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God Our Atonement.


A Sermon for Sabbath Vayikra

O, Creator and Saviour, listen to our prayer and the entreaty of all mankind, which may be addressed to Thee from all the corners of the world; because from eternity to eternity Thou alone art God, and among all beings invoked on the earth, there is none that can save or aid but Thou alone. It is also thy word which has taught us to lay open to Thee the wants of our heart, and to appeal to Thee as the loving Parent who desires the welfare of his children; and in thus approaching Thee therefore, with the words of our lips, we obey thy will, unworthy as our offering may appear to human reason. We come before Thee, therefore, not as those having merit, as those demanding salvation for their deeds; but as petitioners who only venture in the presence of their Sovereign because he bids them to come, and to lay before him their burdens. Thus confiding now, O Heavenly King! do we appeal to Thee, and deign Thou to listen, and to grant us life, peace, prosperity, and salvation, and cause that thy kingdom may dwell with us, and thy glory be revealed over thy people, so that each <<385>>of us may become an acceptable servant, and distinguished as a faithful dweller in thy house. Amen.

BRETHREN,—In my last address I stated that our religion emphatically denies the necessity of a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of mankind, and that, unless the iniquity be freely forgiven, every transgressor must die for his own wrong-doing, since there is, moreover, no one capable of existing who has the power to assume, either voluntarily or by compulsion, the evil which has been committed by others. This idea is either true or false and this again can only be settled by the standard which the Scriptures afford us, and no other; human reason is here at fault, and so is all authority, save only the words of the Most High; and however ingenious the argument, however the appeal addressed to us might show the insufficiency of our hope, it is all as nothing so but the Bible be with us. I know well enough that it is said that we do not admit a sufficient number of scriptural records, that there are other books which claim to be of equal authority with the canon of the Hebrew Bible, and that these contain the refutation of our doctrine, which is sought to be established by us in opposition to others. But it is not necessary that we should examine the claims of these various books to authenticity; for, if they agree with our Bible, they add nothing to our stock of knowledge of divine things, and if they contradict in aught the doctrines of the Scriptures as we have them, they cannot teach what is in accordance with the divine will, or our books must not be what they have always been represented, that is, written by divine inspiration. Let me state here that we have nothing to do in this connexion with those who deny the truth of the Bible, but with those who admit all it teaches, and who respect every word it conveys as highly as we do. With them, therefore, we need not proceed with proving our starting-point, but we can freely take it as well-established, and argue, therefore, every doctrine arising in our discussion upon premises universally acknowledged by all the parties in the dispute. It is, therefore, nothing to us what may be found elsewhere, or what others may say in explanation of the Bible text, as this, <<386>>and this only, can be the arbiter in the contest which Israelites have waged with unwearied courage, and unyielding perseverance for so many years.

Let us proceed then in our illustration. In my last address I broke off suddenly after adducing the text which I meant to expound, which was the announcement of God to Moses: “Him who hath sinned against me will I blot out from my book.” It was briefly shown that, overflowing with love for a sinning people, Moses had offered himself as a sacrifice for the guilty, and begged to be blotted out of the book of revelation in case the Lord would not consent to forgive their sin. To this the ever-memorable reply just quoted was given. Now does any one imagine, that it was merely recorded for our amusement to show us how God answered the prayer of a mortal? If this were so, we might have expected more full details of all which occurred during the period of three times forty days that Moses stayed on the Mount to be taught by the Creator; we ought then to have received some more, if not all, of the conversations, if we may use such a word; which took place between the Most High and His servant; for it is not to be supposed that we are presented with all that happened in the few words which the books of the  Law present us with.

There must, therefore, be a deeper reason than the gratification of our curiosity why this answer is recorded among the other emanatons of the will of God which the Bible contains; and, it not being a commandment, we may be assured that it contains an idea which it behooves us to know and to cherish.—“Him who hath sinned against me will I blot out from my book;” not the innocent, not he who beholds, with grief and indignation, the evil which is committed all around him, which he would gladly check, but which he feels himself quite powerless in arresting, will be seized for the offence of others; but only those, who have themselves transgressed, will be punished to the extent in which their deeds may claim the requital which he Lord will in justice decree. Now we contend that this is the whole scheme of the government of the world,—which means that there is a direct responsibility for whatever occurs under the supervision of the Supreme Ruler, and this includes every <<387>>act which mankind can perpetrate from the beginning of time to its ending, and from one part of the earth to the other. Every man is to answer for his own deeds, just as he is deserving of reward for every virtuous act which he renders his own. It is possible enough—nay, it is true, for the Bible teaches it—that both the good and the evil which men commit will be rewarded or punished in others; but this has another bearing than becoming a substitute for others; since, notwithstanding a good deed be rewarded in another, the actor himself will not lose his reward, not the minutest portion of what he can justly lay claim to; whilst, also, should iniquitous children be punished in addition to their own guilt, because they would not learn the good from seeing the visitation which overwhelmed their parents, the guilt of these last will not the less have to be atoned for in their own persons. Nay, the very consciousness that virtue has drawn down blessing, and crime punishment, on others, must heighten the enjoyment of the good in receiving their own reward; and deepen the debasement which the wicked experience in their own persons.

There is, it must be well understood, in all discussions and inquiries a great danger of generalizing, and to assume that because one thing is true another is equally so, for no other reason than that they resemble each other. But it is evident that such a method would enable us to prove the greatest absurdity by some fancied or even real resemblance it bears to an admitted truth. It is, however, requisite, especially in matters of conscience, that each proposition should stand by itself, and be capable of scriptural support without any reference to another idea; and if even the approach be ever so close, if the divergence be, so to say, but the breadth of a hair, the one may be true, whilst the other is entirely inadmissible. I now especially allude to the doctrine of vicarious atonement as compared with the scriptural idea of a visitation of parental sins upon rebellious children. The last idea is laid down in the Decalogue, “For I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me.”

Let us stop here a few moments. What <<388>>is the punishment of sin which is denounced by the Mosaic record against sinners? It is all of a temporary kind, the spiritual or eternal not being, as I have shown before, applicable to a nation existing as such in a civil government, forming a national union on earth, and therefore to be reached only in that capacity by outward and visible means; the spiritual bond of national union, our religion, being especially exempted from the punishment denounced in the awful curses pronounced in the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus, to which I would refer you. Some crimes, such as drunkenness and low debauchery, entail sickness and a ruined constitution upon the actors; and often the evil effects pass over into the children; and these, unless they closely watch themselves, and remove by a most exemplary, virtuous life and abstinence from the wrong-doing of their fathers whatever traces of the disease may be implanted in their system, will expose themselves to the horrors of a prematurely-ruined constitution, and prepare for themselves an early grave, if even they do not equal by half their parents in crime and iniquity.

For their system is already prepared to receive the fatal impression, and it requires but the kindling spark to explode the baleful magazine of inherent evil, which might at the same time have remained dormant had the existing elements not been called into activity by the fault of the present sufferers. In this instance then we may safely apply the interpretation of our sages, who comment on לשנאי “my enemies,” with כשאחדן מעשה אבותיהם בידיהם “when they lay fast hold of the deeds of their fathers in their hands;” when the children, seeing how their parents suffered, take no warning, but rush wilfully upon the point of the drawn weapon presented to them, which they could have avoided by employing only the necessary caution which was within their own means of accomplishing.

So also with the punishments denounced nationally, such as expulsion from our land; oppression by an invading enemy; the failure of crops; the prevalence of fatal epidemics; in all these it is not alone the transgressors who suffer, for the evil is either at once participated in by others, or is even continued to them after the real perpetrators of the wrong have passed away. It is, how<<389>>ever, subject to no question or doubt, but that any such infliction, as just enumerated, will be aggravated greatly by the conduct of all who suffer from it, or vastly ameliorated, and often robbed of its severity if a strictly virtuous life characterize those on whom the misfortune falls. Besides, we are told in the same connexion, that every evil will be removed,—we now speak in a national point of view,—in case the nation alter their conduct; and hence any continuation of it in this wise does not show the condemnation of individuals, but the rejection of the body politic as an entire mass, for sins which were committed nationally, and which have not been nationally atoned for. I do not now speak to vindicate the justice of God; for the All-wise himself has emphatically taught us not to endeavour to account for his conduct towards man upon mere human ideas, and by the insufficient light which we possess, when He said through Isaiah: “For not my thoughts are your thoughts, and not your ways are my ways, speaketh the Lord. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

All we can do is to approximate, at an humble distance, to the wisdom of our Father in heaven, and to illustrate, however feebly, the manner in which He governs all. If in so doing we an catch a glimpse of his justice, or can discover a mere trace of his righteousness, we are amply rewarded, and we must then conclude, if in our present mortal condition, when our soul is obscured by the dark clouds which a perishable frame throws over its brightness, we can understand so much: how much more intense, how much more penetrating must our glance become when we stand disenthralled from earth, and its pollution, and its shadows, before the Almighty’s throne, basking for ever in that refulgent light which emanates directly from Him into the spirit of his faithful servants.

It results, hence, that when parents have sinned, both transgression and its retribution become more accessible to their offspring; the evil example will corrupt the mind; and the inherent punishment (for all vice has its appropriate retribution closely linked within an indissoluble union) will more readily seize on the new generation, because they are more prepared for and <<390>>exposed to its reception.

Thus each generation of wicked become more imbecile in mind and body; thus each generation of effeminate and deteriorated civilized men composing a state, sink gradually before the assault of the more vigorous barbarians, who have hitherto been always ready to overthrow states, the vitality of which had expired in the downward progress of self-indulgence and over-refinement. If you examine the history of families and nations you will find this fact clearly established, without, I think, a single exception; and I believe it to be so easily susceptible of proof, that I will not detain you with adducing any at present. I trust, therefore, that you have now a tolerably correct view of the denunciation of the Ten Commandments against the children of the transgressors, and that it merely affirms the well-known principle which all experience has found to be true, that the evil men do often lives after them. This, however, does not say in the remotest degree that the sufferings of the first wrong-doer is in the least diminished by the transfer of a part of it to others; in short, no atonement is obtained by the number of participants in the wrong done, and in the bitter fruits which spring up as its natural consequence.

This will now give us the following result, that there is no contradiction between the declaration in the Decalogue, that the iniquity of the fathers shall be visited on the children, if they both hate God, and the answer given to Moses, that each offender alone shall be blotted out from the book of God; the first referring to evil as transmitted both in practice and its consequences to others, the last as speaking of the effect of sin upon the transgressor, irrespective of his connexion with any one beyond his own person.

As in the Decalogue no mediator is spoken of or hinted at as standing between the Most High and the delinquents, so there is none referred to in the second revelation to Moses, when he stood alone in the presence of his Maker, in the attitude of the most intensely heartfelt prayer. The idea is only enlarged, not circumscribed, not to think of being contradicted or repealed, and leaves us precisely where it left us, with the burden of self-justification resting upon us and all other sons of man to the end of time.

I shall no doubt be met with the objections, “How is a man to justify himself? what can he do to satisfy his God? has he any merit? are his deeds of any value? do they benefit the Supreme Being?” True; if we merely had human reason to guide us, if everything were resolved to the mere comprehension of nature and God by our finite senses, we would be compelled to answer, that man cannot justify himself; that he can do nothing to satisfy his God; that he has no merit; that his deeds are, absolutely speaking, of no value; since he can, in no manner what ever, benefit, and for that matter injure, the Supreme Ruler of the universe. But we are not left to mere unassisted human reason to frame our course of life, nor to adopt those ideas which will urge us on in our religious and political conduct. I employ designedly the terms religious and political; for however distinct they may seem at a first view, they are in the present state of the world intimately connected, and all modern civilization is based upon the religious sense of mankind, differing though they do on many points, and though there is a constant change going on in the public opinion.

In short, we have a revealed word of God to direct us how to act, which teaches us, at the same time, how to think. If our sound reason squares exactly with this superadded light, it is well; for then we perceive, by our own inherent good sense, that we are not deceived. But if, as it does frequently happen, we are not able to reconcile our own thoughts with what is held up to us as the emanation of Supreme Wisdom, we must submit to be robbed even of our own preconceived opinion, and adopt in its stead that which is more than ourselves, higher than our own inventions, more perfect than our own studies can evolve, which sprung, as we have the assurance of the wise and good, from the will of God, and the truth of which has been established by the long array of facts which history records.

Whatever now this revelation teaches, is to us, as a matter of right, motive for action, basis for thought. Let us then look into it, as resets our question of man’s self-justification.

Self-justification, however, simply means that if a man have done a wrong he may, or must, do something to remedy the evil, in order to be cleared in the opinion of the Supreme <<392>>Judge from the taint of guilt which attaches to him by his conduct. If now he has no means to accomplish this, he cannot be asked to attempt it; but if the Almighty has provided them, no matter how difficult they may be of attainment, he is in reason bound to leave nothing untried, in order to remove the displeasure justly incurred, through what he has laid to his own charge. But this idea also includes the other, that man has the means of satisfying God, wherefore his deeds are necessarily of some value, however slight, and that they must be pleasing to the Supreme Being, although they add nothing to his happiness. We may thus at once assume that where there is a possibility of pleasing or displeasing God, there is also included the possibility at least of self-justification; and hence it results that perseverance in a course excluding acts of a renewed submission to the means of acquiring the good will of Heaven is as much blameworthy as doing the wrong in the first instance.

I have thus traced for you the view we Jews have necessarily to take in basing our whole religion on the Scriptures; and they teach us accordingly that man can have merit in his conduct; because God has commanded him certain acts, which he can fulfil without any outward or inward obstruction, at least none which he has not the means of overcoming if he will, and which at the same time he is enabled to pretermit without any outward or inward force compelling him to their observance. It is then this absolute freedom of will, a capacity for obedience with the means of disobedience in his power, which gives man’s action the value of which we are speaking; we may without irreverence say that that he is here on earth an independent being so far as his will is concerned, not as respects his ability to work out his pleasure to the full extent; for in this he is as helpless as the imagination can possibly conceive. But in his independent capacity he is presented with the will of God, in whose world he is a subject, one bound to unconditional obedience, which, nevertheless, he has the choice to refuse or to grant, as he may deem proper; and thus he is either pleasing or otherwise to his Sovereign as he of a free accord prefers one course above the other.

The merit in his conduct is not the <<393>>benefit he confers to God, because this idea is never presented to us in the Bible; but because he could without force disobey, and yet prefers obedience. In this single word therefore the whole question resolves itself. God is the Creator, infinitely great and happy man, on the other hand, is the creature, limited and subject to the will of God, but able to act as his own fancy may dictate. If he now follows the first course, that is to say, he is obedient, he has all the merit which the Bible ascribes to righteousness; for we know of no other measure or standard by which to estimate our acts. If, on the contrary, he follows his own fancies, although in this way he inflicts not the slightest perceptible injury on God, he offends Him and incurs his displeasure, and in consequence all the evils which are denounced against the acts which he has committed. All this is predicated, if his will has not been coerced by a force which he could not overcome; but if this be otherwise, his disobedience loses the trait of independence of which we just spoke; he is under duress, insurmountable constraint, and his deeds lose their quality of rebellion, and therefore are not displeasing or at least not to the extent they would be if he acted without constraint.

This then gives us, first, the result אנום רחמנא פטריה “The Merciful absolves the one who is forced to do wrong;” secondly, that with the cessation of this necessity the sinfulness recurs in its full vigour for every repetition of the deeds which hitherto were not worthy of blame or punishment. So also with acts of obedience done under the force of circumstances, from hypocrisy, or with bad views; though they be of some value notwithstanding their defectiveness, they will not be accepted in favour by the Searcher of hearts, on the principleרחמנא לבא בעי “The Merciful demands the heart,” which means that in acquiring the habit of obedience to divine commands, it should be from a sincere conviction of their truth and necessity, not merely a cold and formal acquiescence which one would gladly be rid of if he could or dared.

We have thus a standard of merit, in the first instance, founded upon the admitted truth of Scripture. But as each sin voluntarily committed is a continuance in rebellion, it follows that every man should cease his acts of disobedience the moment <<394>>he discovers or feels that he has violated the will of his God. This, to be sure, is not self-justification, according to human reason; for it might be alleged that one who has offended wilfully his God and Benefactor has no right to expect mercy and  indulgence. But we do not speak of human reason: we speak in the spirit of revelation and this says that man can repent that by leaving his course of evil, and returning to God, he will be pardoned by Him who abundantly forgives. I refer you to the 55th chapter of Isaiah, where you will see this clearly established. But mere changing of conduct leaves justice unsatisfied; man therefore has to submit, in addition, to any punishment which may be decreed against him, either by the judges who occupy the place of God on earth, or to the inflictions of the Supreme without the intervention of mortals, and at the same time do all in his power to repair the injury he has done, and to avoid most scrupulously offending in future.

It is naturally to be expected, that no one can say how much he must do to atone for sin;—how much he must suffer in this process of self-justification but herein, as in primary acts of piety, he must of necessity refer the whole to the wisdom, mercy, and justice of God, and wait with patience for the issue, which is in the hands of God alone. It is not, understand well, in human reason that this is said, but only upon the explicit teaching of Scripture and if any one does not find it enough, let him ascribe the fault, not to Judaism as professed by us, but to the Holy Bible itself.

There is, however, nothing unreasonable in it; for, if man can offend, as he does actually do, it is at last but a finite being who does the wrong, consequently, except in rare cases, he can not offend infinitely. In general, therefore, all sins can, if we take reason for our standard, be atoned for; and respecting the few individuals of whom the Bible speaks as having been the cause of a succession of sin and its consequent evil, they may probably have to suffer as long as the evil they have caused continues. But where man’s wrong is confined within a narrow circle, or rather, if the evil has not proceeded beyond himself, why should he not be empowered by God to repair what he has destroyed? And then is the whole idea of repentance nothing but a continuation of the justification by good deeds; and if <<395>>these have any value (and who that believes in the Bible will deny this?), then must renewed obedience be also acceptable in the sight of God, inasmuch as it is in accordance with the doctrines which He has taught us in his word.

You will therefore easily understand, without an extended argument, that the sacrifices ordained for transgressions in the presence of the temple were merely intended as aids to devotion, and solely acceptable as they were brought in faith, and not as assuming the sin of the transgressor, which is nowhere taught in the Bible, which only says:

ונרצה לו לכפר עליו׃ ויקרא א׳ ד׳

“And it shall be accepted for him, to make an atonement for him.” Lev. i. 4.

But now, as we have no temple where to bring our sacrifice, we have the fullest assurance that that which is more than the blood of steers and the fat of rams will be accepted, and that the Lord God, the Saviour and Creator, will not cast off nor despise the repentant heart which pours out its sorrows before Him, in the sincere hope of his mercy and forgiveness. Amen.

Nissan 2, March 15th, 5610.

NOTE.—The above, the second sermon of a series which the writer intended delivering on the Jewish view of atonement, leaves the subject entirely too incomplete, and he is perfectly conscious that more should have been added to elucidate it properly. But the  fault is not his that he cannot present in the Occident at this time any more than the two fragments which the reader has now before him; since, the week following the delivery of the above, his ministry in the congregation Mikvé Israel of Philadelphia came to a sudden though not altogether unexpected close; wherefore he has not been able to pursue the topic any  farther in the pulpit. But as there are others the country who occupy the place of teacher, he hopes that they will fill up the plan he has sketched out for them, and favour the public with sound argument for the correctness of the Jewish side of the question in the premises. He is sure that all who wish to be Israelites in deed, and not merely to continue attached to the Synagogue in name, will be happy to have their faith brought home to their perfect comprehension, so that they may from conviction admire its truth and holiness, and then be able to become themselves its defenders whenever it is assailed by the infidel or the false believer.