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Our Course.

by Isaac Leeser

In commencing the second volume of our periodical we wish to say a few words to our readers with regard to the course which we have pursued, and which we mean to continue in during our future connexion with this publication. We started with the idea of conveying information concerning our religion, which is greatly misunderstood by the Christian world, and very often misconceived by its own members. We saw that every now and then we or others were compelled to appear before the public with some defence of Judaism in one or the other public print, to remove some calumny or some misapprehension from the minds of our fellow-citizens of other persuasions. We farther felt that there were many interesting occurrences constantly taking place which, to say the least, deserved a passing notice. And although, as we stated in our introduction, we did not altogether approve of a newspaper on religious subjects: we consented to assume the labour which a religious periodical might require in order to satisfy in a measure the general desire for information. To effect this object then, we issued proposals in the summer of '42, which received but partial attention from our friends, and in many cities where we have now a number of subscribers we had not even a single name when we commenced our work. We asked no patronage from any congregation or individual, but merely that each person wishing to read or encourage a Jewish periodical should put down his name, being satisfied that if this were generally done, there would be ample support for our contemplated enterprise. Many wanted to see what we could produce, before they would consent to honour us with their countenance; whilst others again knowing our conservative principles were inimical to our work before we even commenced, although one of these latter was the very first person who urged us to undertake a magazine of a literary and religious character, at a time when we thought such an idea chimerical. Nevertheless, balancing all the probabilities and improbabilities of success, we inclined to the opinion that the Jewish communities in America were sufficiently numerous to support a periodical, if they deemed it worthy of their countenance; and thus, fully conscious of our own defects and fearing the weight of responsibility of admitting, notwithstanding the utmost care, articles which ought perhaps not to appear, we laid our hands to the work, and appeared before the public with our first number last April. We at once shadowed forth that we meant to teach, to defend, and to narrate, deeming these branches proper exponents of the requirements to spread religious knowledge, to ward off attacks, and to preserve the image of passing events.

In accordance with this plan we admitted sermons by various preachers, in which were treated subjects of doctrine and moral, devotion and duty, all in their nature founded strictly upon Jewish interpretation of Scripture; thus exhibiting that we need no foreign aid in order to enable us to live a consistent and godly life. We will say nothing as to the merits of the productions, for they can speak for themselves; but this much we will assert, that sermons are perhaps the best vehicle for information which religious subjects admit of. They are so many essays on the points which they discuss; and, being generally coupled with exhortations and directions how to apply the subject matter to every-day life, they leave a strong impression upon the mind of the reader, much more vivid, indeed, than a mere dry dissertation on the same subject given by an ordinary teacher of moral philosophy. Independently of this consideration we were but too conscious that the English-speaking Jews have but very few books of devotion, and that, in truth, the whole number can scarcely be more than eight, so far as known to us. It thus happens, that many families must be entirely without a single volume which they can use for religious reading, or put in the hands of their children as guides to eternal life. The Word of God is certainly generally diffused in most families; but we leave it to every one to answer for himself whether his own experience has not taught him that some preparatory studies are requisite before he can understandingly enter upon the perusal of the sacred records. We deem it therefore superfluous to argue the necessity of religious works, which are calculated to arouse the attention, and to make the revelation of God pleasant to the soul. With these views, then, we were anxious to supply the lamentable deficiency through the pages of a popular periodical. We believe that we express but the simple truth, that a large volume of sermons or religious essays,* as we had issued before we undertook the Occident, is in the eyes of the great mass of people of too formidable a nature to be ventured upon; in fact we have been assured of this being the case by some who have urged us to undertake a religious magazine. This is certainly to be deplored; but if an evil exists it is not the part of wisdom to wait till some extraneous circumstance work a cure, but to grapple boldly with the enemy, with all the weapons which are placed at our command. We again say our object was, and is still, to teach religion both in its spirituality and applicability to our conduct; and as such we must employ the best means to effect this end. Hence we gave insertion to sermons, not alone to those written by us in the discharge of our official duties, but to those written by others, two of whom, by the by, have not been in the ministry, and their productions may therefore be termed sermons by lay preachers. We refer our readers to the articles themselves, and leave it to their candid judgment whether or not the subjects embraced in them are not all of importance, either as regards doctrine or duty. We do not say that they are the best or most interesting that could have been selected, (we speak of our own productions, not of the contributions of our correspondents;) still we cannot say that we are ashamed of them; they are the sentiments of our heart, our convictions on religion, our ideas of the living principles of Judaism; and as such we gave them, as exhortations to reflection, as aids for arousing a devout feeling, but not as authoritative decrees directed from a superior to those whom he deems himself competent to direct. Not thus do we feel; we study a subject by the best light in our power; and as it is developed under our hands, so do we communicate it to our readers or hearers. Let others do better; we merely wish to do what we can, to discharge our duty, to speak plainly, and to teach boldly without fear or favour. Still in making a selection we have had an eye to the peculiarities of our system in contradistinction to the opinions of our gentile neighbours; we leave sought to place Judaism as such upon a biblical base, and to show how our ideas of faith are reconcilable with Scripture and consonant with reason. It is true we mentioned scarcely why we wrote so; but it does not suit our views of a pulpit lecture to do more than to develop a doctrine, unconnected with, and disregarding what others may allege to the contrary. We wish our readers to reflect that Judaism is nothing but the doctrine of ancient Israel, which was an absolute and finished system long before Christianity was thought of. In real truth, therefore, a Jewish teacher has but incidentally to touch upon the views of others; he has the field before him in which Moses and the prophets laboured, and he is bound to follow in their footsteps. Let it be clearly understood that our religion is true, not because other systems are false, but because it is based upon divine revelation, which to a believer is the only source of truth. These views on religious teaching must be our defence, (if defence be needed,) why we employed this means of illustration in preference to constant argument, which would fail to convince from the very cause that it tends to pull down, and is utterly incapable to build up. We want, if God gives us the power, and aids our efforts, to educate religious Jews, not make them skilful in polemics whilst they are deficient in good works. This is all for which we would superintend a magazine like the Occident , and it would be our highest reward to have contributed by this means to raise the religious character of Israel in the eyes of the gentiles, but more than all in the estimation of an all-judging Deity. We also believed to have discovered that the decline of religious observance among us is not, like in other churches, owing to infidelity in the masses (although such unfortunately exists to some extent at least); but to the fact of a great want of spirituality in our former teachers. It was by many considered enough if people were outwardly religious, if they observed the ceremonies, and attended to the duties of the Synagogue. Whilst every thing remained quiet within, and whilst the oppression from without, as it were, forced the spirit of Israel to turn the view inward, because abroad all was darkness: it was only open apostasy which could withdraw any one from the pious example set before him every where around. It was the fault of oppression that the lectures called Derashoth could at all become so general among us. No classical cultivation was at first permitted; and at length that which was at the outset reluctantly surrendered, was looked upon with suspicion, as tending to overthrow true religion. Hence the endless disputations about words and useless disquisitions on abstruse matters, instead of living discourses upon topics of general usefulness. Notwithstanding all this, however, it must not be supposed that spiritual religion was dead among us, or that piety did not illuminate the soul and cause it to bear up against the ills of life, to endure poverty, the prison, the rack, and the gibbet, in the cause of truth, to teach it to be good to man and meek towards God, for such was always the characteristic of Israel; but that many by not being better taught conceived the life of religion to be residing in externals, not in the recesses of the spirit. When therefore a change, a sudden change, took place in the conduct of the gentiles toward us, there was also a sudden change within ourselves brought to light; the ceremonies were by many disregarded, and with them nearly all religion banished from their hearts. They had been taught that these were the essentials, and by yielding them in the moment of temptation they had virtually renounced all their religion. The deterioration has since then proceeded onward with an accelerated step; and still but little, comparatively speaking, has as yet been done to set a restraint upon the advance of the ferocious eyeless giant, who in his furious blindness threatens to trample under foot what has escaped so many dangers. We see but one means, and this is, to revive the feelings of our people for their faith by earnest appeals to their better judgment. Many other noble spirits in Israel have also discovered this truth, and they have arisen in their strength and poured forth their souls in eloquence, scattering light over darkness as they passed along. But as yet the number of labourers is comparatively small; and the only way to reach the hearts of the multitude is by means of the press. If we could but induce our people, especially the younger portion, to read and to compare, we would not fear but that the worst of the storm had passed; but herein lies the difficulty. Works may be prepared, with all the care which is in human power; but where is the certainty that they will be opened, read, studied? Still this is not our province; all we have to do is to offer food for the spirit; and we must leave it to an all-wise Providence to bless our labours or to withhold his blessing, as it may seem best in his wisdom. We therefore have laid before our readers appeals to their souls in the words of sound advice; and though some may pass them by, and others may deem themselves sufficiently well informed not to need our counsel: still we think that our teaching has not been quite in vain, at least we cherish the fond belief; and in the course of the volume which we commence with this number, we will endeavour to supply another series of lectures, chiefly from German preachers, if we can procure such as we can with safety offer to the public. How happy would we be, could we by this means incite the congregations of Jews to obtain suitable preachers of approved character, to teach unto them the word of life, for the spread of righteousness, and the growth of spiritual religion which shall bring in its train a strict observance of all the duties which our ancient faith demands of us.

* Discourses Argumentative and Devotional on the subject of the Jewish Religion, first series, vols. i. and ii., and second series vol. iii., and "The Jews and the Mosaic Law."

But not absolute religion alone is a proper subject to be discussed in a Jewish periodical which claims to take a higher stand than a mere newspaper; but also the comparative differences which distinguish us from others. We must not lose sight of the fact that we do not live in the midst of barbarous idolaters, who bow down to stocks and stones, but amidst a highly civilized people; in many respects far batter educated than we are, and in possession of the Scriptures no less than ourselves. " They however believe in vital matter of faith differently from us, and are constantly endeavouring to enlarge their churches by making converts not alone from those indifferent to all belief, but from our own members. It is therefore not enough to tell a Jew to believe in the Scriptures such as he finds them translated in the hands of gentiles; but to fortify him by instruction that he may see the correctness of the persuasion in which he has been educated. He must be taught to combat all errors, even those ostensibly based upon a perverted meaning of Scripture; he must be enrolled among the "sixty valiant men, the valiant men of Israel who surround the bed of the King of Peace, each holding his sword, being expert in war, of whom every man his sword on his thigh because of the fear in the nights," (Song of Sol. iii. 7, 8,) to be bold for truth, dauntless for the faith which is from God, and which leads to God. He must be associated with those who wield the two-edged sword of the law, which inflicts no wound upon the innocent; he must wield it in the battle for righteousness, where the victory is bloodless; where the triumph is a harvest of souls unto immortal happiness. We, as a nation, have always been engaged in this warfare, and it is due to ourselves that our hands become not weak now in this late period of the world, but that we continue watchful to the end, even as long as the Lord is pleased to preserve our race from annihilation. We are the servants whom He has chosen, and we must justify his choice, by fortitude in enduring all calamities in the divine service, and by knowledge in defending the sacred legacy from all adversaries. Hence have we not hesitated to give publicity to articles which are controversial in their tendency, and for this reason will we continue to promulgate whatever can plead a justification for our faith. Not to attack the opinions of others, to inflict a wound upon a tender conscience which we may not be able to heal; but to arm the hands of our own youth with the brand of faith to ward off the attacks which persuasion, passion, or interest may direct against the peace of their souls.

Lastly, as chroniclers of passing events we have endeavoured to impart all the important occurrences which have come to our notice. We had hoped to be able to give more ample details; but the distance at which we are from the great mass of our nation prevents us from receiving early tidings; and thus one thing of more importance forces out of view a previous event. We shall strive to make in this department all the improvement attainable, which we however fear will be but little, since the European continental journals are always so long on their way before they reach these shores.

In literature we have not thought it necessary to do more than give merely a view of the more popular works which have come under our notice; since elaborate reviews would hardly interest the general reader. It is time enough yet when the taste for grave study has become more diffused, to attempt an analysis of difficult works; and whenever this takes place, and our magazine should still be in existence, we have no doubt but that able pens will supply then the want of more solid entertainment than we can now venture to give.

To farther our views we shall not hesitate to resort to moral tales, poetry, and other light articles, provided they are calculated to awaken the true spirit in the reader.—And, as hitherto, our pages shall be open to a candid discussion, even by opponents, of religious matters in which all have an interest. We think Judaism can afford to be liberal; it may court discussion without injury to its holy nature. It is the pure emanation of the divine mind, and the more it is viewed, the closer it is examined, the more clearly will its heavenly beauties be displayed to the admiring eye of the world. Let our readers then bear with us, if they occasionally even meet with an article which they do not altogether approve of; we assure them, that the labour of an editor is not a very light one; to write for all sorts of tastes, to select from the large field which is spread before one's eyes, is perhaps much easier to say than to do; and then every interest wishes to find something suitable to itself in the pages of a magazine like ours, and all our readers have an equal claim to have their tastes gratified. We leave it to themselves to say whether or not every one of our last year's numbers has not contained something interesting to every one; and if one or the other article has not been liked, let them consider, that this will be the case with every book, review, magazine and newspaper which they may take; they will find nothing perfect. Why then will they expect perfection from us in the very first or second year of our existence?

But we have said enough to explain our course. We mean to pursue the plan with which we have commenced; to do the best we can to spread the true spirit of Judaism, that of brotherly love, among our religious friends; to elevate the character of our people in the eyes of our gentile fellow-citizens; to be courteous to all; severe upon flagrant wrongs if occasion demands; and to endeavour finally to leave nothing undone which according to our feeble means may make religion lovely, and its duties observed by the sons of Israel.