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Editorial Correspondence: Unauthorized Reforms

New York, May 8th, 5608


An event has lately occurred in New York, which I cannot help stigmatizing as an act of open violation, and a presumptuous mis<<149>>leading of the unwary; since some men have erected at their place of worship a steeple, and have dared to rebel against the will of the Most High, in their folly to abridge, at this time, the form of prayers from that which was established for us by our wise men of blessed memory, leaving out ויכלו בליל שבת איזהו מקומן and the פיוטים; and their leader has gone farther yet to violate the rules of the Sabbath and festivals, in saying to his congregation, who follow his lead, that it is not proper for intelligent men, wise after his fashion, to follow blindly the Oral Law, and that he will throw for them light on the path—that which leads to destruction, and all this that he may be their chief—their religious teacher.

I deem it now my duty to address an earnest appeal to all our brother Israelites, and to admonish them to pay due regard to what I am going to say. I will not now argue concerning the particulars, but the principles of the Oral Law; and if the principle thereof is firmly established, the particulars will of themselves be a fruitful source of contemplation to believers. Kind reader! let me ask thee, What is this Oral Law? is it a law other than the written one? or is it but the commentary thereof? Now, whereas, we see that in every passage of the Talmud, our doctors draw their proofs from the written text, we know for certain, that it is but a commentary on the Scriptures, and on this Scriptural principle should the inquirer proceed to expound it. And because the written law is not ample enough for explaining every thing, since it is given in the most condensed briefness, we assume that the exposition of the general written precepts was given orally. And this will serve thee as a proof that it is so:—For how canst thou say that the written law was alone given on Sinai, and that all the words must be taken in their literal sense without any comment? But please to consider how can so small a volume, which embraces at most but two books and a half, (since to the middle of Exodus it embraces the history of the creation of the world, the occurrences of the early ages, and the captivity in Egypt, and Deuteronomy being only a repetition of the law,) be enough to tell thee from the departure from Egypt, till the arrival of the Israelites at an inhabited country—all the occurrences which were witnessed in the space of forty years, their travels, and the laws which were promulgated in this long time? Picture but in thy mind six hundred thousand men, besides women and children, servants, and the mixed multitude that accompanied them; and then go to the governor of but a small city, and search in the archives of the events of his people, and their laws and their customs for but one year: and thou wilt find a thousand times the quantity of pages which the law <<150>>contains.

And canst thou then believe that this little volume shall be sufficient as a history for so large a people, and for so long a time? and then to contain besides all the statutes and laws for everlasting? as it is written “for their generations,” or “for us and our children for ever?” And after all thou wilt find some things repeated once or more; and at times superfluous words! And now tell me, will thy reason comprehend all this? Thou art, therefore, compelled to confess, in consonance with truth, that the words cannot be taken always in their literal sense, as they are written without any comment; for these words are indicating words, one referring to a thousand others, and the truth is that almost every word embraces a whole idea. As Maimonides says in his preface to More Nebuchim, commenting on the verse “there was a ladder placed on the ground;” “the ladder” means one thing, “placed on the ground” means another, “its top reaching heaven,” a third; “angels of God,” a fourth; “ascending,” a fifth; “descending,” a sixth; and “behold the Lord was standing above it,” a seventh. Thus thou wilt see that this great and learned teacher, to whom almost all mysteries were laid open, did not understand the words of the Scripture merely in their literal sense; how then can it be possible that the good God should give to the people of his choice a law in a book so mysterious, without comment or explanation? But it is evident that both are the words of the living God, and one thing did God speak, and it was two which we heard; that is, the written text, and the received exposition of the Scripture, which I will explain to thee by an ancient apologue. The law is called “A tree of life to all who lay hold thereof,” and it is well known that every tree has branches, and the branches produce the fruit, not the body of the tree. The comparison is easily made: The written law is the body of the tree; and its branches are the received oral exposition as a comment on the Scriptures; and though the branches draw their sustenance from the roots of the tree and its stem, yet they alone give the fruit to him that eats.

Now, however, behold, as the woodman has come to lop off the branches of the law which are the oral law, will he not destroy the fruit with the tree? Do not, brothers! turn your heart to what he may say, since he denies the whole. He cuts out from the prayers of Sabbath eve the passage ויכלו, which is a declaration that the Sabbath is a sign of the creation of the world, and the confirmation of its existence by the will of God; as says Maimonides in his second part, chap. 31., in respect to the weight of the Sabbathic law, and that its violation is punishable with death, and that the father of prophets inflicted it, &c., <<151>>that it is “merely intended to confirm the world in the existence of the one God, and thou knowest already from my words, that ideas, if they are not connected with deeds, by which they can stand in a tangible form, and which make them known, and render them permanent for ever among the masses of men, cannot be kept alive; and, therefore, has He (God) commanded us to magnify this day, (the Sabbath) so that the belief in the creation of the world from nothing may be preserved, and that the Lord may be made known through all existence,” &c. For this is the day which God made choice of after he had finished the production of the world, and gave it to the people whom He had chosen. He, therefore, who purposely violates the Sabbath, or misleads the people with a presumptuous spirit, is as though he denied the whole law, inasmuch as he thereby, as it were, denies the existence of the Blessed Creator, and denies the production of the world from nothing; and it is self-evident that such a one loses his credibility even on oath; for if he denies the existence of God, he also denies reward and punishment; for in the absence of a governor, there can be no one who rewards and punishes; and why then should he not swear falsely? and, therefore, if no human eye sees him, he will not be withheld from committing any abomination; for, as he denies thy God above, and as his fear of wrong is but the fear of men, the rulers of the land; and when he knows that his misconduct will not be made public: he will do according to the desires of his heart. So much as regards the evil consequences if we once begin to deny the validity of the Sabbath, or use means to weaken its importance among the people. The Synagogue is the place to proclaim our adhesion, and the words of Scripture, as are the first three verses of Genesis 2., are the best vehicle for conveying our assent and our conviction to the truth of God’s being the Creator, and that He rules the world; why then abolish saying them? what is gained by reducing the prayers by the few minutes of time their recitation requires?

The man of whom I speak, has also abolished the chapter איזהו מקומן which contains the order, and consequently, the commemoration of the sacrifices. Is it because he believes not, and, therefore, hopes not for the time of the end? is it, therefore, that he deems it useless for him to know the law of sacrifices, since, according to his opinion, they will not be restored? Can it be that he, in his self-conceit, thinks himself wiser than all our ancient sages? when it is but too probable that he does not comprehend their words. He has also done additional wrong, to abolish the annual reading of the law. But it is impossible for me to lay open all the errors he has committed; but every intelligent man will understand of himself that a great evil has been committed, and <<152>>that all such endeavours are also calculated to mislead the people by false, though specious words, and that it is not for the sake of the faith that such attempts are made. Ye who fear the word of the Lord, keep far from such counsel, and go in the beaten track which our fathers have leveled for us; yea, the way of the precious wise men of blessed memory; the holy way it is called in truth, on which the fool and the unclean will not pass. Then will you merit to see the beauty of the Lord, and to wait in his temple, at the time those who sleep in the dust shall awake; and while the wicked will be an abhorring to all flesh, your soul will delight itself in pleasure; and may the redeemer speedily come to Zion, even in our days. Amen.

Judah Middleman

Note by the Editor.—The above letter from the learned opponent of the conversion champion, Dr. McCall, reveals to us for the first time the reform tendencies of a congregation in New York, which is sufficiently indicated, though no name is mentioned. We insert the above, though we regret the high-seasoned tone of it, as a matter of justice to the writer, who feels deeply the evil tendencies which must follow from unauthorized reform, especially if each little body of Jews will reform on its own plan, and each more absurdly than its neighbour, without a thorough acquaintance with history and the writings of our ancient sages. We are willing to insert a rejoinder, if the gentleman referred to thinks himself aggrieved, and is disposed to reply, to Mr. M.’s charges.