The Jews and the Mosaic Law
By Isaac Leeser (1843).
NOTES BY I[saac]. L[eeser].
Although it was my first intention to let my friend here have the last word, yet upon re-perusing his production, I think it necessary to comment on several passages, where I believe he has fallen into unintentional errors, which are owing altogether to his not having been taught to view things with the eye of an Israelite, or, in other words, that he, like most Christians, has thought proper to spiritualize the Scriptures, and to invest prophecies with meanings which are not warranted by a literal interpretation of them.
(a) "All contention must cease to exist." This is no doubt true, for the absence of evil inclination is of itself a sufficient guarantee, that its fruit evil deeds will not exist: but the precepts of the Mosaic law, "if I understand them right," forbid hatred altogether, for we read in chap. xix. v.17 of Leviticus: "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart;" and it follows from this, that, if hatred and malevolence are banished, strife and war cannot take place, especially as we are forbidden to take vengeance upon one another. But it is not the observance, but the infraction of the holy law, which is the cause of national war and civil strife; of course then the gospel cannot claim any superiority over our Pentateuch in this respect, as the latter is altogether calculated, even more so than the former, to eradicate the cause of war, as the resistance to evil through legal means as permitted by the Pentateuch, but forbidden by the gospels, if taken literally; and if we once commence spiritualizing any precept, so as to remove its harsh and unpalatable features, it requires but the ingenuity of an ordinary lawyer to make its operations entirely ineffectual. And if the Professor of Christianity had carefully compared our law with the gospels, I am confident he would not have fallen into the error which I felt constrained to expose.
(b) "Nothing can be found in them, which," &c. I am sorry that I cannot even permit this to pass unnoticed, for the gospels contain at least two passages which do not even allow us to harbor a thought that Christianity could bring peace, much less to view it as the chief requisite of a Christian. Matthew x. 34: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword." The Notzri [Jesus] next states, that "a man's foes shall be of his own household;" which prophecy, strange to tell, is the only one in the New Testament which has been literally fulfilled. (See also Luke xii.51.) And I must maintain, that these two passages, supposing even the Notzri to have been a prophet, prove clearly, that the gospels sanction a state of war, as they predict that such shall be the consequence of the prevalence of Christianity.
(c) "Assistance even from Heaven to protect himself," &c. If it is true that the so called Christ was to die, it is impossible that any assistance from Heaven could have been granted him, for in that case God would have used means to defeat his own immutable will, which is evidently an absurdity. Besides Peter did fight, for he cut off the ear of one of the high-priest's servants; and it appears, that in spite of the Notzri's prohibition, his chief servant, upon whom he said he would build his church, did resort to violence, of course he did not understand the sermon on the mount to prohibit war, or else he would have acted contrary to law, and what is the same, have been a man of violence and a sinner.
(d) "Over the contrary state of peace," &c. I must remind my friend that I explicitly stated that war is a curse, and a curse of such magnitude even, that every other expedient of redress should be exhausted, before it ought to be resorted to. On the other side, however, there are evils greater even than direful wars, which must be resisted at every hazard. Passive obedience and submission to usurped authority would, as the world is now constituted, open the door to every outrage, and every act of aggression, villainy can conceive; whereas the consciousness that violence will be met by [justified] violence, deters despots frequently from injuring surrounding nations, just as the dread of punishment by the hand of justice compels the wicked man to refrain from his meditated burglary or murder. War, therefore, and violence can only then cease, when the state of the world is different from what it is now. That the knowledge of the gospels cannot have the effect of producing this altered state of society, it is impossible to deny, though I am ready to confess that certain men professing Christianity have lived peaceably, even to such a degree as not to resist actual aggression. But as the Hebrew religion is, in fact, whatever our opponents may say to the contrary notwithstanding, a religion of love and mercy, its universal acknowledgement will eradicate all motives of violence and aggression, since the world will be enlightened in the knowledge of the Eternal to such a degree, that peace will be preferred by all mankind, and it therefore will abolish the possibility even of war, and this we are taught by our prophets. (Isaiah, chap. ii. v.4.) Till, however, this universal knowledge reigns, violence, as has been said, must and may lawfully be resorted to, to ward off evils of great magnitude, which admit of no other remedy. Amputation of a limb is an evil, and would never be performed when it is in a healthy state; but if the limb be fractured, lacerated, or otherwise wounded, so as to endanger the life of the patient, amputation becomes necessary, and it is resorted to, to ward off the greater evil death. Just so it is in the present state of the world. Was is abhorrent to the benign principles of the divine religion revealed unto our ancestors when they had been redeemed from slavery; violence is prohibited; injustice of every kind is interdicted; and peace, internal and external, is held up to our view as the greatest blessing the Supreme Ruler can bestow on the children of His creation. But should we be molested, our country invaded, our liberties attacked, our children slaughtered, or our sanctuary polluted, then it becomes our duty to rise in our manhood, to step forward, and do battle for "our people and the cities of our God," and we deserve to be branded with the epithets of cowards, slothful, and irreligious men, if we would fold our arms over our bosom, and say: "We dare not defend our lives, our honor, and our religion." Indeed, I must repeat, war is a curse, but there are greater curses than it, and to protect us against them, war is permitted and even commanded.
(e) "Had been atoned for by suffering or repentance?" If my friend means to assert in this sentence, the conclusion of which I have quoted, that no war can be, emphatically speaking, a holy war; but that even defensive war is hateful in the sight of Heaven: I am obliged to dissent from him, for our Holy Bible and even every day's experience prove, that never was a righteous people defeated, when their cause was righteous. The Philistines were enraged, that the fugitive David had been elected king of Israel, and they came with powerful armies to dispossess him of the government which he had rightfully obtained: the Israelites met them in battle, and the Philistines fell by the edge of the sword. The Carthagenian Hannibal presumed to follow the aggression of the Romans, and to carry war and desolation to the gates of their city: his quarrel was unjust, and Carthage was humbled, its government abolished, and the walls broken down by the Romans, whose annihilation had been meditated. The Austrians wished to oppress Switzerland, and invaded it with a powerful army, consisting of the flower of German chivalry: but near Sempach they were met by the Swiss peasantry, who overthrew them and drove them back in shame, and proved thus that the righteous cause must be victorious. And but lately, when the Britons attempted to compel their colonies to pay obedience to laws unjustly enacted: the colonists rose in arms, and, trusting in the God of battles, overcame the bravest armies which England ever sent from her shores, the liberty and independence of these United States were achieved. There are many other examples which history affords, but it is perfectly useless to prove the matter any further. It will thus be seen, that all wars are not abhorrent to God; and of course we must admit, that they are a part of the economy of God, and are a scourge which He wields to punish the aggressor and the ambitious conqueror, while they at the same time promote the enlargement of the oppressed, and secure the liberties of an upright people. But if my friend means to say, that war shall one day cease, and that no more injury shall in those days be done from man to man, I am compelled to agree with him, for this is what the prophets predict, and this is the mark by which we are to distinguish the time of the true Messiah. To the question of my friend: "If God was not able to save the Israelites without war?" I must answer in the affirmative; but I do not know what advantage can be gained from this my concession. Suppose God had saved them without war, we should then have found it so recorded; but, if we read the book of Judges, we shall discover that God absolutely commanded Gideon and Barak to go to war; of course we must conclude, that although He could have saved them without war, yet He preferred to save them through their own agency; for as our wise men teach us, God will always employ some natural means, though the result effected is frequently entirely disproportionate to the end accomplished. For instance Gideon's battle; he had but three hundred men, and he was enabled with this handful to overcome a mighty and well appointed army. Moses was commanded to stretch his staff over the Red Sea; the waters were divided as an effect of Moses's doing as he was ordered, and yet the effect bears no proportion to the apparent cause. And the like will be found throughout the Bible; and it follows, therefore, that as war is in certain respects "a part of the divine economy in the government of the world," as it is now constituted, the New Testament cannot claim any superiority over the Mosaic law; since to say that we shall not repel an invading foe is evidently contrary to revelation, and if the New Testament indeed contains the doctrine contended for the Society of Friends, it speaks contrary to the divine law, and cannot be true, because no two disagreeing precepts can proceed from the [same] Source of everlasting wisdom and all-seeing Providence.
(f) "Can constitute a valid objection," &c. I cheerfully subscribe to this proposition; but whilst my friend claims this indulgence for his creed, I claim with even more justice the same for the religion which it is my happiness to profess. And if it even can be proved that the Israelites carried on unjust wars, I hope that no candid man will charge our law as the cause of this abomination, seeing that its spirit, and even its letter, are so diametrically opposed to all violence and oppression, as has been amply demonstrated.
(g) "Cannot be overturned by all the wit and ingenuity of man." My friend seems here to have grown a little warm, and he seems to have supposed, that I had endeavored to "turn the laugh" against his society in my last essay. But this was not my intention; I lay no claim to wit, or a large share of ingenuity; my arguments are all drawn from Scripture, the only fair and legitimate source of argument in religious matters. I will repeat the confession, that Mr. William Penn may have been, for aught I know, the greatest legislator next to Moses; but this does not invalidate my assertion, that neither he nor any body else ever observed the gospel strictly; and if they, I mean Penn and his followers, actually did so, they are clearly to blame; for it is one thing to abstain from injuring others, and another thing to submit silently to the injustice of good or wicked men, if we have lawful means of redress within our power. Besides the example of Penn does not prove that the spirit of the gospel is the spirit of peace, since the self-styled holy Inquisition, and the good people of New England, could demonstrate with equal clearness, that they were commanded to torture Jews, hang Quakers, and burn old and infirm women, and this by the benign gospel of their Christ, with which the Society of Friends prove that it is absolutely necessary not to resist evil. Add to this, that the prophets do not speak of peace among one sect only, but through all the earth; and it will be seen, that the New Testament and the state of Christians, either individual or collective, cannot be considered as a fulfillment of the Holy Writ contained in the Jewish canon. And where then, I ask, can be the superiority of the gospels over the Pentateuch?
(h) "And no farther." In this paragraph my friend and myself are perfectly agreed, and as far as Christianity is founded upon the books proceeding from the revealed power of God it is useful, for it is the duties enjoined in these books, which purify the heart, and if obeyed will make our condition in life useful to all the world, (for every man is able to do something for the good of society,) and render us fit to be children of immortality; but as soon as it exceeds this limit even by one iota, it is no longer entitled to respect much less obedience; for no truth can exist beyond the words of revelation, which revelation is contained solely in the Old Testament, as can be clearly proven.
(i) "This spirit of truth was to teach," &c. My friend says, that I have taken a too limited view of the gospel; I shall debate this position, although I might shield myself behind the general acceptance of the word: my object only is to correct a very important error of my friend in his position, which he has founded upon passages from the New Testament. If I would, I could demand of him, before I should even permit myself to debate its doctrines, to prove its historical accuracy; but I need not be so very dignified, and I am even content to do him battle upon his own terms. The spirit, or rather Holy Ghost, so says John, was "to teach his followers all things." This is said by John, but I say, that this has never happened; for if the spirit were diffused over the followers of the Notzri, the consequence would be that they would all think alike in matters of religion at least: instead of which even the apostles disagreed; for upon referring to Paul's Epistle to the Galatians it will be discovered in chap. ii. v.11: "But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed." Thus we see, that Peter and Paul differed in matters of faith; and could this be the effect of the inward revelation, the working of the inward spirit, which deceives not? And at the present day, one person is impelled by the inward spirit of grace to become a methodist, another a baptist, a third a Roman catholic, a fourth something else, in short, every sect of Christians thinks itself exclusively right, and as far as I was ever able to decide, they all can find some warrant for their opinions in the New Testament; and if we then suppose that the true gospel is not the written gospel, id est: the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but an inward infusion of the (Christian) Holy Ghost, it appears that the revelation of this spirit is not the same to every body, and I might with equal justice believe myself inspired, as Matthew and Mark have done. From all which it appears: that the inward revelation produced by the Christian gospel is the parent of discord, and cannot therefore be the revelation from the Most High, for He ordered his prophet to say: "And all thy children shall be taught by the Eternal, and much peace shall be to thy children," which means, that when the time of the Messiah shall come, all the Israelites shall be taught by inward inspiration, and this then will cause all dissension to cease because all shall know what is right. Now I do not believe, that any man can be hardy enough to assert that this is the case with the followers of the Christ of the Christians, for they disagree about the interpretation of almost every passage in the New Testament.
(k) "But the word is nigh unto thee," &c. My friend adduces two passages from the Old Testament, and he mistakes the character of both. The 31st chapter of Jeremiah refers to the revelation contained in the Pentateuch, as can be easily proved; and the passage from the 30th of Deuteronomy, when taken in connection with what precedes and follows, will also be found to refer to the Mosaic law; and Moses meant to say, that the Israelites could not complain of not knowing the will and the word of God, for it had been but on that very day taught to them by the legislator who spoke these words, and it was therefore, so to say, within their mouth and heart. Besides, it must be remembered, that Moses wrote the law in a book, and commanded the Levites to teach it to the Israelites, so as to put it in their mouth; that is to say, that the Israelites were to be taught until the law was so familiar to them that they might know it by heart, and converse about it with ease. We believe, that the law will one day be inscribed on the hearts of all mankind; but we contend that this has not yet come to pass. It matters not what may be advanced about the beauty of the gospels, and about the language of the apostles: the fact is otherwise, for it appears that at the time the inward revelation will be general, evil will of itself cease to exist, and universal knowledge and universal peace will go hand in hand over the face of the renovated earth; and in the language of the 85th psalm: "Mercy and truth shall then meet together, and righteousness and peace shall kiss each other, and truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven." This is to be the effect of God's pouring out his spirit over all flesh, which will take place at the time of the true Messiah.
(l) "Which, indeed, did raise up the tribes of Jacob," &c. I agree with my friend in maintaining, that whoever acts righteously, whether Jew, Brahmin, or Nazarene, is a child of eternal salvation, for this idea is founded upon the universal justice of God, although the gospels, chiefly Mark in the conclusion of his last chapter, assert that his faith in Christianity is necessary to ensure salvation, although a man had observed every precept of the law; and this is also the opinion of Paul. But having agreed thus far with my friend, I must dissent from him in the use he makes of the several passages of Scripture adduced by him: for he again spiritualizes, which ought not to be done, according to our mode of interpretation. It is true, that we need not look for any Messiah to teach us what to believe and do to become righteous, for that has been taught us in the Mosaic law; but nevertheless a Messiah is predicted, a Messiah is expected, and this Messiah will come to fulfill the prophecies, and to restore the Israelites to their land, and peace and harmony throughout the world.
(m) "That thou mayest do it." This is the passage cited from Deut. chap. 30.; but it related, as has been shown, to the Mosaic law the law existing uncorrupted and unequalled for three thousand years; it is this of which Moses and the prophets speak, and to this we are always commanded to direct our attention. It is indeed surprising, how Christians are obliged to twist every passage in Scripture so as to avoid the force of our arguments; for it is impossible to reconcile the gospel, written and unwritten, either to the letter or the obvious spirit of the Bible, and the consequence is, that every now and then we see a new sect coming into being, who interpret their new law differently from any sect which went before them. This evidently proves no superiority of the gospels over the Bible this surely does not establish that the kingdom of peace is prevalent on earth. On the other hand, let the world look at us, who have been scattered in every country of God's earth, and driven to slaughter in almost every age, whose books have been burnt, whenever the adversary could lay hold of them let, I saw, the world look at us, who are yet united and one people, and then let them consider if the finger of the Almighty God has not done this; I must, therefore, now conclude this volume with the words of the blessed lawgiver, the last words he spoke to the people of Israel, whom he had loved so well and served so faithfully:
"Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people assisted by the Lord, who is the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! And thy enemies shall cower down before thee, but thou shalt tread upon their high places."
May everlasting life of blessedness be the portion of all mankind, and may the Messiah soon be sent to redeem the captives of Israel.