|Vol. IX. No. 6
Elul 5611 September 1851
Principles of Judaism.
To the Editor of the Occident.
Reverend Sir :
Whenever I sit down to write something for the people, I always do it with a cheerful mind, because I am convinced the people reed my humble essays and, since I always commit to writing the most sacred truths, according to the best of my conviction, I am confident of God’s assistance. Bat this time it is with indignation that I take up my pen. I detest to speak or <<299>> to write in my own behalf. You will admit that I have written more during the last five years than any one of my colleagues; but I never wrote one letter in my own behalf: You turned a philosophical dispute into personal invectives of the most abusive kind; and, though I am aware that you will either not publish this communication, or affix again to it a host of notes full of ironic compliments and new invectives, still I cannot resist the desire to answer you.
To answer your notes to my letters on resurrection would be a folly, which to commit I shall deliberately beware; for neither you nor your allies, whom you summoned to partake in the crusade, have done the least injury to my fortifications; and if you cannot bring forward better evidences in your favour, and better contra-evidences to my statements, you will hardly succeed to discomfit the fatal “No” which I hazarded to pronounce in the presence of the uppermost exponent of your so-called orthodoxy. You came again and over again with the worn out arms of mysticism, and so do your friendly allies; but I am no Don Quixote, that I shall fight the air. Friend Lesser, it becomes you to know that the philosophical investigations of our age have shaken the foundations of mysticism; its pillars, its strongholds are dashed in pieces, and everything based upon it exists but in a dream of bygone ages. Whatever is irreconcilable with the plain facts which nature represents to us, can be vindicated no longer, because it is a useless waste of time. You cannot force upon a man to believe what he has good and holding grounds to reject. The time of despotic legislation of priests is gone; mere supposals, inferences, dreams, and imaginations are now appreciated precisely at their real value. But I forget that you pointed me to the 12th of Daniel. It becomes you, as a Jew and a minister, to know that Daniel was no prophet, and that we take no precept and no doctrine but from Moses and the Prophets. The Talmudists understood that well enough; and when they, in Sanhedrin, section Chelek, advance their biblical proofs in favour of the resurrection, they wisely omit* to quote <<300>> the 12th of Daniel. Daniel himself confesses that he did not understand what he was told, or what he saw. You will therefore surely not expect of me that I must understand him to advance doctrines which appear absurd at the first sight. And without all that, it is plain enough that Daniel speaks about the restoration of Israel, which he should not live to see, as he should go to his end and rest; and at the end of days (in a world where no sun shines to measure the days and times), he shall arise to his lot (to live for ever in the midst of congenial spirits praising God). You also call my attention to the prayer-book (remarkable authority); but, unfortunately, it is not said there, in plain words, that the body shall arise. And suppose it is said there, do you not know that the Amidah or Shemoneh Esray was written after the destruction of the second temple, as the 6th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 15th benedictions plainly prove? And do you assert that the men of that time were infallible? Did I not give you plain reasons for such passages, in my second letter, pp. 191-194? But it is useless to discuss the matter. You will have to say some cabalistic mysteries, and I will then again pity you, so we can never meet; therefore I deem it best to suspend writing on this subject, and to commence the deliberation on the real theme, which to discuss I have sat down to write.
2. You state (p. 196) “We have no rule to declare any one a heretic; but this much is certain, that we cannot trust anyone as a teacher of religion, who denies what this religion teaches.” It is a real pity that you are not better acquainted with our code of Rabbinical laws, or you would find there a minute specification of such rules; and I doubt not that you and you sagacious friends could find there some ground to render that great service to the Jewish Church, as you call it, and to the Jewish community of America, to excommunicate me as a heretic, an infidel, an atheist, a dangerous advocate of errors, &c. But, my dear sir, I advise you not to trouble yourself; not to disturb the sweet repose of your friends, to excommunicate an humble and decried individual—a harmless, not cared and not called for man as Isaac M. Wise, of Albany. Such a great trouble was in its right place when Rabbi Jehudah Hallevi*, Maimonides, Aben Ezra, Spinoza, Mendelssohn, and Solomon Maimon were excommunicated as heretics. Those were great and influential writers, dangerous to the Jewish community. Then was the pious zeal well applied; but “should the king of Israel pursue after one flea?”
That is a real pity; but I am accustomed to be perfectly satisfied if I can have confidence in myself—if my conscience whispers that I have spoken <<303>> truth on behalf of the sacred cause of Israel, though it undermines my reputation, my very existence; though I am opposed, by dozens of fanatics, who spare no trouble to ruin me. I am content if my conscience whispers that I have done my duty, have not harmed my fellow-man, have not advanced doctrines which I myself do not believe in, have not become arrogant and overbearing. And, my dear sir, I have this satisfaction, and also this one, that hundreds whom I taught the pure word of God, whom I withdrew from immorality, from superstition, and prejudices, from sin and indifferentism, whom I connected closer with God and Judaism, have full confidence in me as a religious teacher. And I am satisfied; when we once will meet as disembodied spirits before the throne of mercy, you will perceive that I am satisfied.
3. You state, p. 199, “Dr. W.’s mode of reasoning would destroy all faith, and would open the door to infidelity of the worst kind.” Experience has not proved anything in favour of your supposition; for I have brought a true religious spirit wherever I came: therefore you should have proved logically your very pious assertion, which is calculated to uproot me at once. But an editor of an American Jewish journal has no use for a thing like logical proof; his word is law to the reader; his authority is unquestionable; wherefore, you could declare me a follower of Eisenmenger, of Mac Caul, a heretic unworthy of your confidence, without quoting the least proof for your words; and all this you could conveniently do as an avowed friend of mine, and without waging a personal warfare against me. H’m! that’s singular, indeed! Let me suppose something, too;—I have a right to it, as well as any one editor. It strikes me that it is the mode of not reasoning which destroys all faith, and opens the door to infidelity of the worst kind. This ruinous mode of imposing principles and doctrines upon the Israelite,—imposing them with the especial recommendation of being truly Jewish, inseparable from the system of Judaism,—is the horrible cause of infidelity of the worst kind. Doctrines which are opposed by sound common sense, by the very facts of nature, by the Bible itself, aroused the suspicion of rational men; and they <<304>> rejected, not these doctrines alone, but the whole system of which they formed a part, made hundreds indifferent spectators to our sacred cause, caused others to overthrow the whole structure of Judaism and adopt in lieu of it a pure Deism, and many fell into the horrible depths of nihilism. The time of a blind and uninquiring faith is gone; we deal now with rational and reasoning men.
Experience furnishes you with a good deal more proof in favour of my supposition than of yours. Lay your hand upon your heart, be calm and honest, and ask yourself whether you can justify your cause before God, if the coming generation of Israel will be lost to our sacred cause, because you imposed upon them doctrines which caused them to reject the whole system? I could not. Or do you think a generation growing up in a free and enlightened country will not do so? I do not; and therefore I think it my sacred mission to teach an enlightened and pure Judaism, to remove as much mysticism as possible from the system of our faith, to give as much rational evidence for it as I can bring forward; and if I am wrong, I am honest, and God will not judge me too severely. But as for man, none is my judge in a case which I have to plead but before God; nor will their fanatical endeavours frighten or hinder me in the least.
And so I abandon the dispute, and I hope my name be mentioned no more in American Jewish journals; nor will I reply to any charge brought against me. I shall henceforth pursue my way without journals. In twenty years hence, the reader will be astonished that I could waste so much time in the discussion of questions decided long ago; that men disputed matters which were as clear as the sun at noon. They will pity me, that I lived in this critical and unsettled age, when the war of opinions is waged all over the civilized world, and also between the opinion of the people and the editors. They will be the evidences for my doctrines.
I can easily forgive you the injuries done to me; for I pity you, and I hope that the day is not far when the Occident will advocate the doctrines of reform.
I will, remain an honest friend of Isaac Lesser, but with the <<305>> Editor of the Occident I am done; wherefore I bid a hearty farewell to its readers.
Isaac M. Wise, D.D.
Remarks by the Editor.—The apprehension of the evil consequences of the serious discussion which we were in a measure forced into with Dr. Wise has been partly verified in the spirit displayed by him in the foregoing communication. Dr. W. must have known, when he penned it, that it would appear in the Occident, notwithstanding his denouncing as fanatics all the defenders of Judaism as it is transmitted in Scripture, Talmud, and Prayer Book; we include the whole three, since, notwithstanding the ridicule cast upon the latter by Dr. W., there can be no question that, in, defining what our received opinions are, no sound critic will fail to take cognisance of this important element of our public and private worship. Dr. Wise has had so much evidence of the perfect freedom with which the Occident has been conducted from its very beginning, that one might think he need not have dreaded being denied the privilege of replying to the Editor, or all of his correspondents. Perhaps, now as Dr. W. has said he would not write any more for our work, we ought to let him speak at his pleasure, and allow his various allegations to pass without a word of contradiction, upon the plea that it is ungenerous to strike an unresisting foe; but in so acting we should exhibit an Utopian generosity, which we do not profess to be necessary in any walk of life. And though Dr. W. says it is his last, if he chooses to reconsider this resolve, and endeavour to refute our remarks, he shall be welcome to any reasonable space he may require.
We would premise that, though Dr. Wise’s replying “No” to the questions whether Mr. Poznanski believed in the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, in the discussion this gentleman had with Dr. Raphall during his visit to Charleston, was the cause of our writing the fragmentary papers, “Judaism and its Principles,” in our last volume, we do not recollect that we mentioned the Doctor’s name, except in a note to the first article. He therefore was no more assailed than any of the other defenders of the new species of Judaism, of which unfortunately, there are more than should be among the professed teachers of righteousness. We acknowledge boldly that we meant to convey the idea that those who deny the two doctrines in <<306>> question are not fit to be Jewish ministers; and why? Because they have no right to employ the Prayer Book and read the Scriptures to the people in a sense different from what the ostensible words seem to convey. Will Dr. Wise or his adherents say that the Bible is silent on the subject? that he can give a reasonable explanation of the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, and many others; the twenty-fifth of the same prophet, and the many allusions and direct words of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Psalms, so as to make us believe that the prophets did not teach the redemption of Israel, the regeneration of the world through a personal Messiah, and the subsequent revival of those who sleep in the dust of the earth? Can Dr. Wise, or any one else, dare to assert that the most ancient part of the prayer book does not require the belief in both doctrines? Is not the benediction commencing אלהי נשמה שנתת בי “My God, the soul which thou hast placed within me,” not expressive in the fullest sense of the idea of a corporeal resurrection? Does not the benediction רצה, the seventeenth of the ’Amidah, fully enforce the restoration of the temple worship? Now we say, gentlemen reformers, be consistent; reject the prayer book out and out, reform the Bible out and out, or conform to the standard which these authorities plainly indicate. We would most assuredly condemn any teaching which should raise a new sect, an offshoot of Judaism, such as Christianity evidently was at its first inception; but we would at least honour the courage of the men who would boldly rise up and sever their connexion with us, however we might deplore their sinful proceeding. They would display a consistency in sin, which the half measures of some of our teachers most assuredly lack. We the people therefore have a right to demand of these teachers to express boldly whether they belong to us or our enemies, that we may know what to do in the premises; and we individually, and as a simple Israelite, without any public position, and speaking without looking to any public body for the cue how to express our sentiments, among other, demand of those who are in the chair of authority to declare at once and without equivocation, “Do you believe or not in Scriptures, and the doctrines handed down to us, and which are embraced in our prayed?”
Dr. W. is indignant at our throwing a doubt upon his right to propagate Judaism with arbitrary limitations. But he has no cause for this indignation, and we gave only free scope to a sentiment which is shared by all who believe as we do. We, however, have much more cause to complain of his speaking of us and our friends as ignorant fanatics who wish to deprive the people of the right of discussion. Is <<307>> this not strange? How was Dr. W. ever enabled to bring his views before the public in this country, except through an American Jewish journal? Is it necessary that we, as editor, should endorse all his opinions, under pain of being denounced as a fanatic? As we understand Dr. W. and all his associates, the self-styled friends of light and progress, if we believe with them, and applaud and subscribe what they allege, well and good; then have we a right to think and spear, because we think and speak with them. But woe to us if we dare to imagine in our ignorance that the authors of our prayers had some dim knowledge of the truths which our religion demands! and double woe, if we have the audacity to aver that modern discoveries in science by no means overthrow the structure of our faith! We will not give vent to all the thoughts of sincere indignation that rise up in our mind, because it is useless to enter into a personal combat of any sort.
Enough;—we persist in our expressed opinion, without meaning offence to any one, that persons who wish to teach Judaism must, as a prerequisite, admit all its doctrines. No one can, it is true, coerce the belief; but, on the other hand, there is no earthly necessity that they who cannot believe our standard should be our teachers; and if unfortunately they have qualified themselves by severe study to fit themselves for the functions of Rabbi or minister, and afterwards find that their opinions do not square with what is expected of them, they should act honestly, and renounce a profession for which they have no inward call, and for which they have not the necessary prerequisite,—perfect conviction. There is no necessity that you, he, or I, should be ministers of religion, or professors of mathematics, or demonstrators of anatomy; but this is certain, that if any one of us offers himself to act in either capacity, he must be mentally, morally, and physically capable to do justice to all the duties demanded of him. An imperfectly qualified person may be chosen in the absence of an individual amply endowed; but this is not the rule, but the exception, and is only to be submitted to till the defect can be remedied.
Dr. W. treats our arguments as though they were the most stupid and unsatisfactory in the world. He also speaks of our allies whom we summoned. If the public agree with Dr. W. about our weakness, he ought to rejoice that we had nothing better to oppose him with; for nothing so strengthens an argument as the futile attempts to overthrow it. But we cannot be a judge in our own case. As regards, however, our allies, only one has as yet appeared before the people, and sure we are that no one has any cause to complain of <<308>> his bitterness. We acknowledge that we did call on all those who knew the subject to come out in defence of the faith, and we had especial reference to one person; but the call has not been responded to except by two, one of whom has not yet appeared in our pages; and the others either condemned the discussion outright, as useless and improper, or preserved a profound silence. Our army of defenders therefore is small indeed, and, for numbers, need not excite the wrath of Dr. W.
We again aver, that to reduce everything to the evidence of our senses before admitting it, would destroy all religion; since but few ideas are reducible to the evidence of the apprehension of the corporeal organs of our frame. The very assumption of spirit, immortality, &c., is mysticism, in the strict sense of the word, as you cannot produce the least proof tangible to the senses. It is true that an unreasoning, blind acquiescence in dogmas is injurious to a healthy state of religion; but Judaism always investigated, and the very discussion on the material element of religion which the Occident has always encouraged proves that we at least abhor the absence of close investigation; and we are happy that thus far no injury has resulted to our holy religion from the wide scope of discussion which we have permitted. It is not necessary to follow Dr. W. step by step. But we may say we did not insinuate that our epistle had caused Dr. W. to retract. We only wish that he had done so, and thus aided us to heal the breach which German reforms have produced in four congregations in this country. We rather think that it is ungenerous to accuse us of the paltry meanness which insinuating presupposes. We are apt to call things by their right names; but if Dr. W. had been convinced by any arguments of ours, it would not be to his discredit, as this is the only benefit of discussions, that the truth may be elicited.
We are happy that Dr. Wise has been so successful in reforming those under his ministry; we wish him ample success in the same pious test; but still we may that the result would not have been less, had he preached the creed of Maimonides without abridgment.
We know that excommunications have been pronounced, and can be again, if necessary; but we in this country have no competent tribunal, and we doubt, with Mendelssohn, the expediency of so doing, under almost every circumstance. We do not wish to declare Dr. W. a heretic; but we fear that he covets the distinction of being made a martyr of. We shall take care that he shall not have that satisfaction; <<309>> the moment that he stops the discussion, his name shall only appear in news items, as other persons have frequently appeared; and if that does not suit him, he may interdict being mentioned even, and he shall be gratified. He surely endeavoured to cast ridicule on the Rabbis; and in this he acted with Dr. Mac Caul. We said it in sorrow, and not in sager; but it was only the truth, and this may be spoken.
Dr. Wise will not write any more for us. Be it so. We conducted the Occident four years before we knew of Dr. W.’s existence; and if we live and continue at our post, we hope to find something for our readers, and other correspondents to aid us. Our friends will observe that it is not the illiberal editor, but the liberal disputant, who expresses illiberal sentiments against freedom of discussion; and it will be found so in general, that the greatest tyrants are those who claim the most freedom. Every one is at liberty to submit to them; they alone have the right to employ their tongue and pen. This is not our notion of freedom.