|Vol. III, No. 2
Iyar 5605, May 1845
What Do We Need?
by Isaac Leeser
In these times of general agitation in religious matters, when political discussions seem to have been lost sight of in the newly awakened desire to improve the spirit, it is well for us to see “what we need,” and what our position calls for. It is not to be denied, that after a long struggle for political freedom, in which all the civilized world was engaged for nearly a century, in which religion was but too often made a theme of ridicule or idle speculation, a new return to religious sentimentality has been witnessed, and perhaps we may date from this new impulse a revival of bigoted superstition on the one hand, whilst on the other there is a strong desire for innovation in well-established principles, which sees nothing good in any thing old, and whose standard of excellence is that the matter to be adopted be of modern origin. Some thus discover all that is valuable in antiquity, others look on the future as the true mother of excellence. Though at first the struggle was waged only between contending Christian factions, it has at length reached us too, and we see this day a sharp contest carried on between Jews who favour reform and those who oppose all change. Perhaps we are wrong in saying “all change,” since most, if not all, admit that some improvement is not alone necessary, but practicable also; whilst there are many, though these are as yet a small minority, who desire to transform Judaism to such a degree as to appear strange in the sight of its faithful adherents.
But are we and the Christians in the same position? or rather, are Judaism and Christianity of the same nature, so as to require the same remedial measures? We hear the advocates of wild reform answer: “Catholics and Protestants were both priest-ridden, and the men of the last century who effected a revolution in respect to the authority of the clergy conferred a true benefit on the community; and as the Jews were and are greatly under the control of their Rabbins, or spiritual leaders, he too who will deliver the people from the spiritual yoke they bear will become a benefactor of Israel.” We think that we put a strong position, and give in a few words the main features of the argument of which the subject is capable. But we beg our readers to consider one great difference between the Christian and the Jewish spiritual leaders. The former possess power, wealth, and extensive influence; they govern the states, and enlist in their behalf the passions and feelings of the multitude. They have large revenues from which they are supported, have religious orders which act like a military organization, and which are felt in every direction by the high and the low; whereas the Jewish teachers have no such power, no large emoluments, are unsupported by government, and all the influence they can exercise is necessarily derived from their personal standing and the kindness with which they are regarded by the community. We do not wish to deny, (for were it necessary we would be the first to attack any unnecessary assumption by spiritual authorities,) that at times, when the Christian clergy ruled over the conscience of the people, when authority was every thing, and appeals to reason something scarcely thought of, Jewish Rabbins also undertook to govern with the rod of spiritual terrors, and could, by the power of excluding refractory members from the communion of Israel, exercise a fearful sway over the minds of their hearers. We will not debate whether this power of excommunicating is one of good or evil import, since we have to deal only with facts; it existed, whether for good or evil, and doubtlessly in those communities where enlightenment in modern civilization is yet unknown, it is still occasionally exercised. But the assaults on the infallibility of the Christian priesthood dealt a powerful blow to this abuse of power by our own chiefs, and we fully believe that a formal repudiation of any Israelite authority, has not been witnessed for many years. Upon the whole we doubt whether, except in rare instances, any one was ever excommunicated, unless his own course had excluded him previously, and when he had voluntarily withdrawn himself before his condemnation was pronounced; but sure we are, that for many years past, at least since our recollection, no such exclusion was decreed over any one of whom we have heard. There may nevertheless be instances of the kind, but we only say that we are unacquainted with them.
All we meant to argue is this, that in our church government we had properly no grievances to complain of in respect to clerical tyranny, nor of the exactions demanded of us to support the church. the teachers of religion were properly, what the leaders of other sects profess to be, servants of the people, and as regards the contributions for the support of our establishments, it is sufficiently notorious that our people were always democratic enough in their ideas to contribute no more than was actually required to defray the current expenses, and we have yet to learn that there exists any where a single Synagogue which is not dependent for its subsistence upon the liberality of its members. The pay of all the officers attached to our churches, from the chief Rabbi down to the person who takes care of the building, is notoriously small; and it is well that this is so, since by this means those who would merely serve for money are naturally excluded from being called to office. Hence it must appear absurd to argue that, because there was occasion for reform in Christian churches, there is an equally great call for it among ourselves; the position of the two is widely differing; and hence every sect professing Christianity may have become corrupt, without the least taint necessarily resting upon our venerable fabric.
But we think that it is not so much the abuse of power, as the self-imposed burdens of peculiar strictness which has excited the discontent of many Jews, and at the same time that the desire to be in outward appearance like the nations arouns us, may have caused others to seek for remedies to accomplish this wish of theirs. Whilst the Jew was compelled to wear a garb of his own, to be marked at first sight by some outward token as a son of Israel, it was natural enough that he should be perfectly willing to distinguish himself in his mode of worship from those who oppressed him, and that he in truth should glory in being as unlike others as he could be. And as there is no unmixed evil in the world, so had this circumstance one good effect, it made the Jew love his religion, and it rendered him proud of possessing a treasure which rendered him a mark for malicious persecution, whilst it elevated his soul in its approach to the Deity. The more, therefore, the storm of adversity sent its pitiless missiles against him, the more he wrapped himself up in his mantle of faith and shielded himself by it against the fury of the blast. But we have lived to see a change in our outward circumstances; not that we are now particular objects of affection, since we for one do not believe in the love of the world for Israel, but it has become for the time-being the policy of many nations not to persecute for opinion’s sake with fire and the sword; men have learned to tolerate each other in the chambers of their hearts. It could not be otherwise than that we should participate in the benefits arising from this altered state of things. But at the same time this gave rise to a restlessness under the ancient restraints which our teachers have from time to time recommended to us. It is doubtlessly a cause for regret that many little useless ceremonies were gradually introduced, especially since the ignorant have learned to attach to them an importance much greater than ever was thought of by those who first recommended them; we do deplore that men who lived in contemplation of sublime truths should have set an example of asceticism more fitted for the penance of a cloister than the active duties of an every-day life. But to say the worst of such things, they were merely useless; injurious, however, they could never be. Abstinence and frequent fasting become at last a second nature, and persons habituated to them do not heed, nor do they desire, the indulgences which those accustomed to luxuries deem requisite to their existence. Much may therefore be said in favour of a frequent denial of useless indulgence and occasional fasts, since they accustom us to dispense in times of affluence, and enable us thus to bear with more fortitude when the occasion demands it. Nevertheless, we say that we regret that it ever was looked upon as an accepted duty to fast frequently, as by this means a class of extra righteous, under the name of Hassidim, came into existence, which has for years past led to the formation of a peculiar sect under that title, and consists of men, in many parts of Poland, who attach far too much importance to certain acts of outward devotion. We cannot say much about these last, as our information is exceedingly vague and imperfect. But we wish merely to remark, that any such impracticable piety exhibited by the great is too apt to produce one of two results: either it makes fanatics of the ignorant, or it places virtue at such all elevation in the eyes of the multitude that they do not strive to obtain what is really practicable. Hence we do not wonder that, when authority began to lose its weight, at the time and under the circumstances of which we have spoken before, many customs which were the growth of ages of seclusion should experience a decadence perhaps undeserved, and fall too quickly into oblivion. Too much no doubt had been added, by slow degrees, in the course of ages; matters, at first of no moment, had acquired consistency with those things of real and permanent importance; and when at length the change did come, as was unavoidable in the change of the times, men learned to look with suspicion upon many things which would never have been questioned had it not been for the manner in which they were mixed up with useless ceremonies. Whilst every thing was practised that was connected in any manner with religion, as it had been practised in preceding ages, and as those prominent among us showed by their example, there was no difference in conduct among the people; as all those who felt religiously inclined strove who should be foremost in strict conformity to ancestral customs. But when this
feeling wore away, in Germany, France, England, and America, there arose suddenly as it were a restlessness to get rid of as much as possible, and for whatever a valid reason could not be given fell at once into disuse. To this cause we ascribe chiefly the treat and general agitation for reform, wherein every one is anxious to throw off whatever he can, and retain as little as possible consistently with Judaism.
We have now, we think, a proper solution for the unfortunate division of sentiment which has sprung up among us. It is not that fault is found with those who expound the laws to us; it is not that they have abused their power, or imposed political burdens upon the people; but that ages have added to the letter of the law, and brought into vogue practices which are neither commanded nor necessary as protection against transgression. No one who justly thinks will object to any safeguard which our wise men have placed as a bar to sin, or the abstinence from every thing which is the commencement of iniquity, though in itself it may not be a downright infringement of the letter of the Bible. But when we know that observances have been recommended that have no such bearing, we must say that they have been unwisely recommended. But whilst we condemn sincerely the existence of such things, we must equally reprobate the anxiety of so many moderns to demolish every thing, and to reconstruct religion anew upon a basis of their own. Were they now men of sound learning, who were perfectly familiar with their subject, and of such unswerving piety that we should be compelled to think them honest, we would at least listen to them with deference and weigh well their arguments, if they advance any such. But we have no such confidence in the reformers of our day. We know they boast of superior enlightenment to all other Israelites; they call themselves the true conservatives of religion, by pretending to strengthen the structure whilst removing it piece by piece; but we cannot countenance their proceedings nor believe their assertions, whilst they do not strike at the acknowledged excrescences, but at the fundamentals of religion. So the doctrine of the Messiah has been assailed by some of them; they wish to preach political amalgamation in equality of rights as the true state of redemption of the Jews, regardless in this respect of the prophetic predictions, which they are as anxious to pervert as those were in ancient days who applied them to cases and events to which they had no reference. We cannot admit them to be merely inquirers after truth, whilst they commence with making violent changes in the form of worship as received among us from time immemorial. And then look at the variety of reforms proposed! Some talk of abolishing the Hebrew and substituting the languages of the various countries; others will read the law once in three years; others want not to call up the people to the reading of the law; others want to throw out all allusion to the Messiah in our prayers, and carefully exclude every thing that refers to the promised restoration. But what does all this amount to? Merely to produce schism and useless variety in the Synagogue, and to have in every congregation a peculiar form of worship, and perhaps a peculiar set of doctrines. We should think that the division of sects among Christians has proved mischievous enough to be a caution to us how we follow in their dangerous footsteps. See what animosities, contentions, lawsuits, and heart-burnings have been caused; and we are invited to follow in the same senseless path and give up our unity, for what? for problematic improvements, which yield nothing, because they are nothing. Hitherto we have been one people; but now we are to become a multitude, and we are to avoid each other in our public worship. And for our part we say candidly, much as we love peace, we could not consistently with our conviction go into a meeting of those who break off from the Synagogue by setting up a worship of their own, and think we have discharged our duty. If even we should not consider it a sin, according to the strict letter of the law, we would deem those acting thus as giving a fatal blow to the peace of Israel, and hence we would avoid countenancing them, whilst we remain in our feelings toward them a friend and brother. This is not bigotry, but what is due to the unity of the church in which we have as a people always found so much protection and peace of the soul.
In America especially, there is so little cause for reform, that we hardly can imagine how some people can be clamorous for it. In Europe there has to a certainty been a great deal of rabbinical domination; but here we never had a Rabbi, and the ordinances which are observed, are those absolutely requisite for a religious life. Not one too much is kept here; on the contrary, discipline is too loose; and sooner than expand, we ought to contract the limits of religious freedom, by which term we mean that disposition to act as seems best in each person’s eyes, of which the Bible gives us some instances. We doubt whether a single Hassid can be found in all this country, and surely those who are too strict are so few that “a child could write them down.” We would lift up our voice against the clamour raised in Europe against disorders which do not exist here. For the most part there is more decorum observed in our places of worship than elsewhere; and what is yet open to censure can be amended without much difficulty, and without commencing to agitate or to propose innovations. Above all, we beg our friends not to give ear to new customs imported from one or the other reform congregation in Europe; but especially with respect to the public reading of the law and the prophets in the Synagogue. It has been a holy thing, that once every year the whole of the divine legacy has been proclaimed to the people; it has tended more than any thing else to confirm us in obedience, and to make us familiar with our duties. The public calling up of devout persons to the reading of the law, has enabled the thousands of Israel to declare before the assembled people their gratitude for the bestowal of the Scriptures. Why then abridge the teaching of the people? “Because it detains them too long at the Synagogue.” Sooner would we then abolish every thing else than this. What use is singing or preaching, compared with the reading of the word of God? The two acts just mentioned may please the ear, but the last reforms the sinner, and instructs the soul. With regard to the other reform spoken of, we presume they wish to base it upon the unsightliness to the gentile visitor, for persons to quit their seats and to come up in succession to the reading-desk to hear their chapter read, But we would again impress upon the public mind, that our worship must not be modelled at all after gentile notions; we are a peculiar people, and even our manners ought to have something striking, by which we can prove that our origin is derived from a far-off antiquity. Besides, we would ask: By what right does any congregation undertake to abolish what has stood for ages? It were perhaps different had there been a consultation among those learned and true, to deliberate upon the matter; but for a. few unauthorized individuals to act as though they were the state, is too preposterous to admit even of a serious thought. We therefore again reiterate our admonition to our readers, not to be too hasty to adopt reforms, which before long they may be glad to change again. Let them depend on one thing: our ancestors were as pious and wise as they can possibly be; and if the pressure of the times caused them to err in a few things, they are nevertheless far safer guides than those who have never done nor suffered what they did in the upholding of the faith revealed from Heaven.