Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


Synagogue Reforms.


It is not to be denied that many of the projects for reforming the worship upon unauthorized principles, which procedure has justly thrown a deep odium upon the words reforms and reformers, have sprung from the lamentable want of order to which we referred in our last month’s article. People, and we will in charity assume that they are sincere, though some of their doings appear strangely inconsistent with such a supposition, may think that where so much defection from the regular attendance at Synagogue is discoverable, there must be something radically defective in the system; and in place of endeavouring to look for the evil which might be discovered on the surface, they search deeply to lay bare some vital inherent defect, which in reality does not exist. Their proceeding may be likened to a person who would scratch away the plating from the back of the mirror in order to silver it anew, because he discovers on the surface a few large spots, which prevent him seeing his face reflected, without first investigating whether or not a damp towel might be able to remove the defect and restore the mirror to its first brilliancy; as the want of reflecting power may not be the bad quality of the glass or the silvering, but the casual spots on the surface may be produced perhaps by dust, greasy fingers, or a damp atmosphere, and can therefore be easily remedied by the application of a simple cloth.

But the course of many of our modern sages has not been a whit more wise; they have treated the form of our worship as though there were nothing sound in it, and all that would satisfy them was to tear it up into fragments and to curtail, alter, or abolish, just as it suited the fancy of each one of the various liturgy doctors, of whom not a small number <<158>>have presented themselves of late years, each with a peculiar budget of reform, and with something which he thought or professed to think absolutely requisite to fill the of late deserted Synagogues. We fear they overlooked one important point, and this is the decay of a healthy religious sentiment among the people; they deserted the Synagogue not because this or that was wrong or wanting, but because religion of any sort had become burdensome to them, and the concessions gradually or suddenly yielded by those who professed to have authority to dispense with certain formerly considered requisites, may have arrested greater irreligion in the first outset, but have certainly failed to answer as a fixed remedy after the first excitement of novelty was over.

We will endeavour to explain. It may be now about thirty years [since 1818], a few years more or less do not affect the question, when in a large city of Germany [Hamburg] there were a number of young men who had not entered a Jewish place of worship for some years, owing to an infidel spirit which had taken root in their breasts. They scoffed at all observance, everything like positive religion was utterly distasteful to them, and the heathenism of their feelings and acts was a matter of perfect notoriety. But as no human being is without his serious thoughts, so was there one person in that city, we know not indeed whether he was the first reformer or not, who, relying on the religious principle of mankind, professed to think that by concessions he could probably draw those to worship with him, who would not unite with the regular congregation. He accordingly, acting on this supposition, introduced a new German hymn-book, had musical pieces performed, delivered German lectures, and commenced the exercises for the day at such an hour when the regular service was either over or nearly so. No doubt his views were pious, but this is nothing new; as some of our readers will recollect the rabbinical parallel sayingשטן ופננה לשם שמים נתכונו  “Satan and Peninnah had a worthy object in their doings,” referring to the former’s accusation of Job, and the latter’s vexing of Hannah. But that the end was a good one, remains yet to be seen.

It must not be forgotten that there is a progression in all things, and that which would be considered ample reform today, becomes to-morrow a persevering in antiquated notions, and being behind the age; and hence it has resulted that in the very city <<159>>where the attempt was made to bring persons back to Judaism by making the worship more palatable to them, there lately sprung up a new sect, the Reform Association, who reject circumcision as useless, and in fact all positive conformity which does not suit their own views of freedom and progressive development of Judaism. It is true this abortion is almost belonging to the things that have been, and its authors will no doubt obtain that oblivion to which they are justly entitled, and we therefore would do nothing to awaken its ghost to show itself on the surface of the world of the living; but we may safely affirm from this lesson, that a yielding to what is wrong in itself is not the mode of restoring religion, nor of satisfying the ungodly; for it encourages them the more to ask for new measures; inasmuch as there are but few human beings who like to be without any religion whatever, and as positive observance is what many do not like, it is an agreeable circumstance to them, if they can extort from those whom they consider authority a sufficient number of concessions to their warped ideas and free course of living, as will bring the former into the category of orthodoxy and the latter among the approved acts which others are told to follow. Hence we say, that yielding for the sake of expediency is not the best method of restoring a healthy state of religion, but on the contrary the means of encouraging farther apostasy, or at least a throwing off more and more the yoke of absolute religion; we say absolute in contradistinction to speculative religiousness wherein some people think themselves wondrously pious without ever exhibiting a single outward act by which their great and remarkable piety may be exhibited to the light of day.

It will be easily perceived, in accordance with this view, that where there is no piety, it is no use to think of concessions; and that where we find the healthy religious sentiment absent, we ought to endeavour to restore it before anything else is attempted. The means to do this are education, in the most extensive meaning of the word, and an exhibition of such a course of life by the leaders of the people, as will draw many by degrees to contemplate them as examples, and thus to make religion lovely in the eyes of the multitude. But one branch of education, which has been much neglected among us, is popular teaching in the house of God. In olden days, by the bye, not so long ago but that <<160>>we can well recollect its being done, it was customary for some able men to read a lecture from some of the old-fashioned books to the assembled people, either in Synagogue or some private house, from an approved book, such as Alshach, Oheloth Ephraim, Ahabath Jonathan, Yad Yoseph, or similar others; by which, at all events, a good deal of religious information was insensibly conveyed to the auditors, however otherwise the books of Derush, as they are called, or ancient sermons, may not be suited to the modern taste.

But what has been substituted in the place of this popular education? There, where sermons are delivered, something has been done; but how few places are there where any popular lecture is ever given to the people,—we speak chiefly of England and America,—and how little are many of those who attempt to preach qualified for the diffusion of true godliness. They are too philosophical in the construction of their sermons, they are too little imbued with the sacredness of their calling, and whilst they inveigh against the ancient Darshanim, for the idle display of their skill in quaint dissertation and far-fetched dissections of Biblical or Talmudical texts, they are obnoxious to the graver charge of bringing philosophical quibbles to bear on religion, or to expound a text of Scripture in a poetical, and, often unjewish manner, what may be truly calledהם מראים פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה  “they exhibit the law in a manner not authorized by our opinions and received authorities.” Do they expect in this way to draw people to religion? Can they have any hope, admitting their questionable sincerity, to make the uneducated and the young love the Bible and our observances, when so much pains is taken to decry the ancient depositories of the tradition, and to file away the Bible totally with crude philosophical notions?

No, this will not do; we want preaching; but it must be based upon a candid admission of the simple facts of Scripture, an unvarnished exposition of its doctrines, and an humble following in the instruction which we have received from our fathers. The latter we would enforce on the simple and self-evident reason, that the tradition is required to enable us to understand the very words of Scripture. We must and do admit, the veriest and most inveterate reformer does so, that we have received from our sages, in the main, a perfectly correct translation of the Hebrew <<161>>words of the Bible, and that the ideas, which make up the sum total of Judaism, have also legitimately descended to us from the former teachers of Israel. We do not, in saying this, claim equal authority for all sorts of vagaries which may have been entertained before or during our own times, such as belief in witchcraft, evil spirits, metempsichosis, &c., but in the Scriptural doctrines which contradistinguish us from other people, and which mark the religion of the Jews as something distinct from that of other portions of mankind. No doubt but that some of our doctrines are unpalatable to the men who would reduce everything to a level discoverable by their own reason, and hence they may be anxious to discard all legitimate tradition; but they must soon find themselves so thoroughly surrounded by difficulties and inextricable mazes, as to render them glad to return to the standard under which our faith has been expounded for so many ages.

Shall we have such preachers? Do the people feel the necessity of them? But, till the necessity is felt, we shall not have them; only when we awake thoroughly to the lamentable absence of a lively faith, discoverable in so many places and among so many families, will the reform be applied, and we shall be rid of philosophical rhetoricians, on the one hand, and on the other, of those men who are not fitted by either education or mind to cope with the daring spirit of infidelity, which has of late invaded everything that is sacred, and lays its unholy hands on what constitutes the most precious gift which man has received from his Creator. There are already a great many men of the highest eminence in learning and piety, who do not preach the word for their own glorification, but for the diffusion of righteousness in Israel; only we require many more, their number is yet too small to reach all congregations, and they are as yet not sufficiently appreciated by the people. There are not wanting those who dislike sermons; they do not wish to be reminded of duties which they already know, nor to be taught doctrines which they do not dispute. But they forget that all do not possess the same learning and piety which they do, and that at least it cannot hurt them to sit still and hear the preacher to the end. It may be, that, learned and good as they are, however superior to the minister himself, in all that constitutes the glory of Israel, they may still hear something which will awaken dormant pious <<162>>feelings within them, and perhaps he may have received the grace from his Master to expound a text or a passage in a manner satisfactory to all, which, simple as it may be, has never before struck them.

But why is it, that of all people in the world, Jews should alone have the intuitive knowledge of comprehending, without any teaching, the principles and practices of their religion? Can it be possible, that it is enough to be born of Jewish parents, to know all about the proper exposition of Scripture, and the historical development of our peculiar views? And still the manner in which many regard public lectures, would lead one to suppose that they thought them superfluous; that to them the preacher need not address a word of instruction or reproof; that they were beyond improvement, elevated above the necessity of seeking or obtaining spiritual light.

But in good truth, we all require more knowledge than we possess; it is not now, as it was formerly the case, that men spend their lives in nothing but the study of religion; in contemplating the Scripture and tradition, literally, day and night; not now do the common people implicitly follow the instruction of their religious chiefs, and obey strictly and tremblingly every word which they may address them. On the contrary, as regards the teachers themselves, a large space of their time is occupied by studies of worldly things, often to the exclusion and injury of becoming thoroughly versed in holy matters; and the multitude no longer regard as implicitly binding the admonition of the teachers in Israel.

Nay, there are many who have not even a religious book in their houses; and in sending their children to gentile schools, where they either learn no religion at all or merely the outlines of a dry morality, based on Christianity or philosophical speculation, do they give them the least opportunity of acquiring any idea of the principles of the Jewish Faith? No conformity at home, no education at home, no reading at home—and then you superadd no house of God where to hear any admonition; and do you wonder that the children thus circumstanced will grow up with a thorough distaste for their ancestral religion? Do you marvel that the spirit of the age, where such as these compose the masses, in many places, is directly hostile to Judaism? that occasionally such pagans as these are allured by the appeals of their neighbours, to join one church or the <<163>>other, or even to profess an ardent and sincere conviction in the doctrines of their new associates? For, what is then to restrain them? their parents’ example? of those Jews by name, whose conduct is akin to men without a God? to the mass of information they have received from their teachers? to the exhortation of their daily associates? Wo! wo! that such things should be and but few to feel deeply on the degradation to which we are subjected! that we should even deem it worth while to bestow a thought on political emancipation, whilst we require so greatly to be emancipated from so sinful a state!

Could our words but penetrate the hearts of those who have eloquence of speech; of those who have a high character for moral elevation; of those whose wealth or standing gives them power in the community—how would we entreat and pray them to relinquish all thoughts of benefiting their fellow-Israelites till this one thing is obtained, till the religion of our fathers becomes once more the ark of the covenant with all our people. O, we would entreat them to open schools to teach religion to all who may come, and to attract the many by the superiority of the progress our schools should exhibit even in worldly sciences; we would entreat them to diffuse religious books broadcast over the land, so that whether the owners be willing or not, the light of God should penetrate into every domicile; yes they should beg of the obdurate to let their children inspect at least the views which pious Israelites have advanced on the most important concerns of life, the religion of Moses, the faith of David, the hope of the prophets; we would entreat them to educate men for the blessed ministry of the word in Jacob, that they may arise in their strength to preach with sincerity and deep eloquence the message of salvation to the people of the Lord, that they may turn away from their evil way, repent of their sins, and live purified by a newly awakened faith, and a reawakened hope in God.

We would do all this; and when we see this accomplished, we would not hear any more of the silly projects of destroying our worship in conformity with gentile customs; because our men would then love the system which their fathers prized. They would abide steadfastly within the landmarks of the ancients;. and we should again present that united front against the assaults of our opponents, the bitterness of whom against our blessed religion will never be appeased, and who will <<164>>continue to hate the Law which was revealed from heaven, and which, by its imposing truth, its sublime simplicity, preaches a bold defiance to the errors of mankind. Do we wish to preserve it? do we wish to maintain it untouched and undefiled? Then let us apply the real balm to our wounds, ay, the knowledge of the word itself, and this will be the shield which will ward off all assaults, this the impenetrable harness against which all the javelins of hatred and malevolence will be launched in vain; and with God’s blessing we shall conquer again as we have frequently conquered, and we shall still as ever be distinguished as the people of whom the Lord has made choice as his inheritance.

We have digressed unconsciously from what we wished to say this month, on order and decorum in Synagogue, and the manner in which they may be enforced; but we trust that our readers will not for this reason pass over hastily what we have written for their perusal, from a deep conviction of the truth of every word which is now before them, and we hope that, reflection being excited, something may be done by all having the power to contribute their share towards awakening a better spirit of godliness among us than is now prevailing. And God’s blessing will surely attend them.