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Synagogue Reforms.


In our May Number we offered some remarks upon a subject so deeply interesting to all Israelites, that of Synagogue Reforms. It was not our intention to let the matter lie dormant so long; but the usual fate attending upon periodical writing has affected our labours since then, we could not find the space for the discussion, and even this month we are limited for room; but we will not delay any longer, since a farther interruption might appear as though we were afraid to grapple with the difficulties of the case, indulging thus a feeling which is quite foreign to us.—We know well enough that all abuses are usually defended by the cry: “We must leave everything stand as we find it; for if we once commence reforming, there is no telling where the changes will stop.” We acknowledge that there is a great deal of force in the observation; men are so apt to be dissatisfied with the circumstances they find themselves placed in, that they reach after any and whatever fancy which promises them some change, some relief, from the ancient routine. Invention is taxed, and ingenuity exhausted to accomplish this end; and is it wonderful that religious observances should be subject to the same process? By no means; since religion is given to man, and it has become his through Divine dispensation; and however he feels it to be holy and necessary to his well-being, he may be induced by the actions and words of others to make the task of its observance as light as possible. So then it is true that if the door be opened to reform, as it is termed, or change, which would be the more correct expression, there is <<374>>a great difficulty to define the precise limits where a stop should be made. The danger would be little, indeed, were all men honest; but the evil is that there are always designing men who, when a good measure is proposed, make a lever of it, to lift a doubtful or injurious thing into public notice along with the other. But we ask all lovers of our religion candidly: “Is nothing to be done, or attempted to be done, because we have men of the kind just named among us?” Evidently the answer must be, that we should lay our plans so that good may come out of our endeavours, under the Divine blessing, let the evil-disposed do as they think best, and let them pursue whatever course they may; for we may depend on one thing, that to be constantly in dread of such as these, and to do nothing, because they might employ our acts as stepping-stones for unlawful reforms, will cause the downfall, or at least injure the prosperity of our religion very materially in this age when, let us lie still or move on, we are urged on by movements all around us, which movements we cannot resist having an important influence on us. Besides, the movement, much evil as it has produced, is not all evil; there had accumulated a weight of useless matter, weighing down our spirits during the process of ages of anguish and suffering, which had need to fall before the march of enlightenment, which, overthrowing as it has done the bigotry and much of the substance of the Christian religion, by teaching the public mind that the things to which they rendered homage were but the imposition of crafty men or ignorant fanatics, had also to hold the torch of reason over some of our customs, and we could not do otherwise than look at them under the new light which was shed over them. We may deplore the backsliding which has been witnessed; no one more than the humble writer of this feels sore at heart that so many have become unfaithful in the hour of trial; but let us rejoice, at the same time, that our religion has emerged triumphantly out of the fiery trial, and that to judge from the signs of the times, the danger which some timid ones fancied threatened our sacred institutions, is fast disappearing before the revival of a newly-awakened pious sentiment, and an ardent desire to know what the Law has taught us. Our readers may believe our assertion; we are but little of an enthusiast, nor apt to believe without a good foundation; but we see everywhere, especially in this country, a demand for instruc<<375>>tion, a craving for a well-regulated public worship, a more than passing awakened regard for the Sabbath, that we believe that the sincere Israelite is justified in predicting a better state of things before the passing away of this generation. Let us well regard the awful storm which assailed all opinions in the last hundred years; let us see how much all religions have lost of the terror with which they formerly dwelt on the human mind; and, we repeat, there is no good cause for fear that any permanent injury can result to our blessed system from the assaults of the age. It is true that many will, in all likelihood, be wanting to Israel when a state of calm shall have been restored, as surely it will be. But would such have been true to us under other circumstances? Would such have remained faithful under persecution, which would doubtlessly have raged had the same ignorance and bigotry remained unremoved, which formerly terrified us? Say where are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, and France, who did not emigrate at the time of the persecution? Where are those of England, Poland, Italy and Germany? Lost among the gentiles; not distinguishable by aught from all the rest of the community. If, then, in the progress of scientific enlightenment there should be a falling off through the very means from which, formerly, we hoped to obtain enlargement, it is in no proportion equal to what persecution anciently produced, and so far, then Judaism has been signally benefited.

We are very apt to exclaim against the present evils which we endure, forgetting thereby those which are past, and therefore not tangible. But, it is not the part of wisdom to exaggerate what we have to suffer, and by magnifying its importance cause it to give us additional pain. The evils of the day are sufficiently appalling, and they appeal for constant watchfulness, so that no danger may befall the commonwealth of Israel; we say commonwealth, for though we are not a nation, there is such a community of interests and feelings all over the small communities of Israel, that they form, in fact, one body, homogeneous in the character of their religious opinions, hopes, and practices. No one will then say that much sinning has not taken place, and that much ingratitude has not been witnessed, in the men of our age, who ought to have acted more consistently with respect to their observances, as a mark of gratitude for the many favours which <<376>>we at present enjoy, far above what fell to the lot of our forefathers. But it is, at the same time, wrong to suppose that there is no deep-seated conviction in the minds of Israelites, or that they would wantonly cast off their bond of union to God, and each other, from a foolish love for gentile customs. We should, accordingly, dread the inroads of un-Jewish manners into our worship; but it would argue but little good sense to exclude every improvement, for fear of farther changes, which are not sanctioned by our laws and customs. If we admit that there are evil-disposed persons, who would seize upon measures proposed by those who really fear God, to engraft thereon their own malevolent designs: we, at the same time, claim a vast majority of those who wish to act correctly, and consistently with the dictates and principles of our religion; since we hold it as a self-evident proposition, that, if even many a man does wrong it is more from a view of doing what pleases him, than that his wrong deeds are not forbidden. For instance, we believe that by far the largest numbers of Sabbath-breakers offend, not because they do not believe in the sacredness of the Sabbath, but because they have not sufficient religious submission to forego the supposed gain they may obtain by labour on the seventh day. Now we contend that men of this stamp would not be willing to go the length which those who have no religious principles might wish to urge them; they would pause in conscientious fear, so soon as they discovered the least tendency towards infidelity, or destructiveness, in a measure for which their votes are demanded. For one, we are willing to have confidence in the people, and not to believe that because they may be induced to remove excrescences, they would be at once prepared to destroy their religion; on the contrary, we believe that with every real improvement, a confirmation of the faith would be effected, and cavil and objection silenced by as much good as may be produced.

In our first article we pleaded for the abolishing of the money-offerings in the Synagogue on Sabbaths and holy days, as means of revenue. The whole policy of the system is but, in its essence, a means of supporting the Synagogue and its salaried officers, and the bestowal of charity; the incidental prayer or blessing, connected with it, is but secondary to all practical purposes, though we do not deny that those who do offer for the welfare, <<377>>safety, or recovery of a friend or relative, do so from sincere motives, or that their own hearts respond in humility to the prayer uttered by the one who makes the offering for them. But, at the risk of being tedious, and repeating our formerly expressed views, we must insist that the method of proceeding is exceedingly objectionable. We need not remind our readers that writing is one of the labours interdicted on the Sabbath. But human ingenuity has been fertile to invent a method which, in obviating the necessity of writing notes, accomplishes the end quite as well. There is provided say a book with the names of the seat-holders and usual attendants at worship; for each a leaf is cut in various compartment, each one of which is marked with a sum of money; say one shilling, two, four shillings, &c., and then rising to dollars, say from one to fifty. The minimum offering allowed, we assume, shall be one shilling. Now suppose a man offers five shillings, the slips marked one and four shillings are turned down, and thus he is charged with the amount of his offerings. The person who is charged with noting the offerings watches carefully; or is supposed to do so, whatever amount is mentioned in the Misheberach, and when the Sabbath or festival is over, he transcribes all on a slip of paper, and hands them over to the proper accounting officer, to write them in the regular account book, or if he is so authorized, performs this duty himself. We need not enlarge on the matter, as it is familiar to all who are in the least acquainted with our manner of proceeding in this respect.—Now we will leave it to all to tell us whether or not this account-taking is not a circumvention of the law which says: “Thou shalt do thereon no manner of work?” We will not say, as we remarked in our first article, that it is absolutely sinful; but we are free to admit that it comes very close to an actual transgression. But we are told that to abolish money-offerings would open the door to ulterior reforms; that if we begin with removing this objectionable feature, those who design to destroy our beautiful system of. prayers will have a good position whereon to rest their lever of destruction. But, say intelligent readers, is this a rational mode of arguing? Show us a single good feature which results from mentioning money in our places of worship, and we will be silent; show us whereby piety is elevated by watching and noting down, on the holy days of <<378>>the Lord, a long list of complimentary offerings, in which no one is interested except the offerer and the exchequer of the Synagogue: and we will acknowledge that we are wrong in urging a change. Nor do we say that by omitting the money portion the prayers should be abolished. On the contrary, we would retain the really valuable part, and omit what is useless and hurtful.—For instance, instead of the form being “because A.B. offers so much money for his safe arrival at his port of destination,” it should be “because A.B. offers a free-will offering to the Zedakah,” &c. In the latter case it would be indeed a free-will donation, no money being mentioned, and the offerer should then, as soon as may be, wait upon the treasurer with any amount he may have destined for the use of the sanctuary; and we might hope that such a real outpouring of feeling, given in sincere devotion, and reliance upon Divine aid, would be truly acceptable on high, from the One who knows the heart; an offering so secretly given, so unostentatiously bestowed, would surely appeal for mercy, if any human gift can, far more powerfully than the loudly proclaimed public donation of a sum of money which, perhaps, might have been withheld, were it not that the whole community might be informed that so and so much had been given.—We appeal to the sober reflection of our readers whether offerings should not partake more of a מתן בסתר (a gift in secret), in order that they may “turn away wrath,” than is at present the case.

We may be met with the objection, that at present one man is stimulated by another, to give to the support of public worship and charities, which, were it not for the publicity of the thing, would not be the case. There may be at first view something tangible in this argument. But, if we consider it a little closer, we shall find that it fails altogether of producing a conviction in an impartial mind. Do you not constantly hear sore disappointments expressed at the smallness of some rich man’s offering, when called up to the law on particular high occasions? and is not the surprise a just one, that a man so well able to support the public burdens, should be so regardless to what is expected of  him, as to give no more than a poor man, if as much? And is it not constantly said that the middling classes (we speak only of comparative wealth), contribute more largely and willingly than <<379>>the rich? Where then is the use of the public example so much invoked in favour of the retention of the offerings? But, suppose we could succeed to persuade the people to adopt the plan of voluntary assessment, with an understanding that this should not be less than a certain fixed amount, is it not more than probable that it would produce more than is really requisite for the current expenses, at least an amount every way adequate thereto?

We learned some weeks ago, from a friend in St. Thomas, that they have virtually repealed there the system of voluntary offerings, by not expecting any when one is called up to the Sepher, and limiting the privilege to but a single one after the reading of the chapter; and that the same privilege is granted to persons who have recovered from sickness, or have come from abroad, and who, not having been called up to the Sepher, say the blessing of הגומל before the Hechal, after the replacing of the law, as is likewise customary in all Portuguese Synagogues.

But the revenue is raised by taxing, through a proper committee, the members and seat holders, male and female, according to their supposed means, for which purpose the authorities of the congregation are armed with sufficient power under the royal Danish charter under which they act. Were an equal power inherent in all our congregational boards, then the difficulty in the way could be at once removed; but, though our friends in St. Thomas can do so, we are free to admit, that in America especially, and probably, too, to some extent, in England and its dependencies, the various contributors would hardly submit to be so taxed, without their previous assent, although this be tacitly given in the election of the rulers of the Synagogue. The people of St. Thomas resorted to their power, solely because they found that the burden of supporting the Synagogue, fell upon a few willing persons, whereas the many stood aloof and permitted others to give all.

No doubt all our readers are familiar with similar instances in their own congregations; and still for all practical purposes they permit the thing to occur as often as it possibly can. Every now and then perhaps, an effort is made to arrest this evil; but, unfortunately, it is every body’s business; consequently, no one’s in particular. The ancient Portuguese congregations had, if we are correctly informed, a species of taxation called finta; but they never depended upon it for support, but merely as an aid, relying on the <<380>>voluntary offerings for the remainder. But it confessed one thing, that is: that it would not do to depend upon the arbitrary pleasure of the congregation to defray the public expenses; and this is the main idea which we are driving at. Public offerings, multiplied at pleasure, prolong the service unduly, and they give great scope for personalities; if one friend should be neglected whilst others are mentioned, it might give offence; whilst at the same time we acknowledge that to offer for one with whom an estrangement has existed for some time, may be productive of a restored harmony and friendship, and this is, perhaps, the best feature attendant on the whole system. The money-offerings farther require, as said already, to be noted down, or they would be useless as a revenue measure; and with all this, they impose an unduly heavy tax on some, whilst others who have the meanness to offer little, escape their just proportion of the public burdens. We know well enough, that by the system of voluntary taxation which we proposed, it would be perhaps the same, that is, that some would not subscribe sufficient; but it is also more likely that people would give according to their means, when seeing that others have contributed liberally, and knowing as they then will, that their subscription, in addition to their seat-rent, will be all that the Synagogue would require of them during the course of the time for which they have signed.

We all know how miserably most of the Jewish ministers are supported; and for how small a pittance they perform duties which require not rarely talents .and natural powers of no mean order; and let any one point out to us that servant of the Synagogue who was ever able to leave the smallest patrimony to his family from his salary. The usual cry is, that the funds will not permit a more liberal endowment, and that in addition the minister receives Mattanoth and fees. But this much is certain, the small salary is all he can depend upon, the presents and fees may come or not, as the donors may seem disposed to give; but it surely is not to be expected, that a high-minded and learned man should be submissive to the proud and wealthy, for the sage reason, that otherwise he would not receive their presents or fees on requisite occasions. It is absurd to expect an independent and high-souled ministry; while so paltry a way of support is only open to the in<<381>>cumbents; but render the office respectable by attaching to it a respectable salary and no dependence upon the caprice of the wealthy, and you will have rendered a great service to the cause of religion, by inducing many good men to devote themselves to a calling which will, in the case we are speaking of, be free from one of the greatest drawbacks to which it has been subjected. We do not ask for affluence for the public servant; but merely an exemption from the care and anxiety how to provide in an humble way for his family; and we all know how anxious our people are that their ministers should be married men, whilst at the same time they provide so limited means for the support of the expected and requisite household.  Put we also feel that it is almost impossible to do justice to the incumbent unless the finances of the congregation are regulated upon a more permanent basis than voluntary offerings; and only when the managers and members know beforehand the amount likely to be received during the year, and afterwards by comparison with a series of years, can they endow their officers with the proper means for their support. We mention this merely as an incidental circumstance, but by no means as one of equal weight with the objections on the other grounds which we have mentioned, though in good truth it is of great moment to all who reflect upon the defects in our position.

We have consumed so much space in the prosecution of the argument, as regards public offerings, that we have no more space at present for anything else; but we will close with one remark, that to our apprehension we need not fear reformation in our ritual from merely introducing this municipal one of free taxation; and we cannot seriously believe that so simple a measure, which has no connexion with religion at all, could be employed to advocate changes which would subvert in their ultimate effect the harmony and peace of Judaism.