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בס"ד

Societies for the Religious Instruction of Jewish Youth.

 

Our correspondent, who has favoured us with the subjoined piece, announces himself as a reformer, and seems to entertain the idea that it would require an especial alteration in former manners to introduce pulpit oratory in the service of the Synagogue. But in this he is mistaken, as are also all others who oppose religious lectures under the plea of their being an innovation. Those familiar with our history will probably call to mind the phrase שבת של מי "whose Sabbath was it to-day?" which sprung up at the time that there were two heads of the college in the memorable elevation of Rabbi Elazar son of Azariah, during the patriarchate of Rabbon Gamliel, who had been at first temporarily deposed for some dissatisfaction felt for several of his public acts; but who afterwards at his restoration preached alternately every other Sabbath with his young colleague. Those who dread therefore every innovation, need not fear any evil consequence from instruction conveyed through sermons by men of undoubted piety and learning; nor have the reformers to boast of any remarkable discovery in having appointed preachers who teach religion in the language of the country. It is true that for perhaps the last two or three hundred years, during the accumulated sufferings of our people, the number of lecturers became greatly reduced, and that what was spoken consisted more of learned disquisitions upon some biblical or talmudical text than moral lectures, whilst the language chosen, being the rabbinical, confined the benefits more to the learned than the people. But there have always been many exceptions, and the large number of books of Sabbath lectures, though composed in Hebrew, for instance, the עיר גבורים; the עוללות אפרים;יד יוסף; אהבת יהונתן and many others, prove that the instruction of the masses was considered of paramount importance. The spirit of the books just mentioned is one of elevated piety; and many beautiful ideas are thrown out in them, which will afford material for modern preachers for perhaps centuries to come. It is true they are composed in the quaint style peculiar to the periods in which they were written; but it would be expecting too much, that the men of those distant days should arrange their lectures after the fashion of the present preachers of Germany or England, which will probably full into disuse when something new will be required by the constantly varying taste, no less potent in literary matters than outward dress. Besides, it is an error to suppose that the works under question remained sealed books to the multitude. Not so. In every congregation of the German form, in continental Europe, it has always been customary to assemble on Sabbath afternoon, before the afternoon service, to hear a portion of one of the lectures in the printed books expounded in the vernacular tongue to the people; and we yet remember with pleasure in our early years listening delighted to the weekly instruction which fell from the lips of the honoured and pious man whom Providence had assigned to us as our early guide to the portals of heaven; and it will indeed be a sad day should this custom of learning, as it is called, a Sheeur, or lesson, be abolished in the small congregations, whose means will not permit them to engage one of the learned preachers who are educated at a great expense of money and time, at some university, and who hence can preach their own compositions in place of being compelled to recite the better production of their pious predecessors.

We would, let us remark here in passing, be greatly indebted to some of our many friends, who would furnish us with something like an accurate list, if accessible, of the devotional works composed in Hebrew and the formerly corrupt German language in use among the Jews; [He means Yiddish -- Webmaster.] and we may also state at once, that though much outcry has been indulged in against the companions of our good grandmothers, such as the לב טוב (the Good Heart), the שמחת הנפש (the Joy of the Soul), the צאינה וראינה (Go out and See), and others of the kind, because of their bad style and the somewhat crude notions occasionally interspersed, they were written in that speech which was peculiar to them; they excited in them pious thoughts, and implanted in them that deep resignation under all the sorrows of persecutions which enables us to say that, although some Meshumatim (male apostates), were occasionally to be met with, of men who sold their birthright for the things of the world, a Meshumeteth, or female apostate, was something rare indeed; in truth, we know of none of the olden school. We leave it to those who are more intimately acquainted with the present state of Europe to say, whither there has been any improvement upon the old piety and morals of Jewish women under the dominion of the fever of reform and abolishment which has become so rife for the last twenty years; and we think that we might say, without doing injustice, that for once at least "the former days were better than these." Those men therefore will be benefactors to our people, who would compose books which, from their intrinsic value, would become the usual Sabbath reading of our females, and banish, at least for that sacred day, the baneful habit of indulging in the perusal of the countless mass of silly romances, which are constantly following each other without end, all breathing more or less the same tone of sickly sentimentality, and leading to no other result than vitiating the taste, and weakening the religious sentiment which is so great an ornament to human nature.

We beg the indulgence of our renders for the long note which we have almost unconsciously appended to the essay of Mr. S. which follows; and for our young friend's somewhat too inflated style likewise we have to apologize, by the fact that this is probably his first attempt to handle a serious subject; and, no doubt, when he becomes more familiar with the requisites of good writing, which practice alone can give, he will avoid those redundancies which are objectionable in his present production. We were at liberty, by his private note to us, to return his MS.; but that would have appeared as though we wished to suppress free discussion, inasmuch as he announces himself as belonging to the reform party; and we, on the contrary, desire to demonstrate practically that no injury can result to the cause of truth from a perusal of even contradictory opinions. But above all, Mr. S.'s paper contains many valuable suggestions which we would gladly see adopted by all congregations, not however because they are the offspring of modern reform, but only because they are the genuine requirements of Judaism as understood by its best defenders; the remedy for the apathy which Mr. S. deplores is not in the modern panacea of any of the plans of reforms, neither the Hamburgh, the Frankfort, nor Berlin; but in an earnest return to ancient principle. The Hebrew language must be continued the language of our worship, and let it be taught to all Israelites, and let them be instructed in their duties both in the school and from the pulpit in the various dialects which our dispersion has caused us to adopt as our mother tongues.--Ed. Oc.

Intolerance no longer holds in fettered durance the divine privilege of thought; faith, the primeval chord that binds man in holy unison with his Creator, soars to its bed of light untrammelled by the dismal influences of an unlettered bigotry. The spell of an earthen image ceases to manacle the will, or render it subservient to the dictum of an emperor, or the fiat of a pope. Civilization, in her theme of lettered intelligence, contemns the frequent and debasing appeals once made aloud to passion, but reposes for security upon the more gentle dictates of a wise humanity; mind grapples with mind in the ennobling pursuit of divine truth, while from its intense gaze fanaticism, cowering in imbecility, seeks only to conceal its Gorgon head.

Thus are we penetrated by a deep and abiding reverence for the sublime reminiscences that clothe in poetic garb and animate by devoted heroism the pages of Jewish theology. We linger in musing sadness over the mellowing strains of Zion's ancient glory, invoking joy over triumphs, sympathy in bereavements, and tears for misfortunes, until we feel the theme

                 "Becomes religion,
And the heart runs o'er with silent worship."

But, impelled by active duties unfulfilled, urged by the spirit of progression, the mind thirsts for more than the mere remembrances which the past inspires; for it is, while we acknowledge the truth and feel the force of Jewish theology, that we most desire to understand its precepts, and examine the plastic virtues of a superstructure whose base rests singly upon the sublime strength of Unity. Commentary can neither add to nor detract from the merits of a creed which has withstood the attacks of centuries. Rabbinical instructions, breathing a spirit of piety and wearing the guise of undissembling truth, are commended to our consideration; yet, while we acknowledge our indebtedness, we distinctly aver that their virtues should be tested by the medium of a cultivated judgment. They are scintillations originating from the human mind, invested, it is true, with high intellectual acquirements, yet amenable to the various influences of time and circumstance, extending through a period of years, not only of unlettered ignorance, but of unrelenting persecution. It is not wondrous that the Jewish mind now seeks to explore this hitherto forbidden lore, fearing not to attack old tyrant, custom, even in his stronghold, bringing his hitherto undisputed laws to the test of reason. We are neither appalled nor abashed by the startling epithets of agitator, reformer, innovator, that are so profusely lavished upon all who step without the time-worn track. Here, in a land of liberty and law, the Jew has duties to himself, his country, and his God, of no ordinary importance, to perform. It is here that Israel may once again rear her stricken head, bleached in the snows of many thousand winters; in perennial bloom may she flourish, amid scenes congenial to the vigour of maturity. Her dearest hopes are well-nigh consummated: we have literally a church, and no supremacy--a sanctuary, and no throne--a toleration untrammelled, save in the spirit of liberal inquiry. And we dare not shun those inquiries. The Mosaic code, carved upon ever­memorable tablets of stone, can never be obliterated; the thunders of Sinai disclosed their immutability--viewless winds, catching up the glad anthem, spread with outstretched pinions their music to the spheres--from deep-mouthed caverns and verdant hill-tops echoes responsive bore back upon the gale, in choral harmony awaking old ocean from his bed to unite the glad chaunt that is hymned even now in the roll of his never-ceasing billows. If found among the advocates of reform, it is because we are persuaded of its necessity, and despise the terrors of a name. Since their dispersion, the Jews have never been in a position wherein their civil polity could either be developed or used; and incurring the responsibilities without enjoying the rights pertaining to citizenship, like denizens they modulated their moral and social laws, so as to assimilate and identify themselves with the country which sheltered, and to harmonize with the institutions which surrounded them. And thus we find the philosopher of Spain denounced, in modern parlance, as a dangerous innovator by him of the German school; yet over all the true spirit of Judaism presiding, no schism has ever incurred. By deductions from analogy, and the imperative demands of an earnest necessity, there can be no hesitancy in believing an era has dawned when the "American Jew" must essentially remodel his system of religious worship and education, or else prepare to reap the fruits of a whirlwind that will sweep from its base (at least on this continent) every vestige of his venerated faith. Are reasons wanting? They are copious. Observe daily occurrences, and trace effects to their true causes. Whence springs this apathy towards the establishment and prosperity of the Synagogue in bosoms where courses warmly the life-blood of Judaic sympathy? Whence springs the declining aversion to intermarriages? And whence comes it that the Jew is found to desert his own shrine and seek the portals of another, whilst contemning precepts that are foreign to and conflicting with his own peculiar sensibilities? It is to be found unfortunately in the dim twilight that obscures the soul-inspiring and life-giving morals of his own religion, wrapping it in the mystic folios of a language symbolically grand and eloquent it is true, but requiring the labour of a lifetime to penetrate its many mysterious defiles. It is because of the imbecile system of religious instruction in which he is reared, which, relying more upon intuitive perception than conviction, is not proof against the allurements of beauty, or the subtle arguments of interest. And by no means the least, a thirst for intellectual exertion, an incapacity to understand with clearness, or to defend with profundity his own cherished theories, superinduces a necessity for seeking out the dogmas of our opponents, wherewith to defend his own deficiencies, while from the bosom of his own flock he acquires merely sufficient light to make "darkness visible." In our land the duties of a Jew are various, and certainly more important than in any other section of the globe, as citizen, sovereign, legislator, and executive. Yet, by liberty, that priceless heritage of heaven-born wisdom, in each capacity he may act entirely consistent with the duties of his faith. While a citizen, he enjoys immunities and shares responsibilities far beyond and towering above the specious confines of sectarianism; as a freeman, he finds himself the compeer of potentates, and he can enter the councils of his country panoplied in the reflected wisdom of ages past; with the native dignity of his unerring destiny, he should teach the modern intellect to rely for strength upon that bulwark of faith, sustained only and ever by His written and oral testimony; each individual aspiration should be bounded only by the ennobling destiny promised the great "father of nations," that through him and his seed should all the nations be blessed.

And in this brief review, we ask triumphantly, whether the immense moral power, that duties such as these successfully inculcated in the minds of youth, should be overlooked, or deemed, as they are, second to the knowledge of the ritual or laws merely ceremonial? Resting in this position, we deem its strength so impregnable, that all opposition will but serve to confirm and dignify its importance.

The soul rejoices, that amidst the mists that shroud the genius of Israel, is discernible a small glimmering of light, foreshadowing the dawn of a brighter day. The primary schools already established in the older cities, contain elements fraught with important consequences to the rising generations; within these glorious cycles all appeals are made understandingly--the vernacular alone is used only in commending to the mental gaze of youth moral and divine truth, and their success already speaks out the strength of reform. The next decided step in our spirit of progression will be accomplished by the introduction of pulpit oratory, not as an appendage, but as a leading feature in the Synagogue service. The reasons for this have already been cited; being both imperative and rational, we leave its further consideration, for the present, to those more learned in the dogmas of church service to determine how far this may be rendered consistent with usage, as venerated by some, content in advancing the opinion that customs should cease with their necessity; and in the moral as the physical world, usage, however time-honoured, should be entirely subservient to utility, and never wander from. the ends designed by their adoption. Implicitly confident of the efficacy of the system of instruction known as the Sunday school system, we desire ardently to see it enlarged, and fostered by public opinion, until it shall blaze forth redolent with the intellectual fires so long pent up in Israel's bosom. Still, in our age of cavil, these institutions have had deep-rooted prejudices to encounter; the misguided advocates of a blissful ignorance have often, in our hearing, chaunted forth in sounds dolorous their "thrice-told tales." Their opposition, however, born of malice, and worthy only the most glaring act of moral turpitude left on record, the destruction of the Alexandrian Library, is crushed by the spirit of the age. From carping ignorance and misguided. zeal, we turn with more fear to the larder and far more dangerous set of advocates of liberty of thought and act, Israelites who boast their opposition to moral instruction upon the miserable plea of its shackling conscience and enchaining the will. Often do you hear--time enough; grow older and he may judge for himself. Delusive gleams of an inconstant shadow! Close the portals of the heart to moral light? An organ so capable of expansion, flexible alike to impulses generous and sordid, is, in a state of mental nudity, thrust out, without compass or guide, to grope amid the quicksands of passion, fluctuating with the varied aspects and insidious wiles of error, inhaling exotic breezes, yet imbibing with as much avidity the pestilential odours of seductive intercourse, until, from the untimely horrors of a chaotic intellect, he flounders into the tortuous circles of theological disputation, and ends a sceptic or a misanthrope. God said, "Let there be light:" night unfolded her sable curtains--all nature, animate and inanimate, smiled out, radiant in the garlands of new-born day; the cuckoo chirped her love-song, the sportive lark in tuneful numbers rose from her hidden nest, with her joyful song of light and liberty; and is man alone to thread the labyrinthine walks of pride, impenetrable to one genial ray? Are the advocates of natural religion to go unrebuked, exclaiming against cant, with poetic majesty,

"Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds, and angels in the wind?"

Clad in this verbiage of stolen pride of licensed metaphor, they feel strong in the meshes of sophistry; its gossamer proportions, floating through the imaginative realms of fancy, are vanquished by their own impotency. No! the sublime truth of the One living God, and its assurance by revelation, are too intimately connected with our most elevated aspirations and rational sympathies, to hang by so frail a tenure. Reckless indeed are those parents, whose offspring are sent into the gladiatorial arena of life, with no shield against its vicissitudes. False even to the lively instincts of nature; for the eagle teaches her fledgling to preserve its equilibrium in the shock of contending elements, and in the pride of conscious rectitude to penetrate with upturned gaze the dazzling eye of heaven.

An over-estimate cannot be formed of the advantages of moral instruction; let the present system (partial as it is) be vigourously pursued, and it will produce wise and salutary results. Our object will be signally answered, if the attention of a single parent is attracted to this hitherto neglected subject. The genius of Judaism is notched upon the recorded triumphs of time,--strong concurrent testimony insures a wisely-provisioned future--the present only is ours to improve. The living witnesses of God's holy work through a succession of ages have retained their identity; neither snowy wastes nor sunny glades have marred the oriental outlines which trace out the lineaments of nature's aristocracy, boasting a genealogy whose weather-beaten trunk is graced and dignified by the sublimest of all heritages, "the laws of God," and the legacy of the prophets, whose zeal and industry to preserve entire and undefiled their sacred trust, have entailed on their posterity, and all civilized men, a debt of gratitude and love. The time has come when Israel may step forth and dash the cup of degradation from her venerable lip; the clank of chains is no loner heard mingling its dismal notes with tales of terror. Ignorance is our direst enemy; his giant stalk and gaunt-like tread require united and strenuous efforts to banish him. Well-directed education will alone regenerate the mind of the Jew; once redeemed from its thraldom, he will awake fully to the importance of his mission upon earth; apostasy will have lost its price; the man who, for the delusive glitter which surrounds power and adorns place, will basely refuse his father and deny his name, will live only in memory as an object of obloquy and scorn. In viewing the im­portance of these initiatory steps taken towards the spread of enlightenment, we find once more the mild and gentle sway of woman, blooming in scenes of innocence. Man, in spirit perverse, with stoical indifference, is yet looking on in wonder and with little interest; his senses are steeped in the pursuit of shadows--mammon's gilded car excites his energies; woman, ever lovely and truthful, unchilled by folly, leads the way in this temple, where sits enthroned eternity and grace. Our faith in this school system is not a little strengthened by the fact, that to woman's intuitive perception of the good and beautiful are we indebted for its advancement thus far. To her, we say, philanthropy smiles approval, while lisping infancy whispers in harmony the great Creator's name, God ETERNAL and ALONE.

New Orleans, May 12th, 1846.