to their silence?
in the Menorah Magazine for July, 1887, in behalf of thou-
sands of Jews bewildered and confused as I was then and am
now, I addressed an open letter to the Rabbis of America setting
forth the difficulties under which I and those similarly situated
were suffering, and earnestly, humbly and respectfully prayed
for answers to certain questions contained in the letter. All the
questions were subsidiary to and finally led up to the one con-
trolling question — What is Judaism ? Define it, tell us what it is.
In adverting now to that letter, I appreciate the fact that I
may, with some show of justice be charged with indelicacy, and if
the matter under discussion were of less moment I should refrain
from calling attention to the communication. I am impressed,
however, with the conviction that in writing it I was not writing
for myself alone, but for a large class, and that when it was pub-
lished it ceased to be mine and became the property of all those in
a like situation with myself. This impression is strengthened by
the reception which the letter received from the Jewish press in
this country and abroad. I cannot here undertake to quote all, or
even any great portion of what was said by the press about it. To
acquit myself, however, of an apparent want of modesty, I will
quote a few expressions to show that I cannot with reason claim
a proprietary interest in the questions.
The Jewish Free Press of St. Louis, July 8, 1887, says:
'The American Jewish youth is waiting with bated breath for
an answer to the questions propounded by Mr. Levi, and which
are re-echoed from a hundred thousand young Jewish souls."
On July 22, 1887, the Jewish Spectator, of Memphis, was tem-
porarily in charge of Mr. B. W. Hirsh, a brilliant lawyer. On that
date a leader warmly commending my article and insisting that it
be answered, appeared.
The American Hebrew of New York, July 8, 1887, after quot-
ing my article in the Menorah, says :
JUDAISM IN AMERICA. 75
"We have no doubt that Mr. Levi gives expression to the
thoughts of thousands of sincere IsraeHtes, and the answer should
be given to him by those entrusted with the position of speaking
in the name of Judaism. Though an individual propounds the
questions, they are, in fact, the queries on the lips of tlfe Jewish
community. It is high time that the people should hear from the
lips of their teachers "What Judaism is," and not as the custom
has been 'What Judaism is not." Should the appointed expo-
nents of the Jewish religion fail to vouchsafe the coveted infor-
mation, laymen may have to step forward and perform the teach-
The Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia, on July 8, 1887, com-
menting on the article, says : "It is in effect a call upon the re-
form movement to define its position."
To an impartial observer, it would certainly appear that ques-
tions so simple and so earnest, insisted upon by so many who are
entitled to be informed, should have been answered.
How, in fact, were they received, and how answered by those
whose duty it is to reply ?
In the September Menorah, 1887, Rev. Dr. L. Kleeberg, of
New Haven, Conn., undertaking to answer the questions, says in
effect: 'The ethical element of the Bible must be considered as
the real essence of Judaism." Then follow passages from the
Scripture as to the duty of man, enjoining conduct required by
every religion of note, such as Christianity, Mohammedanism,
etc. The ethical teachings upon which Dr. Kleeberg insists are
enjoined in the XV Psalm, and these ethical teachings, or this
"ethical element" to use his own language, is his answer as to
what is the real essence of Judaism. The learned Doctor seems
to have overlooked the fact that the question is not, "What is the
real essence of Judaism?" but ''What is Judaism P*^ and he seems
to have entirely overlooked the fact that all religions teach the
particular ethical doctrines to which he has called attention. The
pertinent query arises: If a man lives as enjoined in the XV
Psalm, shall we ipso facto call him a Jew, a Christian, a Moham-
medan, or what?
In the same magazine for October, 1887, the Rev. Dr. B. Fel-
76 LEO N. LEVI MEMORIAL VOLUME.
senthal, of Chicago, prints his answer in German. In the Novem-
ber number of the same magazine the same reply appears in
Enghsh. I quote from the EngHsh version wherein he says:
"Judaism as a reHgion, is a power which sanctifies our life, and
which rests upon the fundamental principle of the acknowledg-
ment of a sole and individual primitive power that conditions and
fosters morality ; a power in life which germinated and developed
itself and progressed in the midst of Israel and the Jews. Juda-
ism is furthermore a religion which has established for itself such
customs, laws, institutions and ceremonies which were made
necessary by and fitted to the respective local and timely circum-
stances and conditions of life among the Jews."
Again he says :
''Let us clearly understand it that we recognize and have to
consider as a Jew, anyone who says of himself that he is a Jew,
who declares that he finds himself in spiritual connection with
Judaism, who maintains that his whole mental life roots within
the soil of Judaism."
It is difficult to criticise such a nebulous answer. If it means
anything, it means that he is a Jew who claims to be a Je.w. This
certainly does not resolve any doubts, or offer any standard by
which to test the claims of conflicting religious schemes all
claiming to be Jewish.
On August 15, 1887, in the Jewish Spectator, published at
^lemphis, Tenn., the Rev. Dr. M. Samfield, the editor, says :
"We may safely predict that no replies will come forth to the
interrogatories published in the Menorah, not because they are
questions answerless and irrefutable, but simply because to fur-
nish Mr. Leo N. Levi with all the information he desires in re-
sponse to the thirty questions, would involve the publication of
about fifteen octavo volumes, printed in minion type. We hope
that no American Rabbi will undertake the gigantic task."
Judaism is assuredly a most complex religion if it cannot be
defined inside of the limits named by him.
The Rev. Dr. Voorsanger, in the Jewish Times, of San Fran-
cisco, published Aug. 12, 1887, undertakes to reply, but instead
writes a most eloquent sermon showing how a man can live a
JUDAISM IN AMERICA. ^^
pure and virtuous life. This sermon might have been written or
preached by any Christian minister, any follower of Mohammed,
Buddha or Confucius. It nowhere undertakes to give a definition,
but devotes itself to the proposition that a man may live a pure
life and be virtuous without any theology or definitions. This
may be true, although I think the contrary is easily shown. But,
true or not, it is no answer to the questions propounded.
Rev. H. M. Bien, of Vicksburg, undertook to answer in six ser-
mons which are now to be had in book form, but the value of his
answer is destroyed by the fact that it does not undertake to de-
fine Judaism, but does undetrake to define the religious tenets of
the author. He adopts the XIX Psalm, as furnishing the correct
guide for love towards God, and duty towards men, and dis-
courses with more or less eloquence upon his theme. But again
it may be said that he has not given any answer to the query pro-
Rev. Dr. Isaac M. Wise, the Nestor among the American Re-
form Rabbis, in the Menorah for October, 1887, says :
"And I will betroth thee unto me forever ; yea, I will betroth
thee unto me in righteousness and justice, and in loving kindness,
and in mercy; and thou shalt know thy God." — Hosea 11-22."
"This formula contains a full and comprehensive definition of
Judaism what it is per se, in theory, and in practice, what it is,
was and forever will be, what are its criteria, its characteristics,
by which it is distinguished from all other creeds and systems.
''Judaism is the religion of the three-fold covenant between
God and Man, God and Israel as recorded and preserved in the
Torah, written by Moses in the book of the Covenant (Exodus
XXIV 1-8, 2 Kings XXII, 8-10 XXIII-24) expounded and re-
duced to practice at different times by Moses, the prophets, sages,
and lawfully constituted bodies of Israel."
Many other efforts more or less ambitious, were made to fur-
nish answers to the questions. None except those that I have
mentioned need be dignified by any reference to them here. Suf-
fice that they w^ere less meritorious and further from answering
the questions or any one of them than those to which I have re-
ferred. In passing I think it but just to say in respect of Dr.
78 LEO N. LEVI MEMORIAL VOLUME.
Wise that while his answer may not be sufficiently comprehensive,
at least it has the merit of being a definition. It undertakes to
assign Judaism to its proximate genus and to differentiate it from
all other religions by a mention of its specific differences. Whether
it be sufficient and accurate or not, I am unable to determine. If
it be accurate, if it be comprehensive, it ought to gain for itself
the consensus of all other Rabbis, whether reform or orthodox.
If it be inaccurate it should be criticised by other Rabbis.
It is manifest that with the single exception of Dr. Wise, none
of those whose replies have come to my attention have under-
taken to give a definition of Judaism. Many have contended that
it cannot be defined. If so there must be reason for it, and we
are entitled to know the reason. When, however, such authority
as Dr. Wise and others undertake to define it and when we find
that lexicographers, philosophers, students and scientific men do
define it, to the comprehension of all men, we cannot be expected
to accede to the proposition that Judaism is incapable of definition.
Shall it not then be defined for us, by those who avowedly preach
and expound it? Shall we not demand such a definition, and
when the statements are made in response to our demand, how
shall we test them ?
Prof. C. P. Tiele, of the University of Leyden, in his article
on Religion, published in the Encyclopedia Brittannica, says:
**Not only has every religion as a whole and every religious
group, to be compared with others, that we may know in what
particular qualities it agrees with or differs from them, and that
we may determine its special characteristics, but, before this can
be done, comparative study on a much larger scale must precede.
Every religion has two prominent constituent elements, the one
theoretical, the other practical, religious ideas and religious acts.
The ideas may be vague conceptions, concrete myths, precise dog-
mas, either handed over by tradition or recorded in sacred books
combined or not into systems of mythology and dogmatics, sum-
marized or not in a creed or symbol, but there is no living re-
ligion without something like a doctrine. On the other hand a
doctrine, however elaborate, does not constitute a religion.
Scarcely less than by its leading ideas, a religion is characterized
JUDAISM IN AMERICA. 79
by its rites and institutions, including in the higher phases of de-
velopment, moral precepts in the higher phases, ethical principles.
It happens but very seldom, if ever, that these two elements bal-
ance each other. In different religions they are commonly found
in very different proportions, some faiths being pre-eminently
doctrinal or dogmatic, others pre-eminently ritualistic or ethical,
but where one of them is wanting entirely, religion no longer ex-
ists. Not that dogma and ritual are religion; they are only its
necessary manifestations, the embodiment of what must be con-
sidered as its very life and essence, of that which as an inner con-
viction must be distinguished from a doctrine or creed — a belief."
All of the standard dictionaries define religion as, "The recog-
nition of God, as an object of worship, love and obedience." The
Imperial Dictionary further defines it as, "The feeling of rever-
ence which men entertain towards a supreme being, or any order
of beings conceived by them as demanding reverence from the
possession of superhuman control over the destiny of man or the
power of nature."
As explanatory of the latter definition, the Imperial Dictionary
quotes as follows from Prof. Max Muller : *Tt may be easily per-
ceived that religion means at least two very different things.
When we speak of the Jewish or Christian religion or the Hindu,
we mean a body of doctrines handed down by tradition or in
canonical books and containing all that constitutes the faith of
Jew, Christian, or Hindu. Using religion in that sense we might
say, that a man has changed his religion, that is that he has adopt-
ed the Christian instead of the Brahamanical body of religious
doctrines, just as a man may learn to speak English instead of
But religion is also used in a different sense. As there is a
faculty of speech, independent of all historical forms of language,
so we may speak of a faculty of faith in man independent of all
historical religions. If we say that it is religion which distin-
guishes man from the animal, we do not mean the Christian or
the Jewish religion only. We do not mean any special religion,
but we mean a mental faculty ; that faculty which independent of,
nay, in spite of sense or reason, enables man to apprehend the In-
8o LEO N. LEVI MEMORIAL VOLUME.
finite unckr different names, and in varying disguises. Without
that faculty no rehgion, not even the lov^est v^orship of idols and
fetishes would be possible; and if we will listen attentively, we
can hear in all religions a groaning of the spirit, a struggle to con-
ceive the inconceivable, to utter the unutterable, a longing after
the Infinite, a love of God."
Here we perceive a distinction which has been lost sight of
almost altogether in the answers of the Rabbis heretofore advert-
Judaism is defined in all of the standard dictionaries as ''the
religious doctrine and rites of the Jews, as enjoined in the laws of
Moses." I do not quote this definition as being absolutely cor-
rect, but merely for the purpose of showing that Judaism is sus-
ceptible of definition, and that its definition has been undertaken
by lexicographers, whose efforts in that direction, whether suc-
cessful or not, are at least comprehensible, and if not correct, may
be made so. Those who are in touch with Judaism and whose
vocation it is to study it, may certainly enlarge or correct the defi-
nition as given in the dictionaries, if that definition requires en-
largement or qualification.
There is no religion, and can be none, that does not embrace
both doctrines and rites. In every religion there must be con-
tained a doctrine, a belief, a command, as well as a mode of life.
The acceptance of such doctrines and beliefs, obedience to such
commands and conformity with such mode of life, are the require-
ments of the particular religion, and those who do not recognize
such requirements, place themselves beyond the pale of the re-
ligion. And this is true, without reference to the virtue or sinful-
ness of the particular individual. History is full of instances of
virtuous practices by free-thinkers, skeptics and even atheists.
Pure and noble men have existed in all religions, and there is
doubtless some community of spirit among all virtuous men. But
it would be absurd to contend because there is much in common
among all good men, that all good men are therefore Christians,
Buddhists, Jews or Mohammedans. All enlightened religions
have a common goal, each seeking to reach it by different roads
or methods. True tolerance recognizes this, and it is in no wise
JUDAISM IN AMERICA. 8l
impaited by the claim on the part of each particular religion, that
its road and its methods are superior to all others.
The great age, the glorious history, the magnificent achieve-
ments and the enduring quality of Judaism must certainly com-
mend it to the earnest attention of every member of the Jewish
race. It should be approached by him, with what Mr. Gladstone
calls "reverential awe." Its criteria, characteristics and essentials
should be most earnestly considered, and if found true, as ear-
nestly observed. Those who are charged, or have charged them-
selves with studying and expounding Judaism, to say the least,
place themselves in a ridiculous attitude if they decline to make
the understanding of this ancient faith an easy matter to all men.
It should be demanded by every Jew, that his minister showld ex-
plain to him, in clear and explicit terms, what is the religion of his
forefathers and what are its essentials.
I anticipate that what I have said will be criticised by those
claiming to have a catholic spirit. It will be contended that I am
seeking to build a wall around Judaism so as to segregate it from
all other faiths and thus engender a spirit of intolerance. It will
be asked, as has already been asked, what matter it whether we
hold to a certain faith or practice certain ceremonies, so long as
we lead a pure and virtuous life. Such a question cannot well be
disregarded, for if it be unimportant to hold to any particular re-
ligion, or to practice any particular rites and ceremonies, then the
complaint, which is the basis of this discussion, is itself without
foundation. I hold that it is of the last importance that a man
should follow a particular religion in order to lead a virtuous life,
and when I say "man" I do not mean a particular man or a partic-
ular class of men, but I mean man in general.
While the child is of tender years, a command from the parent
is susceptible of enforcement, either through love or fear on the
part of the child for the parent. But there comes a time in the life
of the child when its mind expands, and when its reason demands
an explanation of the mandates which it is called upon to obey.
If the father shall tell the child that he must not lie or steal or
commit violence, the child will ask why? The birds and beasts
that the child sees about him practice deception, commit theft, and
82 LEO N. LEVI MEMORIAL VOLUME.
visit violence upon other birds and beasts. Why then should the
child abstain from these things, which it has set before it by ex-
ample every day of its life? The parent will promptly respond
that the child must abstain, because lying, stealing and violence
are wrong. The child will then ask why is it wrong ? Shall the
parent content the inquiring mind by saying that it is wrong, be-
cause I, the parent, have so decreed ? Surely not. Will he under-
take to find a basis in reason for the proposition that lying, steal-
ing and killing are wrong ? Has anyone ever been able to demon-
strate, without reference to some revealed law, that man commits
a sin when he lies, steals or kills ?
I am not unmindful of the argument that every man possesses
certain rights, and that whoever invades those rights commits a
wrong; that every man has a right of life, liberty, property and
reputation, and that whoever invades these rights commits a
wrong. But if these propositons are to be accepted as self-evi-
dent (and unless they be self-evident they cannot be accepted),
are they not equally applicable to every species of the animal king-
dom, as well as to man? Does it not follow that lying, stealing
and violence on the part of the lion and tiger or any other animal
involve the commission of sin?
Such considerations must drive the parent at last to a choice
between teaching morality as a matter of expediency only, or as
obedience to the divine law. If he elects to teach morality as di-
vinely ordained, he must be able to explain to the child when,
where and under what circumstances the law was given, and why
it is obligatory. This involves the teachings not only of religion
in its general aspect, but involves the teaching of a particular re-
I apprehend, however, that it requires no great argument to
impress upon every Jew the importance of teaching Judaism to
his children. There is great need, however, of impressing upon
the Jews the importance of teaching true Judaism to their chil-
dren. It is a grave breach of faith to a child to teach it a religion
which the teacher does not believe to be true. For sooner or later
the child will discover what the teacher regards as spurious, and
will indiscriminately set aside the entire lesson because of that
JUDAISM IN AMERICA. 83
therein contained which is discredited by the teacher. But upon
higher grounds than even the welfare of the child should every
man avoid teaching what he believes to be false. No teacher of
religion, whatever be its form, can justify falsehood and hypoc-
risy upon any ground whatsoever, any more than can any man
justify lying or any other form of wrong-doing. Doing evil that
good may come of it is a pernicious doctrine that can find no
appropriate place in any religious scheme, nor in the life of any
virtuous man. We cannot escape the obligation to teach a re-
ligion to our children, nor the obligation to see that those charged
with the task of teaching are sincere in their work. It becomes,
therefore, for this reason alone, if for no other, of the utmost im-
portance that the teachers of the particular religion shall be sin-
cere in their teachings, and shall be in accord as to the essentials
of the religion they teach. For this reason, among others, the
Jewish laymen should persist in their demand that the Rabbis
shall define Judaism, and shall stand by it or leave it.
I have already shown that the so-called reform Rabbis in the
United States are not generally in accord, and they are unable or
unwilling to define Judaism and to indicate the common ground
upon which they all stand, however great their differences may be
upon minor matters. In many instances they have suffered them-
selves to become intoxicated by the iconoclastic and revolutionary
spirit of the age. They have yielded themselves to the superficial
skepticism of the present era, which is, after all, but a repetition
of the same manifestation at different periods of the world's his-
tory. Whenever man has made great progress in the subjuga-
tion of nature to his own wants, he has set up his own reason, his
own intellect as an object of worship. The human understanding
is set up by a process of deification to be worshipped by itself. It
undertakes to test every propositon by its own powers, and what-
ever it is not able to grasp, conceiftre or comprehend, it rejects as
Even in the time of that great philosopher, Montaigne, it was
the case, and of it he says:
" 'Tis a very great presumption to slight and condemn all
things for false that do not appear to us likely to be true ; which is
$4 LEO N. LEVI MEMORIAL VOLUME.
the ordinary vice of such as fancy themselves wiser than their
neighbors. * * * Reason has instructed me that resolutely
to condemn anything for false and impossible is to circumscribe
and limit the will of God and the power of nature within the
bounds of my own capacity, than which no folly can be greater.
If we give the names of monster and miracle to everything our
reason cannot comprehend, how many such are continually pre-
sented before our eyes ? Let us but consider through what clouds,
as it were, groping through what darkness, our teachers lead us
to the knowledge of most of the things which we apply our
studies to, and we shall find that it is rather custom than knowl-
edge that takes away the wonder and renders them easy and fa-
miliar to us, and that if those things were now newly presented
to us we should think them as strange and incredible if not more
so than any others."
"He that had never seen a river imagined the first he met
with to be a sea; and the greatest things that have fallen within
our knowledge we conclude the extremes that nature makes of
the kind. Things grow familiar to men's minds by being often
seen, so that they neither admire nor are inquisitive into things
they daily see, (Cicero). The novelty rather than the greatness
of things tempts us to inquire into their causes. But we are to
judge with more reverence and with greater acknowledgment of
our own ignorance and infirmity of the infinite power of nature.
How many unlikely things are there testified by people of very
good repute which, if we cannot persuade ourselves absolutely to
believe, we ought at least to leave them in suspense, for to con-
demn them as impossible is by a Temerarious presumption to
pretend to know the utmost bounds of possibility."
The innovations which find their genesis in such a mental