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בס"ד

Mr. Joseph Levy, of Cleveland, Ohio.

 

In our April number of this volume, we deemed it our duty to say a few words relative to a religious divorce granted to a party whose name we do not even know correctly by Rabbi Joseph Levy* (or Lövy, as the, name is often spelled in Germany and Bohemia), on grounds) which we deemed, from the representation made to us by Mr. L. and <<145>> others, of sufficient weight to authorize the interference of a person learned in the law.

* By-the-by, in copying from the Hebrew originals the names of the gentle­men, otherwise unknown to us, who granted Mr. Levy the Morenu title, or authority to decide religious-legal questions, we made an error in not calling them by their usual appellations, nowise strange in considering the difficulty in conveying by Hebrew letters the names of Europeans. The correct name of the first Rabbi was Rabbi Eleazer Fürth, who was Rabbi of Bresnitz, and merely wrote the certificate during a sojourn at Piseck; the name of the second was Rabbi Menahem Mendel Polack, and not Falk, as we had it; though פאלק might be read both ways, whence our error.

It cannot be supposed by those the bitterest opposed to us, that we have the smallest personal interest in the matter; and all will readily credit us, that our statement was merely based on the supposition that we spoke in behalf of the truth. We always thought and stated so, often and often, when we were bolding an office nearly as high as is now possessed by any of our contemporaries in America, that Judaism knows nothing of an organized clergy or clerical order. The standard of authority is learning, certified to by those in whom Israelites have placed confidence, no matter where they are dispersed. It may be presumption for any one, however highly endowed, to exercise rabbinical functions in a city or country where a regular Rabbi has been elected by the people to preside over their religious concerns. But to say that he has thereby committed an act against Bible and Talmud savours, we fancy, of priestly assumption, which is even more destructive to true Judaism than the irregularity of the act which is complained of.

It is indeed proper for every congregation to choose itself a person competent to decide questions of law, complicated as they often are in our religious life. But where this has not been done, we must consult those whose evident respectability and certificates of character and capacity from duly authorized persons or bodies, point them out as those capable of granting advice and relief in the premises. It has been our duty at times to decide, at the spur of the moment, during our official term at Philadelphia, grave questions of law, according to the best authorities accessible to us; but we would never rest satisfied with our own decisions, and referred them first to Rabbi Solomon Hirschell, of blessed memory, who promised to reply in full, but was no doubt prevented by the infirmities of age and bodily suffering to keep his word, and afterwards to Dr. Adler, the present chief authority in England. It was highly gratifying that this eminent man confirmed our decisions, and our conscience has been tranquillized in assuring us thus that we were right, although we were not mildly opposed by those who felt themselves aggrieved by our honestly-given opinions, and who perhaps have to this day never forgiven us the offence we committed against their self-love. For the moment, our deciding at all was justified in the absence of a Morenu; but had one been on the spot, in or out of office, we would have deferred to him, and acted by his direction, though this had contravened our own opinion; since it is the knowledge of things, and not the office, which the Jews regard as entitled to respect.

<<146>>
The question has been raised, Who warrants us that the certificates which parties bring from unknown persons, who may long since have departed from this life, are genuine ? But we fancy that there can be but very little difficulty, if any, to arrive at a correct knowledge of the facts. Few are so isolated, even among the new immigrants to America, but that their persons and standing are perfectly well known to many; and if this be even not the case, the fact of the genuineness of any paper emanating from a European Rabbi or Beth-Din, can be readily ascertained in a few weeks. Now, we take it for granted that if Rabbi Joseph Levy’s certificates were forgeries, or referring to some one other than himself, by which means his decisions would be null and void, because based on self-assumed authority: the fact of this being so would have been duly ascertained between the time of his granting the divorce and the present moment, a period of fully seven months, since Rabbi Solomon Rapoport, of Prague, can be reached by a letter quite easily; and if Mr. Levy were an unworthy usurper of rabbinical functions, there can be no doubt that his opponents would long since have ascertained the fact, by a correspondence with the eminent man whom we have mentioned. Their not doing so proves conclusively to our mind that the truth is on Mr. Levy’s side, and that hence he is empowered to act, if he deems the case one claiming his interference. For this he is not responsible to the Editors of the Plain Dealer, of Cleveland, nor to the Editor of the Asmonean, and his irresponsible anonymous correspondents, who are, perhaps, one and all, ignorant of the very first principles of Jewish Law.

We do not apply this remark to Dr. Simeon Abrahams, who has stepped forward in an article on the 23d of April, to which he affixed his initials; for he, at least, has learned from a good Talmudist; and though we would not endorse all his opinions, we would, at all events, regard and consider them with the respect due to one who claims to be a צורבא דרבנן, and to be in possession of a Semichah from the Rabbis of the Holy Land. But it was unworthy of him to speak sneeringly of those whom he does not know, and had therefore no reason to presume them to be dishonest; nor to cast a slur on our own person, for whom he professes to entertain a warm feeling of respect. But we leave him for the present to our correspondent; and pledge our word to do battle in good time, if there is any necessity for it. But they who shun the light, and assail with terms of reproach those whom the Israelites of America have delighted to honour, are not worthy of any notice from us, and they shall have the field to themselves, no matter what they may allege, or however <<147>> rude and baseless their attacks may be.

We repeat what we stated last month on the cover of our Magazine, that truth cannot gain any thing in such a contest; and though the Editor of the Asmonean promises that he is prepared to discuss the question upon its merits, though his correspondent (Ben Yehudah) should falter: it is perfectly notorious that he is utterly unable to do so, or else his own supporters have greatly underrated his acquaintance with Hebrew literature in conversation with us. And we now state, once for all, that we shall regard anything like a reasonable article on the subject as emanating from quite a different person than the ostensible Editor of the Asmonean; and we shall maintain against all such papers a scrupulous silence, although we are convinced beforehand that we expose ourself to vituperation without measure for saying even this little. But to show that we are not afraid to meet the issue, we now repeat publicly what we stated in private conversation to Rev. Dr. Raphall, the Rev. Mr. Isaacs, and Dr. S. Abrahams, during a recent visit to New York, that if they or either will come out in any vehicle they may select, and discuss the question in a manner becoming gentlemen and scholars, whether or not Mr. Levy and others not in public office, have the right, according to strict ancient and orthodox Judaism, to exercise the functions which their learning and the Semichah they may have empowers them to do: we will either acknowledge ourself in the wrong, or confute their arguments to the satisfaction of the Jewish public. We do not claim to possess any extensive acquaintance with rabbinical literature; we have acknowledged this before; but where we are deficient, we have no fear but that many will come to our rescue the moment their aid will be needed.

The question now opened is not one of personal aggrandizement, not one of “who shall be right” for his own sake; but it concerns the most vital interests of our religion. We have no separate clerical body as yet in America; and the query is, whether, as none exists, the few office-holders, who are evidently excelled in many instances by those who do not enjoy a salary from the public purse, shall exercise the whole of the rights belonging to the knowledge of the law. We could cite names of those who are now in retirement in various parts of the country, compared to whom the majority of the actual ministers are mere tyros; but we forbear dragging the names of private persons, who have had nothing to do to commence the discussion, before the public eye; but if need be, we shall do so hereafter, and overwhelm the calumniators of God’s favourites with an array of names, before which <<148>> their jaundiced vision will quail and tremble. Yes, there are men in New York, Baltimore, Cincinnati, New Orleans and elsewhere, who need not feel ashamed at being compared with any minister now in power; and hence we say it is ridiculous in those who are appointed to read the prayer and to preach to congregations, to assume a dignity which is not theirs by any known rule of law or courtesy. For, let us ask, Who ever saw the certificates of superior excellence or knowledge which these gentlemen ought to possess, assuming even that all are so supplied, which we greatly doubt? What authority in this country, known and respected by all, has assured us that such papers, always assuming they do exist, are genuine? If people will doubt such testi­monials as R. Joseph Levy has shown us, we have a much greater right to question the existence of satisfactory attestations of learning and standing, which no eye in this land has ever had the satisfaction of inspecting.

We speak without reserve, since the occasion demands it; and the fact which we now state, that the officiating Hazanim and preachers have no rabbinical functions even by courtesy, not to say even by right, we think is perfectly undeniable. They were elected because the majority, either real or accidental, of the various congregations chose to place them in office; and whoever is acquainted with the elements constituting our popular meetings, both here and elsewhere, will surely not dream to suppose that this manner of electing by mere popular will, without a searching examination of the applicants, is calculated to stamp the persons elected as entitled to uncontradicted authority.

We acknowledge that much confusion may arise from irresponsible persons claiming and exercising the right to marry and grant divorces,  always even supposing, as respects the latter, that what is done is without interfering with the laws of the land. But there is only one re­medy, which we have long since proposed, before even “The Occident” was started, to institute by general assent a superior Rabbinical tribunal for all America, the members of which should have the full supervision of ecclesiastical affairs in all the congregations, and without whose certificate of character no Synagogue functionary should be chosen, if he even were provided with the best testimonials from the Old World. It is necessary for us here to know our men, before we allow them to read prayers, instruct the people from the pulpit, and act in cases of conscience as our judges. We admit this to the fullest extent. Still, is the system now pursued, of denouncing men whose character is unblemished, for doing what no congregational by-laws have <<149>> prohibited them, a correct one?—and should, as things now are, public acts be interdicted to those who have the usual authorization? But join our plan of a general convention, appoint your board of deputies for civil affairs, and your ecclesiastical council for Synagogue and religious matters in general: and we shall be the first to submit to any orders emanating from such a body; for we are sure that they would act according to law and reason, and not from wanton prejudice and ruthless malice, as those have done who so grossly assail a man like Mr. Levy, whom they do not know, and the humble writer of these lines, of whose character they have had many opportunities of forming a somewhat more lenient judgment. It may indeed be prudent in those who feel themselves conscious of having a proper acquaintance with the subject, to refrain from exercising their undoubted right, until called on by a vote of a congregation to act as their chief, either permanently or for the time being; but this is, at last, a matter which must be left to their own conscience, and no one has any right to blame them, whilst there exist no local laws to prevent them.

This is all we contended for when defending Mr. Levy’s proceedings, not that we would not have been more pleased had he not deemed himself imperiously called upon to pursue the course he took.—We indeed regret the unseemly assaults made on Mr. Levy’s fair fame; but we trust that, evil as it is, it will produce much good, and that out of this circumstance a general union of Israelites of America may spring in the course of four or five years, or later even, the moment the majority of congregations become convinced that their isolated position is anything but peace-bringing and wholesome, and that a thorough reform is needed in all our public affairs, before Judaism can strike those deep roots in American soil which, under God’s blessing, it is destined to do. We could enlarge much more; but, for the present, we must be satisfied with the above remarks, which we deemed necessary as an introduction to Mr. Levy’s Hebrew letter, explaining, as far as delicacy allows, the whole transaction, though we are able to present but a portion of it to our learned readers this month.