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בס"ד

Innovations,

Mr. Editor,—

I have observed of late, a disposition on the part of certain Israelites in this and other cities, to attempt what they term improvements in matters and things appertaining to our religion, at once startling, and in my, opinion, decidedly objectionable. I was particularly struck with this painful fact, on visiting in com<<137>>pany with a friend, the new Synagogue just completed in Norfolk Street. On entering the building, notwithstanding I was aware of its character, so ingeniously had the peculiar characteristic that has ever marked, and in my opinion ought to mark, the Jewish place of worship been obliterated, that I could not divest myself of the impression of being in a Catholic church.

The Jews have ever been a peculiar people, and it is their true religious policy to remain so, nor is it in any way desirable to overstep that individuality which is the surest safeguard from innovation, unless it can be shown necessary, in order to achieve some practical result imperatively called for to preserve the welfare and purity of our faith, and even then, so responsible a movement must be made with the greatest caution and moderation. It comports not with the dignity of a religion, from which all civilized creeds—and their name is legion—have been obliged to borrow, to descend at this period to pander to the vitiated tastes of those worldly persons whose only object appears to be a desire to produce a certain effect on strangers.

I feel satisfied were they sure that none but Jews could have access to the Synagogue, they would care little about the matter. I am led to this conclusion by having noticed from time to time, that all the principal movers in these modern improvements and reforms, (heaven save the mark!) have invariably shown a laxity of feeling in regard to cardinal points, that is in no way in keeping with the pure religious zeal that should be the mainspring of all actions, emanating from those who in the nineteenth century have the temerity to attempt remodelling that which has proved its perfectness by remaining unscathed during the darkest ages of oppression and superstition.

No other system of religion, I fearlessly assert, could have withstood such an ordeal of persecution, supported as it has been by a mere handful of people, in what is termed Christian Europe, under these circumstances without annihilation; this alone shows a divine essence; and so nicely interwoven are its delicate combinations, that “one broken link distresses the whole chain, and an abstract virtue becomes a relative iniquity.”

If I mistake not, we are distinctly forbidden to imitate other creeds in anything connected with religious affairs; and if this <<138>> Synagogue is not an attempt of this nature from the very pews to the pulpit, I know not what to term it. It may be considered a dead wall between Church and Synagogue, bearing all the outer and perfect appearance of the former, with a solitary exception of a few Hebrew characters written over the Hechal (which is so small and cramped, by the by, that it is hardly seen) barely sufficient in the face of all this, to convey an idea of any connexion with the latter.

So great has been the desire for originality and improvement, that the very ten commandments, which have always been written on tablets to resemble the shape we are accustomed to see represented as those given to Moses, come in for their share, and are distributed in a circle round a small window-light, altogether so divested of their outward character, that could the prophet himself see them, I question his being able to recognise them in their new and novel appearance.

The שלחן or reading-desk, which should be either in the centre or the extreme end facing the ark, is here placed right against it, without any space intervening, so that it has the appearance of forming part of the same, not the least objectionable feature this being that the reader is, as a matter of necessity, during a large portion of the service, compelled to have his back to the ark. I should say there cannot be a question but that this is decidedly wrong in a religious point of view; nor can I see any desirable object gained either in appearance or convenience by this method. That it in no small degree alters the whole Jewish character of the interior, cannot be denied, and perhaps this has been the principal recommendation for its adoption; the policy that seems to have influenced this new style of things, warrants such a conclusion.

I have been rather particular in explaining my ideas on the few matters that struck me at once as standing out in bold relief from the mass of novelties that met me at every turn; and lest it should be inferred I was actuated by some personal feeling, I would state that I am altogether unacquainted with any of the congregation, neither can I lay claim to be considered what might be termed by some strictly orthodox; but still, I am not indifferent to steps so bold and startling, calculated as they are, to open the way to farther innovations.

If such spirits as those who have contrived these changes, shall rule in <<139>>Israel, we may calculate to be imperceptibly submerged into that state which must annihilate our title as a “peculiar people.” Putting aside all religious objections, can it he shown that any practical good is accomplished by this new state of things; and if not, what construction, I would ask, can be put on such policy? I consider it a great responsibility which these gentlemen have had the temerity to take on themselves, nor can they answer as to how far it may extend. They have torn down the first barrier, and however insignificant it may appear, it will lead to encroachments they themselves perhaps never contemplated.

This is no visionary speculation, but one warranted by the history of the human family, in spiritual as well as temporal affairs. One of several improvements already began in the service, I particularly noticed, viz.: not allowing אבלים to repeat the Kaddish aloud. This, to say the least of it, appears to me bad taste; in fact it is, if I mistake not, decidedly wrong, and only goes to support the argument which I have advanced in the premises. I shall be agreeably deceived if there are not more innovations in embryo. In a word, any one whose religious spirit requires such stimulants as these, must be in a very sickly condition in regard to such matters, and, if I may be allowed the expression, almost past recovery. At any rate, no such artificial aids as these can effect much for him; and this pandering to please worldlings in sacred affairs, shows a depraved taste, which should, and I trust will be, frowned down by every sincere Jew.

Yours, respectfully,

HONESTUS.
New York, June 12, 1850.

Note by the Editor.—Although not ourself cognizant of the, facts in the above communication, we do not deem it proper to withhold it from the public, as we know the writer to be a man of probity and a worthy religious character. Some may allege that the changes complained of are small and unworthy of notice. But we dissent from such an excuse; as they show a sort of recklessness in favour of a departure from our ancient usages which we see nothing to justify. Singular as it may appear, the position of the Tebah Kaddish Shuchan, Almemar, or reading-desk as it is indifferently called, has been a fruitful theme of <<140>>controversy within late years, whereas anciently it occupied the centre of the Synagogue, so that the person who read the law was elevated in the midst of the people, and thus within the sight and hearing of all those present; and there surely can be no good reason for its being placed just in front of the ark, which must compel the reader to have his back turned to the same during the service, a position notoriously opposed to our usually received opinions, and by implication condemned in the Scriptures by the prophet Ezekiel.

But it seems there is an inordinate desire to depart from the customs of our fathers, even in so-called orthodox congregations, and to introduce some innovation or other, more or less startling. But we trust that the vigilant eye of religious zeal will be turned towards any such attempt at changes which are the reverse of improvement, and we shall at all times open our magazine to discuss the question temperately and rationally. No one, however, must accuse us of being against improvements, as our pages furnish many evidences of a contrary tendency; but, at the same time, there is no sense in the morbid endeavour to unjudaize Judaism, which has of late years been the constant theme of certain emendators of our religion.

Leave us, we say, our ancient faith, with all of its reasonable customs and peculiarities, and should they not be even commensurate with the standard of modern nations, we should not grieve thereat, as it is at last in externals that the spirit of a system can be found. Appearances show the manner in which the soul feels; and, therefore, we say, leave Judaism its outward dress; it becomes it well, and tends to impress on the minds of its followers that it has a strength of its own, and a power of resistance to amalgamation, which have preserved it so long amidst the ruin of all things springing from the earth.

We could easily extend this note to a great length; but, for the present, it is merely necessary to state the case, in hopes that the parties interested, may bethink themselves and make their Synagogue in appearance, what it is in fact, a house of prayer for descendants of Israel.