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 25 of 26)
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which could give credence to such superannuated folly ! but
our smile of derision, our hearty contempt, do not affect the
mass who regard not with kindness the remnant of Israel, and
will not disarm the malice of those who are only glad of every
opportunity to send new sorrows to our bosoms. It is not the
first time that it has been said and believed that the Jews are
commanded to slay their Christian neighbours ; and at a time
when the pestilence raged over almost the whole known world,
our people were accused of causing the great destruction of
human life by poisoning the wells, simply because in proportion
to numbers less Jews died than Christians. The consequence
was that multitudes of the accused were butchered without pity,
and those whom the black death had spared fell a prey to the
fury of an excited populace, rendered lawless by the prevalence
of a fatal disorder, which daily hurried thousands to the tomb.
And whenever superstition and rapacity wished to glut them-
selves in the destruction of our defenceless race, the charge of
murder for our religious rites was raised, and, as was the case
lately, it was made the pretext for unsheathing the sword and
dooming countless numbers of innocent victims to merciless
slaughter. O ! then were times of sorrow and affliction; we wept,
but no one pitied, our gore rendered turbid the streams, but all
passed carelessly by ; they heeded not our cries, they regarded
us as aliens to the rights of man, outcasts from Divine favour.
Those were indeed times when our harps were hung upon the
willows ; when the voice of wailing was heard in every home ;
when the houses of prayer were filled, not with living worship-
pers, but with the bodies of those slain by the unpitying perse-
cutor. Whither then could we fly ? We were shunned as
murderers, as those unclean with leprosy, as banished from the
pale of the laws ; and every land almost forbade us its boun-
daries, every city almost shut its gates against our fugitives ;
and where we were permitted to rest awhile we had to pur-
chase at a high price the protection of some powerful chieftain,
whether civil or ecclesiastical ; and then we had to suffer our-


selves to be confined to narrow and unwholesome quarters, and
to be marked in our garments as sons of Jacob. Well might
a noble poet,* who, had he always acted as he at times felt,
would have been the glory of human nature, thus speak of the
sorrowing nation descended from Abraham :


" Oh ! weep for those that wept by Babel's stream,
Whose shrines are desolate, whose land a dream ;
Weep for the harp of Judah's broken shell ;
Mourn where their God hath dwelt the godless dwell !


And where shall Israel lave her bleeding feet ?
And when shall Zion's songs again seem sweet ?
And Judah's melody once more rejoice
The hearts that leaped before its heavenly voice ?


Tribes of the wandering foot and weary breast,
How shall ye flee away and be at rest !
The wild dove hath her nest, the fox his cave,
Mankind their country Israel but the grave !"

This was literally true for centuries, our homes were not safe
from invasion, our sanctuaries ever open to the spoiler, and our
sons and daughters constantly the object of derision, or food for
the sword. Mankind had conspired against us, and death alone
was viewed as an unassailable refuge against the ills that accu-
mulated over our heads. And even where permission to dwell
was granted us, we were yet excluded from a share in equal
rights, and tolerated merely as excrescences on the body poli-
tic; condemned to low pursuits, prohibited the exercise of
mechanic arts and the study of ennobling professions, and
continually subjected to exactions and rapine.

In those days of affliction, contempt and scorn were our uni-
versal portion ; and Turk, and Pagan, and Christian, alike con-
tributed to pour the bitterness of gall into our cup of life. Yet

* Lord Byron.



had through us the world been greatly blessed since the latter
days of the first temple. Our views of the Deity, of the exalted
attributes of the Creator, had by degrees been infused into the
philosophy of the heathen, and they had learned a new source of
joy by looking unto a state of pure enjoyment after the life of the
body had become extinct, and to regard the idols which they
worshipped in their true light of creatures of the imagination.
At a later period there arose one of our own community, who,
be the accounts related of him false or true, was nevertheless
the means of the spread of a system analogous to our own over
a large portion of the pagan world ; he became, though doubt-
lessly without himself dreaming of such a result, the messenger
of better things to many who knew not God. Still was he a
son of Abraham, a professor of the same religion we profess at
this very hour; and he enjoined, if there be any truth in the
books said to contain an account of his life, an adherence to
the law as it existed at his day; at the same time all the injunc-
tions of brotherly love which he is said to have promulgated,
are clearly referable to the Law of Moses, and the sayings of
our blessed Rabbins. After his death, and centuries after his
religion had begun to spread, there appeared another claiming
affinity with our race, and pronounced himself inspired to teach
better things to mankind ; and he too founded his doctrines upon
the Law of Moses, even so far as to recognise, in addition to
the unity of God, a weekly day of rest and the prohibition of
certain articles of food, besides the fundamental covenant of
Abraham. Speedily persuasion and the sword banished, under
his guidance and that of his immediate successors, the worship
of idols from Arabia, Iran, Tartary, and the far India; even
Ethiopia, the coasts of Africa, and Spain, nay, the very distant
islands of the Eastern Archipelago, and the countries beyond
the great desert, yet inaccessible almost to the European's foot,
acknowledged the sway of the Koran, and the Islam became
the law of as large a portion of mankind as then acknowledged
the Christian Gospels. Yet, take it as we will, these two
mighty revolutions in opinion were the effect of the religion of
the Jews, an adoption of an essential part, with the rejection of
the ceremonial laws, by many and powerful nations. In this
manner then were civilization and an enlightened philosophy


indebted to the Jews, or rather the code they then obeyed, and
to this day obey, for much, if not all their progress; and what-
ever of equality of rights, of mercy, and benevolence, is now
prevalent, we may freely say, has its foundation in the Penta-
teuch, the law of the Jews. Does now the Christian religion
recommend human sacrifice ? does the Koran command a vic-
tim to be slain at the great festival of the Moslems? We know
the answer must be in the negative; nothing but ignorance,
wilful ignorance, could charge the Monolheists who are not
Jews with the commission of a crime so foreign to their belief.
But does the Jewish law, less than that of Christians or Maho-
medans, demand the exercise of mercy, forbid the commission
of murder ? We have yet to learn that it does ; for he who has
no mercy is no son of Israel, and he who pollutes his hands
with human blood becomes a prey to the sword of the avenger.
We know of no difference between the Israelite and the
stranger ; we are bound to assist every one in distress, and our
neighbour is he who, like us, bears the stamp of the human face
divine, be his opinions what they may ; be he our friend or our
enemy !

And yet, how much had we to suffer, because of the accusa-
tion that we employed human blood, the blood of our Christian
fellow-rnen, in the celebration of the birth of our people ! We
ask, Where is the historical evidence that such a thing ever
took place? we demand, Where is the permission to be dis-
covered, I will not say in the Pentateuch, but in any of our
writings? To eat of the blood, nay, in the smallest quantity,
of a brute animal, is most energetically interdicted; and can
reason be so blinded as to suppose that we would mix human
blood in the unleavened bread, over which we call down the
blessings of the Lord, and return thanks for his manifold
mercies to his people Israel ? We will admit, that at a period
when the rights of the subject were but imperfectly under-
stood, when a pontiff could dispose of crowns as of ecclesi-
astical benefices, when a mighty effort was made to enforce a
uniformity of opinions, when the iron-clad barons were not able
to sign their names, when might made right, and the dictum of
one man could not be disputed, except at the risk of life: it
might have been supposed possible for the multitude to be de-


luded by the persuasion of those whose lead they followed, to
believe any absurdity with regard to the Jews who lived among
them as outcasts from human rights, and whose supposed wealth
was always an object to be coveted by the lords no less than by
the rabble. But it surpasses belief, that with the progress of
enlightened principles, this absurd idea should have survived in
its odious deformity; at a time, too, when Spain, once the slave
at the feet of an inquisition, demands a free constitution, and
when the new Sultan of the Osmalins gives a new charter to
his people, who will doubtlessly in future ages revere the name
of Abdul Medjid, whatever his fate now may be in those mu-
tations, from which thrones are not exempt. We cannot be too
much astonished at the folly or effrontery which, at the present
day, pretends to lend credence to a foul calumny which the
better disposed, during even the dark ages, refused to entertain.
But so it is, the mass is ever ready to put faith in the marvel-
lous and the extraordinary, no matter if their absurdity should
be apparent on the very surface; and all we can say is, that
with the progress of civilization many have fallen behind the
march of intellect in others, and that human nature is prone to
err, and this in an aggravated degree, at all ages of the world.
Were any proof of this wanting, the recent tragic scenes in
Damascus and Rhodes would give ample confirmation. You
must know, Mr. Chairman, that not everywhere have our
rights been acknowledged as in this happy land, happy for the
Israelite, because here no one can demand of him a test-oath to
testify to that which he inwardly disbelieves, before he is per-
mitted to fill a station for which his talents qualify him. Yet,
in many lands we are tolerated merely, and constitute not a
part of the state, as we do here and in a few other enlightened
countries. So, too, in the dominions of the Pacha of Egypt, the
renowned Mehemet Ali, are we left unprotected by any law,
save the will of the ruling chief, or those who administer the
government in his name ; add to which that in the lands of the
East, human life is not held sacred, but is ever at the mercy of
the despot, and the possession of wealth is often the passport to

Now it so happened, as you already know, that an old man
disappeared ; whether murdered or not, no one has clearly

VOL. in. 22


shown ; and if murdered, it has not yet been proved, as far as
our knowledge extends, who his murderers are. But our
brothers in Damascus are wealthy, they are subject, at the best
of times, to great cruelties and grinding exactions ; and do you
think that so favourable an opportunity for pillage would be
suffered to pass ? Little would you know the spirit of despotism
if you were to think so j, for though ever ready to oppress, it
greedily seizes every opportunity to give some colouring of
justice to its exactions. The result has been what might natu-
rally have been expected. One humble individual, at first
arrested upon the vaguest suspicion, was beaten till his tormen-
tors could not do otherwise than cease in the infliction; he was
taken back to prison, and there tampered with to induce him to
accuse, not those of a low degree like himself, but the first in
wealth and learning which the city could furnish. They were
seized and tortured; some died under the excruciating pain
they had to endure; others accused themselves guilty of the
crime of murdering the missing individual ; one adopted the
Mussulman religion ; whilst others, patiently enduring the
most intense suffering, still clung to the truth, and refused
making any confession of guilt in themselves or others, of
which they were guiltless. The name of one of these noble
martyrs has reached me, it is Mussa Salonikli, who adhered to
the protestation of his innocence when the endurance of others
was broken down. Such a man deserves to be held in honour-
able remembrance for future ages, as an example of a true
Israelite, who exhibited a filial confidence in his God under the
greatest trials to which poor mortality can be subjected. But
with the seizure of the first accused the persecution did not
stop; others of the best and noblest were barbarously mal-
treated, and many children were thrown into prison, and kept
upon miserable food, to induce their parents to come forward
and accuse persons acceptable to the monster Sheriff Pacha,
who, if report speaks true, must have known from the recanta-
tion of one who had embraced Moslemism, that the charge of
murder against our brothers was no less false than foul.

You may ask, Why did not the Jews rise against their op-
pressors ? But, Mr. Chairman, ages of suffering deaden the
spirit; and they render powerless the hands of those who other-


wise might strike for their own liberation ; faint-heartedness has
long, therefore, been the lot of our brothers who languish under
oppression, and many have become passive even under every
cruelty. We who, under different circumstances, feel so very
differently, must not, in the knowledge of our security, despise
those whom adverse fortunes have so bowed down; on the
contrary, let us admire their patient endurances, for having re-
mained true to our faith under every trial they had to undergo.
Let us from the midst of our thankfulness to God for having
blessed us so much more than we deserve, express our sympathy
for those who suffer elsewhere; those who, with us, are de-
scended from the stock of the Patriarchs. But what need is
there for this appeal 1 Around me are those who have assem-
bled for no other purpose than to express, in language not to be
misunderstood, that they feel for their brothers who languish
under the cruel bondage of oppression; that every cry of an-
guish, uttered by their fellow-believers elsewhere, touches a
sympathetic chord in their own hearts. O, this is a soothing
reflection ! we have no country of our own ; we have no longer
a united government, under the shadow of which we can live
securely ; but we have a tie yet holier than a fatherland, a
patriotism stronger than the community of one government;
our tie is a sincere brotherly love, our patriotism is the affection
which unites the Israelite of one land to that of another. As
citizens we belong to the country we live in ; but as believers
in one God. as the faithful adorers of the Creator, as the inheri-
tors of the law, the Jews of England, and Russia, and Sweden,
are no aliens among us, and we hail the Israelite as a brother,
no matter if his home be the torrid zone, or where the poles
encircle the earth with the impenetrable fetters of icy coldness.
We have therefore met for the purpose of expressing our ab-
horrence of the calumny cast on our religion in another part of
the world, and to offer our aid, in conjunction with our brothers
in other towns both of this country and elsewhere, to those who
have been subjected to such unmerited barbarities. Perhaps
the united voice of all the professors of our blessed religion may
reach the ears of the potentates of the earth ; perhaps public
attention may be roused to the wrongs we have so long suf-
fered, and all acknowledge that our system is one of love and


peace, and that it is an essential point with us to do our duty to
the state no less than to observe the divine commands. If this
should be the case, if those differing from us would grant us
everywhere an equality of rights, not as apostates from, but as
adherents to, our ancient religion: then indeed will the martyrs
at Damascus not have suffered in vain, for their sorrows would
.then bring peace to Israel. Now, Mr. Chairman, is this hoping
for too much? I hardly think so. Already the transaction
which we deplore has raised up advocates for us among our
Christian friends ; and if the name of Ratti-Menton will live in
the disgrace which he so well merits, the generous Mr. Merlato
at Damascus, and Mr. Laurin at Alexandria, who there repre-
sent the Emperor of Austria, will be remembered with gratitude
for their unsolicited exertions in our behalf. In England, too,
the subject has awakened attention, and one of its great minds,
who formerly opposed our admission to equal rights, the re-
nowned Sir Robert Peel, has already thought proper to mention
the case of the sufferers in parliament, with every demonstra-
tion that he too feels that a great wrong has been done to an
innocent people. There too has been an O'Connell, a Noel, a
Thompson, and many others to speak in our behalf; and doubt-
lessly in this land too, perhaps in this city, men will step for-
ward to vindicate the rights of man outraged in the persons of
the Jews at Damascus. Perhaps a voice too loud to remain
unheeded may be raised against the use of torture in trials, and
that the Pacha of Egypt, in whose dominions are Damascus
and Jerusalem, may be induced to abolish it altogether; and so
not we alone, but all the inhabitants of the earth, may have
cause to rejoice in the present movement in which we are
engaged, though sorrow was its first promoter. And why
should the case of the Jews be less attended to than that of
the Greeks? When the sons of ancient Hellas broke the
chains of the Ottoman power, all Europe and America were
awakened in their behalf; but have they any greater claim
upon the sympathy of the world than we have? We admit
that the Greeks may have been the fathers of architecture, of
painting, of sculpture, and of tragic poetry ; but the world
is indebted to us far more, for a gift far nobler, for the posses-
sion of the Decalogue, for the word of God, the holy and pre-


cious Bible, the book more venerable than all books, the parent
of a pure belief, the foundation of true happiness, of religion
without bigotry, of liberty without licentiousness.

Another happy effect has already resulted from the same
cause; it has awakened anew the spirit of brotherly love
among us, and we have had an opportunity of experiencing
that oceans may intervene between our dispersed remnants,
that mountains may divide us, but that yet the Israelite is ever
alive to the welfare of his distant brother, and sorrows with his
sorrow, and rejoices in his joy. The times also have produced
spirits adequate to the emergency, and a Cremieux of Paris, and
a Montefiore of London, will be long remembered as the gene-
rous, active friends of their people, who nobly volunteered to
plead the cause of their brothers in distant lands. Let us trust
that the Lord may prosper their way, and bring them back to
their families after the happy termination of their mission of

It is now, Mr. Chairman, as ever it was ; although banished
and scattered over every land for our manifold transgressions,
we are not cast off nor utterly forsaken by our God. He has
been our shield, as He was the shield of our forefathers ; and
as out of every evil He always caused good to spring unto
Israel, so let us hope that this present occasion may not pass
away without a proportionate benefit accruing unto us and the
world at large, under the dispensation of his Providence. I say
" unto us and the world at large ;" since our cause is not the
cause of faction, and when we prosper it is not for the oppres-
sion of any human being, for never yet were our people perse-
cutors for opinion's sake, because the law of God was always a
code of toleration and benevolence ; and then, the more the
knowledge of the truth is spread, the more it is understood, the
stronger will be the feeling of attachment which will unite all
the inhabitants of the earth as a nation of brothers.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I will repeat the words of the
wise Solomon, invoking the blessing of our heavenly Father
upon us and our undertaking : " The Lord our God be with us,
as He was with our fathers ; O may He not leave, nor forsake
us; may He incline our hearts towards Him, to walk in all his



ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes and judg-
ments which He commanded our fathers."

With your permission, I will now offer a preamble and a
series of resolutions for the approval of this meeting:

The Israelites residing in Philadelphia, in common with those
of other places, have heard with the deepest sorrow, that in this
enlightened age the absurd charge of their requiring human
blood, at the celebration of their Passover, has been revived,
and that an accusation of this nature having been brought
against their brethren at Damascus and the Island of Rhodes
has been the cause of a most cruel persecution being waged
against them, by order of the Mussulman authorities, instigated,
as it is feared, by one or more of the European residents.

They have learned also, with unfeigned horror, that several
prominent men at Damascus have been seized by their ruthless
persecutors, and tortured till some confessed thefnselves guilty
of a crime which they never committed ; and others died under
the most exquisite barbarities, which ignorant bigotry, urged
by the love of plunder and hatred of the Jewish name, could

Although the Israelites of Philadelphia, living in a land where,
under the blessing of Providence, equality of civil and religious
rights so eminently prevails, are not in any danger of persecu-
tion for opinion's sake : still they cannot rest while so foul a
blot is cast upon their ancient and sacred faith, a faith on which
both the Christian and Mahomedan religions are founded, and
which is essentially a law of justice, of mercy, and benevo-
lence ; and they would deem themselves traitors to brotherly
love and the rights of outraged humanity, were they to with-
hold their expression of sympathy for their suffering brethren,
who writhe under unmerited tortures, and languish in loath-
some dungeons, and to offer their aid, if practicable, to have
impartial justice administered to them upon the present and any
future occasion. The Israelites of Philadelphia have therefore
met in public meeting, and

Resolved, That they experience the deepest emotions of sym-
pathy for the sufferings endured by their fellows in faith at


Damascus and Rhodes, under the tortures and injuries inflicted
upon them by merciless and savage persecutors ; and that, while
they mourn for those upon whom such cruel enormities have
been heaped, they cannot but admire the fortitude evinced by
many of the sufferers, who preferred enduring every torture
rather than subscribing to the falsehoods dictated by their vin-
dictive enemies.

Resolved, That the crime charged upon the Israelites of Da-
mascus, of using Christian blood for their festival of redemption
from Egypt, is utterly at variance with the express injunction
of the Decalogue and other parts of the Pentateuch, and incom-
patible with the principles inculcated by the religion they pro-
fess, which enjoins them to " love their neighbour as them-
selves," and " to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly
before God."

Resolved, That they will co-roperate with their brethren else-
where in affording pecuniary aid, if required, to relieve the
victims of this unholy persecution, and to unite in such other
measures as may be devised to mitigate their sufferings.

Resolved, That the thanks of this meeting be accorded to the
consuls of those European powers, who made efforts to stay
the arm of persecution, and who by this deed deserve well of
the cause of suffering humanity.

Resolved, That this meeting highly appreciates the prompt
and energetic measures adopted by our brethren in Europe, and
elsewhere, for the promotion of the object of this meeting, and
the noble undertaking of Monsieur Cremieux and Sir Moses

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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 25 of 26)