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Hebrew Authors and Their Opponents


To the Hebrew student, it is, perhaps, more a matter of regret than surprise to find how grossly the sentiments of Jewish authors have been misrepresented, and how illiberally and fiercely their writings have been attacked. Prejudice, and that of the worst kind, has, up to the present day, seldom failed to jaundice the eye of those Christian writers who <<560>>have descanted on the literary taste and productions of the Jews. To vindicate the truth of this assertion, it will not be necessary to adduce that testimony which the writings of Basnage, Prideaux, Allan, M’Call, &c., so clearly afford; Since a few extracts from other authors will be quite sufficient, as it is deemed, for this purpose. And first let us listen to Mr. Pinkerton, who, in the course of a very learned essay on the “Rise and Progress of Discovery in Asia,” refers to the Itinerary of R. Benjamin of Tudela, and, after characterizing this author as one whose descriptions are entitled to no credit, adds, “The production of Benjamin, only gives an additional proof of the singular and innate propensity of the Jews to falsehood, fiction, and credulity.”* On the very same page, however, he says in a note:

*Modern Geography, in three vols., by John Pinkerton, London, 1807. p. 14.

An extract from Dr. Robertson may amuse the reader, nor is it destitute of instruction, as it shows how history is written by the greatest masters. All Christendom having been alarmed with accounts of the rapid progress of the Tartar arms under Zengis Khan, Innocent IV., who entertained most exalted ideas concerning the plentitude of his own power, and the submission due to his injunctions, sent Father John de Plano Carpini, at the head of a mission of Franciscan monks, and Father Ascolino, at the head of another of Dominicans, to enjoin Kayuk Khan, the grandson of Zengis, who was then at the head of the Tartar empire, to embrace the Christian faith, and to desist from desolating the earth by his arms. (Hist. of America, i. 45, ed. 1803.) He then mentions the astonishment of the Asiatic conquerors at this mandate of a priest! 1. Zengis Khan was not sovereign of the Tartars but of the Mongols, who had conquered the Tartars. 2. The two monks noticed were not at the head of the missions, but all travelled as equals and brothers. 3. The Popes had more knowledge and policy than to send such idle messages; the object was the defence or restoration of the kingdom of Jerusalem. 4. The Tartar empire is the Mongol empire. 5. Kayuk, or rather Gayuk, could not be known to the Pontiff, as he was not crowned till after the arrival of the messengers. Here are five historical errors in one sentence; and in the account of South America, the reader will find three, of the greatest geographical import, in three successive sentences.”

That the production of Dr. Robertson is only a proof of the singular and innate propensity of Christians to falsehood, fiction, and credulity, would be a conclusion about as just and liberal as that of Mr. Pinkerton above noticed.

Equally incorrect are the remarks on Jewish au<<561>>thors, made by the Abbé Gregoire in his well-known “Essay on the Jews.” He says, “The Jews have not sacrificed to the Graces. Lipman wrote in Hebrew verses his second Nizzachon, an anti-Christian work, which Wagenseil,has fully (!) refuted. Several Italian and Spanish Jews have attempted poetry—(attempted poetry! yes, so have Milton and Shakspeare, Dante and Schiller)—and we even have by Levi de Barrios, Relacion de los poetas y escrittores Espagnoles de la nacion Judaica Amstelodama. They have, therefore, made verses in Hebrew, Italian, and Spanish; that is to say, setting apart David and the prophets, the Jews have verses, and not one poet except the author of the Cosri.”!!

Now, softly, ye ardent and zealous admirers of these tyro poets,* as the Abbé will have them to be; why are ye thus horror-stricken and incensed at his cool assertion? Will ye not recollect that Gregoire, although an abbé, is yet but a man, a poor fallible being, and that when he said this, he must, peradventure, have walked, or slept, and should have been awaked?

*It is very doubtful, however, whether those who can read their compositions, and appreciate their beauties, would not feel greatly disposed to award the title of excellent and gifted poets to R. Abraham Aben Ezra, R. Jehudah Alcharisi, R. Joseph Kimchi, R. Semuel Hannagid, R. Bechayi bar Yoseph, R. Berachiah ben Nakrony, R. Jehudah Leon di Modena, Emanuel ben Selomoh, Joseph Peuso, and a host of others, of lesser note, but of great excellence.

But, descendants of David and the prophets, hath he not given your nation one poet, and does not this satisfy you? As for us, sure are we, that could you have spoken with M. L’Abbé before he gave his work to the world, he would, if only from motives of compassion (for you who can only boast of having had one poet in about three thousand years, are objects of compassion), or if only from a sentiment of that politesse which is one of the attributes of la grande nation—yes, we are sure, that he would have had no great objection to increase the number of your national poets to two, though by so doing he should be constrained to account as such, that sorry and unphilosophical scribbler, R. Selomoh ben Gabirol.—But we perceive, Philo, that even this explanation doth not please thee. You exclaim, Only consider for a moment his inconsistency! Why, in his notes to this very work, he holds up, for the particular admiration of his reader, that beautiful specimen of the didactic poetry of our people, the “Bechinoth Olam” of Badrashi, filling with it nearly two pages of small type! And mark now his illiberality. Does he not say, “The Synagogue has produced a kind of mythology, which is not pleasant enough to make up for its stupidity.” True! and this passage, we conceive, was written in the same spirit which dictated his remarks on the position of the fair and estimable women of our race. For, notwithstanding that he him<<562>>self adduces such facts as prove incontestably the high regard shown towards them, and although he quotes the assertion of a learned and esteemed Rabbi,* that the “husband who honours his wife, honours himself, since she is his rib, and part of his flesh,”† still the Jews must “think unfavourably with regard to their women;” and why say anything to the contrary? There is but little logic in this, to say the least of it.

* Cardoso in Las Excellencias de los Hebreos.

† El marido que honra à su muger, honra à si propría, que es hechura de su carne y su costilla.

But how now, impatient Philo? your blood still boils with indignation at the insult offered your beloved authors. You say, why digress? why lose time? why not confine yourself to the subject which it is your duty now more immediately to notice? Do you not know what this Abbé, ignorant and prejudiced in the matter, has said of our schools and authors generally? Ah! it is in character with what we have already quoted from him. He asks, “What then did they formerly produce, those celebrated academies of Tiberias, Sora, Nahardee, Pombe-Ditha, Peruts Schibbur, Lunel, &c., and in our days, those of Sapheta, Thessalonica, Prague, and Fez? The latter was always the least absurd. Clenard found there some men of learning, but in general, instead of enlarging the boundaries of the human mind, they have consecrated its errors, by publishing, as dogmas, the flights of a disordered imagination; and in that multitude of Rabbis who swell the collection of Bartolloci, we scarcely find a few good writers handed down with applause to posterity. For want of better (!) we shall quote Marin Akiba, Maimonides, Kimki, Gerson, the light of the French captivity, Aaron ben Chaim, Juda-Chiug, Abenezra, Abrabanel, Aaron ben Joseph, a Caraite doctor, Elias the Levite, Orobio, and the virtuous Menasseh. If we, however, extract from their writings what sound reason might deign to acknowledge, what an abundant collection of nonsense and error would remain,” &c.

But has not even the poet been misled by prejudice? Ay, even that delightful poet, Cowper, has given utterance to sentiments which never would have been his, had he been duly informed. In his poem called “Expostulation,” he exclaims:

“Such, when the teacher of his church was there,
People and priest, the sons of Israel were;
Stiff in the letter, lax in the design
And import of their oracles divine;
Their learning legendary, false, absurd,
And yet exalted above God’s own word;
They drew a curse from an intended good,
Puffed up with gifts they never understood.”

 (To be continued.)