Isaac Leeser.

Discourses, argumentative and devotional, the subject of the Jewish religion. delivered chiefly at the synagogue Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia, in the years 5598-5601 online

. (page 12 of 26)
Online LibraryIsaac LeeserDiscourses, argumentative and devotional, the subject of the Jewish religion. delivered chiefly at the synagogue Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia, in the years 5598-5601 → online text (page 12 of 26)
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Moses, the Muezzin of a newly-invented religion call to prayer,
in the name, it is true of the One God, but associated with the
belief in a prophet whom He did not send, and out of whose
mouth He has not spoken. Go abroad over the hills and val-
leys of Palestine, formerly the land of wheat and barley, the
fig, the vine, the promegranate, the olive and date-palm ; where
from every eminence refreshing springs bubbled forth ; where
on every side were fertile valleys, vine-clad summits, populous
towns ; where on every meadow the cattle grazed in undis-
turbed security ; where at eventide in all its boundaries the
shepherd might be seen leading back his thriving flock, in
desert, on plain, and mountain, by running brook, or purling
spring ; go there where once the beloved nation dwelt under
the guidance of their Legislator's code, under the shadow of
his rule : and you will wonder over the desolation you will
everywhere behold. The towns ? they are swept from the
face of the earth, and of many famous for deeds of bravery, for
schools, for nurseries of piety, not a stone is left to mark the spot
where once they stood ; and the others yet existing have lost
their splendour, and squalid wretchedness and indolent, unlabour-
ing beggary is the lot of their sparse inhabitants. The olive
groves in many places are cut down, and though in several
parts the fertility and extraordinary products of the land are
not entirely gone : still in many others the earth- itself seems to
have changed its nature, the water springs are drying up, and
the means of fertilizing the soil, which formerly existed, are
falling into decay and disuse under the iron sway of the present
inheritors of our once blessed patrimony. Where formerly the
shepherd fed his flock, and the herdsman stood listlessly near *-
the lowing ox or the grazing cow, the robber now lies in wait^




behind the bare crag of some overhanging rock to despoil the
unarmed traveller of his envied possessions. And wherever the
few scanty remains of Israel dwell, they are subject to the
arbitrary rule, the outrageous exactions, the cruel treatment of
some covetous Arab, or a bloodthirsty satrap of the Turkish
emperor. There is no festive throng in Palestine ; there is no
joy at the return of the holy seasons ; there is no security for
life or limb ; but under the dear-bought protection of the stranger
the sons of Jacob revisit their own long-loved land ; and amidst
trembling and fear they worship where their forefathers wor-
shipped ; and in the home of the free, the land of the brave
they dwell subject at every hour to be plundered without resist-
ance, to be incarcerated without appeal, to be tortured and
slain with scarcely any one willing or able to stay the execu-
tioner's hand.

For centuries this has been the fate of our people and of
our inheritance ; and wide-spread sorrow has been the lot of one,
and almost utter desolation that of the other. How many times
did the wheel of sorrow pass over us ! how often has been
unsheathed the sword to wound and to slay ! how many pre-
cious spirits were sent to an untimely grave, only because they
were sons of a hated race. And it mattered little who it was
that bore rule, whether the cunning Grecian, the proud Roman
polytheist, the fire-worshipping Persian, the light Arab, the
warlike Seljuk, or knightly Englishman, or the pilgrim Gaul ;
all alike have hated, spurned, and slaughtered myriads of our
unoffending brothers ! hated them without cause ; spurned them
because of their belief; and slaughtered them for the sake of
crimes which they were not guilty of, and for the shedding of
blood which their soul abhorred ! It would be a heartrending
task to recount one thousandth part of all the evils which we
had to bear in Palestine no less than elsewhere since our cap-
tivity commenced ; but so full is the history of nearly every
nation with the cruelties inflicted on us, so stained with innocent
blood are the hands of many communities : that they who note
down passing events have scarcely thought it worth while to
mention the particulars, or to tell us the number of the victims
slain to glut the demon of persecution. In short, many have
always, as it were, consumed us ; and treachery and art, per-


suasion and force, bribes and the sword have all been employed
to diminish the number of those who follow the law of the God
of Abraham.

And do you believe that these persecutions are events of long
by-gone years, to be sought for in musty records of history ?
Alas ! no ; there has not been a single age, perhaps not a single
year since our dispersion, which has not witnessed atrocities
of this nature, which has not told of Israel's degradation and
sorrow. Even at this very day, in an age which calls itself
enlightened, when learning is achieving wonderful triumphs,
when science is laying daily open the hidden things of nature
and organization, when one might have hoped that the mind of
man would have become less savage and more active to the
calls of humanity : we have an exemplification of the same
dark deeds which well befitted the iron age when men incased
in steel, and covered with armour of proof, fought for sport
with sharpened spears and uplifted swords till one of the com-
batants lay dead in the lists ; and when fired by the spirit of
fanaticism and the love of adventure, tens of thousands forsook
their northren shores to contend with the dusky sons of the East
for the possession of a fancied treasure which they imagined to
exist in Palestine. Then indeed, when the priests alone could
read and write, when the man of war, with a sword and steed,
was more valued than the peaceful farmer or the skilful artisan :
it was to be expected that men engaged in perilous warfare,
incited by blind zeal, could, horrible though it may be, so far
forget the law of love as to chant praises in the midst of
streams of blood which defiled the streets of Jerusalem ; whilst
thousands of victims of a murderous assault and an indiscrimi-
nate slaughter lay yet unburied within the precincts of the city
of David. But this state of things has passed away ; the lust
for and practice of war have in a measure had to yield to the
arts of peace ; it was to be hoped, that, after the sword had in
a few late years drunk the gore of millions, a spirit of calm
inquiry would have stopped up the entrance of unreason and
falsehood ; but unfortunately this has not been the case, and to
this very day zealots and fanatics do not pretermit their efforts
at extinguishing the lamp of Israel ; and not content with at-
tempts at our opinions, they have again within late commenced


the system of false accusation, in order to surrender our heads
once more to the executioner, that the earth might again drink
the life-blood of the best of Jacob's sons. The same fables, the
falsity of which has been often proved, the absurdity of which
is too apparent to deserve a serious refutation, have been again
revived, and it has been said that we need the blood of gentile-
victims to celebrate our sacred festivals. The mussulman and
the papist have joined hands to fasten this foul charge upon our
brothers of the East ; and many have been dragged to prison,
subjected to torture and every species of cruelty, nay some are
said to have expired under the inflictions of their fiendish per-
secutors. Ay, these victims have cried for help ! but who
stood forth to aid them ? they appealed to their religion which
forbids murder, but they spoke to men who feel not pity for the
outcasts of Israel ; the voice of Europe and of this land, which is
lifted up loud enough when other cases of suffering and outrage
are presented, has barely been raised ; nay the presumed author
of this great wrong is not called on to answer for the evil he
has done. O God ! has it come to this is it thy will that we
are never to know rest ? that we are always to be the mark for
malice and wrong ? But thy will be done ; even as Thou de-
creest, O our Father ! be it our aim to learn submission ; only
keep alive thy spirit, the love of thy law within us ; that thy
judgments may tend to purify our souls, to exalt our hearts to
Thee, our King and Saviour !

Indeed, brethren, it does seem that the curse denounced
against us for our manifold misdeeds is yet active as ever it was,
that the infraction of the covenant of God with our forefathers
demands to this day the punishment of the rebellious race.
For what does Moses say in Leviticus (xxvi. 38) 1 " And ye
shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies
shall eat you up." Yes, this has been fulfilled literally, with the
sole limitation, that the perishing and the eating up have not
been entire, for punishment was threatened, not extermination.
The inspired seer stood on the top of Horeb, that cradle of our
national existence ; he was permitted to survey virtue and its
reward, sin and its direful visitation. To his prophetic view
the future lay opened, and he saw how the evil might be averted
by a steady adherence to the law of God ; but he also beheld



the empire of truth invaded by the armies which the inclination
to evil is capable of raising against the spread of righteousness
on earth. Moses therefore begged and entreated his brother
Israelites never to lose sight of their Lord and Redeemer, never
to forget that He is ready to reward and able to punish. He
warned them that by the observance of the covenant alone could
they have peace ; but that war and the pestilence, accompanied
by their handmaids famine and sickness, should desolate their
heritage for their refusal to obey. And he said in continuation,
that our residence among the gentiles should constantly diminish
our numbers, and that so to say our increase should be eaten
up by the land of our enemies. Has the force of this curse
ever struck you ? if not, reflect for one moment how truly it
has been accomplished. Compare our present number with
what it might have become had we been left undisturbed since
our second expulsion from Palestine, had not so many hundreds
of thousands been doomed to the sword, had not so many more
been mingled up either by force or voluntarily with the nations
of the earth : how large would at this day have been the rem-
nant of Israel ; every land would have been full of us, every
part of the earth would have felt our power. This would have
been, had we reflected on our conduct, and returned to the Lord
in the lands of our enemies with all our heart, when He would
have opened our bonds and given us enlargement. But we
always sought our interest more than the salvation of our God ;
even in times of danger the spirit of gain swayed our souls,
and we endeavoured to fortify ourselves against the attacks of
an unfriendly world by the possession of wealth. It appeared
as though we wanted to make riches the bulwark against pre-
judice, and to rely upon the effects to be derived from the
gifts of God more than upon God himself. Such folly therefore
met its due visitation, our wealth was made the means of our
destruction ; the cupidity of our enemies became excited, and
the apparent wretchedness of the Jews did not conceal from
their keen-sighted persecutors the immense hoards of worldly
goods they had heaped up; and the destruction of so many
homesteads, the expulsion of our people from so many lands
only too well evidenced, that our hopes had been built upon a
shallow foundation. And when in other places and other times


we mixed too carelessly with, the gentiles, when we began
perhaps to forget that we were sojourners far from our own
land, the blessed hills of Judcea : again the decree of sorrow
went forth, and catholic Spain and her sister Portugal dipped
their arms deep, deep into rivers of blood shed by the merciless
judges of Judah's fallen daughter. It was long indeed since peace
had shed her smile on our path; we were driven from one
country to the other, and scarcely any one land was willing to
receive into its bosom the loathed descendants of the friends of the
Lord ; and where we were permitted to rest awhile, the badge
of degradation was fixed on our garments, we were penned up
in particular streets, denied the privilege of following the paths
of industry best suited to our capacities and tastes, and con-
demned to resort to traffic alone and menial employments to
supply bread for our wives and little ones. Even the right to
marry was in many places refused except under cruel re-
strictions and onerous exactions, and this is still continued in
several parts of Europe to this very day. -For those only who
outwardly forswore their hopes in Israel's salvation there was
opened the race to preferment and distinction ; and thus, what
with the dread of death by the executioner's hands, and honours
and ease on the other side, many were lost among the gentiles,
though we may also boast of a greater number who embraced
death as their deliverer sooner than forego the favour of their
God, their portion as adherents to his law, and of others who,
though conscious of talents to raise them to renown in higher
employments, and not unfrequently invited to forsake their
people, still continued to live as Jews in conscious integrity and
an obscurity more honourable than the blood-stained triumph of
a monarch.

With all this the hand of God was visibly stretched out for
our protection, and despite of all the dangers that encompassed
us we were not utterly destroyed. At length the bigotry of an
iron age began gradually to wear away before the re-discovered
saving power of the holy Bible. The world began to inquire, and
to doubt the authority that bound every thing to the mandate
of a priestly autocrat. By degrees too the bonds of persecution
towards our people were more and more loosened ; and though


yet oppressed, and not permitted to be put on an equality with
other men, we needed no longer to tremble for our personal
safety and the security of the honest fruits of our industry. We
already thought ourselves beyond the reach of the recurrence
of ancient barbarities, we fancied the world too enlightened to
persecute each other because they could not agree on specula-
tive matters. Especially were many of us lulled into security
when not long since the spirit of innovation swept like a mighty
whirlwind over the civilized world, overturning in its violence
long cherished opinions, prostrating deep-rooted custom, scat-
tering to the winds institutions which formerly no man dared to
question. We then saw those who had hated us bending in their
turn to the blast ; we beheld our persecutors flying themselves
from the fury of a populace formerly obedient to their wink in
the slaughter of unoffending Israelites. We heard liberty and
equality proclaimed as the birthright of every son of man; and
saw the people everywhere roused by this cheering cry bursting
asunder the fetters of slavery and ranging themselves under the
banner which promised to lead them to victory over the pros-
trate ruins of the mighty fabric which ages of superstition had
endeavoured to rear, like another tower of Babel, the top of
which should reach unto heaven. We saw and heard all this ;
and torn away too by the popular torrent, we hailed this period
as one of Israel's salvation, we felt that we too could share in
the triumph of the people's cause we rejoiced that we were
free. And truly the change was great and grateful ; the con-
tempt attached to the name of Jew nearly vanished, when so
many bearing it were invested with power equally with other
men, when bursting forth from the shackles of prejudice,
from the limits which the hatred of our name had cast around
us, we vindicated our rights as men by a display of excellence
in all branches of honourable pursuit and knowledge which
before had been interdicted to us ! But wo ! as our prosperity
increased, so increased our indifference to religion and its obser-
vance ; as the great mass cast off antiquated opinions, so too did
we hasten to prove that the revolution had touched our spirit
also. Would ! that truth were not compelled to acknowledge
the apostacy of Israel ! would ! that a lover of his faith might
say, that we did bear becomingly the change in our circum-


stances. But as ever, "Jeshurun grew fat and kicked;" and
everywhere we mingled upon equal terms with the nations, and
forgetful of our obligations to the God of our deliverance, we
ate the food which his law prohibits; we violated the Sabbath
of his ordaining ; we intermarried with the gentile women, and
our daughters wedded those who are not of the stock of Jacob ;
we refused to circumcise our male children ; we reformed, as
we called it, our simple worship ; neglected the study of the
Scriptures; and in short became lamentably deficient in the
fulfilment of our duties. Yes, we imagined that our freedom
was the gift of men, not the bestowal of the Supreme, for which
He deserves more energetic exertions to serve and obey Him ;
we imagined that the age of persecution was over, and that the
price of divine protection, the constant vigilance over our con-
duct, was no longer needed. We fell as we always have fallen;
and prosperity as in former ages rendered us careless of that
which adversity had rendered dear to us as the light of our eyes.
Hence it was that we so eagerly sought to become like other
nations, and hence it is the melancholy spectacle was witnessed
of entire families falling off from our religion, not by open apos-
tacy, by an avowed joining of the standard of our opponents ;
but by a gradual leaving off of all the distinguishing character-
istics of Jewish conduct, till at length of some of these families
there is not one remaining to claim affinity with the sons of
Israel. Such persons moreover are more injurious than avowed
apostates, for these last are shunned as deserters from the fold
of the Lord ; but the others are like the festering cancer, they
are a part of ourselves and destroy the vitality of the body on
which they feed. And truly these lukewarm followers of our
faith, these Jews by name, where there is no substantial reli-
gious conviction or outward conformity, have by their example,
and associations, and family connections drawn in thousands of
others, who otherwise might have stood steadfast ; until at length
we view with complaisance, without the least horror, the public
violation of the Sabbath, the eating of the gentile's food, and
the intermarriage with strangers to our blood, to such a degree
even, that scarely any regret is expressed if, by such an act as
the last mentioned, an entire household bo driven from the com-


munity of our people, and thrown into the fatal embrace of
strangers to our religion. Nay more, people violate every com-
mandment, some will not seal their offspring with the sign of
the covenant, and still claim the right of Israelites as though no
wrong were chargeable on their conscience ; and they thus ac-
knowledge that whilst wilfully rebelling against the law, they
believe in its sanctity and divine origin. And these deeds we
imagine will remain unavenged? we defy God, and fancy that
his thunders slumber? But "lo He slumbers not, He sleeps not,
the Guardian of Israel;" He who ever stretched out his hand to
draw us safely out of the fowler's snare, or from the floods of
mighty waters, will save us, despite of ourselves, from the con-
sequences of our own iniquity, from the foxes among us who
wound our vineyards, the vineyards of the Lord, that have
tender grapes.* The Lord in his own good time will purify
his fold, He will cast out thence those who will not follow the
lead of their Shepherd. Yea ! though they flourish awhile, their
hour of retribution is nigh, nearer than any one may perhaps
imagine. For, believe me brethren ! this is not the first time
that indifference and neglect were the besetting sins of our
people; already during our existence as an independent nation
were there men like those I have endeavoured to sketch to you.
An Elijah had to fly for his life because he had fulfilled the com-
mand of the law on those who had misled the people to sin; and
when after the times of this devoted prophet the judgment of
the Most High had cast the ten tribes from their boundaries: the
remaining families of Israel persisted in sin, imagining that the
evil would not reach them. They, like the men in our day,
were lulled in fatal security, they would not believe that their
stronghold Jerusalem could become a prey to the devouring
flame. It was then that Jeremiah was called to step forward
as the prophet of wo, and to denounce upon the sinful genera-
tion and their guilty city the evil which was hastening with
rapid strides to overwhelm in one common ruin king and people,
priest and prophet, city and country, the holy and the profane.
And thus we read:

* Song of Solomon, ii. 15.


run nnx no -10*6 Stf ; n -m m
roDn Stf 'n *iD*n : nsn O

S nan Sy OK

" Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying: What dost thou
see, Jeremiah? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree. Then said the
Lord to me : Thou hast well seen, for I am hastening with my word to fulfil
it." Jer. i. 11, 12.

I will merely remark incidentl ythat the same root in Hebrew
signifying almond also makes the verb hasten, thus Shahkayd
and Shahkahd ; hence the vision representing to the prophet's
view the speedy accomplishment of the evil was a rod of an
almond tree; and let me farther state that many passages in the
prophets must be explained in a similar manner by a reference to
a similarity of words in the Hebrew original text which no trans-
lation can convey. Enough, the prophet saw long before the
people thought themselves in danger the certain approach of the
fulfilment of God's word conveyed to them by former messen-
gers, unless they themselves would avert the evil by a speedy
and thorough repentance. The servant of the Lord went forth,
reasoned with his brethren, and for many years exhorted them
to reflect and to return to the safe haven of the divine protec-
tion; yet they refused to listen, their ears were closed, their eyes
averted. But the evil they did not suppose possible did come
at length, and famine, and pestilence, and fire, and sword com-
pleted the work of desolation, and never was the crown of our
head restored since it was hurled to the ground in the days of
Zedekiah. This briefly was our fate in former years, when we
sinned, reckless of the impending judgment: coming events were
sketched out, so to say, before the people's eyes, but they would
not believe themselves guilty, nor would they imagine' the pro-
phecies would become fulfilment. May it not be, beloved
brethren, that evil is now impending over us for our manifold
transgression, for our repeated disregard of the duties demanded
by our holy law? Even now persecution has again lighted her
consuming torch, its lurid glare has already terrified many of our
distant communities, nay some have bled under its visitation;


and we fear not; we think the evil too far removed for us to dread
its approach. But may not the reports we hear be the mutter-
ing of the distant thunder which ere long may burst over our
own heads in all the fierceness of a destroying storm ? may not
the distant sorro\v be like the heavy atmosphere which precedes
the earthquake that overthrows cities and desolates fertile lands/
may not our present safety be like the slumbering of a volcano
whose fires are not quenched though its eruptions have ceased?
I fear, I fear, that our security is of a like uncertain tenure; for
if even there should be no human persecution possible in lands
where the rule of the laws is firmly established, God's power is
not shortened, and He has in store exquisite pains of a new and
unheard-of nature perhaps, which may unawares strike deep
into the heart of the obdurate sinner.

Our fathers have sinned, and they are no more ; yet we bear
the burden of our captivity for the sins they committed. They
were unwise inasmuch as they would not take warning when
they were admonished. Shall we imitate their follies ? shall we
hear the voice that admonishes us without heeding its call ? O
no, brethren ! remove this stumbling-block of unbelief on which
so many have been wrecked already ; draw nearer to the Rock
of salvation, to the Lord your God, whose precepts are in your

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Online LibraryIsaac LeeserDiscourses, argumentative and devotional, the subject of the Jewish religion. delivered chiefly at the synagogue Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia, in the years 5598-5601 → online text (page 12 of 26)