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The Dangers and Defences of Judaism.

by Isaac Leeser

A Sermon.

How great are thy mercies, O Lord, which Thou bestowest upon all that has life; to the hungry Thou provident food, to the helpless Thou providest salvation, and to the strong Thou grantest their strength, and to those who are in affluence Thou hast been the benefactor through whom they have acquired wealth; and kings by thy sufferance do rule, and dominion appertains to nations through thy bestowal. In truth, from Thee is all which we enjoy, and nothing is granted unto us which Thou hast not ordained. We therefore call on Thee at all times and for whatever we need; we supplicate Thee in our distresses, and are grateful to Thee in our joys, well knowing that Thou art nigh to hear and to bless, to approve and to save. This has ever been the experience which thy servants had in their pilgrimage; it was this which kept them erect in sorrow, which sustained them faithful in prosperity; it was this which has guided thy people Israel from their going out from Egypt even unto this day.—O! do now manifest thy power as Thou hast done of old, and render us conscious of thy greatness and mercy; as were our fathers when thy mighty arm redeemed them from bondage; so that our souls may be made free from the trammels of sin and corruption, and we be enabled to travel onward on the path wherein the righteous have ever walked, to thy glory and our justification. Amen.


No doubt you have often reflected on the singular spectacle you must exhibit to the world at large, who see not with your eyes, nor hear with your ears. They are the many, nations great and powerful, intelligent and wise, governed by all kinds of laws, living in every climate and soil; yet they are different from you, and much as they vary from each other, they are all surprised that you should not become like some one of them. Men from among you have been appealed to, time and again, to forsake our standard, because of the hopelessness of our situation; but they have tauntingly replied, “Whom shall we join, since you all claim to be in the only road of salvation, and each one of you insists that he alone is right, and that perdition is the lot of all who differ from his respective dogmas.” Still your opinions of the contradictions around you, and the absolute impossibility possibility you labour under of making a choice among the religions offered to your acceptance, even if you were inclined to forsake Judaism, do not weaken in the least the astonishment of mankind at your existing as you do, a separate and distinct nation, strongly marked in all the walks of life, and tinging as it were the current of human existence with the peculiar colouring which is so entirely your own. Voyagers tell us, that in approaching the mouth of some mighty river, like that stream which gathers in its bosom those floods that sweep down from the western side of the Allegheny mountains, and those that flow in their solitude and distant courses from the eastern declivity of the rocky Andes, they can perceive distinctly the current of the river as it rushes forth far into the deep bed of the fathomless ocean, remaining unmingled with the briny fluid whilst the impetus lasts which the river has acquired in its prolonged course, swallowed up as it is by the waste around, yet distinct and marked in its nature. Even so, Israelites, are you; your state was dissolved; in its downward course it was compelled to mingle with the great mass, the ocean, so to say, of mankind; and yet your characteristic was not; is not destroyed, and onward you flow amidst the surrounding waves, and you are seen, and felt, and known, as the offspring of that race which took its rise far away in the gloomy days of antiquity, and which has rolled on, like the river, occasionally expanding into a wide lake, shone on by the bright sun of prosperity, then narrowed down by approaching cliffs into a contracted channel, overhung to darkness by trailing shrubs and trees, which almost hide your course; still always flowing on, flowing on, true to your source, diminished perhaps in volume to the outward eye, but flowing in a deeper channel, the same now as from the beginning, and charged with the same waters which you drew from the first spring, the origin of your being, from Ur in Chaldea. Is this not a wonder? something to astonish the world around? And do you feel surprise that you are regarded with suspicion, with little love, by those who differ from you, who understand not your mission, who are ignorant of your modes of thought, and the influences which urge you on?—Still, even the calmest of us are occasionally staggered at the perseverance of the malignity which pursues us, even in this land of liberty, where all religions are alike in the eye of the law, where the constitution knows of no difference between Jew and gentile. The more surprising is all this, since they who differ from us themselves acknowledge, that no more than the river which runs its glorious course over many thousand miles, with its hundreds of tributaries, can with truth be said to have poured forth itself on its blessed mission, have the sons of Israel chosen their own portion; for equally with the powers of nature, which work ceaselessly and without noise in their calling, have they received their appointment to go forth over the face of the human world, to penetrate into every dell, to seek out the remotest peaks of the snowy mountains, to leave there a portion of their fructifying power, a trace of their benign influence upon the life and actions of others. And such are we, harmless in our lives, unoffending towards the state, whether we are free or enslaved; for we say it, and dare to say it boldly, that, though our people are not always free from crimes against the state, as a class they are not found herding with the malefactors, nor have the penal institutions many of them within their walls or surveillance; and withal, if one listens to the clamour concerning us, he would be led to suppose that not alone are our souls doomed to perdition because we are Jews, but every state also is bound for its own political safety to watch that no injury result to it from the presence of the few Jewish inhabitants within its borders. Do I speak the truth? Let history answer; let me appeal to your daily experience; let me call to witness the efforts of sectarian fanatics of all degrees and all ages to root up the vine of Jacob from the field on which the Lord’s own hands have planted it!

But what is Judaism? that principle against which the world has warred so long, which has hitherto survived all the storms which have assailed it? What is it?—It is the spirit of light enkindled by the Most High in every age when it pleased Him to make his will known to man; it is the code of peace, which teaches man to love his neighbour, to succour the needy, to aid the sick, to assist the enemy even when he needs our assistance; it is the true conception of the great Creator, which sees in all that exists but one Father, one God, one Ruler, and one Saviour, to whom every thing is known, to whom every thing is possible. Judaism couples these sublime truths, these noble principles of morality, with outward signs, call them if you will symbolical acts, which distinguish its professors, at first sight from other men, which point them out to each other as children of the same original parentage, as followers of the same belief; and this is all that we can expect our ceremonies to effect for us, as a people, and only this, the world without can look to of right in their estimation of our character, and the shaping of their conduct, which they in consequence are justly empowered to assume towards us as a nation and individuals. But what is the offending of which we have been, guilty? why is the world inimical to us? Simply because we have persevered in our faith ; simply because through good and evil report we have clung to our belief in a pure undivided unity in the Godhead; simply because we have declared our invincible opposition to every system which can put any being alongside of our great Father to worship; simply because we adhere to the observance of the divinely appointed day of rest; because we declare that unclean which the Scriptures have taught us to be those things which the Lord has declared unto us to be an abomination. In not one thing do all these sins against the world as it is affect in the least the prosperity of the commonwealth or the tranquillity of kingdoms; in not one thing do our acts, our thoughts, our hopes, injure the peace or prosperity of any country under the sun; and yet we are looked upon with suspicion, deemed as outcasts from divine favour, avoided by the insolent fanatic as though the leprosy adhered to our flesh, and pitied, in tones of mock compassion, as though we were stricken with mental blindness, by those unwise ones who themselves have barely a glimmer of divine light to aid them in their painful struggle to ascertain which is the right road to salvation among the many singular paths which their system points out to the perplexed traveller. And such as these come to teach us! Such as these endeavour to tell us “Thus has the Lord spoken,” when He has not sent them, and when they promulge what has not entered into his counsels! But do they pity us for the persecution which our brethren have to endure in countries where liberty is yet a theory, and where the will of a despot is the law of the land? Do they offer their aid to disabuse the minds of the prejudiced who combine to our injury? O no! they may perhaps, it is true, profess pity in words; but they will couple their false sympathy with some such expression, “See what the Jews have to endure in punishment for their wilful blindness in not adopting our religion instead of their own.” It is truly grating to the ear to be compelled to listen to such sympathizers, who lament the victim and secretly applaud the tyrant, because he opens in this manner a wide field for their efforts, as they fondly believe, to induce many to forswear Judaism. And these men ask us to come and listen to their harangues in which they denounce our belief; and Jews can be found to go and hear them, and some even profess to be convinced by their appeals, and become—gracious God! apostates to thy law! and they go and swear fealty to a pretended revelation which thy prophets never promulgated in thy name! and they aver to see errors in thy law which require to be amended by a more spiritual legislation, as if there could be aught truer or purer than what Thou didst announce in olden times as the evidence of thy will!

Yes, brethren, we have heard of these doings in our days, of systematic efforts at corrupting our people; but they have generally been directed either to those who desired to profit by the learning in worldly things which they had acquired, when to the professing Jew all offices are closed in illiberal countries; or to those who sought an alliance with the daughter of the stranger, who asked the change of religion as a token of the sincerity of the professed attachment; or, not to mention other cases, where the want of information left the persons, against whom these attempts were directed, an easy prey to any argument which was urged upon the contested points at issue between us and the gentile world. Children even placed at school have been approached by their teachers and friends with appeals on religious subjects, and they have been drawn to churches to hear doctrines laid down adverse to the Jewish belief. That in the latter instance parents have been greatly at fault for exposing their children to such dangerous influences; that no plea of the necessity of a brilliant education, not attainable at home, can justify a father for putting his child away where his principles may, or, to speak more correctly, will surely be endangered; that no mother can ever claim any circumstance likely to occur in ordinary life as an excuse for depriving her daughter of maternal care and supervision at the period when impressions are most readily received, and when they are but too well calculated to be so strongly impressed as to influence the whole after life—that, in short, the greatest blame is chargeable to parents of every degree and station for leaving their offspring to imbibe such religious sentiments as circumstances may throw in their way, is too self-evident to require any argument. But equally culpable with the negligent parents are all those who do not apply all the means which their talents or circumstances afford them to enlighten the understanding of their fellow-Israelites, and to induce them, by the power of persuasion, and, if possible, by argument, to remain faithful to our standard of religion. Some persons no doubt think, as parents do, for instance, when they, being faithful themselves, admonish their children as they send them forth not to transgress too much, and never to forget that they are Jews, that they discharge their whole duty if they themselves practise their duties, whilst they are perfectly indifferent to the wrong done by others, even should it be occasionally in their power to arrest the evil which they see before their eyes. But let these be told that they are not doing their duty. The gentiles among whom we live understand, or rather practise better the exercise of wholesome influence. If they see one of their people doing what they deem an offence against their system, they endeavour to alarm his conscience; and though we may not altogether approve of the means resorted to, we must acknowledge that they leave nothing untried to impress all their members with their supposed duties. This office is not alone exercised by those who are appointed public teachers, but by many others, females for instance, who never expect to be other than mere humble and uninfluential members of their respective communities. And whenever they believe that they can have any influence over persons not of their persuasion, for instance, to induce them to read a particular book on some doctrinal question, or to listen to a sermon of some powerful controversial preacher, or to witness some exhibition where a strong evidence of the effect of their system can be displayed: you will see them anxious and ready to improve the opportunity, after their own fashion, and endeavouring to say a word in season, which more or less is effective, especially with the weak and inexperienced. But let me impress it on your minds, brethren, that we cannot afford to lose even such as these from our communion, though their adherence add ever so little strength to our cause. They are children of Israel as much as the strongest of us, and are bound by the same law us the wisest among us. If they are ignorant, their ignorance is to be pitied, and you, who are better instructed, should, endeavour to teach them, that they may be able to withstand the appeals of the gentiles, and themselves become defenders of the holy truths that are entrusted to us in the law. If they are weak and worldly, draw them to you by mild persuasion and by those unceasing efforts of an untiring love, which deems no labour too great, no exertion too painful, which may by any degree of possibility confirm the wavering, and bring healing to a soul affected with the dangerous imbecility which knows not its own diseased state. Let us not deceive ourselves that nothing can be done. This woful delusion has been the cause of several families having quitted the household of Israel, not because they were convinced of the truth of gentile doctrines, but simply because they had no intercourse with religious Israelites, and because their mind was absolutely uninformed of the ideas and duties which characterize us from other nations. Besides which considerations it must not be forgotten that so far as the moral effects of such conversions extend, they are to the world at large almost as fatal as if they took place among the really prominent members of our faith. By these means family relations are or should be interrupted, for I hold it to be beneath the dignity of a sincere Israelite to hold any intercourse with an apostate who openly so declares himself; and the triumph of those who bear no love for our race is equally great, though the changeling be one of the weakest and most worthless among us.—Let us consider that we do not seek to make proselytes ourselves, though for my own part, and I say it with due deference to the opinions of wiser and better men than myself, I cannot see any good reason for being opposed to receiving them if the sincerity of their profession cannot be reasonably doubted, as some of our people, nay the greater majority of them, are. At all events, though there can be no doubt that if we resorted to the means gentiles employ, we could make large accessions to our numbers, it has become the settled policy of our brothers to reject even those who occasionally come forward of their own accord to claim a reception in the family of Jacob. It is evident, therefore, that we must decrease, if we do not take care that the influence from without do not rob us of a portion of our household; and it is also perfectly clear that too many, especially in this country, have formerly been left exposed to a corrupting influence strong enough to warp the judgment, if not equal to debase the reason (I speak in religious topics) altogether. I fear that if we take a calm review of all the incidents in our own lives, I except not even myself, we may find some cause for self-accusation in not having been zealous enough in spreading the kingdom of Heaven, and preventing sin, when this was in our power. I will confess that apostacies are not so frequent, nor have those we heard of been of such a kind that human means could in every case have prevented them; but I speak also of other grave transgressions, and therein I maintain we have not exerted our influence, nor borne a decided enough testimony to awaken and alarm the sinner. Let us take counsel from the gentiles; we can easily avoid their obtrusiveness; there is no occasion to broach the subject of our salvation in season and out of season; but surely there are almost daily opportunities, when we mingle in society, to say or do something which will have a bearing upon our religion and the duties it enjoins. There is no demand for fanaticism, nor need we fear being ridiculed for our zeal. Perfect cheerfulness and appreciation of social pleasures can be combined with our serious conversation; and even in a jesting mood instruction may be conveyed the more striking from the unexpected manner in which has been uttered. But chiefly we must endeavour to place our younger branches under wholesome religious guidance, not to compel them to transgress by leaving them in situations where to live religiously is impossible.

I know well enough that I shall be met with the objection, that in some places it is impossible for parents to educate their children commensurately with their wealth and standing; that their sons have no colleges to go to in their native towns, and that their daughters cannot obtain a sufficient knowledge of music, painting, the elegant sciences and modern and learned languages in their places of residence, distant from the centres of literature and refinement; and I shall be asked, “Are we to sacrifice the education of our children to the ceremonial observances of our religion?” I would answer “decidedly,” if religion or science must be sacrificed, I say, sacrifice science, it is not the staff of life, much as it may embellish it. But there is no occasion to dread such an alternative. As far as my knowledge goes, there are high schools of great distinction in all the larger towns of this country, where Jews are settled in considerable bodies, and in these both male and female children could be educated, whilst they are, at the sane time, domesticated with Jewish families, even if there are no Jewish schools at which the children can be placed at once under the superintendence of the teachers themselves for their mental as well as scientific cultivation. This much to parents who themselves practise in their houses the duties of their faith. But even to those who are indifferent in this great point, great we call it, for it was made the distinguishing mark between Israel and the other nations, we would urge this consideration: at home your children, it is true, do not live according to the law of Moses, your own example is injurious to their leading a pious life; but still they hear you speak in terms of respect of your belief, and they accompany you at stated periods to the house of God. All therefore is not lost though a great defect does exist. But now you are going to send your son to a distant college, where the regulations of the school compel him to listen habitually to prayers and sermons propounded in the name of a belief more or less hostile to your own; he is constantly plied with arguments, even in the very class-books he uses, to prove that what you believe is false and erroneous. It may be that he has learned something at home, and will thus be able to withstand the appeals to apostasy which the people he lives with and his school companions address to him; but is it possible that he should return home to you after an absence of four years sound in his conviction—unflinching in his attachment to our faith? You may write to him constantly in the most affectionate manner concerning his Jewish birthright (we will assume in every thing the most favourable); he shall also occasionally come to pay you a visit during the vacation; but will all this be enough to counteract the not seeing the Sabbath sanctified, the absence of the Passover and the non-observance of the Day of Atonement? You see I leave out all minor points; but even then how does the question stand? is your conscience at ease? have you discharged your whole duty?

Or take your daughter at the age of twelve or fourteen away from home; you have wealth, and she perhaps has beauty and intellect. You are determined that she shall be brilliantly educated, she must shine at all hazards; and you place her at a fashionable boarding-school, where the daughters of the great of the land receive their finishing education. All this you may accomplish; she associates with those whose habits are refined and whose intellect is cultivated; but her soul remains dark to all noble impressions; she has no moral guide, her gentile teacher is not able to prove one; and what she gains in elegance she loses in goodness of heart, in truth and sincerity, those bright ornaments of a virtuous female. But assume on the other hand that her spirit too is to be moulded by her teacher, what becomes of the Jewish female? She is gentilized; and returns after a few years to your roof with any thing but a Jewish heart, and pities you perhaps after the gentile fashion for your blindness in being Jews. At all events it will take labour, and cost you much heart-burning to make your loved child again fond of her religion, easy as its practice may be in your house, and years will perhaps elapse before the simple unity of God will again find a response in her rebellious soul.

There is one thing I have omitted, and that is the excuse occasionally made that a country education is so beneficial to youth, especially the males, as it removes them during their age of susceptibility from the dangerous moral tendencies of a city life; and as in most country college towns few or no Jews reside, it is requisite of course to place them with gentile families or within the walls of the college. But there is a great fallacy in this excuse. If it were that a child after being once removed from the temptations of a city life would never be exposed to them again, the laziness of parents might find some palliation. But the fact is quite the reverse. The college years are scarcely over when the rusticated citizen is thrown with an amazing suddenness in the midst of the dissipation which the large towns so abundantly furnish. He has been restrained for a long period, and now he will compensate himself for the time lost to pleasure. Besides this, it by no means follows that all country places are free from vice and allurement, and it is much to be feared that in a moral point the country is perhaps as corrupt as the city. But grant all in favour of the secluded village, still, as we have said, the college life must end at last; and where is the safety of the candidate at his entrance into the great world? Only in the principles which have been implanted in him, to enjoy whatever good life may offer, but never to indulge to excess or to enjoy if sin be the consequence. Where then is the danger? It is in the want of moral training, in the not instilling of a deep religious veneration for what is good, and a detestation for what is bad; but this is the province of the father, the duty of the mother; they are to curb the passions in early years; they are to implant the silent monitor; they are to watch that the rank weeds of unbridled license do not choke the holy aspirations for what is good and noble; and if they neglect to do this, if they cannot succeed, can they believe that a paid schoolmaster, who has a hundred boys under his supervision, will or can do that for so many what they fail to or cannot effect in one or two? Can they be so deluded as to imagine that in a school where there are fifty boarders an aged woman and five or six assistants can attend in the least to a proper training of the affections and the intellect, after they have been worn out to weariness with the hearing of recitations for eight hour’s during the day, when they themselves acknowledge that one or two girls cannot be managed at home with ample leisure and servants to take from them all the laborious cares of a family?

I have not exhausted the subject, but only given you materials for reflection. Consider, then, that Israel as a people require a union of labourers, who conjointly must aim to establish a holy sentiment of devotion in the hearts of all, and to elevate our character in the eyes of the world; so as to counteract, not by wordly demonstrations, but a silent and effectual effort, the inclination which the worldly minded may wish to instil in many to forsake the standard of our religion. But not mere nominal conformists, only do we want; we need intelligent thinkers, and faithful actors, who can guide others and promote good by their example. Thus can we best exemplify that We are a holy people, and thus can we show in our life how it could happen that despite of our dispersion we have been able to maintain our identity amidst the nations which surround us on all sides. Let us prove that we esteem highly the announcement which God made to Moses:

ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם והייתי לכם לאלהים וידעתם כי אני ה׳ אלהיכם המוציא אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים׃ שמות ו׳ז׳

“And I will take you unto me for a people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God who bring you forth from beneath the burdens of Egypt.”—Exod. 6:7.

When this promise was made we were marked as the bondmen of Egypt, whose every aspiration was suppressed under the heavy burdens which were laid upon us. But then the Lord became emphatically our God, by giving us his law and separating us from all the world besides. Nations since have warred against our state, overwhelmed our greatness, but we have continued undiminished, though always assailed. And now it is for us, the men of the present generation, to take heed that the blessed stream shall still flow onward, glorious, deep, holy! Be it thus the study of all to aid in what concerns all; and thus only can we be accepted, and thus only can we fulfil our task, which each Israelite has received from his God and Maker. And may He strengthen and guide us safely. Amen.

Shebat 2d, (January 10th,) 5605.