|Vol. V, No. 2
Iyar 5607, May 1847
Sir:—In the last number of your valuable periodical, your correspondent, “A Moralizing Layman,” has touched upon a subject of much more consequence to the American Israelites, and more especially to those of the present age, than I am afraid the importance of the subject receives at their hands, namely: the character and qualifications necessary for the Hazanim, the filling of which station by improper and ignorant persons has contributed more than any thing else to bring the ritual of our holy worship in disrepute with the present generation, and is the chief cause for which the unceasing and unmeaning call for religious reform is continually sounded; for nothing has a greater effect to give a standing to the character of of a society, (and that of a religious character too,) than the standing and reputation of its principal officers. What was perhaps a century ago (when the Jew in many parts of Europe was not permitted to have his place of worship in public, but forced to have his Synagogue in some rear court or alley, where nobody but an Israelite was ever seen to enter), a matter of small consequence, has at this time, and in this country especially, became a very important subject indeed: I mean the character, appearance, and standing in society, of the Hazan of the Congregation. When, (as formerly,) from prejudice or ignorance, nobody but Israelites came to our places of public worship, it was comparatively a matter of small consequence who acted as the reader; because his co-religionists alone saw him during the time of divine service, and however ignorant, immoral, or improper he might be for such a calling, it was then a matter of but little importance, because the world at large knew little or nothing about it, or the persecuted and oppressed Jew was reduced to so low a degree in the scale of national greatness, that the little he was able to do could not injure him in the eyes of his oppressive fellow-men.
But now that we are free, and have the privilege to raise our Holy Temples where we please, and that many respectable persons, of various religious opinions, with whom we have daily communication in commercial transactions, friendly visits, &c., come often among us at our places of worship, for the purpose of witnessing its rites, &c., how great is the necessity that they in their visit should not be allowed to see anything that would in any manner tend to our national degradation. And how sir, can this be prevented? Surely but by the adoption of one measure, which is to have none but moral, respectable, and well educated men to fill the office of Hazan.
How ridiculous must it appear, even to our own youth, to see a man of known irreligious and immoral character, one who does not even know the meaning of a word he reads, placed at the reading desk to say prayers for a religious congregation. What a disgraceful spectacle must this be for us, when perhaps several of other religious faiths should happen to be at our place of worship, to see a man of this kind acting as minister for a Jewish congregation; and what a withering and baneful influence must it have on the rising generation, to find that in the choice of their chief religious officer no respect is shown to character or education. What inducement is it for our young men to apply themselves to the study of their religion, when they see men of that stamp placed in the highest and most important religious stations; men who know nothing about what they are reading, or why they read it; men who perhaps could not read a single line in a Hebrew book, which is not exactly the one that they were taught (parrot like) to say their prayers in? I ask again, what inducement is there for the young man to curtail his hours of pleasure, for the more dry study of his religion, when such a state of things exists; when he knows that instead of a knowledge of the rudiments of his religion, and the unerring principles on which it is founded, the chief qualifications for the reading desk consists in his ability to favour the congregation with some operatic tunes (tunes generally more fit for any other place than one of religious worship), or that he knows he can read his prayers in Hebrew, without understanding them, and that his Hazan can do no more? But surely it is high time that this state of things should cease. In this country, where we have about sixty Hazanim, perhaps there are not more than ten among them, that could answer the most plain or simple question about their religion, or what or why things are prohibited or allowed by its holy laws; and as in the United States we are multiplying congregations faster than perhaps in the whole of the rest of the world, it becomes absolutely necessary that the greatest care should be taken in selecting and appointing proper persons for that most important office, important in giving a standing to the congregations over which he presides, and important in holding up to those desirous of obtaining such situations the necessity of qualifying themselves, by acquiring a thorough Hebrew education, without which no one should receive that honourable and important office; and should it be ascertained that persons properly qualified for the office cannot at present be obtained in this country, and that it should be found necessary to establish a High School or College in some central part of the United States, for the qualifying of moral young men for that purpose: then I say that the quicker the good work is begun the better; and at this time we have in this country plenty of persons qualified to teach all the necessary branches of a Hebrew education; for we can never make any national advancement, nor give the favourable impression required to those among whom we are at present settled, while ignorant or immoral men (whose whole qualification seems to consist in their ability to imitate the actor or singer) are allowed to fill our chief religious offices. The school or college once established, proper Hazanim selected, and our religious services again conducted in a proper and solemn manner, then will the Synagogue be what it was originally intended to be, in fact a מקדש מעט, a minor sanctuary.
Note by the Editor.—We deem it proper to state, that Mr. A. alludes, so far as we know, not to any particular individuals, only to the possibility which exists under our present want of system, of bringing into the ministry persons entirely disqualified, both morally and intellectually, for the position which ought to be the reward of the highest talent and integrity. We have more to say on this subject hereafter, and in the mean time we are delighted that both education and the ministry begin to excite the attention which they justly demand, in all parts of the country.