Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


The Synagogue As It Was, As It Is, As It Should Be.

By The Rev. S. M. Isaacs, New York.

It may be averred, without the, fear of contradiction, that those who attempt to write for the public good, have a very onerous, and at the same time an ungrateful task to perform. The versatility of man’s mind is so great, the intellect so complex, and the desire so varied, that the finest pens have become corroded, the greatest philanthropist wearied, the most chaste scholar disheartened, from pursuing a good cause, seeing the neglect with which their sentiments have been treated, the scorn with which their admonitions have been regarded, and the apathy with which their effusions have been received. If this position holds good with pleasing subjects and erudite scholars, how overpowering does it become when the dissertation is trite, the author humble. Yet even with this disadvantage, which meets us at the starting-point, we would still buckle on our armour to fight the battles of the Lord, not to please the “vox populi,” nor for fame, but from the holy desire of benefiting the house of Israel, and from a latent wish that when we are gathered to our fathers, and our earthly troubles have ceased, posterity may be enabled to give us credit, if not for ability, at least for zeal in the cause of our venerated religion.

We have assumed a task to adduce what the Synagogue has been in the days of yore. We perceive clearly from our collateral records, that it was a fabric raised to the service and glory of the Eternal God; a fane erected to teach man his duly; a shrine where the broken-hearted in spirit might luxuriate in comfort; a spot where the troubled conscience might invoke its Maker, and hear the soul-composing word, סלחתי “I have pardoned.” We can readily trace accounts of the existence of places appropriated for the purpose of daily and regular worship far distant from Jerusalem; and there exists no doubt but that the holy prophets used prayers when at Damascus, Shilo, Bethel, and Jericho, at which latter place especially there was an assemblage of them, called Sons of the Prophets. We find that Daniel was cast into the lions’ den on account of his persisting in the practice of praying with his face towards Jerusalem, three times every day. In fine, it is evident that the practice of praying at stated periods must have been established at that time, nay, even before it; King David’s expression, “evening, and morning, and noon, will I pray,” seems to imply not only a constant disposition to invoke the Deity, but a regularly established daily custom.

On examining the records of Nehemiah and Ezra, we clearly perceive the reorganization of a system which had previously existed, and the complete establishment of the Synagogue and its appurtenances. In addition to the daily prayers, pulpit instruction was the chief medium on which the priest relied for the improvement of the people. The prayers then composed and arranged, handed down to us from a long list of pious ancestry, continue in use amongst us to the present day, although the devout spirit with which our forefathers paid their oblations, the sincerity in which they addressed their Maker, the simplicity in which they discharged their heavenly duties, these appear to have ceased with the saints of antiquity. The Synagogue in days of old was in reality what it avowed to be, God’s house, where souls congregated to commune with their Maker; where the spirit, disenthralled from its coating of clay, feasted on kindred spirit; where youth was instructed, ignorance enlightened, vice reproved, virtue rewarded; where the priest instructed male, female, and child; and where the collective body felt that they were in the presence of their Maker; where prayer was not lip service, but, like the devotion of Hannah, an emanation from the heart, the outpouring of gratitude, and the supplication for divine aid.

Such was the Synagogue; what is it now? Alas! for the sake of Israel, would that we could assert that it retained its pristine vigour, that it preserved its healing qualities, or that it continued its wonted benefits. No! shame on the age; it his become a temporal building, the minimum God, the maximum man. All ostentation and display, self-aggrandizement, and empty honour; a place where the devotee would be great, instead of being as lowly as the hyssop; a resort for fashion in lieu of a spot for humility; a mart for the sale of bad passions, instead of a shrine consecrated to the best feelings of human nature; a place to be seen by the earthworm, instead of a spot to be heard at the Fountain of glory. Such to our branding shame and national disgrace is the Synagogue. We know that these accusations against the Israelites of America will be deemed severe and insulting; but the precept, “Thou shalt reprove thy neighbour,” must be our apology. Let us analyze our system, examine it to the very core, and we shall be ready to ejaculate, We deserve this reproach; we are playing with the shadow and disregard the substance; we value the casket, and despise the gem; we cherish the husk and scorn the kernel. The prophetic charge, “not with might, nor with power, but with my spirit,” appears to apply to us. We would ask, Does this spirit manifest itself in our Synagogues? We enter our shrine when half the service has been recited by the paid minister, and a few so-called bigots; and even then there must be no engagement abroad, the atmosphere most be clear; should it chance otherwise, then of course God must wait our leisure. Others there are, and many such, who appear only at the confirmation of a son, or the betrothment of a daughter; when convalescing from sickness, or after the death of a relative; but the duty of being there at all times and seasons, whenever the portals are open for divine service, that duty is left for our poorer brethren to discharge; for the worldling says: “they require God’s assistance, we think ourselves independent of the Omnipresent;” and proclaim with the ungodly, “My own power and industry, have obtained me this wealth.”

And even if we are in a religious mood, how do we perform our sacred obligations? All our thoughts, our words, our deeds, are temporal; true, we fold the divine law in our arms, paying great sums for that honour; we imprint a fervid kiss, according to usage, saying, ישקני מנשיקות פיהו “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” This is all outside show,—the admonition of the prophet is still applicable to us: “Those who handle the law do not know me.” Instead of being grateful on such occasions that this child of heaven remains in our possession, it scarcely employs a passing thought; even while the minister reads, we are engaged in reflecting who shall have our blessing, and who shall be slighted; we consume the time that should be devoted to pure religion, to make complimentary offerings for our friends, taking every care that those who are not our visiting friends shall not have our benedictions. This display exists when we are in a happy mood; but how stands the case when our passions are aroused, from some imaginary slight, some caprice or whim? Then we must give vent to our feelings by manifesting to every one in the Synagogue that we are angry; then we make no offerings. Again, when the law is deposited within its ark, then we depart, leaving a few religiously-inclined to finish the service. Other evils there are, which, in their tendency, destroy the very appearance of solemnity: we allude to the system of returning thanks to men for honours received; to the exchanging of salutations; to our analyzing every thing that passes within our view; to the continual disorder prevailing by running in and out; to our eyes being continually employed gazing on the tenants in the galleries, instead of contemplating our deplorably sinful condition. We never heave a sigh in prayer, nor shed a tear in gratitude; in short, our whole system is a cold ceremonial, a religion of dollars and cents; we are neither impressed with the saving efficiency of our faith, nor awed by its soul-composing object. True it is, that whilst there is much to censure, there is something to approve, in the zeal and attachment, with which some few cling to their heaven-born duties; but shall we stop to commend individuals when the collective body transgresses? shall we, sycophant-like, flatter the exterior when the heart is festering through sin? The whole system is out of course, and unless something be speedily done to arrest the evil, the fabric preserved from the ruins of antiquity, the polity guarded against the sacrilegious hands of innovators, must eventually, from our culpability, nay, criminal neglect, crumble into fragments.

In order to adduce proofs that our assertions are facts, let us scan the surface of our system, for our receding pages warn us not to dive deep into the heterogeneous ocean. Much has of late been written of the fatal effects of mixed marriage, and the necessity that exists of placing the transgressor in the position he has selected for himself, not on the borders of our polity, as our law decrees, but without the pale of Judaism; and this dreadful course is recommended, on the plea of the necessity to guard the court of God’s house. We see no reason for objecting to this ostracism, provided that we act in other matters on the like principle. Our public course is a sufficient guarantee that we have ever supported the like doctrine, but we hold a principle that, “righteous acts should be pursued;” and whilst we give the honours of the Synagogue to the public violators of the Sabbath, we see no reason to strain the law to meet a particular case. Our Synagogue legislation should be uniform and consistent; it should not be the mighty dollar, but the great God, that should influence us in our religious system. Oh, how frequently have we felt the blush of shame, to see men called up to hear the law read to them, not for the sacred purpose of improving them; but for the sole aim of extracting a few dollars from their purse, when, perhaps, a few moments after they have descended from the reading-desk, they would hasten to their place of business, to purchase or sell, write or barter, thus sacrificing their souls at the shrine of error, satisfying their pliant conscience that they have achieved some good by being, called up to hear the law read, when the very fact is perhaps registered against them at the bar of unerring Justice. We would ask, Can a system of Synagogue polity be sound which depends on so precarious a footing? Can it be right thus to deceive and flatter the evil-doer? No; unhesitatingly we would venture to assert that no rational mind can be found, which, on employing its reasoning faculties, will state that this is good government—that it carries out the noble principle to deter vice, to encourage virtue. It can neither be justified by the Bible, nor by the golden rule of common sense; but from beginning to end it is a crude, undigested system, which can only be approved by a few devotees who still worship the golden calf, and who, serving at the shrine of mammon, forget the duties they owe to the God of Israel. These, in their equanimity of disposition, do satisfy themselves that they must adopt every means to enrich the treasury. Shielded by this plea, the Synagogue has become a register-office for the dead, who are disturbed from their repose whenever the living feel an inclination to re-awaken bygone scenes, and call their great grandfathers back to earth, that their names may be emblazoned forth to the world as a grateful progeny. If such is the Synagogue, far, far better to remodel it on the principle on which it was founded, בית תפילה “a house of prayer,” to diffuse light, to extend its sphere of usefulness, and to render it a spiritual building, not for innovation, but for improvement; not that we would use the pruning-knife to cut out a portion of the liturgy, but we would repair that which has suffered through the ravages of time, and which satisfies the carnal desires at the expense of the soul.

Let us then adduce what the Synagogue should be: in a word, it should be a house of prayer and praise; the temporalities of the Synagogue should be discussed and regulated in the trustee-room, certainly not within the precincts of that shrine consecrated to God and his glory, in that fane where “the prayer of the poor in spirit, as, wrapt up within himself, he poureth forth his meditation before the Eternal,” is heard and granted; and until that be effected all our boasted improvements die on the ear. But how is this desideratum to be effected? how are we to pay our minister, sexton, and other expenses? Nothing can be more simple, if we are determined to arouse ourselves manfully to the task, and resign a few of the toys and playthings which still continue to gratify our beclouded reason. We allude to the long string of offerings, and “memento mori,” which now consume the time that. should be devoted to prayer, and disturb the mind which should be engaged in devotion. If we will but give up a portion of these, and permit ourselves to be taxed pro rata for the support of the Synagogue and its appurtenances, then great and lasting benefits would ensue. We knew that this proposition will startle some who look upon us as orthodox. “What! give up that which custom has rendered sacred?” Yes, we would place all our errors on the shrine of duty; we would abridge the offerings to three at the utmost; and the long string of השכבות (prayers for the dead,) which now waste the time, we would abridge to a reasonable length; and recite them on suitable occasions only.

Semi-annual meetings should be held to obtain a revenue pro rata; and the offerings made should be devoted for their legitimate objects, to comfort the desponding, to give warmth to the cold, and clothing to the naked. Adopting this plan, we shall not have to depend on every wind that blows for support; but our system will be sound and satisfactory, and our Synagogue devout and holy. Other improvements, which are vital to our best interests, such as the necessity of causing all those who worship to attend Synagogue at the commencement of the service, and remain to the conclusion, and other matters, these we leave to those who, as presidents and trustees, should be the conservators of order, as they are especially appointed guardians of the horse and courts of God; to them is confided the noble task of rendering their communities great and happy. Adopting this principle in its various ramifications, our miniature temples will be called בתי תפילה יקראו לכל העמים “houses of prayer amongst all people,” not as they are now considered, a mixture of religion with a stolid love of the world. Now these two, like oil and water, cannot flow together, having no affinity with each other. Religion is not satisfied to hold divided empire over the mind; it must have an undivided and entire dominion to regenerate the heart, by cleansing the springs of thought, purifying the desires, embellishing each emotion, irradiating each affection, and quickening the senses in spirituality of taste. Henceforward, then, let our houses of worship be “houses of prayer and instruction;” let us as members of covenanted mercy discontinue that baleful system which has actually banished the religious teacher from the temple, and sacrilegiously exchanged his solemn functions for the operatic display of profane song and its ignorant concomitants, whereby our prayers have, alas! too often degenerated into vain outpouring of words; and, instead of producing praise of the Lord, have become rife in mockery. Let us as Jews look for posterity’s weal, and as

“Sure as day succeeds the night,
There comes a time of truth and light.”

New York, Nissan 3d, 5605.

NOTE by Editor.—Our reverend correspondent has touched (though in rather stronger language than we should have employed) upon a subject of which we have frequently spoken in private conversation, and which we have once urged in a communication to our congregation. the proposition was rejected, we think, for no other reason than the fear of innovation of any sort entertained by some members. We are glad that the subject has been publicly broached; and Mr. Isaacs only anticipates us, as we had intended to write upon the same before long. We will merely add, that in all useful and lawful reforms the Occident and its editor will be found to be as deeply interested as any one can possibly be; and we state at the same time that when all that is now defective in the Synagogue is remedied, it will go a great way towards destroying utterly the rage for useless changes, with which, unfortunately, many are now affected.