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Israel’s Adherence to the Law.

by Isaac Leeser

The moralist lists not often just cause to glory over the occurrences of the day, too generally are there faults to expose and wrong-doings to be animadverted upon; and still there are occasions when the severest censurer of human actions is compelled to applaud the deeds which he sees performed, and despite of his habit of detecting delinquencies, he cannot avoid feeling joy in his heart at marking such events as a proof that there is something holy in the heart of man, and that virtue has not altogether fled from the face of the earth. In modern times it has unfortunately been too frequently the duty of our public writers and preachers to expose the painful delinquencies of the Jews; apostasies for the love of gold and office have been witnessed; men who ought to have been the fathers of the people have sown dissension in the communities over which they preside, and schemes as visionary as though they had proceeded from the brain of a madman have been bravely urged upon our brethren for their acceptance, and they have been assured that only in following such guidance could they preserve themselves in the field of history, and become enlightened citizens of the world. What is to such as these the wisdom of ages? the accumulated treasures of long and cherished experience? Nothing but the idle wind that blows over the desert, which exhausts itself without even serving to fan the fevered prow of a weary traveller, because there is none in its course whom it could reach. Were, therefore, these the only representatives of Judaism, how sickening would be the task to be toiling as one of its defenders, and it were indeed time to say that the day is nigh whom the torch of Israel would be quenched for ever. But thank God, and blessed be his name! there is a spirit in Israel as different from that of the backsliders, as the sweet of the honey is from the bitterness of wormwood; there is a soul in our people which will ever and anon awaken to a consciousness of its duty, and there is a firm resolve which can withstand every thing when dangers are threatening the dearest interest of our life. Ay, our LIFE; religion with us is not a mere matter of opinion, a speculative thing, which we could with safety neglect or adopt again at our leisure; for it is a vital principle, which renders us what we are. It is precisely what we testify to the world that constitutes us Jews; take away this testimony, and we cease to be distinguished from other portions of men. It is not that we wish to be unsociable, or in contradiction to the world, that we are believers in the Unity; that we practise circumcision; that we observe the peculiar Seventh Day Sabbath; that we do not intermarry with other nations; that we deem it sinful to partake of food not prepared according to our customs; but simply because we feel that there is something sacred in our vocation, that we are in possession of the truth, and that, but for these peculiarities of opinion and conduct, the world would be without the living witnesses to prove that there exists a God who is powerful to save, and whose words are true and faithful.

It is therefore that there never was an age when we could not exhibit a numerous body of professors of our faith, who were ready to die for it sooner than join the multitudes around them. We speak not of mad enthusiasts, who in the frenzy of excitement braved death in the midst of admiring sectarians, and in the persuasion that their death would arouse their followers; but of quiet sufferers, whose mind was untainted by the fire of excitement; who in their death suffered the indignity of their oppressors; who were far removed from their earthly friends who could afford them consolation, and who in their last moments on earth could not hope for any human agency to avenge the wrong they suffered, and who could only turn the gaze of their expiring eyes upward to the One in heaven to receive their spirit, and to look down upon the state of affliction in which his servants are plunged by the proud and the ungodly who bear unjust rule on earth. And how often could all that the world calls glory and greatness be acquired by a mere profession? by the utterance of some words, without the necessity of a single act? And yet it was then even that the faithful in Israel have ever stood firm, meeting death as the friendly guardian who was to preserve their seals untainted, when life had to be saved by a rebellion against their God. Hence it arose that so many thousands left Spain or met certain death by the hands of the executioner; hence it arose that millions of nameless martyrs have shed their blood, whilst the memory of them is forgotten among men, only to be recorded there on high in the book of memorial before the Ancient of days, will whom there is no forgetfulness through lapse of time or weakness of memory, and through whom their reward is sure, on the day when He will prove to all “the difference between those who have served the Lord and those who have not served Him.” O, precious indeed is the blood of the martyrs! It is the cement which strengthens the structure of faith; it is the seal of the covenant which those who feel that the truth is in their hearts impress upon a life of godliness, be their days on earth few or many. It is therefore gratifying in this age of indifference, when religion is so much neglected in many places, or is turned in others into mad fanaticism and folly of every kind, to discover that the spirit of heroic suffering is not vanished from Israel, and that there are yet among us witnesses of God’s glory, to whom “He is every thing in heaven and who seek none beside Him on earth.” But who could ever doubt that faith would continue to live among us? Are we not descendants from Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice the child of his hope, because he deemed it a command of God? Are we children of Isaac, who was willing to die, because he was ready to yield to his Maker the soul by Him given? And can it be otherwise, then, that the spirit of devotedness is yet alive, and strong, and ready to be called forth at the first moment of danger? It is indeed too true that indifference is sadly prevalent in towns and countries, where formerly, at least, external adherence was every where to be seen; but let not the enemies of Israel deceive themselves; the fire of faith burns deep within; and let but danger approach, let the necessity of the times but call for victims, and they will be found hastening forward from the field and from the workshop, from the bridal apartment and the chamber of the nursling of fortune, and the world will never see the day that the God of Jacob has not his adorers in the midst of the myriads of Israel.

We have been led to these reflections by lately reading in the public papers the following account of the martyrdom of two noble Israelites, who have sought an honourable death in the waters of the Neva, and left their record on high, though their names are not written down on earth. Indeed may it be called a thrilling incident, one which shook our very soul, and which is well calculated to shake and exalt the soul of every believer in that religion for which these brave ones were “lovely and united in their lives, and in their death they were not separated.”

“Thrilling Incident in Russia.—The following melancholy anecdote is much talked of; it shows the effects of the terrible decision of character exhibited by the Russian Czar:—It is well known that there are many sailors in the Russian fleet who are Israelites. At a review of the fleet on a late occasion by the Emperor, two sailors particularly excited his attention, both by the precision with which they performed several difficult manoeuvres, and by the agility and daring which they displayed. The Emperor was so much pleased that he immediately promoted one to be a captain; the other he appointed Lieutenant on the spot. There is, however, an ukase forbidding Jews to wear an epaulette, and the Admiral of the fleet, who stood by the Emperor, knowing that they were Jews, stated the difficulty to his Imperial Majesty. ‘Pshaw!’ cried the Emperor, ‘that does not signify in the least—they shall immediately embrace the Greek religion, of course.’ When this determination was communicated to the two young men, sorrow and despair seized upon them at the thought of receiving honour and promotion on such inexorable forms. Knowing that remonstrance or refusal would be in vain, they requested of the Emperor permission to exhibit still more of their manoeuvres, as he had not seen all they could do. This being granted, they ascended the topmast, embraced each other, and locked in one another’s arms, threw them selves into the sea and disappeared for ever. What effect this self-sacrifice produced upon the Czar, is not related.”

Thus were added in our day two more witnesses to our faith; and though they be swallowed up in the depths of the ocean, still their sleep will be sweet, and “from the depths of the sea will they be brought back,” on that day when the departed shall awaken to life, when the earth shall cast forth her dead, and the seas shall no linger enclose those who are sunk in its waters.

But in another clime, too, the devotion to our law has been equally proved; but not by the sons of war, whose occupation renders them familiar with death, but by an humble maiden, one whose retiring nature little qualified her to battle with the storms of life, and who embraced death, sooner than share the throne of one of the rulers of earth. If the above incident in Russia be even only report, not vouched for by a responsible name, though it evidently bears all the marks of truth: there can be no doubt of the truth of the following narrative vouched for by the name of E. L. Mitford, Esq., author of an Appeal in behalf of the Jewish Nation, reviewed in the Jewish Intelligence of December, whence we extract this fearful tale; and let the reader but consider, that the Magazine just named is the organ of the society for the conversion of our people, and he cannot hesitate yielding implicit belief to an account so honourable to us all, and so confirmatory of the often-asserted uselessness of drawing us from the path of the law of God. It, however, requires no comment from us to add strength to the following, and not one of our readers can rise from its perusal without feeling a stronger love for his religion, or else we know not the hearts of the children of Israel.

“One of the most diabolical means of oppression which is brought to bear on this condemned race, but of which fortunately the instances are comparatively few, arises primarily from the contempt with which they are regarded; their evidence being esteemed utterly worthless, before the tribunal of the cadi against a Muslim, while the evidence of two Muslim witnesses (though often false) is sufficient to convict a Jew, and subject him to the penalty of the grossest crimes. It will easily be perceived how this unlimited power can be applied to the purposes of avarice, sensuality, and religious bigotry, when taken in connexion with the fact, that nothing more is required to make a Jew or Christian a Mohammedan by their law, than the deposition of two witnesses to the simple circumstance of their having pronounced the words, ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is the apostle of God.’ Against this testimony the protestations of the Jew are vain, and the penalty of recantation is burning at the stake. Although the instances, as I before mentioned, are few, this is too great a power not to be much too frequently used for the worst purposes; sometimes the threat is sufficient to gain the proposed end, but if that fails, false witnesses are employed, when the victim, who is generally wealthy, purchases immunity at a ruinous price, and the circumstance is hushed up; or if poor, which is seldom, he is obliged to conform to his new faith, hated by his own people, and despised and always suspected by his adopted brethren.

“Some cases are, however, attended by circumstances of a graver nature, and have a more tragical ending; one of them I will narrate, which took place while I was in that country, and with which I was therefore well acquainted. The individual sufferer was an interesting young Jewess of respectable family, residing at Tangier, and much is it to be regretted that our Consul-General had not influence, or if he did possess any, that he did not exert it to avert the horrid catastrophe. This young creature was summoned before the tribunal of the cadi, by two Moors, who deposed to her having pronounced their confession of faith. This, however, she utterly denied, but, as before shown, in vain, and the cadi had no alternative, even had he possessed the inclination, but to decree her conformity to Islamism on pain of death.

“I was never able to obtain correct information as to whether the witnesses were actuated by sinister motives, or whether the poor girl really did repeat the fatal words in jest. There is, doubtless, much friendly intercourse existing between the Jews and the better-disposed Moors, in which gossip and jesting are sometimes carried beyond the verge of safety, considering the relative position of the parties. Again, in a scriptural language like the Arabic, in which the name of God so constantly occurs, there are many ejaculations repeatedly uttered by the Jews which approach very near to this formula, and might, therefore, be mistaken for it. Be this as it may, the affair was of too serious a nature to be passed over lightly by the Jewish community, who at least deserve the credit of uniting for mutual protection, where their national and religious integrity are concerned, and, consequently, every exertion was made, but unsuccessfully, by influence and money, to crush it in the bud. It had, however, become too public not to reach the ears of Mulai Abderahman, to whose decision it was therefore referred, and the parties repaired to Fez for the purpose.”

“Whatever might have influenced her accusers, there could be no doubt of the motive of the Sultan in enforcing the decree, which was, to obtain another plaything for his harem; in fact, so well known was his character in this respect, that from the moment of her being ordered to his presence, no one expected any other result—for few possibly imagined, nor did the Sultan himself, that she would have courage to brave the alternative rather than abandon the faith of her fathers. Such, however, was the case. She was first sent to the Serail, where every means were employed to shake her constancy; threats, blandishments, and the most brilliant promises were tried by turns, and were equally unsuccessful. Even her relations were allowed to see her, to endeavour by their persuasions to divert her from her resolution; but with a firmness, which against such assaults could have been the effect only of the deepest conviction, this young and noble creature held fast her integrity, and calmly chose a horrible though honourable death, to the enjoyment of an ignominious existence of shame and infamy.

“The Jews came forward with offers of immense sums of money to save her, but her fate was irrevocably decided, and the only mercy the baffled tyrant could afford his young and innocent victim was, to allow of her being decapitated instead of being burnt alive. I had an account of the closing scene from an eye-witness, who was one of the guards at the execution, and although, as a body, there is nowhere a more dissolute set of irregular soldiery than the Morocco Moors, yet he confessed to me that many of his vice-hardened companions could not restrain their tears, and that he himself could not look with dry eyes on a sight of such cold-blooded atrocity. This beautiful young creature was led out to where a pile ready for firing had been raised for her last couch:—her long dark hair flowing disheveled over her shoulders, she looked around in vain for a heart and hand that could succour, though so many eyes pitied her: for the last time she was offered—with the executioner and the pyre in all their terror before her—her life, on condition of being false to her God:—she only asked for a few minutes for prayer, after which her throat was cut by the executioner, according to the barbarous custom of the country, and her body consumed on the fire!”

Rest; sweet spirit; and though thy name too is unknown to thy associates in hope, many will bless the nameless one, who loved her God more than all on earth, and died for Israel, when this was alone left in her power, when she was called upon thus to confirm the love she bore for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God whom her fathers adored.

Poem by Rebekah Hyneman, based on this event:
Zara, the Martyr