|Vol. II, No. 11
Shebat 5605, February 1845
Cheap Religious Publications.
by Isaac Leeser
Perhaps in no one thing is the present age more distinguished than by the facilities it has opened to all classes of the community to acquire books, by the great reduction which the improvements in machinery have effected in the prices of nearly all sorts of printed matter. There is, accordingly, hardly a cottage to be met with in the remotest settlement in America where books and papers of some kind are not to be met with; and thus a taste for reading has been called forth which constantly demands new food to appease its insatiable cravings. Booksellers and editors of popular periodicals have taken proper advantage of this state of things, and have issued their wares in large masses at an extremely cheap rate, in order to obtain through large sales a remuneration for their outlays, though the profits on each copy sold are extremely small. Formerly the high prices paid by the few were looked to by publishers to compensate them; now the passes are asked to buy cheaply to indemnify the caterers for their literary wants. We are, however, not going to write an essay upon the merits and demerits of the different systems of small editions and high prices compared with large editions and low prices; all we wanted to do was to show that there is constantly sent abroad among all classes of the community, an innumerable quantity of books such as they are, and that whatever be their contents is scattered into every nook and corner of all countries where literature is left untrammelled by governmental interference. Here emphatically there is the amplest liberty of the press; and it is made use of in many cases to make itself felt by the worthlessness of the things which it sends forth. All sorts of ideas, all sorts of opinions, all sorts of systems have their advocates amongst men; let any thing be ever so absurd, it will find its adherents, its advocates and its propagators. It is therefore not to be wondered at that words decidedly injurious in their moral tendency should be sent forth in the cheap publications of the day, by those who either approve of their contents, or are indifferent whether they increase their worldly means by selling poison or wholesome food. In the same manner the different sectarians, both political and religious, have nearly all some association for the purpose of diffusing their peculiar views through means of cheap publications, with the avowed intention of producing an effect on the public mind. They perhaps reason thus: To induce a man to purchase a dear book on any given subject, he must already have some kind of interest in its contents. But if you give him ever so small a tract and request him to read it, it is very likely that he will comply with your request, since the time required is not long and he has nothing to pay for the indulgence of his curiosity. The consequence of all this is, that many books useful to the various classes of religious and political sects have thus been produced, chiefly by means of combinations of the many and small contributions at stated times, aided by occasional donations. Whoever is acquainted with the operations of the human mind must easily discover, that by this general circulation of doctrinal works a strong impression is likely to be made upon the persons who are brought under their influence, and what is more, a greater uniformity of opinions and actions is produced among those who read these various books and tracts, than could be expected from a mere tacit agreement in sentiment avowed for any religious or political dogma without such aid.
No doubt some persons attach too much importance to certain works, and exaggerate their supposed influence. Still it admits of no question that impressions may be conveyed by some means hardly deemed adequate to produce them, at least the mind may become warped, without precisely knowing how or when the bent was given to it. Relying upon this, many zealous Christians have for years past deemed it their duty to distribute, through means of tract and publication societies of various kinds, many books and tracts of a peculiar, controversial character, all intended to operate upon the Jewish mind, and to give it a bias totally adverse to Judaism. Even the Holy Scriptures have been perverted to effect a special purpose, by selecting such passages as are vainly alleged to favour the truth of Christianity, and appending them to Hebrew copies of the law, and then selling such falsified copies extremely low or giving them outright to the poorer classes of Jews in Great Britain and the continent of Europe. To judge from circumstances we should say that the same thing has been extensively carried on also in Asia and Africa, where the missionaries have penetrated in their unrequited attempts to induce the Jews to apostatize. We are not now going to discuss this point, as we have another object in view, though at a future day and a fitting occasion we may likewise present our ideas more in detail before our readers upon this scandalous manner of abusing the sacred text, and upon the hypocrisy of offering to a Jew a Hebrew copy of the law or the whole Bible which he receives or buys in good faith, without dreaming that addenda have been appended thereto, which the donor or seller intends as a means to induce him to give up his religion. We only wish to call the attention of our religious friends to this one consideration: If it is of importance in the eyes of Christians to present to us their opinions in the shape of tracts, tales, sermons, conversations and treatises, both large and small, it surely ought to be of greater importance to ourselves that we provide reading for all classes of Jews, calculated to strengthen them in their faith and to give them correct ideas of our religion. Whoever will look back upon the state of English-speaking Jews twenty years ago, will at once acknowledge that at that time there were hardly any religious works intelligible to them in circulation, and the whole collection of English books on our religion consisted of “The Reason and Faith,” by Rabbi De Cordova of Jamaica, “The Letters of certain Jews to Voltaire,” David Levi’s “Dissertation on the Prophecies,” and his various answers to Paine and Priestley, “The Elements of the Jewish Faith,” “The Jew,” by Mr. Jackson of New York, and a few detached sermons, printed at various times, when a special occasion called forth some one of the people to deliver his opinions before the public. We are at this moment not acquainted with any other religious work of that date; and then it has to be observed that even those just enumerated were carefully locked up in some book-closet for fear of any injury happening to them, as they could not be replaced; and they can therefore hardly be said to have been in actual “circulation.”
We cannot say that our stock is much increased of late years, but there have certainly been made considerable additions, and we honestly think that it only requires encouragement to bring out many other writers, who now hold back, because there is absolutely speaking but too little encouragement for them to come with their productions before the people. No one need think that it is for want of sufficient intellect and information that Jewish pens are not engaged upon Jewish subjects; but simply because the public (we speak of the English and American Jews) has hitherto looked upon all attempts at publishing works on our religion with too much indifference. Some small editions of a few necessary works may perhaps find a slow sale; but nothing like that generous support, which incites the author to more vigorous efforts, has yet been witnessed. We do not say this because we have been engaged ourself in this species of labour, indeed it has been a powerful reason with us for holding back our opinion for fear of exciting in the people an idea that we spoke from disappointment and slighted self-love. On the contrary, if we survey the field of our labour, we have every reason to be thankful to a gracious Providence for the assistance we have received from his undeserved mercy, and to be grateful to our fellow-Israelites and many Christian friends for the kind reception they have always given our various works, which even to our own apprehension have been rather too frequent, and would surely have been less so, if we had not deemed that the age required the species of labour which we thought we could in a measure supply. Perhaps there is some vanity in thinking oneself fitted to fill up a vacuum; but at least it is the same feeling which impels to the greatest acts,—the supposed ability discovered in oneself to be useful to others. If we have erred in our self-estimation, we are sure of one thing, that we have done no injury designedly to the cause we meant to advocate; and hence, though we cannot boast of much success in our efforts to enlighten others, nor of superabundant encouragement at the hands of the public, we see no reason why we should not continue for some time longer, whilst our strength is spared, to labour for the Jewish cause. But generally speaking, there is a want of stimulant to urge even the religiously-minded to compile religious books for Jews; for there is too little demand for them, and consequently in a mercantile point of view it is hazardous to send them before the world. It may be said that pecuniary considerations ought not to weigh with those who are sincere in their professions. But we beg our friends to consider that every one is not blessed with an independence in his worldly circumstances, and hence he cannot devote the time to write without some compensation; and if would even be willing to sacrifice some hours taken from the time of labour or employ a portion of the night which others devote to sleep or pleasure for the benefit of his religious associates, he may lack the means of publishing his work, with the almost certainty of meeting with pecuniary loss in the speculation. It must be observed, that few publishers, if any, will be willing to undertake on their own account the publication of Jewish books, since the speculation is likely to result in a loss, or in no profit at least, whilst they can earn a considerable per centage upon miscellaneous or scientific books; besides which, it is not likely that Christian booksellers will trouble themselves much with an effort to bring Jewish writers favourably before the public, or to risk any thing in their behalf, if the works should simply concern our religion; and it is well know that we have not enough booksellers of our own persuasion to give currency to any publication by their own unaided efforts. Nevertheless it is true that there are Jews enough in the United States alone, not to mention the adjacent countries, to patronize sufficiently any book of merit that is likely to be presented to them; and if it were once ascertained that such would be the case, there would be no longer any difficulty of ushering books of this kind before the public, without the now absolutely requisite precaution of gathering subscribers before putting any work of the least magnitude to press, if one does not wish to incur absolute loss in the enterprise, which has hitherto, with few slight exceptions, been at the authors’ own risk and expense; and we mention here incidentally, that the impossibility of finding a publisher for our own works hitherto, has been the only cause why we have engaged in the mercantile branch of book-making likewise, when we should have been more satisfied, in the commencement at all events, to have nothing father to do with them than to see them safely through the press. Our readers will also see that every one capable of writing has not the facilities of coming before the public through the connexion and official standing which we have had; and hence our partial success must not be taken as a criterion that others with even more merit can in future succeed as well. We beg pardon for speaking of our own concerns; but it is necessary to make our readers understand what we wish to urge upon them.
To proceed then without any father preface: the American Israelites are surely deeply concerned for their religion, and we cannot be mistaken in supposing that the majority of thinking men among them would hail with pleasure the spread of enlightenment and knowledge among all classes of our brethren. Now we, at least, know of no method more likely to produce such a result than to foster carefully a taste for useful reading, and then to provide such books as will judiciously gratify this taste after it has been excited. But, as we have said above, there has hitherto been too little interest displayed by the community to permit any one to think of printing a sufficiently large edition of books of the nature under discussion, to diffuse them among a large number of readers; consequently the price has been necessarily high, in order to allow a remuneration of the outlay from the disposal of the limited number of copies required by those whose habits lead them to institute religious inquiry. This was, by the bye, all that individual enterprise could accomplish, to print a few books to be more as records of the impress of the age than to serve as the reading for all. But it is evident to every one who bestows the least reflection on the subject, that we are not discharging our duty to each other, whilst we employ no adequate means to enlighten the masses of our people. Judaism is effectually a plant of civilization, of publicity, a product for the people emphatically so called. They, therefore, who have the means of acquiring information, and they who have knowledge which they can diffuse, ought to see that others also participate in the benefits which circumstances have placed at their disposal. No one however, can excuse himself in the premises by saying that it is not his business; nay, it is his business, because he is equally interested with every other Israelite, in the spiritual welfare of his people.
The only thing requisite for all is to enter in ASSOCIATIONS. The various Christian and political sects understand this principle of action quite well, and daily you see notices of Bible societies, Sunday School unions, tract societies, book concerns, boards for education, domestic and foreign missions, prayer-book societies, collegiate endowment meetings, not to mention the clubs and unions of politicians, since with these we have no concern at present. Our readers know as well as we do, that no one individual could have produced the powerful effects which the Bible and tract societies have done in America and Great Britain; but that one man aiding the other, and calling upon others who at first felt, perhaps, disinclined to co-operate, at length established those powerful combinations which, through their agents, visit every house and supply the destitute with the word of God. We know not, indeed, how the matter was organized, nor the gradual steps by which it arrived at its present prosperity; but enough for us that it exists, and we call upon the American Israelites to do something of the kind for themselves, in order to bring into circulation among all classes of our people such books as will give to Israelites a more correct appreciation of their religion than they now possess. The effects of association will be, first, to circulate more widely the few works already existing; secondly, to induce several persons, we speak within limits, to make their manuscripts public; and thirdly, it will be an incentive to urge those capable of discussing the interests of their religion, to lay their ideas and researches as an acceptable offering before the people. All this will effect for the people a greater amount of accessible information, and for authors the assurance of safety from pecuniary loss for volunteering in defence or illustration of the principles of their faith, and, incidentally, to remove from this meritorious class the necessity of humiliating themselves by waiting upon the rich for their patronage, and upon the many for their individual subscriptions, which are often refused, or granted in such a manner that the blush of shame mantles upon the cheek of the applicant, as though he had been refused, or received alms which he had asked to relive his pecuniary distresses. Experience has taught us a lesson, and we would gladly spare others the same feeling, if we possibly can do so. People do not always consider that a good book is a greater benefit to them than the price thereof could possibly be; and many think literature and literary men superfluities which the world can readily dispense with, and that wealth requires nothing ennobling to make it valuable to the owner. It may be perhaps in the nature of things in a commercial country like this, and commercial communities like the Jews mostly are; the greater therefore is the necessity to place the true benefactors of the age, the producers of good moral books, upon a higher level than they can now readily attain, and to extend at the same time their now limited field of usefulness.
With these ideas premised, we beg to call the attention of our readers to the article in our last number headed “The Jewish Miscellany,” in which we announced the publication of a small book, “Caleb Asher,” a tale taken from an English publication, called the Cheap Jewish Library, which has been in existence for rather more than three years, occasionally enriching our popular literature by simple stories intended for the improvement of the labouring classes. We have not been able to ascertain who are the persons to whom we are indebted for this blessed effort to draw the mind of the humble from their sufferings, and to fix it upon bright hopes and holy aspirations. But glad should we be, could we see the enterprise seconded and exceeded in this country, and we are sure that, if a commencement is once properly made, it will not be suffered to fall soon into decay, so clear will be the benefits which will result therefrom. The few who have started the idea of the Jewish Miscellany in this country (and they are but five or six) thought that, by putting the price of their first publication at the low rate they have done, they could succeed disposing of a large edition, and scatter thus the impression which the above tale has left upon their mind, over the length and breadth of the land among Israelites. But the simple circulation of this one little work, interesting though it be, is not the only object they aim at: they wish to let this be the commencement of a series, and they therefore desire that an association should be formed, all over the country, to contribute funds towards publishing such works as may be deemed fitting by a publication committee, to be appointed by a meeting of the subscribing members of the proposed society. The provisional committee (self-constituted for the present) have upon their own responsibility printed the first number, and will go on with more, if the receipts will enable them to do so; but it is their earnest wish to place the matter out of their hands, and to call in the active aid of all those whose business it is, equally with them, to aid in the good work. It is wonderful, truly, that the subject has not long since claimed public attention; but it is to be hoped now, that it will not be suffered to fall through for the want of the countenance of those whose means or influence enable them to give it effectual aid.
But as several persons have already signified their readiness to assist if they only knew how their services could be rendered useful, we offer in all humility the following outlines of a society, perfectly willing to submit it for discussion, alteration and amendment, to the Jewish public.
Plan of a Jewish Publication Society.
1. This society shall be known as the American Jewish Publication Society.
The above is a mere outline, which will, doubtlessly, require a good deal of amendment before it can be put in practical operation; still, imperfect as it is, and thrown off merely on our own responsibility, we see nothing in it to make us doubt of its being able to be carried into effect in its main features. We have, with the concurrence of our colleagues in this enterprise, sent off copies of Caleb Asher (to which the prospectus which we published last month is annexed) to several persons in other cities, and we hope that they will use their endeavours to bring the matter up for discussion whenever opportunity offers, and to communicate with us or the persons mentioned in our last, of the success or failure of their attempts. It will strike our readers that the enterprise is not for the individual benefit of any one; and hence we are sure they will feel themselves more strongly impelled to do the subject justice, seeing that it is one eminently calculated to give that bias to the Jewish mind, which is so necessary in order to preserve the purity of our faith. We may recur to the consideration of the plan we have proposed, in a future number, as soon as we see that it has been in a measure carried out; but, for the present we forbear, leaving it to the good sense of our readers to supply any deficiency which they may discover in the above.
N. B. Several persons in Philadelphia have already joined the original projectors, in the few days which have elapsed since the appearance of the first number of the Miscellany; and we confidently look forward to an equally prompt spirit in other towns. We are always sufficiently ready to give charity to relieve the bodily wants of the poor; let us then once do something to relieve the spiritual wants of both poor and rich.