses to raise his staff over the sea? - surely it was not at his bidding that the tide receded and in due time again advanced? But if the insinuation is to be conveyed that Moses was a cheat, who tried falsely to impose on the credulity of the Israelites, far be it from me and from thee, my brother, to harbor so foul an imputation against Moses, the servant, faithful throughout the house of the Lord! Moreover, I know thee of old that thou fearest G-d, and I am convinced that thou art not an unbeliever or light-of-faith, though this book of thine is a thoughtless act by which the writer has committed himself. Believe me, O my brother, hadst thou set up an idol in the temple of the Lord, saying, "Let us worship this image, for this is our God who, will guide us to immortal life," the evil could not have been greater than the mischief caused by thy book. Thy purpose was to relate the history of the children of Israel. What business then hast thou to attack and commit trespass on that which is sacred? Alas! Israelites firm in their faith are not too many, and thy work will only teach the multitude to become faithless. Hast thou not yet heard the outcry the children of Israel raise against thee?
Therefore, O, my brother, let me advise thee, and may G-d be with thee. In the sight of Israel thou hast sinned, and the sin of the public is attributed to thee. Therefore, in their sight, likewise, recall thy words, make, public confession, and condemn thy book. Tell the people that it is accursed and whosoever harbors it within his house becomes guilty. Then the Lord will pardon thee and thy sin will be atoned for. Such are the words of thy friend, who writes to uphold the cause of truth.
Issachar Bernard Illowy
Philadelphia, 2, 5614.