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Reforming And Deforming.


We have always looked upon ourself as in a great degree neutral between the parties which have unfortunately sprung up of late years within the pale of Judaism ; not that we have not decided opinions of our own, which we mean to defend at all hazards, but in not sharing the extreme views entertained by both the sections, not less those who love to style themselves the Orthodox, than those who delight in the name of Reformers. It is no question but that this moderation, expressed both publicly and privately, has brought upon us and our humble Magazine the charge of lukewarmness from the side of the zealots, and of illiberality on that of the lovers of arbitrary change. How both accusations can be true, is not for us to decipher; at the same time nothing can be farther from the truth than that we felt in­different in the cause of our faith, or that we would willingly proscribe any one for opinion’s sake, and because he had the independence to differ with us in sentiment on the fundamental principles even of religion. As regards our lukewarmness for our cause, we would simply refer to our published thoughts, and if they prove in the least that we have swerved from the good old standard of our sages, let us be condemned; but this does not prevent us from confessing that many trifles have, in process of time, been elevated to a position which they do not deserve, and which the heroes of our faith never meant to impart to them. It has been indeed a great misfortune to our <<62>>cause that many private practices of extreme piety, which are technically called מנהג חסידות, and which were indulged in by those who were abstracted in their pursuits and devoted to study, made their own, as a voluntary offering on the altar of religion, should by degrees have become incorporated with the every-day life of ordinary Israelites.

For whilst we lived excluded in our ghetti, and were cast off by the world abroad, it was not so difficult to prosecute such a course of life, and even every new addition, every lately developed practice of some remarkably austere and venerated teacher was readily adopted, and loved for the sake of him who first set the example. But by degrees a change took place in our position; and though equally hated as before for our adherence to Judaism, we nevertheless came more in contact with other persuasions, and the burden of oppression was gradually made lighter and lighter, so that now many fancy that they have nothing farther to bear, so little do, they feel the weight of prejudice under which they, notwithstanding all that has occurred, still suffer, and will no doubt continue to suffer until the day that the glorious Messiah shall rule the earth as the messenger of the Lord, and as the harbinger of peace to all mankind.

But is it at all conceivable that so great a change should occur without a great and corresponding influence on the thoughts and habits of feeling among the Jews? Could the fusion with other men actually occur, and a reciprocal impression on each other’s thoughts be avoided? No one who has watched the course of history can for a moment think so; and however, unexpected to the careless observer, no intelligent man will or can express the least astonishment that within the last two centuries, that is, since the Parliament of England brought their faithless monarch to the block, both Judaism and Christianity have undergone material changes, not indeed in theory, but in practice; and perhaps even religious views have also been greatly modified, at least in the minds of the masses, by the gradual diffusion of those liberal opinions which the truly enlightened always entertained; for what was formerly the property of but a few adepts, and which was sacredly guarded as too sublime for the vulgar, became, so to say, the common property of all, by means of the press, which has scattered abroad, broadcast, the <<63>>sublimest thoughts of the deepest thinkers, and this among the humblest of mankind.

Could, among such an altered state of things, especially at a time when whole nations seemed at one expression of will to throw off all religious belief and religious restraint, Judaism stand untouched? Could it maintain the immense mass of little observances, of no moment at any time, against the assault of inquiry and of carping doubt? Certainly not; and what was foreseen by the clear-sighted centuries before, as early as the days of the Talmud, actually occurred, for the evil-disposed cast away the material with the immaterial, because they had not the intelligence to distinguish between what rested on the foundation of the word of God and what was merely an ancestral inheritance, and the work of successive generations. Had we now had a well-established ecclesiastical authority, composed of men who understood both the true principles of religion and how to unite it with the progressive, or, if you prefer the word, with the destructive spirit of the age, much of the evil we now complain of might have been avoided, and we should not have to deplore the evident disunion which prevails among us. But our leaders declared everything like a departure from ancient usage a heresy, even to translate the Scriptures into the language of the country and to acquire the profane sciences. The consequence was that those who were really anxious to benefit Israel, even such men as Moses Mendelssohn, were suspected, and their services rendered abortive under the double influence of the lukewarm support of their friends and the captious opposition of their enemies.

Notwithstanding all this, the minute observances of which we speak, and of which those acquainted with our former customs in Europe can easily recall many instances to confirm our words, have fallen more and more into disuse, and many things formerly considered as important are now hardly recollected as appertaining to Judaism, and which they actually did not, although by degrees engrafted upon it. It would be curious and amusing to compose tales, as indeed has been done in France and Germany, in which the habits, customs, and opinions, of ordinary Jews of the eighteenth century, and as they no doubt still prevail <<64>>in many places, should be faithfully depicted,—and we venture little in asserting that many a one would not believe that these stories could embody the truth as it really existed, but would set it down to the inventive malice of some enemy to our people.

But such a judgment would be wrong, as the truth is humiliating enough, and proves that superstition is not confined to one people, but is a disease which can affect all mankind without distinction. Now we say, in this connexion, that we rejoice that the light of reason, which has scattered to the winds the superstitions of Romanism, and made the pillars of its fabric to tremble, also visited the chambers of our prison-house, and taught us to esteem lightly what had no foundation in true religion, but resulted from diseased imagination and the influence of a bad example.

We rejoice at the downfall of folly and the deserved contempt into which nonsense has fallen; and had our leaders, we say, understood their true position, they themselves would have laid the axe to the root of the evil, and been the first to denounce what was untenable. But they did not so understand their duty; they endeavoured to conserve every observance, and rendered suspected the children of light who perhaps at first meant it truly, and thus became themselves the founders of destructive reform, which did not confine itself to excrescences, but to the vitalities of the faith; for human nature is at best but weak and fallible, and men once suspected were only too apt to rush upon the opposite extreme, and defied boldly a power which would not enter into alliance with them to effect small and unimportant changes.

We cannot indeed say that this actually occurred in a single instance, as the records are not at our disposal to refer to them; but we speak of a general tendency, and those acquainted with the events of the last fifty years will confirm our words in every particular. All we meant, however, to maintain is, that we do not regard everything ancient as sacred; do not look upon antiquated superstition as a thing which must not be examined by the light of reason; hence, if orthodoxy consists in observing all that has come down to us, we renounce, for our part, any claim to be designated by that title, which has no meaning in the ancient institutions of Judaism, but is only a <<65>>word coined to mark a sect which knows of no progress, which has neither past nor future.

“But,” say our readers, “you then must be a reformer; one devoted to the modern word, progress.” This, however, is also foreign to us; we are no reformer in the usual sense of the word; we are no devotee of progress as it is generally taken. We have maintained in conversation with an eminent Israelite of New York, that reform, as such, is absolutely useless; since we have no authority conferred on us to alter important things, and the trifles of which we just now spoke are of that nature that they may be tacitly dropped, and this by a gradual common consent, and that it would not be worth while to make a concerted onslaught on them by a host of brave spirits armed cap-a-pie for this spiritual contest.

Abuses will die fast enough of themselves; it should therefore be the sole object of enlightened ministers of religion to teach their flocks the ancient and therefore the true principles on which our system is based. Now herein, we co­tend, all our modern reformers, destructives, progressists, or by whatever name they themselves or others may call them, have failed; they only saw before them abuses, hence they imagined that our holy structure was in danger, and they busied themselves as greatly to alter, change, transpose, destroy, rebuild, as their so-called orthodox opponents were in keeping everything on a medieval footing. One party called out “Touch not the sacred edifice!” the other exclaimed, “Pull down the rotten fabric, ere it tumble down and crush us all beneath its ruins!”

Now we honestly dissent from both the opinions; as to conserving abuses we have spoken already, and as regards the necessity of remodelling our religion for fear of its total overthrow, we cannot see any opinion more absurd than this. What, change our religion! remodel its doctrines! alter our observances! Pray, on what principles? upon whose judgment? Well may we say in the words of a great orator, who some years back was greatly celebrated in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the Union: “The enemy thunders not yet at the gates of the Capitol; and if he did we would require no geese to save the state.”

Indeed, if such ridiculous proceedings as our reformers resort to are needed to save Judaism, the best thing we <<66>>could do would be to renounce it altogether, and to make ourselves a new ism of some sort, a philosophical and moral system based upon a new idea, separate and distinct from the revelation of Sinai. For this is a positive religion, one of duty and precept; it is a separatist religion, as it is calculated to divide off its followers from the other portions of mankind; in short it is a system unlike Christianity, unlike Mahomedanism, unlike heathenism, and also unlike our modern reform, since its followers are like the hyperorthodox, they have neither past nor future, but only a receding present time.

Are we illiberal for saying this? We imagine not, unless truth be illiberal. Let us dwell a little upon the idea just thrown out. Judaism has a past, that is, the divine legislation and the series of traditionary expositions how the law should be observed by its adherents; it has a future also, that is, an anticipated and therefore future fulfilment of all that the Bible teaches concerning it and its followers. We of the present time, if we wish to be consistent, must so demean ourselves as to preserve the chain which entwines the three periods in which all things exist, that is, the past, which embraced the acts and suffering of our forefathers, the future, in which our posterity must necessarily be active, and the passing moment, in which we find ourselves.

Now we said that many of the lovers of ancient abuses have no past nor future; they are not willing to enter into the history of things, to inquire how and whence they originated; nor are they willing to look abroad with a calm unclouded eye upon the approaching future, to see whether their ideas can be sustained before the destroyer of everything transitory, the remorseless tooth of time. But how can the reformers, the absolute progressists, claim any better ground? The sacred past they treat not according to fact but agreeably to their fancy; they seek for a light which is not from within but without the pale of Judaism; and as to the future, they imagine it as they choose to determine it, by the light perhaps of human experience, of human probability, but not of divine revelation, the potency of the Almighty God.

We beg our readers to cast abroad a searching look into the doings of reform congregations; and do they there discover a large increase of godliness, of positive religion? “Are, in<<67>>deed, all the members thereof holy, and is the Lord among them?” Is the Sabbath honoured duly? is the sacred day of the God of Israel a delight to them? is their influence scattering light and peace around them? We fear not; and still, unless all who do reform what they call trifles adhere to the weighty points, their changes are without excuse and based upon false and delusive principles; for if reform do not confirm them in religion, if the modifications do not rivet them closer to their God, they testify to an untruth, for they do not modify, but destroy; they do not build up, they merely pull down, and level to the ground the ancient landmarks.
And what do they generally expend their ingenuity upon? by what means do they endeavour to restore the lost taste for religious observances? Simply by Synagogue reforms, and having said this you have said all. It is no matter how people live, how much they violate, provided only they attend public worship, constituted not according to ancient Jewish usages, but upon the model of our gentile neighbours, and even our doctrines are remodelled upon the same sapient basis. But it may be our native stupidity that we can discover nothing Jewish in all this; that we imagine a man may as well never enter the Synagogue if he does not circumcise his children; that listening to the tune played by the organist on his melodious instrument cannot defend a woman for eating leaven on the Passover; that assenting to a beautiful sermon, delivered with all the fervour and eloquence of a prophet, cannot absolve you for violating the Sabbath.

And then let us ask those who differ from us on this question of religious polity, what do you mean to effect by beautifying the outward ceremonial of the worship, whilst everything else is left so lifeless, so cold, so dead? The Greek fable indeed says that a certain Orpheus built the walls of a great city by the tune of his lyre; but will your modern hymns, your abridged prayers, your philosophical sermons, soften the hearts of stone assembled around you? will they, shall they, can they be thus attuned to Heaven? to be, to remain faithful in the hour of trial, to be willing to ascend the burning stake, if so the sanctification of the Lord’s name should again demand it?

Let no one imagine that we are opposed to an edifying, well‑<<68>>regulated, mode of worship, as little as we are against erecting handsome Synagogues to assemble therein the sons of Israel. But we cannot help repeating the idea which we have expressed before, that we detest a church-going religion which begins with the priest, and which ends in sound, and nothing but sound. If we were bound to assemble merely once a week, in order to be entertained by beautiful music, and gratified by elegant and soul-stirring eloquence: then indeed would men discharge their duty only by hiring the most accomplished musicians, and procuring the most eloquent and exciting preachers.

But this is not Judaism, and it is with this only with which we have anything to do. Judaism is, or should be, a religion of feeling; and if it be not this, it is nothing at all, it is a mockery. We contend that Synagogues are not established for the amusement of the people, but the glorification of God; we should assemble there to do honour to the Great King, and to fortify each other in his service. But wo to us, if another idea carries us thither, if we are like an exhausted well, into which you have to carry the water; for under such circumstances it were far better if we never came, if our body be as great a stranger in the house of God as our soul is turned away from his service; because under these circumstances we are aliens to our faith, rebels to the Holy One, our God.

But we may be asked whether we could reasonably expect that people should come to Synagogue if the manner of conducting the worship be offensive; if disorder should reign instead of decorum; if we have nothing but a singing minister, a mere parrot to misrepresent the congregation before the throne of Mercy. In candour we must answer No; although at the same time this does not excuse an absence from prayers, whilst for all this sinful humanity would clutch at it to excuse its backsliding. We would therefore be the last to tolerate such abuses as just stated in the place which we have declared holy to the Lord.

But if such be the unfortunate position of any Synagogue, we say reform it upon correct principles; take due care that decorum reign during your assemblies, enforce silence and attention to the prayers as far as you can effect this by proper regulations; and remove your parrot minister, your chanting, ignorant pretender, and procure a man of a true heart, of a good education, <<69>>one who fears God, not mortals, and let him speak to you from a full heart, from sincere conviction, the words of truth and life; and if you have done this, you have, we will venture to say, reformed your worship enough, and it will truly be what it should be, the outpouring of the heart before our heavenly Father.
It may not be as amusing as your new method of reforming after the fashion of the stranger to the house of Israel, if you will even, not as edifying; but we trust that we have proved sufficiently already that religion and amusement are not synonymous terms, and that hence the most amusing, agreeable, and edifying mode of worship may be the farthest from the Jewish standard. We shall perhaps be referred to the Temple ordinances, where everything is alleged to have been done to add pomp and grandeur to the worship, where the most ravishing music, from the most powerful band that ever was collected, was sent forth to entrance the assembled multitude.

But independently of the consideration that the Temple was an institution sui generis, and therefore not to be taken as a model for us in captivity, the ceremonies, though imposing, were very simple, and sprung altogether from an idea inherent to our religion, and having little, if anything, in common with any other notions of worship. It would lead us too far to discuss the question at present at any length; but we may simply state that the Temple was based upon the ordinances in Leviticus and Numbers, as it was expounded afterwards in the days of David and Solomon, and restored at a later period under Ezra and Nehemiah, with the concurrence of the three last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and confirmed by the men of the so-called Great Synod. But for all this the service there was special, not general; preaching, as such, was not a portion of it; public recitation of prayers had no place there, not to mention that no foreign hymns or new compositions of any kind were ever heard in front of the altar; only the accepted Psalms of David being chanted over the daily sacrifices, and for those of the festivals.

The Synagogue existed, however, at the same time with the Temple; and whilst the latter was resorted to only in rotation by the twenty-four watches of priests, Levites and Israelites, in succeeding weeks, and visited by all the people three times every <<70>>year, on Passover, Shebuoth, and Tabernacles, the former was frequented every day in the year to offer up prayers and listen to instruction; the officials in the Temple were only priests, the attendants only Levites, the witnesses delegates from Israel; whereas at the Synagogue those having the word of God with them, the accepted delegates of the people, officiated just as they do at the present day.

If the means were at hand it would be a useful inquiry to trace the present Synagogue in its antetype during the first and second temples; but, without claiming much antiquarian knowledge, we hazard little in affirming that the orthodox (we use the word in a popular sense) or old-fashioned Synagogue approaches the standard much nearer than the mongrel product, the offspring of the reform mania, with which we have been of late afflicted.

Whoever knows the dislike of change once inherent in us, will readily acknowledge that the method of Synagogue worship must be of a very ancient date, especially as the, writers of many centuries past up even to the Talmud speak of the method yet current among us as existing in their days, and they even recite the very prayers which we have yet among us. We admit that there have been added, from time to time, many new pieces, particularly the productions of the Paytanim, or the Jewish poets of the middle ages, commencing with R. Elazar Ha-Kalir, down to his comparatively modern successors and imitators; but this does not gainsay in the least that the form has maintained itself unchanged, and that it is substantially the same as in the days of Ezra.

As we have been gradually drawn away from our point, we may perhaps be pardoned by our readers for digressing still farther, since the inquiry is one deserving the serious attention even of the most violent reformers. It is, then, a curious thing to observe how, commencing say with the eleventh century of the vulgar era, the Jews, being apparently dissatisfied with the shortness of the service, as recorded in the Talmud, constantly endeavoured to add to it the effusions of pious hearts, which were continually produced in large masses by the Kalir, Jehudah Hallevi, the two Aben Ezra, Rabbenu Nissim, R. Shelomoh, Ibn Gebirol, Messer Jehudah Leon, of Modena, R. Simeon Ben Yitzchak, R. <<71>>Ephraim, of Bonn, and many others of both the Sephardim and Ashkenazim: until at length the prayer-book swelled from a simple liturgy, composed of prayers easily recollected, into an unwieldy collection of pieces of the most varied merit, and in which exists, moreover, the greatest variation between the different communities.

But the most modern taste is decidedly the reverse; for at present the prayers cannot be short enough, and that form is considered the most edifying which dismisses the congregation in the shortest possible time, and with the least demand upon their devotional attention. There can be no doubt but that in these two extreme views the spirit and character of the various ages are depicted.

The Talmudists thought more of studying the law than the mere reciting of prayers; hence they esteemed the Beth-Hammidrash above the Synagogue; their successors adopted, by degrees, the ascetic views of their masters, the Christian and Mahomedan governments, where abstraction from life, and a devotion to a contemplative state of existence, were considered the most meritorious; and now comes the modern utilitarian school, which finds nothing to admire in anything, even devotion, which occupies too much time; and as our Jews have the example of Protestant Christians with either no liturgy or a very abridged one, they fancy that they must demand a similar compilation, in which all is reduced to the simplest elements.

All this opens a wide field of inquiry and investigation, which would to a surety not be unfruitful in the hands of a pious and earnest inquirer; but even to a superficial thinker there is an evident remedy and an easy allaying of the conflict, provided only men would come to the discussion without prejudice and prepossession for or against any proper and moderate change in the various existing forms of prayers; and as a safe rule we might fall back upon the authority of the Talmud, and retain, in addition to the prayers recorded or hinted at there, those composed at later periods, which are of undoubted merit and purity of style; and we say it without any disrespect to the saints who laboured in producing our metrical hymns and prose compositions, that many of them are neither in substance nor style of sufficient elegance and expressiveness to be retained in our forms of devotion, <<72>>and that though perhaps at some past time appropriate, they are not so any more.

Perhaps they were adopted, as it strikes us, not for their literary merits, but because of the piety and great worth of their authors, which, if actually the case, will exonerate their contemporaries, but can scarcely plead as an excuse for our continuing to recite what is actually no prayer, and often almost unintelligible from the complication and obscurity of the phraseology employed. But to say that all should be abolished which is not founded on the Talmud, would be acting against the spirit which breathes throughout that great compend of our sages; for they themselves would have adopted for their own use some at least of the many beautiful productions of the poets of Spain, Italy, Provence, Germany, and Palestine had they existed in their days.

Besides, it must not be forgotten that the Talmudists did not enjoy the blessing of a printing press; hence the form of prayers was necessarily confined to a few short and easily remembered pieces, or those, at most, which could be readily copied. But, as at present the press has taken the place of the transcriber, the above reason for extreme brevity does not exist any longer and hence there is no necessity for falling back upon the primeval simplicity in question. In this matter, too, moderation is perhaps the safest, we may say the only safe, method; and hence we are equally averse to the immense mass of poetical recitations demanded by the German ritual, and the affected conciseness of the modern reform schools, but most of all to the unpoetical poetry of the latest days, which both in Germany and America has been offered us instead of the almost inspired words of Aben Ezra, Ibn Gebirol, Leon of Modena, Jehudah Hallevi, and so many other great and holy men.

And we say, in all candour, if we are to remove from our liturgy effusions so sincere, so sublime, so elegant, we will surely not accept in their stead the outpourings of the uneducated, which so-called hymns are often full of grammatical inaccuracies, and false conceptions of Judaism. We speak of nothing in particular, but of matters in general; but if proof were demanded we do not deem it impossible to substantiate our words. For our part, therefore, we prefer to abide by the work of men who were great in every point of <<73>>view, though there be nothing divine or inspired in it, to adopting the lucubrations of those for whose religious and scientific preeminence we are not willing to vouch, and whose contributions to our literature might as well have been left unwritten.

If you must then reform, fall back upon the principles of our system as established in times past, when learning and wisdom were prized even more than gold is now-a-days, when the men of mind ruled the people, when talents swayed the multitude, and when virtue, not mere money, distinguished those whose voice was listened to in Israel.

So we cannot go to the gentiles for their opinion, nor ask of the spirit of the age, which in the next ten years may become reactionary, as it is even now appearing to retrograde in republican France, and subjugated Italy; for in this way we should have to reform again after a few months, before our new system had been tried; and surely we Jews do not desire to have a constant change of our institutions, whenever a few dissatisfied spirits complain that all things do not suit their peculiar tastes.

We meant, when undertaking to write this month on the subject here presented, to have introduced many other points; but we have been insensibly led away, as is often the case with us when we sit down to treat on any point colloquially, and in communion with our own soul. Desultory as our remarks, therefore, may seem, they are at least the outpouring of our sincere conviction, given without study or previous arrangement of our sentences; and as such we give them to our readers, and trust that they will not be entirely thrown away or neglected, whether our labours be continued much longer or not. But we hope that before long we may be permitted to resume this topic, when we shall speak as freely as we have done now; and we say also, candidly, that our pages, whilst under our control, shall be open to any one who will discuss this or any other subject in a manner worthy the dignified position of those who wish to be leaders and teachers in Israel.

(To be continued.)