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 13 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 13 of 26)
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hands. Seize hold of the hand that is pointing out the road ye
should walk, and fear not to suffer for the sake of your Maker,
if his service should be surrounded by bodily dangers. He is
the Author of your life, the Arbiter of your fortune ; and why
then should you refuse to yield the one or relinquish the other if
even.these were demanded ? But no such sacrifice is desired of
you now; you are merely asked to devote a small part of your
days, a little bodily suffering, but a small portion of your wealth,
because the law so makes it your duty. Let us, therefore, hope
that we will take better counsel, and that we will become more
and more allied,to the Creator by deeds which well befit Israel,
which are consonant with the service of the Most High. If then
notwithstanding this obedience misfortune should be our lot, we
will have the consolation that we have the favour of our God to
assist us in our sorrow ; and that though men frown, He will
smile approvingly when we are summoned into his presence to


render an account of the deeds done in the flesh whilst perform-
ing our weary pilgrimage on earth.

Father above ! answer our prayer, and look with compas-
sion on thy people in every land where they dwell; prosper the
good which is desired in their behalf; but frustrate all the evil
designs of those who endeavour to injure thy heritage ; and re-
member that we are thy own peculiar treasure, the children of
thy servants, to whom Thou hast promised redemption through
thy messenger, the anointed son of David. Amen.

Tamuz 23d
July 24th

NOTE. The above Discourse was written with reference to the persecu-
tion of the Jews which commenced in the winter of '40 both at Rhodes and
Damascus under the false pretext, the parent nevertheless of many similar
atrocities in the middle ages, of the Jews employing human blood at their fes-
tivals. That such an absurdity should ever have been advanced, not to mention
its finding credence with so many whose opportunities of knowing the truth
must have been ample, is truly a phenomenon in the history of the follies to
which the human mind has at times been known to cling svith a pertinacity
and avidity which would have been honouring the cause of virtue and be-
nevolence. And it appears to me that the serious refutation bestowed upon
this calumnious charge by so many distinguished men of our people is
almost superfluous; were it not that despite of its absurdity it has worked
mischief enough and caused incalculable suffering to thousands of Israelites
at different times. Yet as the world has advanced so wide in civilization,
and a knowledge of our laws and ceremonies is now so extensive, it is to be
hoped that its late revival, and the consequent persecution, may be the last
we shall have to witness. In another address I had occasion to dwell more
at length upon this melancholy occurrence stripped of the above application to
religious improvement, and to exhibit some more of the especial features which
presented themselves in connection with it, although it amounts by no means
to any thing like a history of the event; which however I could hardly give
in the course of two or three lectures, and which I have no doubt will at
some future day be furnished by some one of the gifted sons of our people.

One gratifying circumstance has attended this affliction. Men of all per-
suasions and of all countries have felt and so expressed themselves that a
great wrong has been committed against an unoffending body of men ; and
individuals in all stations have emulated to show their sympathy and to offer
relief. Pre-eminent among these stands Mr. Van Buren, the chief magis-
trate of this republic, who unsolicited by any one instructed the ambassador
of the United States at Constantinople and their consul at Alexandria to use
their influence in behalf of the prisoners, and to urge the abolition of torture

VOL. in. 11


in judicial proceedings. I know not whether these recommendations have
had any effect ; but this is of no importance in the present case, as I only
refer to the honourable feeling without reference to the consequences. I will
merely state, that when writing the above Discourse these orders had not
been given ; in fact no public movement whatever had taken place in this
country in the matter; though since then the case has been very different.

As these sheets are going through the press the gratifying intelligence
has been received, that through the agency of Sir Moses Montefiore and
M. Cremieux the Pacha of Egypt has ordered the liberation of all the pri-
soners confined in Damascus, and given permission to those who had fled to
return to their homes. Still the favour of a public trial, which would have
demonstrated their innocence, has been refused, and the torture has not yet
been abolished, although it was urged by the " representatives of the Jews
of all the globe." In Rhodes also the falsity of the charge has been made
apparent, and the authors of the wrong have been punished for their daring
violation of the rights of humanity. Thus have they, who had at first no
one to aid them, been snatched from destruction, and thus has divine Good-
ness raised up friends and advocates to plead the cause of the oppressed.

Heshvan 21st, 5601.



GLORY unto the Father who is everlasting, praise and holi-
ness to the Creator of the universe, even in the midst of his
servants the house of Israel whom He has chosen to be his
people, the messengers of his word, the heralds of his glory, as
long as endure the heavens and the earth which He created in
power and wisdom. Amen.


Like the works of the Lord, so are his word and promises,
enduring for ever. Whatever is, exists, just as you see it, for


a wise and useful object, although your information, your know-
ledge of the ways of God, will not permit you to discover the
why ? and wherefore 1 Even so is the ,word revealed from the
Supreme Ruler ; its essence is wisdom, its purpose the beati-
tude and salvation of the creatures of his hands. Nothing in
all nature is fortuitous, that is to say, nothing is, as we find it,
put here by chance, at random, without an ulterior view, with-
out design; for the Wisdom that created, surveyed after creating
every thing which exists, and pronounced it " very good :" the
design is apparent at every step; the foresight which con-
structed all is proven by the admirable adaptation of every
thing for the object of its existence ; every being rejoices in its
own sphere of action ; and the pondrous mass of iron which
the smith wields to fashion into shape the articles which he ela-
borates is no less suited to its end, by its texture, hardness and
power of endurance, than is the human body, wonderful as are
its form and structure, to the end of its formation. The more
knowledge you obtain, the deeper you penetrate by study and
reflection into the mysteries and connection of outward nature,
the stronger, the more convincing will these facts force them-
selves upon your conviction ; and at every step in advance you
take in the wide book of scientific discovery you will be stand-
ing self-abashed for ever having dared to doubt the wisdom and
power of your Creator ; and if in the commencement of your
inquiry you started with the dreadful idea of disproving the
existence of one Ruler and Maker, the first dawn of light which
the harmony of all things sends into your soul will make you
exclaim with the Psalmist : " Thou art the God that doest
wonders, Thou hast made known thy strength among the na-
tions."* The dark clouds of unbelief will vanish ; your eyes will
be opened to the glorious truth that beams from every star, that
shines forth from the bright light of day, that rises upwards
from the green meadows, from the flowing brook, from the
arid plain ; and your ears will greedily drink in the sound that
speaks from every hill, from every valley, which is repeated
from the sage whose words are wisdom, from the yet speech-
less babe, from the howling beasts of the desert, and from the

* Psalm Ixxvii. 15.


leathered minstrels : " There is a God, who made us all !" It
is ignorance alone which can doubt the existence of a Creator;
it is folly alone which in its presumption can deny the over-
ruling of an all-wise, all powerful, all-merciful Providence.
Devotion however is the child of knowledge, and the progress
-of instruction will fill the spirit with prayerful thoughts, with
exulting thanksgiving for the innumerable blessings, for the
countless means of enjoyment which are so liberally scattered
over the whole surface of nature by its wise and benignant

But no less than outw r ard nature, is the inspiration of God
manifested in the books of Holy Writ, an object of admiration ;
and the whole scheme of divine truths presents to thinking
minds causes for study and humble submission ; and the more
our circle of knowledge is enlarged, the greater will become
our attachment to the precepts and doctrines which our Maker
has been pleased to bestow on a benighted world. Just as with
the Creator himself, nothing but ignorance can have doubts of
the existence of the holy Word, or of the wisdom of the institu-
tions which are founded on it. Many there have indeed been
who have affected to disbelieve, to find fault, to deny the excel-
lence of the treasure which they either did not understand or if
understanding wickedly rejected. But look at their doings
and have these been of the kind to win admiration from their
fellow-beings? at their teaching and can you discover in it
aught of that universal applicability which the Bible presents at
every page ? It were enough to make a philanthropist weep
over the folly of man to behold the imbecile presumption with
which he endeavours to measure the code of our Lord by the
small measure of knowledge and light which has been bestowed
on him ; especially if he at the same time surveys all the systems
which have ever been based upon human invention from the
beginning of the world unto our own days. On all sides jarring
inconsistencies will be apparent ; and the attempts to file away
the roughness of the scriptural scheme in the modern so called
improvements, will exhibit themselves as things to be deprecated
by those who humbly wish to serve their Maker and to promote
the best interests of their neighbour.

Let the doubter speak of the terrors of a bloody code, such


as the Mosaic dispensation ; let him declare that he understands
not how a law, claiming to be of divine origin, can demand the
immolation of criminals for a violation of its details : still let
the believer not be deterred from pursuing his humble inquiries
into the beauties of the heavenly gift in our possession ; but let
him look upon the denunciations of punishment in their true
light, as evidence of the great weight which the Lord attaches
to the observance of his precepts, and that He deemed the trans-
gression of the most vital of them so dangerous to the general
welfare, as to ordain that he who purposely so offends, and
scandalizes his neighbour by his open misconduct should re-
ceive condign punishment as a sinner against the public peace
and happiness. He ought farther to take into consideration,
that it by no means follows, that a punishment is inflicted be-
cause it is threatened ; but that the law merely declares that a
punishment should follow a violation, and the only object of the
threat thus made is to deter those, who otherwise might be in-
duced from wilfulness or interested views to become guilty in
the eyes of the law, from fulfilling their sinful intentions. I will
merely mention here incidentally, that the punishment of death,
according to the best authorities, was rarely witnessed in Pales-
tine, perhaps a centenarian might never have seen one execu-
tion from one end of the country to the other ; so mild was the
sway of the Mosaic precepts, so careful of life, of the sinner's
even, was the code which of old governed the Israelitish nation.
To continue : who would blame a father, if he were to an-
nounce to his son that he should have no share in his patri-
mony were he to bring disgrace upon his family by a criminal
course of life 1 Yet precisely similar is the case with the law ;
it is the gift of our universal Parent, the Bestower of life and
happiness ; it is intended as the best safeguard of our temporal
and permanent welfare ; it is our inheritance, and mankind
have been appointed its guardians. Now one of the commu-
nity, disregarding his obligation to his God and to his fellow-
beings, wilfully transgresses, and bids open defiance to the
kindly warning which would gladly teach him better things :
he becomes in consequence an outcast from the community of
the law, and a fester upon the body politic ; he is, so to say,
disinherited from his father's household, and his life becomes a



forfeit to deter others from following the evil which has been
daringly perpetrated among them ! Not, therefore, to revenge,
but to infuse wholesome terror into the general mass, for the
promotion of the greatest good of the greatest number, was the
sword handed over to those who are, under the divine sanction
of revelation, to administer the rule of state and the dispensa-
tion of justice for the benefit of every individual, be he high or
low, exalted or humble. For were it not the terror of the laws,
the state of society would be deplorable in the extreme ; each
man would endeavour to right himself by his own strength of
arm ; he would in a measure be compelled to redress his own
wrongs ; and it requires but a small share of comprehension to
be convinced that such proceedings would produce anarchy
among the powerful, and suffering and sorrow among the weak
and unprotected. If now the Mosaic law is inexorable in its
punishment of murder, what is effected thereby ? nothing less
than the restraining of the man of violence or him of hasty
and ungovernable anger from violating the life of his fellows ;
for if his passion would arm his hand against his brother, he
will be perhaps induced to reflect that if he should be con-
victed of shedding a brother's blood, he would have no mercy
to expect from the community who are appointed to decide
upon the degree of his criminality.

If the profanation of the Sabbath, committed publicly and in
defiance of brotherly admonition, and where there is no case
of necessity proved, consigns the offender to the visitation of
an ignominious death: is there so much sympathy to be ex-
pressed for him who has daringly rebelled against the com-
mandments ? No ! for the Sabbath was to be the weekly
acknowledgment of God's rule on earth and of the debt of gra-
titude owing from the people to their Deliverer ; it was to be
a time of reunion of all that has life in the presence of the
Lord ; and everywhere should be rest, calmness, adoration.
Now steps forward one from the entire mass, forgetful of God's
power, disregarding his obligation as a son of Israel ; he will
not rest when his brothers rest ; his ox is not to stand quietly
in the stall ; his ass is to bend his back to the burden ; his ser-
vants are not to refresh themselves ; his son is not to go and
hear the word of salvation propounded ; his daughter is not to


mingle with those who go joyously forward lo the house of
God ; his wife is not to appear among the matrons of her people
when all others abstain from toil ; what is he but a rebel against
the divine Majesty which dwells in Israel, a disturber of the
public peace, a destroyer of the social compact, who, if his
example were followed, would lead many to sin, by producing
a neglect of an institution which is wholesome at the same time
to the body, and binding the soul more closely to the Ruler
of the universe ? Therefore, says the law (Exodus xxxi. 14) :
" Therefore you shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy unto you ;
every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death ; for who-
soever doth any work thereon, that soul shall be cut off from
among his people." Not, as we said before, in vengeance, not
because the law thirsts for the transgressor's blood, but to re-
move the evil example of the wicked sinner who, knowing the
responsibility he incurs, will still bid defiance to his God, who
is the invisible King of his people, and neglect the institution
which his brothers in faith justly esteem as too sacred to be
disregarded with impunity.

Let us take another example. The foundation of our law is
the acknowledgment of the Supreme Being, who manifested
himself to our forefathers in Egypt, as we read (Exodus xx. 2.) :
" I am the Lord thy God who have brought thee out of the
land of Egypt from the house of slavery." Here we are told
who it is that demands our obedience ; not a being of doubtful
power, of questionable goodness, but One of infinite greatness,
whose hand is not restrained, whose working is not limited by
obstacles, by time, by localities, whose power pervades every
space, whose care watches over every creature, whose justice
leaves not the humble to remain a prey to the oppressor. This
is the essence of our King ! this the doing of our God ! who is
great, good, holy, one, and eternal. Not, therefore, because
He is jealous of a rival who does not exist, not, therefore, be-
cause He is unwilling to share his glory with a second who can
have no being, was idolatry or false worship prohibited ; but
simply because such fatal error must be destructive to the wel-
fare of the people, as it would gradually lead them away from
the truth, and cause the prevalence of systems of darkness and
iniquity, where non-entities are adored in place of the overliving


God, and superstition and misrule take the place of the wise
laws emanating directly from the Supreme Wisdom. What
then ought to be the fate of the presumptuous sinner who pub-
licly throws off the yoke which it is graceful for man to bear,
who denies his accountability to his heavenly Father, who
openly declares that he has no portion in Israel's God ? Is the
earth to groan under the weight of such a monster among the
community of the righteous ? is he to be permitted to utter
aloud his blasphemy, and perchance to erect an image of Mo-
loch within his field, and sacrifice to it his innocent son, his
sinless daughter ? The punishment may seem bloody, but it is
the only one that is meet for the crime ; and whereas the sinner
has become a scandal and a hinderance to his brothers : the
law demands his removal from among the living, that, since
his life has exhibited a bad example, his death may atone for
the guilt and be the means of deterring others from following
the path of sin which leads to destruction. But observe, it was
not speculative idolatry which was punishable by the sword of
justice ; for whilst man sinned only to his Maker the vengeance
was in the hands of the Lord alone ; not to man was to be
given the judging over another's thoughts and opinions ; but it
was only when the daring had proceeded to the length of an
outward adoration, or of some act which proved to the satis-
faction of men that the transgressor had thrown off the alle-
giance which the whole community owed to their heavenly
King, that the civil authorities could step forward to arrest, try,
condemn and punish an act which had placed the criminal
beyond the pale of the laws, and rendered him unworthy of
life. It were easy to go farther into this inquiry, and to exhibit
at greater length the correctness of the punishments in the Mo-
saic rule of other wrongs besides those enumerated ; but for
once we have shown enough that the objections of the doubter
are by no means formidable before the light of reason ; and at
some future day it is probable that the inquiry may be pursued
in its more minute ramifications. Enough for our purpose that
the punishments were commensurate with the crimes, and that
their aim was the purification of the body politic when it was
evident that the sinner himself had been placed beyond the
reach of amendment. In addition to this we find a gradation


of punishment, and nowhere do \ve discover a minor wrong
visited by the greater retaliation. Happy, therefore, had it
been, if all mankind had submitted themselves to the operation
of this code ; happy indeed had our nation been, had we always
consulted its enactments, and been sincere in obeying them !
Then would we have prospered beyond measure, and we should
have been an enviable people, with God for our only King, and
universal brotherly love the ruling passion of our lives. And
it is this alone which is the object of the revelation we have
received ; not so much the exaltation of the Creator who needs
not our service, as the welfare of the creature who needs both
the assistance of his fellow-mortal in his search for happiness
and the grace of his God to prosper his undertaking.

These views will enable us to understand one of the most
sublime passages in Holy Writ, sublime even there where every
word almost is fraught with doctrines of life and salvation ;
which was delivered at the time when the end of our teacher's
days was fast approaching, when his priestly brother and pro-
phetic sister had already preceded him unto the land of ever-
lasting life ; when he was almost on the point of surrendering
his guiding-staff to his trusty successor ; when a ministration
of forty years, during which he had endeavoured to make known
to the people the ways and laws of God, was drawing to a
speedy termination. He had been the means of the Lord in
effecting wonderful events in behalf of Israel, and by rewards
and punishments, both actual and denounced, he had taught his
brothers, that the revelation from Sinai could not be trans-
gressed without bringing punishment upon the offender. And
now at the close almost of his labours, and after he had called
t to the mind of the people those terrible effects of disobedience
of which all his hearers had been witnesses, he spoke as fol-
lows :

'n no xw rrnjn

inx i-on^Si vs-n ha roSS yrbx 'n nx ru
horn *\ah Sm ^n^N* 'n

vnpn n*o 'n rnso HN


" And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to
fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love Him, and to
serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul ; to keep
the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes which I command thee this
day, that it may be well with thee 1" Deut xi. 12, 13.

As we have said, for forty years had Moses been actively
employed in teaching the people of Israel, and he was now en-
gaged in summing up, to use a common phrase, all his instruction
in a few comprehensive sentences; and our text is the chief
part in which he included all that had been said already, and
which he had yet to tell. He therefore commences : " And now.
Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee?" is it some-
thing too difficult for human attainment? is it a task for which
not sufficient strength has been given ? By no means ; the labour
is easy of fulfilment, if man regards correctly his relation to the
Creator. In the first place, the thing required is, " to fear the Lord
thy God ;" and who will not fear Him in whose hand is all the
power, and who can do whatever seems to Him best, without
one to gainsay his will, or to oppose his intentions ? He is
moreover, our God, the Being who has promised us his protec-
tion in case we obey Him, and who is able to make us feel the
weight of our iniquity if we sin ; but which latter alternative we
can avoid if we " walk in his ways." How is this to be done ?
Aye, to imitate Him in his ways of mercy ; to be kind as He is
kind ; to let our bounty be extended according to our means,
just as He provides for all his creatures ; to clothe our brother
when we see him naked ; to give him food when we see him
hungry ; to give him drink when he is thirsty ; to shelter him
when he is houseless ; to protect him, when he needs our pro-
tection ; to comfort him when his spirit is troubled ; to warn
him when he is going astray from the ways of truth ; to rejoice
in his prosperity, and to sympathize with his afflictions. Far-
ther it is said, " and to love Him ;" yes we are to love our
Benefactor whose goodness is always extended to us, who ever

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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 13 of 26)