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 Shopping Mall of Zion AHAVA Hero Products 250x250

בס"ד

Objects And Means Of Religious Education.

How are we to secure to our youth the benefits of a religious education?

The important question of religious education has been latterly brought forward and ably discussed; and I would certainly shrink back from offering any remarks on the subject, conscious as I am of my inability to do it justice; I would consider it presumptuous on my part to step forward and rank among the learned and eloquent champions of this sacred cause, who have preceded me, were it not that I am deeply impressed with its high importance, and that I thought a word In its season, come it from what source it may, will never pass away utterly unnoticed. I have, however, no apprehension that the cause will suffer through my advocacy. As to the amount and merit of what I shall advance, I hope my esteemed readers will bear in mind, that it does not so much depend on the "quantity and quality of what one has to offer, provided he be guided by pure motives."אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכון לבו לשמים

If I judge rightly from the signs of the time, I may assert that the interest for religion is taking daily deeper root in the midst of our communities. It may seem strange to devout minds, that this boon of Heaven should at any time have been disregarded, that no proper means should have been employed to propagate its doctrines and make posterity enjoy its blessings. But owing to human inconstancy or external circumstances, this has frequently been the case. Our mind is in continual fluctuation. And as in the individual it is subject to strong tides, so is it (collectively) in communities and in whole nations. It is at one time like the placid waters of a smooth mountain lake, and at the other like the heaving ocean, roused to fury by angry gales. To illustrate this let us cast back a glance at our past history. Ever since our forefathers were chosen to be the guardians of those divine treasures, called religious truths, they did not always keep them in their pristine purity. Many a time they showed themselves unworthy of their high office, by offering incense on the altars of Baal. But sooner or later when brought back to a sense of their duty by the visiting hand of God, accompanied by the warning voice of divine monitors; when convinced that they had only to look for peace and happiness in acting up to the laws and precepts contained in that book which is stamped with the seal of truth חותם של הקב״ה אמת ׃ they invariably returned from the wrong course they had taken, again seeking protection under the banners of the benign mercy of their offended but pardoning God. True, alas! they relapsed too often into their follies and the then predominant idolatry, until even divine mercy was exhausted, and the long predicted catastrophe came to pass, in which their temple was destroyed and they themselves scattered all over the globe, to mourn in exile over their once enjoyed national independence.

During that period of darkness which succeeded the lurid flames of the burning temple, during that long and terrible period of nearly eighteen centuries' thralldom, the Israelites' suffering every wrong imaginable, found their only solace on earth in the steady execution of the divine law. This was a property they could never be deprived of, this the soil they were permitted to till; and industriously did they cultivate it, and their labours in this field did not fail to be crowded with a bountiful harvest. Not indeed a golden harvest; no, the fruits of these labours were discernible in their houses, in their families, in their communities, in the resignation and submission which they opposed to oppression and affliction, in the hope of a world where all human misery will cease, and where a just reward will be meted out to the good and deserving; in the scrupulousness with which they trained up their children in the law of God, which proved the shield in all their trials. There was scarcely a time when religious education was lost sight of. Regular schools, elementary and academical, were established; and where these were wanting, the father himself became the teacher of his children. We find this in the times of the Rabbis, Amoraim and Geonim, we find it after the Israelites had permanently settled in the European countries. Throughout the middle ages we see them scrupulously attending to this, which they justly viewed as their bounden duty. The study of the law was uniformly practised and considered highly meritorious, inasmuch as it leads men to a true knowledge of God and his attributes, to a rational appreciation of his own state and destiny, and consequently must make him more humane and charitable towards his fellow-man. That the divine law is indeed “a tree of life to those who take hold of it, and a source of happiness to those who lean on it," (עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה ותמכיה מאשר) we find verified in the whole existence of our nation. When the Israelite of the past centuries was bending home his weary steps after the day's task was finished and his energies exercised to exhaustion in the pursuit to gain the wherewithal to provide for the exigencies of life, his heart throbbed with joy in anticipation of the delight the discussion and study of the law in his domestic circle would afford him. There he sat beside his humble fireside, pondering over antique voluminous works, or engaged in letting his children repeat their lessons of the day, or teaching them himself, attentively listened to by his consort in life, whose duty it was to urge the boys to school. Many a night also was spent in eager discussion and study. Thus the Jew,* hated and despised as he was by the majority of those he came in contact with, forgot all his trouble and humiliation. The taunts and sneers of the day were fully compensated by the avocations of the balmy evenings.

* It may not be improper to say a word on the epithet "Jew," which to some delicate ears may sound somewhat harsh. It has been the fate of this term (from causes which I will not now enter into), that formerly it was used to designate the quintessence of obloquy. Now I am of opinion, that. it may fairly be classed under that category of words which rise and fall in their estimation; used in one age to convey an honourable, in another a dishonourable idea. Having no English word ready at hand, I quote an instance from the German language. The noun "Weib" up to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was employed to designate a “worthy housewife," whereas in the following centuries it became the epithet of a licentious woman, and we find it used is this sense even by Schiller. Within the last three decenniums, however, it has teen restored to its original right, and is used both in the pulpit and by poets to convey an honourable idea. The same may be said of the term "Jew;" and, I have only to add, if "Brutus" became a favourite name and title of honour with the ancient Romans, let us, through our exemplary conduct, cause that the appellation "Jew" may henceforth be considered as synonymous with religious constancy and moral worth.

The practice of "Talmud Torah" was carried so far, that even those who could not "learn" themselves paid others for doing it. Whether it was indulged into in excess, whether it was used sometimes as a mantle to cover moral deficiencies and achieve evil purposes; whether it finally led to transcendentalism and mysticism, is not now my province to dwell upon. And if there should be raised any such objection, I would reply, that there is no system, ever so pure, no science ever so beneficial, that has not served at times to advance malicious designs. We might as well (for the sake of illustration) condemn the rise of philosophy in ancient Greece, because it degenerated into sophisticism; and with the same right pronounce a fiat on the chemical science because it has been used so frequently to destroy human life and. happiness. My purpose of introducing this brief historical sketch is, to show the influence of the study of the law (synonymous with religious education) on the social and intellectual condition of our nation. And that its advantages in this respect were invaluable, no one can deny. The study of the law kept alive the religious spirit of our fathers during the dark night of the middle ages; it supplied them with courage to sustain themselves under all vicissitudes and calamities of life; it furnished them with holy joys in converting their houses into a kind of מקדש מעט (a minor sanctuary); it exercised their mental faculties and made them fit for every intellectual pursuit; it created a self-conscious existence in an ideal world, which benefit was denied them in the real one. When other nations quailed under their misfortunes and became ignorant and stupid, the Israelites always took a conspicuous part in the peaceful contests of the academical arena, and contributed their full share to the advancement and enlightenment of the human race. And when the morning of freedom bean to dawn, how eagerly do we see them rush to the fountains of modern science, to which they were now allowed free access, and in what copious draughts do they inhale and amalgamate in their system the spiritual flood, the sources of which ramify through all ages and refresh all civilized nations.

It was towards the close of the last century, when the political and social condition of Europe underwent transformations almost unparalleled in history, that the Israelites were allowed to breathe a little freer; they at once partook of the spirit of the age and began to long for changes that would assimilate them more to the modern state of society, and tend to remove the charges of their unfitness for emancipation on account of their principles and antiquated institutions. Accordingly, “reform" became the order of the day. That reform was indeed necessary every one will readily admit, who is but slightly acquainted with the state of our Synagogues and mode of education of former times. Superstition and prejudices, excrescences of the middle ages, held their revels around the trek of religion and concealed its majestic stature from the eyes of the mass. Cabalistical observances were considered meritorious and godly deeds, public worship was reduced to a body without a spirit and moved by a species of soulless mechanism,* and the education was utterly inadequate to the demands of the time. Our youth were, in consequence of the taste for literary improvement, sent to schools under the guidance of teachers professing a creed different from ours, and they could not fail to imbibe principles inimical to Judaism; and many were greatly injured by the then cherished doctrines of the Voltairean philosophy. And worse than all this, in most countries their political advancement did not keep pace with their acquisition of scientifical accomplishments; and the ardent and ambitious youth, who had spent the most precious portion of his life in climbing up to the pinnacle of the Parnassus of science and art, and who now found religion an insurmountable bar to his promotion, easily removed this obstacle by becoming an apostate. Many bartered away in this manner their “birthright for a dish of pottage.” Like a spark that is fanned by the breath of the wind into a full blaze, spreading with irresistible fury: so is sometimes the spirit of the age. The example was set, and the would-be-enlightened and those void of all religious principles threw off the cover and joined those ranks, where material advantages, coupled with an unrestrained enjoyment of all the pleasures and luxuries of life, were held out to them as the reward for recreancy. It was especially in the eventful years of the first quarter of the present century, that our religion had to pass this ordeal. The chief cause of this evil must be attributed to the want of proper religious education.

* The learned Heidenheim (peace be with him,) animadverted on it in the following significant words: זה קורה וזה צעק שאג וזה נהם.

The old system of teaching was abandoned without substituting a new one in its place, and even where retained it was ineffectual. It had become an imperious necessity to do something to promote the spread of religious knowledge; men of influence and piety moved in this matter, and it was owing to their exertions that under the superintendence of intelligent teachers trained up and versed in the pedagogical sciences, schools were founded in our midst where religious instruction was properly attended to. Seminaries were established for the purpose of preparing the teacher for his onerous and responsible calling; and ministers were appointed, who had stored up in their mind the treasures of ancient and modern, sacred and profane lore. And the consequence was, that a general reaction took place, that wholesome reforms were introduced into our Synagogues; and even where these were pertinaciously opposed by the so-called orthodox congregations, a spirit of regeneration was conspicuously manifested. Thus it was that religious education was again placed on a solid footing, demonstrating at the same time that, civilization was not incompatible with our ancient faith, but that, on the contrary, our religion is suited to all times and all ages.

In proportion that a more thorough and systematic religious instruction was diffused, aided by the more liberal treatment we experienced, the mania of abjuring the faith subsided, in spite of the strenuous efforts of the missionary societies whose whole achievements, according, to their own statistical reports, in substance amount to this: that they provide their travelling preachers with good salaries and distribute immense quantities of their Bibles, which (by the way) no Israelite feels any scruple to accept and to read, as the canon of the Old Testament does not contain a particle to shake this belief; and the portion, which in the course of time has been appended to it and styled the New Testament, is not considered by him as authentic and binding.

Having advanced thus far in my retrospective view, it may be proper to approach the point more closely. It was in that state of transition in our political and religious condition, that the emigration of our co-religionists to this country became more general. I will not dilate on the various motives that prompted them to expatriate themselves and seek a new home in this land of liberty, nor on the amount and value of genuine funds they contributed to the existing religious stock; but leave this entirely to the imagination of my readers. But it must be admitted that the mass which flocked together was composed of very heterogeneous elements and not unlike a chaos, over which Time, that agent of Providence, that slow but sure reformer, hovered as creative spirit. If we look back on the short space of twenty five years, when congregational associations* were but few, religious establishments utterly wanting, no teacher to train the scions of Israel, no minister to expound the law;—and then view the reviving spirit that pervades our communities at the present time, manifesting itself in the forming of congregations and charitable societies; in the founding of regular and Sunday schools under the direction of competent teachers; in the erecting of sacred edifices to worship the Lord; in the appointing of ministers able and willing to teach their flock the way of the Lord;—if we farther speculate on the importance of this magazine, tending as it does to diffuse knowledge and instruction and to unite in one religious bond our scattered and distant congregations;—I say, if we reflect on this state of things and on the improvements that have taken and are taking place, we have certainly good cause and reason to congratulate ourselves on the score of the improvement already attained. But in doing this, we must take great care not to harbour any such delusive ideas, as self-complacency and self-sufficiency would suggest, and to say that we had done enough, and may, therefore, stop in the midst of our commendable course. No; much as has been done, much more remains to be done. To be stationary is to retrograde. By looking at the nature and constitution of our schools and Synagogues, and casting a glance at practical life, the question forces itself upon our minds: “How are we to secure to our youth the benefit of a religious education?”

* I would here take the liberty to suggest, that statistical accounts similar to that elaborate Report from Cincinnati, should be recorded in the Occident, as the common archive, by our different congregations, in order to facilitate the task of a future historian.

Before I proceed to answer this, I may be permitted to say a few words touching education in general, which I would humbly recommend to the appreciation of teachers and parents.

It is the property of education to take root on every side. Care must be taken not as to how much it should exclude, but how much it should embrace; at the table of education the food must not be stinted, nor the number and claims of the guests be limited. Our course must be to provide education,—wholesome, appropriate, extensive, fitted for the real wants of all sections of our community in this free country. We must have in view not the past but the present and more truly the future;—he who labours for the present only, loses his labour; whilst he is working the present slips from under his hands: we have to see in the child the future man, and our aim must be to make him master not of his faculties only, but of his passions; to give him knowledge and with knowledge virtue, so that in his future capacity of husband, parent, citizen, in every path in which he may hereafter have to walk, education may render the individual good and happy, and society prosperous and permanent.

If education is to be of universal benefit (which it certainly ought to) it must not be confined to one portion of society, its stores not converted into a monopoly, nor its professors into an aristocracy. It must embrace every class and both sexes. Being the half of human society, the half of our life—in some cases more than half—in the domestic, in the youthful portion of existence, woman claims a larger share than man. The domestic circle is her special domain. What is the characterising, creative, stimulating, directing portion of each man’s little history, but the span between the cradle and maturity? And this is in the hands of woman. It is in these softest years that the gentlest hand makes the most lasting impression; it is in these holiest times that the purest seeds are scattered—the truest antidotes against the pains of after years and corruptions of a more mature existence. No education descends more thoroughly into the whole nature of man. But to educate, the educator herself must first be educated. Not charity only, but knowledge, but wisdom, but virtue must first begin at home. It is, therefore, necessary that to these guardians and consolers of humanity, power and love should be early given; the power of knowledge, that not unsuccessfully they may know when to warn, to detect, to expose, and to conquer evil; the persuasion of love, that they may have those balms more sweetening than that of the poet, which take away all its bitterness from the cup of life. If we would really teach men, our duty is of a necessity first to teach women. No one who has reflected on the organization of society but will at once see this; he will recognize in a moment how deeply, how beautifully, how wisely the whole is interwoven; the character of woman determining her influence, her influence determining the whole frame of society, and her character the product of her education, as that again is the result of her organization and teaching.

There is another important feature in education which deserves our serious attention: I mean the harmony between school and house, teacher and parent. Nothing can be more detrimental to a good education than doubts entertained on the competency and honesty of the teacher on the part of the parents, and expressed in the presence of their children. The fostering of a refractory spirit in the latter, a great obstacle for the teacher in the execution of his arduous duties, is the immediate result. Confidence is the powerful talisman, which at all times should be religiously preserved. Teacher and parents have to assist each other: shoulder to shoulder they must assiduously and untiringly work for the welfare of the rising generation entrusted to their care. The best instruction will fail, if parents do not act in a corresponding spirit; the moral structure will never be brought to perfection, if that part which has caused so much care and trouble in rearing at school is carelessly pulled down at home. If children, as the saying is, are a blessing of Heaven, then parents should act towards them in such a manner that they in reality may prove a blessing to them and to mankind; that in their future career through life we may point to them, exclaiming: ברוך שזה ילד ברוך שזה גדל, “Blessed he who begat such, blessed he who educated them.”

In order to render religious education more effective, that it may leave an indelible impression upon the mind, it is necessary to celebrate that decisive period in youthful life called בר מצוה, in a more solemn and binding manner than it has hitherto been done. Not the age of thirteen years and one day alone should be considered the criterion of religious maturity, but a sufficient knowledge of the precepts of the divine law. To keep aloof from innovation and avoid coming into contact with long established custom, however, as much as possible, the above age can certainly be retained. The ceremony as it is at present, with very few exceptions, performed in the Synagogues of this country, is not much calculated to be a benefit to the youth who is now responsible for his acts himself, to the parents, or the congregation at large. If the boy acquits himself creditably by reading his “Parashah,” every body is pleased and satisfied. But this technical knowledge of reading in the “Torah” is of subordinate importance. Be declaring the בר מצוה responsible for his acts, we ought first to be satisfied of his ability to act as a free agent and responsible being, and at the same time we hear him offer up his thanks to God, אשר נתן לנו תורת אמת וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו “Praised be He who has given unto us a law of truth, and planted into us eternal life,” we should be convinced, that he is fully acquainted with the former in order to live in its spirit and be worthy of the latter; and when the father pronounces ברוך שפטרני מעונשו שלזה “Blessed be He who has acquitted me of responsibility for this one,” he should in the same moment have some guarantee that his son is furnished with ample means to meet the responsibilities transferred on him. In former times is was customary that the בר מצוה pronounced a discourse דרשה to show that he was familiar with the divine law:—why is not this substituted by a public examination in religious and solemn consecration? It matters very little whether we call this act בר מצוה or confirmation, provided it be conducted in a becoming manner. Nor should it be confined to one sex only, as hitherto was the case, but both the sons and daughters of Israel should participate in this sacred rite. Rather than abolish religious customs and ceremonies which have become obsolete, we should endeavour to adapt them as much as possible to the demands of our time. A consecration is necessary, inasmuch as it secures to our youth the benefits of a religious education, and serves to our youth the benefits of a religious education, and serves as an hour of edification to the audience. Suppose, for an instance, we had erected a temple to the Lord, in which to worship Him and to pray unto Him,—what would be our first act with regard to it? We would consecrate this house of the Lord and dedicate it for its holy purpose. Now if we act in this manner towards a lifeless, transitory temple of the Lord, composed of gross materials—how should we fail to consecrate that living, everlasting temple of the Lord, the soul, in which religion is the corner-stone?

The young Israelite who is ushered from the narrow circle of the school life into the world will be strengthened in his faith; the remembrance of the hour in which he has vowed to remain faithful to his religion and virtue, will serve him as a companion and guide on his perilous voyage through the desert of life to the promised land, beyond the grave. Yes, the remembrance of the hour in which the pale of our religion, shall serve him as a guardian of his moral conduct, as a saving angel in the perils and temptations which he will encounter in his intercourse with the outward and the development of his inward life.

I must refrain from expatiating any farther on the subject for the present, much as I could say in favour of it. I recommend it, however, to the serious consideration of those who have power and influence to move in its favour. Wherever there are regular schools established, this object can be very easily accomplished. At the same time it would not be improper for the respective ministers to assume the religious instruction in these schools to themselves. To give two or three lessons per week is no onerous task; nor does it require any additional power. The good which is effected by dint of arguing, persuasion and conviction is far superior and far more durable than that emanating from an arbitrary source. A noble and elevated task is before us, worthy of our emulation. Let us enter on it with all the energy this sacred cause is able to inspire. It will not be enough to bring the rising generation to our level; we must, if possible, leave them better, wiser and purer behind us. The task may perhaps not be light; and like all other good undertakings may have its difficulties. But we must never forget, that we fight under the banner of the Lord Everlasting, inscribed “Our ancient and venerable faith!” And we, with the words of Napoleon, may address the followers of our law, Du haut de ces monumens quarante siecles vous contemplent!*

* “From the tops of these monuments forty centuries look down upon you.”—Address of Napoleon to his army before the battle of the Pyramids.

J. K. G. [James K. Gutheim]

Boston, May 21, 5604.