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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

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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 22 of 26)
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their heritage where Thou dost cause them to dwell; but
do Thou according to their request, and give them an under-
standing mind to comprehend the words of thy law, and remove
all obstacles which may oppose their obeying in truth the pre-
cepts which Thou hast ordained. And O ! give firmness to
those of thy children who are assailed by flattery and the cor-
rupting influence of their enemies, to resist the direful tempta-
tions, and to remain steadfast in the pursuance of thy holy will;
so that the machinations of those who wish to blot out Israel's
name from among the nations may be turned to naught, and
they be covered with shame and confusion, even as was
Senacherib who dared to blaspheme thy holy name, and as
were the Philistines who relied upon the strength of their
champion against the armies of the living God. May this be
thy will. Amen !

BRETHREN !

It is a solemn duty enjoined in the Scriptures to use every
effort within your reach to render your children fit servants of
the Lord of heaven and earth, and to imbue their minds with
such sentiments as will make them love their duties, and enable
them to have a proper firmness to resist doing wrong whenever



216 RELIGIOUS EDUCATION.

temptation and opportunity may present themselves. For as
your children advance in life, and are gradually withdrawn
from your care and observation, they will be exposed to
influences which will greatly tend to remove entirely all your
early lessons, unless you have implanted in them the root of all
the principles according to which you act yourselves, and
desire them to act. Your duty therefore is not completed if
you merely tell your children once what you expect of them to
do, and you ought not to be satisfied if they are well-behaved
and decorous in your presence ; but you should furnish them
with such sentiments as will stand by them instead of parental
superintendence and care, which should act as a check upon
them when they are alone or far removed from those whom
they have to fear or whom they love. Mere morality will not
effect this ; by this I mean, that lessons of virtue stripped from
the consideration of duty to a higher Being, and merely based
upon ideas of expediency and prudential considerations, may
engender a cautious, kind, and apparently benevolent character,
but will not confer that degree of firmness, which could induce
us to resist the impulse for wrong of which we have been
speaking. For what is your system of morality, so called,
based on ? We answer, expediency only ! Now it is well
whilst correct conduct and this selfish principle point out the
same road, for then the mere moralist will without doubt do
what all must acknowledge to be right; but let the- case be
different ; let us imagine a situation where we are drawn to an
attractive transgression by a strong appeal to our senses, where
those we fear are far away, where those whom we would on
no account grieve by our actions are not likely to become
cognizant of our sinning: and then tell me, where our con-
stancy, our resistance would be ? Where is the sentiment to
restrain us? Tell me not of the dignity of human nature, of
the sublime attributes of the human soul; for the man of the
world who has no other check than morality, will have ample
means, because he has a wide range of permitted actions, to
hide from others any thing which they might call unworthy
and undignified, at least he will endeavour to preserve the
gilded exterior, till his real sentiments and character are at
length accidentally laid bare ; and the sublime attributes of our



RELIGIOUS EDUCATION.



217



soul, such as social love, the feeling of honour and of benevo-
lence, are only too well calculated to lull the spirit into security
whenever self is brought into competition with the rights of
others ; for then we are apt to disregard the love for our fellow,
because we may thereby be exposed to injury or inconvenience;
feelings of honour may prompt us to revenge, because we may
think our honour wounded or our dignity outraged ; and lastly,
the so called feeling of benevolence may by some strange
fatuity move us to protect ourselves before we take a view of
the wants of others, although if we were to reflect with candour
we would find that we have enough for others as well as for
ourselves. We therefore say, that morality, in itself, is not the
guide which we ought to place before our children in their
commencement of life, and point it out as the check which is
to assist them in the restraining of the desires and passions.

" What guide, then, would you recommend V Need I tell
you, beloved brethren, the name of this blessed principle ?
know you it not without the words of a public teacher? Surely
the heart of Israelites recognizes full well the heavenly gift
which has sustained them when their spirit wa-s drooping, when
their foot was weary amid the many pilgrimages which they
had to encounter since the first hour they heard the voice of
the Everlasting Father speaking to them from the midst of the
fire, on that day when the unity of the Lord and his will were
made known from the thick clouds of glory that enveloped the
summit of the chosen mountain of Sinai ! The terrific fire of
the promulgation of the Decalogue did not blaze long; the
wonderful sounds soon died away in the stillness which fol-
lowed ; the pageant of millions assembled in attentive silence
was speedily dissolved: and still the words then announced
have stood the bulwark of our people against foreign tyranny
and domestic disunion, against outward oppression and the
defection of the faithless in our own household ; and we have
remained as a body faithful to our trust, though our Father's
warnings are no longer audibly announced as in days of yore
through the mouth of his servants. This then, brethren, is the
principle which you should recommend to your children, this is
the guide you should set before them. If now you have the
VOL. in. 19



218 RELIGIOUS EDUCATION.

happiness to succeed in rearing them up faithful followers of

this law, if you witness in them an adoption of the duties it

enjoins, and of the doctrines on which it is founded : you need

not tremble for their future welfare, for it is then founded upon

a basis which is probable to remain unshaken during their

whole lives. For where the law of God purifies the thoughts,

where its statutes direct the bond, can we entertain a doubt

that a common benefit will result from a mind so trained, from

actions so prompted ? We say " a common benefit ;" for it is

not here like with the expediency of the mere moralist, where

the agent looks to his own interest, provided it comes not in

direct conflict with that of others ; since the Israelite, who

deserves the name, will forego his own interest in every point

where the law asks it of him ; he will assist his enemy,* though

he have no hope of conciliating him ; he will restrain revenge,f

though the offender be in his power ; and he will assistj with

his wealth and his services the needy and indigent, though the

release-year be near at hand, and he can thus have no farther

claim upon their repaying him the amount of their indebtedness.

But it is not the effect of the law upon others we wish now to

discuss, although it is a fruitful theme which might well inspire

the eloquent with noble thoughts, and afford him a fine field to

descant upon the mercy of the Most High in so watching over

the welfare of his creatures as to bestow it on them for their

social guidance ; we will to-day regard it only in its workings

upon the individuals themselves subject to its rule, and trace

the progress by which it renders them the children of salvation

under the law. For our text we will take the following

passage :



vm DDT



inon -]ro&':) on -on DDOI nx onx
ninro hy omroi :



* Exodus xxiii. 4, 5. f Leviticus xix. 18. J Deut. xv. 9.






RELIGIOUS EDUCATION. 219

" Therefore, shall ye lay up these my words in your heart, and in your
soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets
between your eyes. And ye shall teach them to your children, speaking of
them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way,
when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shall write them
upon the door-posts of thy house and upon thy gates." Dent. xi. 18-20.

The Scriptures, you will observe, connect personal piety -with
the education of children; or in other words, they demand of the
parents example no less than precept. In the verses preceding our
text is contained a denunciation of punishment for disobedience
and defection ; and as the reverse, or the means to avoid punish-
ment, you are told : " Therefore, shall ye lay up these my words
in your heart and in your soul ;" to avoid sinning and its neces-
sary visitation you should be perfectly alive to religious obliga-
tion, your body (the heart) and your spirit (the soul) should
equally be devoted to the service of the Most High ; and every
feeling which prompts you to satisfy the cravings of nature,
every thought which dwells upon the vastness of the Creator's
works, which reflects upon your own being and your destiny in
the light of Israelites and of men, should all be alike in con-
sonance with his wishes and his behests as contained in his
revealed word which He made known to our fathers. The
heads of the household should exhibit no levity in speaking of
the commandments, no disregard to the observance of the di-
vine ordinances, no doubting of the truths and doctrines of the
Bible ; and in doing any act, they should be careful, that it be
entirely in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law.
The house should be surrounded with evidences of the inmates
being Israelites ; every thing should be regulated according to
the principles of your ancestors ; the food, the drink, the man-
ner of speaking should all be different from gentile custom, and
no hesitation should be shown, because such conduct would
render you objects of curiosity and inquiry to those who are
strangers to our people. " Lay these my words upon your
heart," you are told ; it is no matter what others think of you,
you must not be afraid of the surprise which might be expressed
in discovering you in your own peculiar Israelitish rites ; but
" Ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand ;" bind the me-
morial of the law literally in your hand ; place it there at least



220 RELIGIOUS EDUCATION.

during your morning-worship, to remind you of your obligation
to the Lord for his manifold blessings, in calling your early
fathers to his service, in redeeming you from Egyptian bond-
age, in giving you his laws, and in preserving you to stand
before Him despite of the thousands of calamities which befel
you; place it on your forehead, ornament yourselves with the
crown of the law, to confess that you subject your feelings and
your thoughts to divine rule, and to acknowledge that the Lord's
are the power and the government to do in all the world's
according to his almighty will ; and by this means you will
obtain firmness and strength to be bold and unflinching when
temptation would lure you away to follow other gods and bow
down to them. And not only for the days of Moses was this
said, when gross idolatry was the prevailing sin of all the
world; but also for the present hour; for if we do not worship
stocks and stones, and bow down to a god who cannot save,
we nevertheless have within us unhallowed passions and un-
clean desires, and we worship the love for gold, the inclination
for unlawful pleasures, the demon of ambition, and the lust for
places incompatible with religion, which all are equally unable
to raise the soul above the mortality of this life into the presence
of our Maker, and are all alike false idols to which our ever-
lasting happiness is so often sacrificed. The institutions there-
fore which were wise in the days of Moses, which were then
calculated to rivet closer the bonds of the law : are so yet at
this very day; practise them therefore before your children,
and show them how they are to obey the commands which
you lay before them. If you do this in all truth and in entire
simpleness of faith, you can then proceed to the next duty:
" And you shall teach them to your children ;" it is not enough
that you tell them where they may find the word of God, and
it is not doing your duty, to let them put upon it their own in-
terpretation ; but you yourselves, fathers and mothers, should
instruct them in the words of life and interpret the text for them
in the manner it is accepted among Israel. Two duties pro-
ceed out of this consideration ; first, it is the business of parents
to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with at least the five
books of Moses, the law proper, and omit no occasion to teach
the duties thereof to their children ; not that their studies should



RELIGIOUS EDUCATION. 221

be confined to this part of the Bible only, but that the poorest
persons, or those who daily have to toil for their bread, should
endeavour to become at all events familiar with this, that they
might have it in their power to become proper instructors of
their offspring ; though we can hardly imagine a family so con-
stantly occupied, that they could not read with care the whole
record of revelation and occasionally those good works which
have been written by pious Israelites, in order to become them-
selves more firm in faith, and to render the instruction more
agreeable and varied to their juniors.-r-Secondly, they are
bound to search for pious and intelligent teachers, to whom
alone they should entrust the education of their children. For
it is not to be denied that it is a bad system to send sons and
daughters of Israel at an early age to schools where either no
religion at all, or one of an opposite character to our own, is
taught. In the one case the love of revelation is not encouraged,
in the other, feelings are called into action and a species of con-
viction of non-admitted and inadmissible doctrines is produced,
which will materially affect the due observance of our religious
rites. It were indeed advisable, that children should know
very little, at all events not more than is unavoidable, of the
existence of a difference of religion; since by this method a
deep-seated adherence to the early lessons of piety is impressed
on the mind, before the doubts which are consequent upon a
view of the multifarious shades of belief are elicited; and parents
thus give such a strength to the principles which they practise
in their families, that the ready imitation of the same by the
children is more easily attained. It will not do to assert,
that in general schools children are taught nothing bad ; for,
brethren ! you are not to be content with a mere negative edu-
cation ; there is nothing negative in virtue, all at length depends
upon the performance of certain acts, whether they be cere-
monial or social duties, without which civil security itself can-
not be obtained ; for this too requires action for its firm estab-
lishment. We say therefore that religious tuition should be a
part of the daily exercises in school ; Bible reading and Bible
explanations are a necessary branch of a Jewish education ;
and hence, where practicable, Jewish teachers, if not alone, at
all events jointly, ought to have the superintendence of our

19*



222 RELIGIOUS EDUCATION.

youths. Some may perhaps suppose that much time must be
lost to the acquisition of sciences and general knowledge by so
much care bestowed upon religion, which they justly say rests
but upon a few easily understood principles. But there is a
great error in both these assertions. First, it is not true, that
the time bestowed on the Bible and its elucidation is lost or
misspent. We will admit for argument's sake, that by this
study the hours to be devoted to grammar, history, and other
sciences should have to be diminished; still can this not be
called a loss. For let us ask, what do you want to teach by
sciences ? certainly nothing more, than to give to the young
correct views of life, and enable them to judge with propriety
of things to be hereafter presented to them. So is grammar to
enable them to speak and write with propriety ; history to in-
form them of the acts of past ages, and to give them examples
of good men to be imitated and wicked ones whose deeds should
be abhorred ; and so with other things. Now we demand, is
religious knowledge not something which is to become useful
to children hereafter? is it not calculated to enable them to
judge with propriety of many subjects of the highest impor-
tance ? If you then call sciences the ornament of life, religion
surely is far more, it is the essential of our existence ; and hence
it is a science above all to be acquired with diligent study.
But it is not true, that the time devoted to such information is
lost to the elegant branches. So many collateral matters be-
come necessarily mixed up with a study of Scripture, that an
intelligent teacher will find it an excellent vehicle to communi-
cate all the necessary information whilst engaged in this alone;
especially if we go according to the good old custom, and teach
the Hebrew at once, and read the Bible from the original only,
and employ all the aids which modern learning has brought to
bear upon the sacred volume. This will at once require and
employ the study of grammar, both of the language of Israel
and the vernacular of the country ; a geographical survey of
the different regions mentioned in the Bible ; comparative his-
tory of the tribes and nations occurring in the narrative ; be-
sides such other matters, (for instance the natural history of the
animals, plants, and minerals, whose names occur in the law
and prophets, and a survey of the manufactures and manners



RELIGIOUS EDUCATION. 223

of the ancients,) which will suggest themselves to an enlightened
inquirer in religion. In truth, the Bible is a magnificent study
for itself; which is evidenced by the many learned and excel-
lent works written to illustrate, and the many great minds who
have devoted themselves solely to explain its text and to clear
up the obscurities which have at times presented themselves,
because we are not sufficiently familiar with the imagery it ex-
hibits and the customs and characters it portrays. We may
assert without fear of contradiction, that there are not many
men, if there be indeed one, with sufficient information to ex-
plain correctly the books of Scripture, so rich, and magnificent,
and inexhaustible are their stores. Besides this, no study need
be neglected on account of religious instruction ; there is ample
time, if properly economized, for children to become acquainted
with every thing for which they have capacity and which can
be useful to them. It is a great folly to suppose that it is ad-
vantageous for a child to be an early genius, and to display
rare excellence above others of the same age ; for in this way
indolence and a degree of self-sufficiency are very apt to be
produced, which are injurious alike to an advancement in know -
legde and an amiable deportment. If therefore religious educa-
tion should retard the progress in other matters a year or two,
(if we take different children of equal capacity educated in dif-
ferent systems, that is to say one with the other without religion,
as a criterion:) still nothing would be lost thereby in the end; for
what the one would gain by a greater leisure, the other would
far more than equal by a greater degree of solidity and an en-
larged capacity for deeper studies. But even this danger of a
delay in advancement is in all probability overrated ; for dif-
ferent studies, provided they are not too numerous and difficult,
rather assist each other, and are a sort of relief for the student;
and I can see no reason why religion viewed as a study should
differ from any other, since it is no doubt true, that to the young
the subject presents itself by no means in the unattractive light
it often does to adults, because it demands of these to restrain
passions and desires which the former have never yet felt.

With regard to the objection we supposed as made against
the necessity of teaching religion, because it rests upon a few
easily understood principles : we will state, that the Jewish



224 RELIGIOUS EDUCATION.

faith is in truth founded upon the great self-evident principle of
the existence of God, secondly upon the existence of a revela-
tion from God, and thirdly upon the existence of rewards and
punishments, inasmuch as the other doctrines which we profess
are derived from one or the other of these cardinal points.
Nevertheless, we maintain that it is of the highest importance
that children should learn these principles from believing persons,
and that great care should be taken that no false or inaccurate
doctrines should be added to or substituted for them. We all
know, or ought to know, that our mind is so constituted that it
will imbibe every thing presented to it, especially in youth ; and
the grossest errors, as now viewed, have been at one time or
another the prevailing sentiments of mankind. Even in our
own day, are we not constantly startled by the profession of
creeds which we Israelites cannot in any way acknowledge ?
And their existence, as generally admitted truths, can only be
accounted for on the ground that early education has rendered
them acceptable to those holding them ; for we have no right
to doubt upon vague surmises the sincerity of any of our fellow-
beings, and we must therefore suppose that persons holding
doctrines, say the opposite of ours, may be perfectly sincere in
believing them, no less than we ourselves are in maintaining
our own pure faith. It is, as we said, the constant hearing
of such matters in youth, and having nothing offered that runs
contrary to them, which render them so convincing to their
professors that they acquiesce in them as though they were well-
ascertained truths. If now Jewish children are exposed to the
same influence with those of our gentile neighbours, I ask what
can you expect, but that they too should become tainted with
the leaven of erroneous belief, and be made converts to one or
more doctrines which we cannot admit as true ? Say you,
that it matters not what young children think of controverted
theology, and that when they grow up it is time enough to
teach them our doctrines. But this is again a fatal error. We
know from experience how difficult it is to convince a gentile
of the erroneousness of his belief, whilst we cannot comprehend
how it is possible for him to hesitate yielding himself to the con-
viction which the Scriptures offer ; hence our hesitation in
admitting persons not born Israelites to our communion, be-



RELIGIOUS EDUCATION. 225

cause we should suspect their having that conviction which is
necessary for the adoption of our religion, till we have no longer
any motive to doubt their professed sincerity. If now you leave
a Jewish child to the same in^uence which warps the gentile's
mind, you in fact teach him gentile doctrines ; and you will be,
and deserve to be, sorely grieved if with advancing years you
find it difficult to make him adopt the doctrines which you
yourselves profess. His mind has been rendered unjewish ; he
has to unlearn what he considered true hitherto ; and one of
two things may occur, he either may adhere to his early-im-
bibed notions, or become an infidel, rejecting what he once
learnt, and what you now wish to teach him. If you can suc-
ceed in convincing him of our holy law, and induce him to
adopt it as true : still there may remain lurking some ideas
which are not orthodox and which may impart a shadow and
colouring to his religious conduct, which cannot be defended
upon pure biblical grounds. Believe me one thing, simple as
is our religion in its foundation, it must be early infused, that is
the precise word, into the mind to become united with, and in-
separable from the soul. There should be no necessity for con-
verting our own children, they ought to be Jews in every stage
of their being. As soon therefore as they begin to learn, the unity
of God should be held up to their adoption, not so much by
argument to prove its being so, as by simple information. The
proofs of the existence of the Deity are so universal that you
can easily lead the youngest even to comprehend that every
thing was made by a superior Power ; and the uniformity of
design in every creature will elucidate the universality of this
Power ; and the harmony in the whole chain of existence, the


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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 22 of 26)