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Judaism and its Principles

(Continued from p. 275)

It is therefore evident that our belief must be founded upon what God himself taught us. It is not then the question whether our views be absurd or reasonable, in accordance with or against the spirit of the age; because neither principle stands in a necessary connexion with revelation. We do not say, that anything taught by God is unreasonable or incompatible with the ideas prevalent now, or at any other time; but only that any such standard as we allude to is not calculated from its nature to teach us religious truths. For at last what one man calls reasonable another may, with the best light he has, style absurd; or what is perfectly consonant with the notions generally prevailing in this year, that is the current spirit of the age, may fall within the next twelve months beneath the axe of some sharp-witted critic, who may then succeed in disencumbering the earth of their presence. Let him who denies or doubts our proposition examine the course of politics for the last twenty-five years in the United States, England, France, Germany, and Turkey, without taking into view the other European, Asiatic, and American states; and then let him tell us candidly how many spirits the age has witnessed in this <<326>>comparatively brief space.

In this country let us take for instance the institution of slavery. We well recollect the time when the very slave-owners were unanimous in pronouncing it the greatest curse under which they laboured: it was at a time when the northern section of the Union looked upon slave-owning with a great degree of indifference; some were, indeed, always opposed to it, who would now and then lend their aid in getting a slave liberated, or assist him in his escape; but we have seen a great, almost a total change in this important consideration, for in the same degree that at the North, where there is no property in man, the abhorrence of slaveholding has increased, so has a corresponding mutation taken place in the ideas of many Southerners, so that even females now advocate the state of bondage as the happiest for the African race, and besides maintain that it is an institution which may be aptly called patriarchal, and promotive of mutual blessing to the master and servant.

Let the unprejudiced think of such a phrase, the blessings of slavery, and and then assert that the spirit of the age is not a curious weathercock, capable of turning to all the points of the compass with perfect ease, with the most imperturbable gravity. We take it for granted that both Southerners and Northerners are equally sincere in their views; that the one loves as ardently as the other detests the presence of negro bondmen; and the inquiry is therefore a legitimate one, If the spirit of the age, and if human reason, are sure and good guides to a knowledge of right how does it happen that whilst in one section of the same country the detestation against a certain order of things increases, a corresponding change on the other side takes place, on the other side of an imaginary line which divides various states from each other? We are not going to indite a political article—our readers need not fear this; but we put before them a familiar illustration, and thereby prove to them that they would not themselves, in ordinary affairs, follow blindly their own or other’s reasons, aided though they be by the general spirit which prevails around them, unless they be prepared to swear allegiance to a new set of opinions perhaps every month in the year.

We say, therefore, that of all things religion is the least capable of being measured by the arbitrary standard which changing ideas and circumstances may produce. Admitting even that there is a general chain of ideas commonly pervading any particular generation—for none but a man devoid of common sense and the power of observing passing events would deny it—there is nevertheless not the least doubt, that there is a rising and falling in the barometer of public sentiment, effected by and through means which almost escape the search of the keenest observer, and over which no man living can have ample control, no matter how he may contribute to the general action by which the public mind is agitated. We cannot now stop to argue the question at length, even if it were not so self-evident as we conceive it to be; and we only laid it prominently before our readers, because we have often seen and heard the spirit of the age brought forward as an element in the argument for or against the observance of religious duties, or the maintaining of certain ideas connected with religious belief.

Our men of the resent day constantly appeal to us whether we could be serious to maintain the antiquated notions of ancient though pious Judaism; but pray, good friends, tell us why not? What is there in its antiquity which should cause us to reject it? You say the age has progressed beyond the point of belief and practice where the preceding one has left it; wherefore we must progress to some point wherein we can bring it in conformity with the philosophical or philanthropic ideas evolved in the latest times. But without much argument, it is clear that we are referred to a very uncertain and changing standard.

We are not now where a previous age has left us, it is said; but again we are not informed as to the precise time when the ancient ideas became absurd, and when the new ones, granted we could define them, took their place. Again we might ask where are we to look for them? where is the authority which we are to follow? in what book are the new principles clearly and well defined? We may be answered, perhaps, that our questions are silly, and show but a small acquaintance with the progress of events; that changes are gradual, and run imper<<328>>ceptibly into each other, like the colours of the rainbow the outside tints alone are distinctly defined, as the emerging from barbarism and the full light of civilized intelligence; but that the intermediate changes present such gradual stages of progress as to be of necessity not readily distinguishable. Well, we will admit it, that the human mind is in a constant state of transition, wrought upon by extraneous circumstances, and internal, natural, spontaneous fermentation; but what does this prove?

Simply this: that if we have no better standard of comparison than human reason and the state of progress of society, we have nothing but a constantly changing means of measuring the value of human actions, or in other words, no better system of morals and moral ideas than what is derived from the momentary situation of each individual in the first place, or society at large in the second. We know well enough that there are many whose conscience is so plastic, who are always ready with their Jesuitic distinguo, “I make a distinction here,” upon each and every occasion; to whom this is lawful to-day which is prohibited to-morrow, and who find this reasonable and perfectly consonant with science and nature, which in a brief time is foolish and valueless in their eyes.

But what sort of philosophy can this be? what morals can thus rule the world? are we to deny God because a revolutionary tribunal declares its unbelief in the existence of the Supreme? are we to practise immorality because a Louis XIV. or Charles II. or a George IV. happens to set an unblushing example of royal impudence? And yet, unless such reasoning can be admitted, that the spirit of the age, for the time being, can sanctify and excuse everything, we must at once admit that such a guide cannot be safely followed, and that inconsequence reason alone even demands that we should adopt a measure independent of the caprice and the fashionable example of the moment. 

Notwithstanding this claim for a universal standard is so necessary, and existing within the nature of things, we will not on the other hand deny what is too evident to escape any one’s notice, and this is, that do what we will, our views and conceptions of things are greatly modified by the influences which sur<<329>>round us. Let us start in life with whatever system of education we please, and let us mingle with those who have been differently brought up, or whose conduct differs materially from what we have been taught to regard as right and proper, and we must insensibly lose a part of our abhorrence for what they think and practise.

Our disgust, even if we feel this at first, will, by degrees, lose its intensity, till we at last, perhaps, adopt or admire what in the outset shocked our sensibility, or wounded our conscience. We find the same influence on society at large, and whole sections become infected with views originally strange to them by becoming familiar with them through example, and hence we can trace very frequently a gradual approximation of two races, where they are placed in juxtaposition; so that one or both lose, by degrees, their entire identity, and amalgamate into a new tribe, similar in some, and dissimilar in other respects to what either or both were originally. Even where an entire fusion does not take place, we shall witness, nevertheless, a great approximation, a diminution, if we may so express it, of the distance which marked originally their peculiar characteristics. This change, slow or rapid, depends greatly in its development upon the original habits of the races on their first becoming acquainted; but even under the most favourable circumstances for keeping up a separate identity, the influence is nevertheless marked, and easily traceable by any one who regards outward facts as derived from a latent inward cause and who can discover the secret springs of action.

All that we have said proves, that to let moral principles be the result of accidental circumstances, would be an admission that none whatever existed. Gradual changes wrought by contact or an internal development of progress or retrogression, as the phenomenon may be regarded from different points of view, would constantly modify our rule of life, and the principles by which it must be governed so far at least as outward deeds are the exponents of the sentiments which the actors entertain; and hence we could assign no fixed rule in a system of education by which we could advise those who are entering on life to govern their conduct; which is tantamount with saying that no proper <<330>>rule of life or morality, in the strict sense of the word, has any existence.

This admission may suit well the notions of the man of pleasure, to whom the gratification of his desires is the greatest good. But how does it tally with the existence of religion? or rather, can you imagine religion to exist, if you destroy the existence of a fixed moral law? what is religion, in fact, but the code of the highest morals, contemplate it in whatever light you may? If religion had so precarious a tenure, if, indeed, it were not identical and uniform in all countries and times, it would not be worth while to give it any more attention than the world in general bestows on the dreams and fancies of philosophers and other moral experimentalists. Our readers will of course understand us as referring particularly to the religion we profess, Judaism, and as saying of it, that it would be of no actual value if it could change with a mutation of climate, and the lapse of a few years, and take up a new garb, and appear in any dress or colour which surrounding influences might for the moment impart to it. It is either a positive something, or it is not.

If we admit the latter, how absurd will it appear for us to maintain a distinct position in society when it at best would amount to a mere negation of what others say, which would then define Judaism to be an opponent of Christianity, the doctrine of Mahomed, Paganism, or whatever other systems there may exist on the earth. But if we regard it in the first light, as a positive something, distinct in its character from all other views as respects morals and obligations entertained by other men, it rises to the highest importance imaginable, for its truth does not then depend upon the erroneousness so much of other systems, as on the inherent truth of itself, on its own integral elevation, usefulness, beatifying influence, and consistency with itself.

We need not argue the point to convince our readers what side of the question they should adopt, since we hold it for self-evident, that they would all cease to be Jews, if they did not with us believe in its excellence as a system of duty and belief irrespective of any other. To say then that we should only view it as compatible with vacillating reason, or the changing spirit of the age, would be to strip it at once of its permanence and <<331>>consistent character; for, as hinted above, we should then have to ascertain daily the peculiar state of development which reason has acquired, and the precise point to which the spirit of the age would lead us. We do not say that we wish to strip religion of the sanction of reason, or that we desire to prevent its harmonizing with the outward state of progress of society, where this is possible without doing violence to great and permanent principles; but we boldly maintain that religious truths do not depend upon the circumstances which influence mere human inventions; but even these at last are true, if proved by experience, whatever theorists may advance to the contrary.

For instance, the idea of Copernicus, in regard to the solar system, that the earth is not the centre of all creation, but only a planet revolving round the sun, was unquestionably true, when this great philosopher first announced it. Was its truth destroyed because the popes of Rome denounced it as a heresy? because Galileo was imprisoned for promulgating this system full a hundred years later? because he was compelled to renounce it as false and heretical, whilst he immediately thereafter exclaimed, “and still she moves?”

Not an infant will maintain such an absurdity; and still Copernicus advanced a truth against the reason and spirit of his age, and Galileo defended it a hundred years later, and suffered for so doing, against the alleged conviction and the spirit of the men of his age and country. How would it stand with science, were it to yield to any crude notion which might be maintained against its truth or advancement? are therefore facts not facts, because they do not square with the preconceived notions of one or the other tyro in knowledge? And still religion, the highest and best of human sciences—for as applicable to life it is an integral portion of scientific education—is to be subjected to a test the most arbitrary and uncertain imaginable,— the fashion of the day, the caprice of the hour; and we are told to modify it, in order that it may under no consideration come in conflict with the spirit of change, the momentary fan of political and moral experimentalists!

No, this will never do; we must have some definite and fixed principle from which to start, and on which to erect our moral structure, not merely a <<332>>series of duties which are commonly styled morals, but the whole organization of the inner man, as opposed to physical or outward education.

In truth, however, if one examines with any degree of candour, not merely to support a theory of his own, the history of our people, he will have to acknowledge that we always had a uniform principle of the kind demanded, this being the revelation of the will of God, as we sincerely believed it to be, contained in the series of books commonly called the BIBLE. Our brothers formerly were not apt to ask whether their views were reasonable, or in concert with the opinions of their neighbours, of friends, or of foes; for they were in a glaring opposition, in a constant warfare of endurance; and it was their clashing with the opinions of their masters and rulers, their false friends and treacherous oppressors, which caused all the persecutions and sufferings of which history furnishes no parallel.

We must then assume one of two ideas, either that they were right, or that they were wrong. If the latter, we may pity their blindness, but never can admire the obstinate perseverance with which they clung to opinions, which, under this assumption, were not alone valueless but hurtful; but if the former, we have no other course open to us, but to follow strictly in their footsteps, for it certainly cannot be reasonable in us to forego what is right and just in itself. We may be met by the objection that our ancestors strove against oppression, that men endeavoured to force upon them doctrines which they felt unwilling to adopt, because they could not understand their cogency, and that their very belief in a coming redeemer sprang from the cruelties to which they were subjected; that in their suffering the ills of the moment, their excited fancy pictured to them a glory in store for them, and they enjoyed this anticipated pleasure, although they knew it hidden in the recesses of the future, if even it were one day to be developed; but that as now we are treated more humanely, as we are either equals in political rights, or at all events everywhere approaching this desirable goal,—that now, it is said, it is not necessary, not proper to uphold a principle of separation, to look for a future which is hostile to the happiness of the present <<333>>moment.

If, however, we resolve this into common language, it amounts to this, that it was well enough to have a positive Judaism, separate and distinct from other religions, whilst these oppressed us; but that, as they have ceased, or may hereafter cease to be persecutors, we may as well give up what at best is but fancy, and neither reasonable nor compatible with our duty to the state; whether this be Heathen, Mahomedan, Christian, Greek, Roman, Armenian, or whatever else you please.

We confess that this exposition is extremely absurd; as it would justify ancient Judaism under the dominion of the Russian czar, and make it useless, nay, opposed to the well-being of the state in England, France, America, and elsewhere, where we enjoy political rights; and hence our religion would not depend so much upon internal truth as upon the adventitious circumstance of political freedom or oppression.

But absurd as it is, it is not a whit more so than the ideas of many of our modern teachers, who profess to have discovered that our opinions of positive Judaism are unfounded in philosophy, and against the spirit of the age, and hence they reject, in addition to many observances, principally the doctrine of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. We regret that we have not at hand any of the arguments, if there be any, emanating from our reformers, in order to combat them, as it is not easy to write against mere unbelief, unconnected with any tangible features which one has at last to combat.

But having undertaken to do it, we will not relinquish the task, but ask the indulgence of our readers, whether they assent or differ from us, whilst we endeavour to give reasons for the faith which we have received from our fathers, and which we honestly believe to be in accordance with reason and Scripture, and more reconcilable with our duties to the state than the mere negative which some of the moderns uphold. We beg, also, of our friends to call our attention to any omission or incongruity which they may discover, in order that the discussion may be carried on with all due regard to truth and candour.

In the outset we are perfectly aware that we shall be charged with being behind the age; but this has no terrors for us, as we <<334>>have already exhibited above that such a standard is both arbitrary and fallacious. In the second place, we shall be told that Jewish teachers of former ages advanced many incongruities, which the light of reason must reject. Against this we shall only answer, that if our teachers spoke according to the state of science prevailing in their time, it was all that could be expected of them and if experience has proved their opinions in part extravagant, we may freely reject such excrescence, without thereby parting with the sober truth which lay at the bottom of their opinions. But who warrants us, that in adopting an hyperbolical mode of instruction, they had not in view some such ideas, that it was dangerous for them to express their thoughts plainly?

We all know, that there were many seasons when it was a penal offence under the laws of our tyrants to preach publicly the doctrines of our religion, that faith which they hated. May it not therefore be possible, nay, likely, that our teachers were compelled to clothe their thoughts in the vestments of the absurd and preposterous so as to find an entrance with their scholars, who could thus propagate them farther, whilst the jealous tyrants were lulled into security, not knowing that under this grotesque guise, grave and important doctrines were securely propagated, whilst they were employing all their power to arrest the hated religion of Israel?

One thing we may maintain without fear of contradiction,—that the Rabbis always referred to the Scriptures for the support of their theological views and hence, admitting even that they taught extravagances which are totally inadmissible, we may at last do what they did, turn to the revealed pages of the Bible, and draw thence what the prophets left unto us, as glimpses which we may take into the distant future and sure we are that in a doctrinal argument our ancient sages would have admitted no other arbiter, however they might have theorized upon those points on which revelation does not afford them any certain clue. That their speculations. may have taken the garb of the state of public opinion prevailing around them, is nothing to be wondered at it would have been strange indeed, if they had been so far above the general degree of knowledge of the world in their days, as to show no traces of <<335>>the superstition which was then the common lot of mankind.

But who can therefore maintain, that they did not leave us a correct belief as the Bible teaches it? that in the main principles they were right, because scriptural? It would be something more than curious, to discover that all ancient Judaism was but a dream, and that it was reserved for the modern followers of Spinoza or Hegel to teach us true doctrines. Let us admit therefore, that some incongruities were actually believed in and taught by our teachers, and that these must be rejected, by the force of conviction which modern scientific development has shed upon the world: still we do not admit in the remotest sense of the word, that the doctrines which are derivable from Scripture are untrue, because of any extravagance that was at one time or the other attached to them.

We regret that an attack of sickness, under which we have been labouring for some weeks, has suddenly assumed such a sinful shape, that deep reflection is denied us for a time; wherefore we are compelled to break off this month, much shorter than we intended. But we trust that we have presented to the reader some wholesome thoughts on which he may reflect with profit for some days till we meet again.

(To be continued.)