|Vol. III, No. 5
Ab 5605, August 1845
Union for the Sake of Judaism.
by Isaac Leeser
In our last number we gave the proceedings of several meetings held in this city four years ago, together with the preamble which preceded the plan proper. We will merely state what probably our readers will have guessed without our acknowledging it, that the proposition as presented to the public was mainly our own production; we were on the sub-committee for drafting the report, and though the junior member, our friends did us the honour to delegate to us the task of reducing the general idea to a proper form. Still when the subject was discussed in general committee several items were altered and amended; hence, though the plan was the work of one person, it received the aid of the deliberation and advice of competent practical men and friends of Judaism. It was thought that the want of the American Israelites was threefold; first it was felt that in all matters of religious inquiry we needed the constant presence of a spiritual tribunal before which all questions could be brought for decision; secondly, the necessity of good schools for religious and scientific instruction, in which the Jewish child could obtain all the knowledge requisite to embellish life, whilst he obtained a guide to direct his path to heaven; and thirdly, that we required the promotion of a thorough union, the harmonizing of angry feeling should any such arise amongst our individuals and congregations.
All these things are new in this country; hitherto there have never been known any religious authorities higher than the local ministers, who, whether competent or incompetent, were not chosen for any other qualification than the ability to read the service. Let us be understood, we do not wish to insinuate that the ministers of religion among us are not competent to the discharge of the sacred functions demanded of them; but merely that if they are so it is not because they have been selected for high qualifications, for all that is absolutely demanded of them is that they be equal to the usual routine of duty; and it is indeed high praise that with so little incentive to distinction so many, comparatively speaking (as the entire number is at best quite small,) have acted in and shown capacity for their calling which would have conferred honour upon a regularly educated ministry. But it requires only a moderate share of reflection to convince any one, that to depend upon mere chance to obtain competent spiritual guides is extremely hazardous, supposing even, what is not the case, that the Hazanim, readers or local ministers had any authority to decide religious questions brought before them. The whole tenor of the Jewish religion must convince us that it was always intended to have men at our head who should be able to “tell us the word of judgment,” and to teach us “to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast which may be eaten and the beast which may not be eaten.” There are besides, questions in speculative religion and expositions of Bible texts, which are the proper province of a spiritual authority; and how can these be expounded by men whose time is so often occupied by the mere business of the congregation? Let any person make himself acquainted with the duties constantly demanded of the Jewish minister, and he will soon discover that very often they leave him no time for any thing else, though at other periods he may have nothing to occupy him in the discharge of his office. Now it is evidently requisite that we should have a class of men able and willing to instruct the masses; such a necessity was acknowledged during the darkest ages of persecution to so great an extent that when the community was ever so small the people chose a teacher to instruct their children who at the same time was expected to expound once a week some text or lesson to the congregation.
It must be acknowledged that it was generally some treatise of one or the other learned Israelites which he explained; but it nevertheless served to teach many what they otherwise would not have known, and this species of public lectures was to our apprehension as useful as the modern method of original sermons, many of which must necessarily be obnoxious to defects in style, subject, or correctness. We do not by saying this denounce the sermons, or the other methods of public instruction adopted by the moderns; but we wish merely to draw the attention of our readers to the course of our fathers, and to impress on them the idea that they are bound to furnish themselves with enlightened men capable of being that to them which a learned ministry is to many gentile communities. It is evident, however, that to appoint ministers as we have been in the habit of doing in this country is the very worst method to insure the selection of such men as we have sketched; and we really think that to have an ecclesiastical board to investigate into the moral fitness and the literary qualification of the candidates would go far to remedy the evil under which we labour, by inducing men of mind to devote themselves to a profession which to fill with credit would at once stamp them as morally and mentally suited to he the first men among their fellow Israelites. And, though the elections would still depend upon the free suffrages of the people, the individual members would nevertheless not have presented to their choice any man whom they would not gladly honour with their confidence, even if he should be elected in opposition to their favourite candidate. Independently, however, of the improvement of the local ministry, we should have, in constituting an ecclesiastical board, men in the highest degree learned in our laws, acquainted with the decisions of the great lights of our people; thoroughly versed in our history, and masters of the language of the Bible, not to mention perfect in the holy Scriptures and their commentators. Now these men, not being dependent upon any particular congregation, would attract to themselves, should their conduct deserve it, (and who can doubt that good men could and would be chosen,) the highest confidence of the people, and they could thus travel through the length and breadth of the land and rebuke sin wherever they see it, encourage by their admonition those who commence the career of life, and become, so to say, the fathers of all the brethren by imparting to them information upon every point of religion which is likely to be called into question.
We may perhaps be met with the objection, that so many of the more learned preachers and Rabbis of the present day have fallen under the animadversion of this periodical, and what guarantee we could expect that those to be elected by us would deserve, to a greater extent, the confidence of true Israelites. There is certainly much force in such an apprehension, for we ourself fear the spirit of fierce sectarianism which some of our leaders have evoked. But it is unwise to be too fearful of what might occur in the contemplation of any project. And if there are teachers of errors among these who have authority in Israel, there are many more who are true and steadfast to the ancestral customs, save only those which may have been proved to have originated in the times of dark persecution without adequate legal sanction to make them generally binding. It is not, by the by, the abstract question of reform which is to be dreaded, but the rage for new thins which perceives safety only in changing and destroying, for the mere love of innovation. Now we believe that, though there are several who advocate such a system as the last we have mentioned, there are many more who only wish for such changes as can be legally established; and men of this stamp, could with safety be entrusted with our religious affairs. In short we think (and we are sure that the greater number of our readers will agree with us), that men who belong to neither extreme would be the very ones whose services would be useful to us in the western hemisphere; since on the one side they would restrain by the weight of their character the general disregard of authority prevailing among us, as each congregation now acts independently of the customs and rules prevailing elsewhere; whilst they would be sufficiently familiar with the character of the people not to interfere in the civil management of our congregational affairs, except as peace-makers.
Having said so much already upon this one branch of our plan, we will not discuss at present the remaining portions. But at the risk of being considered tedious, we will add a few more remarks to the above. We are well aware that there are not a few in this country (and for that matter in Europe), who have a great aversion to priestly domination, and for one we wish to be reckoned among this class; for to our view there exists nothing more odious than a man who, whilst professing to be guided by the humbling tenets of religion, lifts up his heart above his fellowmen, as though his calling were not for their, but exclusively for his own benefit. Many among these may therefore object to all ecclesiastical authority, as leading to a tyranny over the conscience more to be dreaded than the great liberty now so universal. But we beg to differ with those who entertain this thought. There is unfortunately enough of priest-power now in the local ministers, quite as much as is likely to arise if we have spiritual chiefs. We have seen enough to convince us that, whereas at times the ministers are too little regarded by their constituents, they are at others looked upon with a ridiculous air of veneration, as though a mortal man must be infallible because he has a clerical character. In this foolish devotion men and women exhibit their folly alike, even in this free and enlightened country; and to judge from circumstances, this unwise course has led to many unpleasant feelings towards those who could not so regard as infallible the idolized minister. We have seen this frequently among our gentile neighbours; and so little have we profited by this evidence of its evil consequences, that we have occasionally followed upon the same path. The men however who according to our plan are to be invested with authority, will have nothing of a coercive power conferred upon them; they are only to advise, to instruct, to admonish, to teach by example no less than by precept; and as such they can never have a party attached to them, unless, which God forfend, the spirit of madness should seize upon the minds of teachers and people, which would lead to those results which induce them to forsake the plain letter of the law and the tradition to substitute the fancies of men in their place. Such a result however we do not fear; it is in fact the isolated state of our congregations which may lead to the formation of parties among us; and only by the selection of intelligent teachers can this threatening evil be avoided.
But we must stop for the present, and close with presenting to our readers the remainder of our report, containing the
The Ecclesiastical Authority.
Section 1. The delegates of the different congregations, as hereinafter described, or of as many as may come into the measure, shall elect at their first meeting, or as soon after as practicable, three gentlemen of undoubted moral and religious character, who are duly learned in the written and oral law, who shall have the authority conferred upon them by their election, to act in, and decide on all cases of religious inquiry, and to determine all questions laid before them, according to the law, and the approved rabbinical authorities: the members of this Central Religious Council not to be at any time subject to any authority abroad, nor under the control of any congregation, except in cases of misdemeanour, and wilful false decisions, in which cases, one or all of such offending parties, are to be removed by the delegates of the Union as above; and a majority of the delegates present shall be required for a vote of suspension for a period of from three to twelve months, and a majority of two-thirds for a suspension for a longer period, or expulsion from office.
2. Whenever any case for adjudication comes before any one of the Board
hereby constituted, he may decide for himself only, if the emergency
will not permit him to consult his colleagues; but if otherwise he is
bound to consult them, either in person or in writing, before he gives
any answer; in order to insure that the laws of God be properly
expounded, and strictly obeyed, as far as lies in the power of the Board
Sect. 3. In case a decision is made by one member in the absence of his colleagues in any emergency, the said decision must be transmitted without delay to the President of this Union, for the approbation of the other members of the Central Religious Council, and a copy of all decisions is to be forwarded to the recording secretary, as hereinafter described.
Sect. 4. The Hazanim of all the congregations of this Union, are to be ex officio associates of the Board, provided always, that nothing is to prevent the delegates from electing a Hazan to be a member of the Central Religious Council, if he be duly qualified for the office in character and capacity.
Sect. 5. In a place where no one of the members of the Central Religious Council, resides, the Hazan, or Hazanim, or other persons in whom the community have confidence, may decide in any emergency, but the decision must also at once be transmitted to the Central Religious Council for their approbation.
Sect. 6. Any party deeming himself aggrieved by the decision of any one member of the Board, or any other person acting under an emergency, may appeal to the whole Central Religious Council, whose decision by a majority shall be final.
Sect. 7. The associates as above provided, shall merely have power to speak at a meeting of the members of the Central Religious Council, but not to vote.
Sect. 8. One of the three members as above shall be the President of the Board, and shall be specially elected for this purpose by the delegates. He shall have the power to convene the Board, whenever he may deem the public good requires it, and have a general supervision of strictly ecclesiastical matters in this Union.
Sect. 9. As the authority herewith delegated is merely advisory, the Central Religious Council shall never exercise the power of excommunicating any one, for any offence whatever; nor to possess the right of summoning any individual who, in their opinion, might be guilty of any transgression of the Mosaic Law; but shall merely designate the offences which of right deprive any offender from the usual Jewish rights and privileges.
Sect. 10. The privilege of performing the marriage ceremony being the right of each congregation, the customary authority heretofore exercised by the Hazanim remains inviolate; nevertheless the party to be married has the option of selecting the Hazan or any member of the Central Religious Council to perform said ceremony.
Sect. 11. The Congregations belonging to this Union shall not elect any Shochet, who has not been examined as to qualifications by one or more members of the Central Religious Council; and it shall be the duty of the respective Shochetim belonging to this Union, to be examined once at least in three years by one or more of the Central Religious Council, for which examination no fee whatever is to be required.
12. No Shochet is to be suspended for frivolous reasons; and if any
member of the Central Religious Council should find it his duty to
exercise this prerogative, he must state the reason for so doing in
writing to the person so suspended.
Sect. 13. It is expected that the Central Religious Council will watch over the state of religion, and use every proper occasion to exhort the people in sermons or lectures; and whenever any member of the Central Religious Council wishes to address any congregation, he shall have the privilege so to do, upon giving notice to the Parnass of said congregation.
Sect. 14. Whenever a new Hazan is to be elected, he mast be examined as to his qualifications by one or more members of the Central Religious Council, so as to prevent any incompetent person being forced upon the respective congregations; and if any congregation should elect a Hazan who has not obtained a certificate of the Board, or who has been rejected by them, such Hazan shall not be admitted an associate of the Central Religious Council.
Sect. 15. The superintendence of the schools is herewith vested in the Central Religious Council and the above associates, and it is made their duty to report any delinquency in the teachers to the Board of Control, as hereinafter mentioned.
Section 1. As soon as practicable, schools for both sexes are to be established in every town where Israelites reside, and the teachers are to be paid out of a common local fund, and on no account to receive any pay or fee whatever from the parents.
Sect. 2. Whatever rates for education it may be necessary to charge, are to be paid to the local treasurer of this Union, who is to pay the amount of salary which may be agreed upon, to the teachers, upon warrant of the local president.
Sect. 3. The system of education is to be strictly Jewish, and is to embrace, a. Hebrew reading, grammar, translation, catechism, Biblical commentaries, and at least an introduction to the Jewish Oral Law, and if possible, an elementary knowledge of the Talmud.
b. English grammar, composition, elocution, arithmetic, writing, singing, geography, universal history, history, of the Jews, history of England, and history of the United States.
c. For the higher classes, in addition to the above, Hebrew composition, Talmud, general Jewish literature, Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, mathematics, natural history, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, political economy, and chemistry.
d. Any other useful matters to be added as occasion may require.
Sect. 4. The government of the schools is to be moral throughout, and on no account can any cruel punishment be permitted.
Sect. 5. A High School for education in the higher branches, is to be established in some central point whenever practicable, in which the branches enumerated under c are to be taught; and where young men are to be educated in such a manner, that they may be fit for the office of Hazan, lecturer, and teacher; and young women be educated for the high calling of female instructers; and all persons educated in our schools, are to have the preference if any vacancy occurs, for any office in the gift of this Union.
Sect. 6. No teacher to be appointed, whether Jew or gentile, who has not been examined, by one or more members of the Central Religious Council in the first instance, and afterwards by the local president, treasurer, secretary, and Hazan, as to capacity and moral worth:
Provided, That the distance from one of the members of the Central Religious Council be not above 300 miles, in which latter case, the local authorities may temporarily appoint a teacher or teachers, till one of the members of the Central Religious Council visits the place, when the teacher or teachers must be examined by him; and if an Israelite, he is to be examined also as regards religious knowledge and conformity.
Sect. 7. Though it may be found requisite to charge for education to those able to pay—yet no person, who brings evidence of his inability to pay, shall have his children or wards refused admission into our schools, provided lie or she sign a pledge to send them regularly to school at least three months in the spring, and four months in the winter.
Sect. 8. Whatever regards books to be used and other regulations, is to be left to the Central Religious Council and to the Central Board of Control for their action and advisement.
Section 1. It is recommended that all regularly organized congregations in America do elect delegates to meet at Philadelphia on the 7th day of November, 1841, for the purpose of carrying, the above recommendations into effect.
Sect. 2. The ratio of representation to be as follows: Every congregation numbering fifty male seat-holders or under, to send one delegate; from fifty to one hundred and fifty, two delegates; from one hundred and fifty to three hundred, three delegates; and one additional for every two hundred additional seat-holders.
3. All votes of delegates shall be decided by the majority, under the
usual parliamentary restrictions and regulations.
Sect. 4. The delegates shall be empowered to elect, in the first instance, the members of the Central Religious Council, and to fill all vacancies therein from time to time, provided always that the persons to be elected be duly qualified.
Sect. 5. They shall assemble, after the first organization, every two years, on the 4th Sunday after the first day of the Passover, and remain in session, by daily adjournments, till all the business before them be duly transacted, or postponed to another meeting.
Sect. 6. An extra meeting may be called whenever the majority of delegates, or a sufficient number of congregations entitled to send a majority of all the delegates, shall require it; in which case they are to notify the President of the Central Board of Control, who is then to issue general notices, and summon the delegation, by giving them at least sixty days’ notice.
Sect. 7. The delegates shall be appointed by the respective congregations in the manner they may themselves direct.
Sect. 8. The delegates shall elect a President to preside over them, and a Secretary to keep the minutes, whose offices are to continue till the next general meeting.
Sect. 9. In addition to the above officers, they shall elect, at every biennial meeting,
Sect. 10. In addition to the above Central Board, each town shall elect a President, Treasurer, and Secretary, to take charge of all local matters and moneys for local school purposes, but it shall be their duty to report every six months in full to the Central Board of Control.
Sect. 11. The biennial meetings shall be held alternately, unless otherwise ordered; first at Philadelphia, next at New York, and lastly at Baltimore.
Sect. 12. The Central Board shall sit in Philadelphia unless otherwise ordered; and if the President of the delegation should not be a resident of the place where the Central Board meets, then the VicePresident shall act for him, unless the President happen to be present, when he has the precedence as a matter of course; the same rule applies to the Recording Secretary, whose place, in his absence for the above or any other reason, shall be supplied by one of the Councillors.
Sect. 13. The records shall always be open to every Israelite belonging to this Union who desires to inspect them, but they are never to be taken out of the possession of the Recording Secretary or his substitute; and any Israelite, as aforesaid, is to be at liberty to procure a copy of any of the records.
Sect. 14. The delegates in general assembly shall have power to deliberate on all subjects, which may tend to the general welfare of the Israelites, with the exception of matters properly belonging to legal points of the Mosaic law, which shall be left, as is reasonable, with the Central Religious Council.
Sect. 15. They shall devise ways and means to defray the expenses attending the execution of this plan, and to fit salaries and other outlays properly coming under the object of the Union.
Sect. 16. They shall not interfere directly or indirectly in the internal affairs of the congregations, except to offer their advice when any thing should be undertaken in opposition to the law and the commandment, and to judge between contending parties, if such should unfortunately arise in our congregations.