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American Congregations


We propose speaking on a topic somewhat undefined, as the title we assume leaves us a pretty wide range without exposing us to the charge of being unduly discursive; and we thus mean to throw out some general remarks, which we deem of interest to our readers at large, no less than to those who are nominally placed at the head of congregations. We think ourself perfectly justified in commencing such a discussion, since we have been a considerable time an active participant in all that was attempted to be done, although, as yet, but extremely little has been accomplished; and it is this very minuteness of the good results hitherto achieved which now emboldens us to speak. We may be told, at the very mention of this fact, that we are yet new in this country; that all our congregations, with about half a dozen exceptions, were formed as it were but yesterday; and that, moreover, but exceedingly little is now accomplished in Europe even towards the improvement of our religious interests.

But we say at once, that the total absence of anything like an organization is not justifiable on the score of the newness of our communities; and that the alleged want of a wholesome activity abroad, even were it actually so; is no excuse for us in America to stand still, advance or retrograde, as extraneous circumstances might favour one or the other condition of change. In casting, however, our eyes abroad, we shall find, in the countries where Jews are mostly settled, a great desire at least to acquire infor‑<<206>>mation in our religion; and turn where you will, you see in town and village, in city and hamlet, the schoolmaster hard at work to impart religions and Hebrew education to the masses of the people; and though in some self-styled enlightened towns the wealthy classes are indifferent to the science which peculiarly distinguishes our people—we mean the science of Scripture, Hebrew, and Hebrew literature—the masses of the people, the middle classes and the poor, and also those rich families who have not yet acquired a distaste for Jews and Judaism, are carefully trained in what no son of Israel ought to be unacquainted with.

Hence you see a general knowledge of the Hebrew characterize the immigrants from abroad, and many display a proficiency with religion and the branches necessary for its elucidation, which would be creditable in a teacher, not to mention an ordinary person. This is the case with the masses, with those educated for the private walks of life, who are never intended for a public station in the Synagogue; and they are taught to fit them to be pious and intelligent Israelites, in whatever situation they may be found; and there are in Europe medical men, lawyers, merchants, and tradespeople of every sort, whose proficiency and erudition in religious matter are truly astonishing, if we did not consider that to the Jew his faith is the essence of his life, and he is only then fitted to enter fully on its observances when he has made its precepts and ideas entirely his own.

We do not, however, mean to indite a panegyric on European Israelites; there is evil enough existing there just now; the same energy in upholding and teaching religion, formerly witnessed there, has in a great degree disappeared; and again and again complaints reach us from those who have the interest of our people at heart, that former simplicity and devotion have in many places almost disappeared, and that Jews are becoming fast the wordlings which their religion says they should not be.

We are perfectly cognizant that all the heresies which we deplore among us, have come from abroad, and are advocated by men to whom the atmosphere of freedom, which pervades in this country, is something new and untried. But in saying this, we should not disguise the fact from ourselves, that in religious <<207>>education we, in America, are far, immeasurably far, behind the Israelites in Europe, Asia, and even Africa; since everywhere the religious school is a necessary element of religious organization, whilst here an occasional and imperfect system, if system it can be called, is all that apparently satisfies the people.

It was in olden days the custom that no congregation should exist without its religious school, and every man was compelled to contribute towards the support of a teacher (see Yoreh Deah, ch. 245, §4 and 7), and this duty was considered so sacred that entire communities subjected themselves to excommunication if they pertinaciously refused to appoint instructers for their children. Twenty-five scholars were considered the number which one man could teach, and when the children amounted to forty, two teachers had to be engaged. This proves that our predecessors thought education the highest good, and they rested not till all their families were familiar with the Scriptures, and at least to a tolerable extent with the expositions necessary to a proper elucidation of the holy text.

Was it a wonder then that Israelites of former centuries were so staunch in the adherence to their faith? that all were ready to make every sacrifice in upholding it, and to perish sooner than transgress its commands? For it was knowledge that animated them, it was a full understanding of the beauties and superior advantages of Judaism which enabled them to reject all earthly allurements which threatened their spiritual peace. Now put in opposition to this universal religious training, once prevalent, its almost entire absence in this country, and then tell us what would be the consequence should we be suddenly called upon to make some great sacrifice for our faith; should a spirit of persecution suddenly seize on the masses of the gentiles and induce them to demand of the Jews a surrender of their religion to popular prejudice? Where would be the capacity to endure suffering? to forego fine houses and elegant equipages? to submit to poverty and imprisonment even for the mere privilege of being Jews?

We fear, we fear, that many would consider this right purchased too dearly, if they were to lose one meal a day, not to mention any greater deprivation; and that with many the first dawning of persecution would be <<208>>the last day of their adherence to Judaism. But, perhaps, the very reverse might be the result. That which is now deemed of so little value might, by a change of circumstances, rise into immense importance; and with the danger attending a strict observance of the duties incident to our belief, a perfect adherence to all its precepts might be universally witnessed. For such is human nature; we pass by unheeded the blessings which are ours in abundance, but let them be endangered by the malevolence of others or our own neglect, and a total change takes place within us, and we would then grasp with the eagerness of desperation, what but a short time before we had willingly parted with as a thing of no value.

We say it is possible enough, that persecution might induce many of us to return to a practice of religion when its observance should expose us to danger; but in the meanwhile how many would be ready to fall off from our people at the first alarm? how many, who are now perhaps somewhat proud of their descent from Abraham, might be induced to join, perchance, our persecutors, to show how lightly they value their birthright, how meanly they esteem their former associates? It is fearful to contemplate how little is done to make our people love their religion, and to understand its principles; how much nominal Judaism there is without one spark of high principle which its observance involves; and all this, because we lack organization, which will bring into harmonious contact the elements of extensive usefulness which we have among us, and call into active life the talents which we have in common with Israelites elsewhere.

It is folly to suppose that we have not the same natural capacity which distinguishes the Jews in other countries. We furnish respectable physicians; men not below the average at the bar, to say the least; the army and navy have enlisted among them several Jews, who have won an honourable name; in commercial pursuits we have fully equalled others in the race of acquiring wealth and position. But in religion alone we have as yet produced no name distinguished for an equality of learning and eloquence with other sects. And why? again we ask. Is it because we have no talent among us? Far from it; the same application which would have made a <<209>>man distinguished as a physician or barrister, would, if turned to account in the spiritual service of his people, have enabled him to rise to an equal distinction as a popular teacher, would have elevated him to a rank inferior to none possessed by those of other persuasions, and placed him in a position at once elevated and respectable.

But why do we not see, then, men of decided ability devote themselves to the ministry, with very few honourable exceptions, both here and in England? why have we to depend, when any vacancy occurs, chiefly upon immigrants from Germany and Poland? Simply, because, we have no schools wherein to train those who are to teach others; and secondly, and we fear chiefly, because the position of the minister is not honourable enough to satisfy the ordinary ambition of human nature. As regards the first point, it is evident enough, that without competent schools we never can expect to see good scholars reared among ourselves. It is folly to expect that young men will go to countries beyond the sea to qualify themselves for the responsible situation of ministers of religion, when one of the very elements so necessary to success, pulpit eloquence, cannot be acquired in Germany, Holland, Poland, France, or Italy, even under the distinguished Luzzato, because the vernacular of England and America is not spoken there; and hence the candidates for the ministry reared abroad, though shining in all the brilliancy of intellectual acquirements, will necessarily lack the main element of usefulness, the power of speech.

People may say what they please about the little good preachers can accomplish; no one feels more than the writer of this, that the effect the best intended orations can apparently produce is hardly perceptible; but with all this, they do tell upon an audience; men will listen; women will pay attention when eloquent phrases reach their ears. Let the subject be as trite as you please; let it be a thricetold tale; never mind—it will be heard with respect, so the speaker but knows how to handle his matter to gain for it attention, and the congregation, when dismissed, will have been interested at all events, if not at once improved; and who knows, how soon one or the other’s heart may be touched, and he be awakened to the danger of sin-<<210>>fulness, and the importance of a godly life.

One thing is also certain, that if pulpit discourses fail of remedying irreligious conduct, we have no other means of effecting it in adults; hence we say, encourage by all means the constant delivery of sermons by competent persons, in the hope that something may be done, that our state may not proceed from bad to worse without an effort to arrest the evil. There is, we acknowledge, a deplorable apathy existing among us towards instruction of any kind; in a few congregations, indeed, sermons are demanded; but in the vast majority of our communities nothing has as yet been done to instruct the people by public discourses; this is partly owing to the absence of competent persons to officiate as preachers; but even where this is not the case, where men every way capable to render good service, are ready to enter the field as instructers, they are not encouraged to proceed, but they are either rudely checked in various ways, or are not called upon; but their talents are permitted to rust idly away, until some great occasion impresses upon the congregation the necessity of having a religious or moral discourse delivered in their place of worship.

It is needless to prove how discouraging all this must be to those who feel deeply for their religion, to be compelled to remain silent without being called upon to rebuke sin and to denounce transgression. You will say, that those who have the power should go abroad like the prophets of old, and preach in the streets, at the meetings of people, or wherever an audience can be obtained; but alas! the opportunities for such bold teaching are not now offered, and the man who would obtrude his opinions and admonition upon a business meeting of Jews, would find himself unceremoniously expelled, and the door locked behind him, if he dared to force an entrance the second time.

But to encourage preachers, we require more of them; it may be a paradox, but to us it seems true, nevertheless, that the very rarity of eloquence among the English speaking Jew renders the talents of those possessing it of no value in the general estimation. In most congregations men assemble week after week, and hear nothing but the ritual performed, we will admit often in the most edifying and touching manner. We are, therefore, <<211>>habituated to a service without a sermon; the children grow up without ever feeling that its absence is any deprivation. When now an address is delivered, it is done at the end of the service, so that all who do not wish to listen may go out without disturbing too greatly the public devotion.

We speak from sad experience; and we say it without any wish of offending any one, that so great is the prejudice of the ignorant in this matter, so deep is the folly of those who are wise in their own eyes, that the governors of the congregation have not thought it of sufficient importance to check this exhibition of rudeness and improper behaviour by any public regulation, for fear, we presume, of giving offence. We have ourself witnessed this running out in several congregations, when an address was expected, or had been commenced, and we saw persons quitting the Synagogue from whom better behaviour might have been expected, as they were not always foreigners, occasionally natives of the country, perfectly well able to comprehend the preacher, and knowing, to say the least, that in any other assembly than that of Jews, such conduct would have been viewed as an unpardonable breach of politeness.

The reason, however, of this strange and anomalous reception of sermons is evidently to be found in the idea, that they are a burdensome addition to the service, that they unduly prolong it; or they are are of no use whatever, and, therefore, that the preacher has no right to inflict them upon his unwilling audience. We may freely leave it to the unbiassed judgment of our readers to decide upon the chilling effect such a reception must have upon the preacher when he is plainly told that some of his congregation either do not think him worthy to address them, (for leaving the place of worship may say in effect that the man is not worthy of his station,) or that they conceive his teaching of no practical service to them and others. A man must have a great deal, nay, an overweening amount of self-love and vanity, if he would in the face of such a reception inflict his lucubrations upon the public; if he would not come to the conclusion that the thin audience of the few who think it worthwhile to listen, was admonition enough for him for ever after to hold his peace.

No public servant, our friends may honestly <<212>>believe us, will be forced to judge so humbly of himself, without the most direct proof, enough at least to satisfy himself. You may say, that he ought to have a higher aim than merely pleasing an audience; but how is he to be useful, how is he to labour in producing a reformation in sinners, if he cannot obtain a patient hearing? and again a man will naturally learn to mistrust himself and his motives, when when he sees that others do not think favourably of him. No man is proof against indifference; no one can stand unmoved when he sees his motives misjudged, and his conduct unjustly condemned. Even so is it with a preacher: he must at length commence to think himself unfitted for his position, by the absence of eloquence, learning, moral worth, and a high religious character, when he sees that his speaking empties the seats of even a small portion of his legitimate audience; for he has every reason to conclude that those who remain do so from a feeling of mere politeness, or else they would insist that all others should be compelled not to violate the decencies of the place of worship by quitting it before the congregation is regularly dismissed.

We insist upon it then, that the small number of our preachers renders their labours often irksome to themselves and very unacceptable to their flocks. And still, as we have said, and as every intelligent man will tell himself without our instructing him, public addresses are the only legitimate means  to produce a greater degree of religiousness in the masses of grown persons. School education will do a great deal for children; but their fathers and mothers likewise require improvement; for the want of religious conformity is too glaring to escape the attention of the most careless observers.

The question then arises, “How shall we make sermons generally acceptable?” Simply by making them general, by instituting them as a part of the regular services, at least twice a month, if not every Sabbath and festival.—Let the people be once accustomed to expect a religious discourse at the end of, or during some convenient pause in the service, and they will at length not think their exercises complete without having listened to an exposition of some part of God’s holy word, by which the untaught may learn, and the learned be fortified in <<213>>faith. The best proof of this may be given by those who are themselves preachers, when they can freely allege that they have been mutually edified by listening to each others’ discourses, where neither expressed his opinion to the others, and even thought that the expression of simple satisfaction might be viewed as a piece of gross flattery. If now those who teach require often to be admonished, it is surely no discredit to the layman, who is daily and hourly merged in his worldly gains, to say of him, that he would be probably a better man and a purer Israelite if he heard occasionally the doctrines of his faith expounded by an accepted minister of his people. But to do this effectually, we must first multiply our preachers, so that not even a small congregation should be without its lectures on religious topics.

This is effected in Europe where, if there be no regular preacher in a congregation, the schoolmaster reads and explains a lecture from some ancient book to the assembled people on a Sabbath afternoon before   the Minchah service; at least this used to be the case when we were a little boy in our father’s house, and we remember yet many of these very lectures, the chief import of which has not faded from our memory after the lapse of thirty years. And we may say here, that people are mistaken in undervaluing the effect of such instruction on the minds of children and youth; they do listen when few imagine that they could feel interested, and ideas are mixed up with their very being, which can never be banished thence as long as they live.

But let the service be read ever so devoutly and impressively, and but little permanent effect can legitimately be produced, nor do we believe that any is, without the aid of education obtained at home or at school,—We therefore say, multiply the teachers of the word of God, increase the number of those who are able to impart, and with this addition to our force, you both elevate the character of the people and render the calling of the minister more agreeable to himself and beneficial to others.

“But how shall we get the persons who are thus to act for us?” will be the general inquiry. The answer, however, is simple enough, by establishing a general seminary for the education of teachers and ministers, not in Germany or France, but in America, <<214>>in some central position, that all may be enabled to watch over its progress and correct any error in the management which may be discovered. We know that to do this we require union and concert among the various congregations already existing and which may hereafter spring up. But what prevents this union? Why should not God-fearing men all over the country agitate the question, and rest not till at least for such a noble purpose delegates shall have been elected, to establish this blissful object by a united and therefore successful effort? The amount of money it would require ought to be no bar to its consummation; there are at least full sixty congregations of various sizes now in the country, and a small annual contribution from all the males belonging to them, and such other Israelites as are gathered in small settlements over the whole breadth of the land, would amount to more than is really required to make a commencement. No one, except the very poor, would feel the contribution of one or two dollars every year; the wealthy might contribute more; and thus a general fund could readily be raised; provided always there be a thorough union, to endow a good college, whence, in the course of six to seven years, learned and eloquent men might issue to supply the constantly increasing demand for well-trained and pious ministers.

Let our readers look back for about twenty years, and reflect that there was then not a single regular preacher in all America, England, Canada, Australia, and the West Indies, and then compare that state with the  present, and they will at once acknowledge that a great change has taken place. Small as the number is, there are at least a few in every direction who regularly exhort the people in the English language; and that more congregations are not supplies is only due to the absence of competent persons. It is true that those who are engaged in the cause are not sufficiently appreciated; but make preaching more general, increase the number of those who, if not endowed with eloquence, are at least able to lecture on religious topics from works treating on the subject, as is done in the small towns and settlements of Europe, and you at once place all who are engaged in the public service in a higher station, you inspire them with an esprit du corps, with a fellow‑<<215>>feeling for those of their own calling, by making the profession more numerous and more energetic; and you at the same time render it more desirable in a worldly point of view, since you hold out the prospect to a young man, that after he has been engaged by a village congregation for some time, at a mere nominal salary even, he will, if he has proved himself faithful and capable, be elevated to another station, which will place him above want and the cares of procuring a bare livelihood, a cause of corrosion on the mind of a sensitive person, which will not alone embitter the best years of his life, but greatly retard and impair his usefulness in the discharge of his official duties.

We are the last to recommend or encourage any one in the idea of making the teaching of religion a means of self-aggrandizement, of living at ease and the enjoyment of an unduly large income, by which the congregation would of necessity be heavily taxed; but whilst saying this, we maintain, on the other hand, that it is derogatory to congregations that their ministers often receive not more or but little more than the wages allowed to a mercantile clerk or handicraftsman.

No one, let us be understood, respects labour and the labourers more than we do; but those who are capable to work with their hands are entirely disproportionate to those whose minds are of the order to enable them to become eminent in the pursuit of literature and science; hence we say, give some worldly encouragement to pre-eminent talent to devote itself to spiritual labours, and incite it by some tangible reward to withdraw itself from medecine or law, where the advantages to be gained are too evident to escape the attention of all the world.

Let the youth of high spirit and risible ambition be told that when he devotes himself to the service of his brothers, they will take care of him; that when he boldly defies public opinion, and advocates the cause of truth as it is in Israel, he shall not suffer any damage thereby; that whilst he is true to his calling he need not flatter the gentiles by suppressing a single word or thought which rises up within his soul, for fear of thus injuring his prospects in life. Tell him that you are his whilst he is entirely yours; and our word for it, you will find many of the noblest endowments who will be ready to devote <<216>>themselves to your ministry, and be as distinguished for an entire yielding themselves to the business of their calling as is the case with the best of the clergy among our Christian neighbours. We know that we shall be charged with putting the question too much in a worldly light, that true religion should enable its followers to submit to all labours, deprivation, poverty, the contempt of the world, and even persecution, to discharge their duty.

It is so indeed; but the minister, if he is not kindly treated, loses his influence; he cannot reprove you whilst in your own soul you feel that you have treated him wrong, for then you are the least willing to listen to him; the oppressed moreover and the persecuted has not the spirit to rebuke you; his mind is necessarily too much occupied with self, with the bitter prospects of wife and children, with the dreary future of his own old age, when it is but too likely he may find himself unprovided for, to do justice to his noble calling, the noblest to which man can devote himself. Therefore, we say, make it noble in every sense of the word, not alone in theory, but in practice also; let every one understand that entering the precincts of the Synagogue as a public servant, he does not bid farewell to all earthly endearments; that he is not to be an alien to the delights of domestic life the moment he is hailed by his brothers as their representative to the throne of God, that he need not fear to find enemies where before he knew but friends.

You say perhaps, kind reader, that we present to you a sketch of a very gloomy picture; that our hints call up before your mind a phantom endowed with undefined terrors. We regret that it is but simple truth which guides our pen, and that we have not added a single dark trait which the character of the case does not fully offer to all at the merest glance; but we also ask you to answer honestly for yourself, whether you have endeavoured to apply any remedy to an evil of which you must have been long since as fully cognizant so we ourself? Let every honest Israelite be our witness, and we hesitate little in saying that he shall be sustained in the assertion, that next to nothing has been done toward establishing an institution for the training of ministers on the one side, and for inducing those capable to <<217>>devote themselves to the profession on the other.

We are pre­cisely where chance, to use the word in its most extensive sense, has insensibly led us; and it is surely no merit of ours if things are not worse than they are. It is always in the providence of God to raise up men in every emergency to do good service in behalf of truth. So is it also with this generation; and thus a few have appeared to labour in the suffering cause of Israel. But they are few indeed, far too few for the demands of the time; and it is everybody’s business to apply a remedy, a remedy moreover so self-evident that it requires no philosopher to point it out. If we could but succeed to induce those who feel with us to enter into an active correspondence all over the country, and to appoint committees of vigilance in every congregation, as politicians do to forward the object of their organization, all would well, and the reform so much needed in our domestic affairs of the Synagogue would go on prospering, and we should not have the reproach resting on our people that we had Synagogues without ministers, or often ministers without adequate preparation for their profession.

It is high time that something were done; and we trust that we shall not always appeal in vain, and that at length some men of might will combine their efforts to make this land of freedom in good earnest a home for religious Israel, and a place of refuge where our law may find a permanent abode in schools and colleges all over the face of the land.