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 3 of 26)
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Lord ;" from which phraseology it might be inferred that others
possessed of the same knowledge would not so communicate it
universally, but only to a few, or a class especially privileged
for its acquisition. This however is the only passage which
now occurs to me, in the least calculated to favour the theory
that heathenism is based upon truth. But admit the whole as
proven ; say that the Creator was worshipped by the priests,
while the multitude fell prostrate before images, gods made by
their own hands ; grant that in the mysterious writings which
the sacerdotal order possessed they treasured up knowledge of
high and holy things unknown to the unworthy, unlettered, super-
stitious nations whose spiritual guides they were (I use the word
spiritual guides in the sense it is used among us, though they were
seducers rather than guides) : still we may reasonably deny the
utility of any system, which will leave the many in ignorance,
and establish an aristocracy of information, a tyranny worse
even than the fetters with which the task-master binds the slave
after finishing his daily toil. For, what is the object of religion ?
It is to bind the creature to his Maker by the ties of affection-
ate devotion and reverential fear ; it is to teach man to feel that
he is dependent upon the great Omnipotent whose servant he
is ; it is to teach the son of the earth to look to the infinite
Judge to right him in his cause, and to save him when in
affliction. In short, religion should promote the love and fear
of God, and plant hope, humility, faith and confidence in the
human breast, of the lowly no less than the exalted. If then
man is taught to offer his adoration to imaginary things, the
creations of fraud or deception, how is he to obtain the requi-
sites of religion to render his life happy and his death peaceful ?
He bows to the image of the sun ; is this to teach him devo-
tion 1 He worships the abstraction of the planets ; is this to
inspire him with faith? In a word, can error produce the
effects of truth ? Even assume a man sincere and ardently
devoted to the symbolic worship, if you please to call it so ;


still the pure adoration of the One Supreme, the holy flame of
devotion kindled in the pious mind by a contemplation of his
mighty deeds cannot grow up amidst the rank weeds of error.
And if the priests or the privileged class, we alluded to, alone
are possessed of a better knowledge, and allow not the com-
munity to participate, is it not, as was stated, forging galling
chains of intolerable servitude of the mind, injurious far more
than the thraldom of the body ? But this latter calamity was
also the legitimate consequence of the general degeneracy ; and
tyranny and oppression followed in its train, till all mankind
groaned under the yoke of misrule, and no nation was free,
whilst designing men under the garb of priest, soothsayers,
oracles and diviners ruled by their advice or secret machina-
tions the public mind.

It is often boasted that universal toleration of all beliefs was the
general custom of heathen people, but that with the rise of revela-
tion persecution for opinion's sake became more and more preva-
lent. But, again, we may reasonably question the general truth
of the assertion. For although in certain lands there may have
been no prohibition against worshipping any of the many ideali-
ties which besotted men set up as gods; still we find from
authentic records, and confirmed by traditions, that it was dan-
gerous to worship the Lord of heaven and earth. Of positive
history we have the account of Daniel, which relates how his
three friends were cast into a burning furnace, because they
would not worship the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar ; in
Darius's reign a prohibition was promulgated against any one
praying for a period of thirty days, under pains of being cast
into the lions' den. Ahab and Jezebel slew all the prophets of
the Lord, and only Elijah escaped. Antiochus and his generals
endeavoured to banish totally from the Hebrews the know-
ledge of their religion ; and a persecution as bitter as ever was
waged against us by any sect, or which any people inflicted on
another for the sake of a difference of opinion, was waged for
many years, till the land was freed, by bloody wars and unpar-
ralleled deeds of heroism, from its ruthless oppressors. Tra-
dition and writings, current only among ourselves, do not lack
instances of a similar nature ; and it is said that Abram, before
he left Ur in Chaldea, was tried by fire because of his belief in


the One Supreme, and the destruction of his father's idols. An
interesting narrative on this subject might easily be compiled,
but it would lead us too far from our present purpose. Enough
has been shown that idolaters were not always tolerant ; and
even if they had been, what does it amount to ? simply that in
the mode of worshipping common among them, the things to
be adored were unlimited, and each person made unto himself
such an emblem as his fancy chose, and sought to attract at-
tention, as men now do to articles of merchandize, by exhibit-
ing some proof of its superior excellence. Witness the oracle
erected by Micah, the Ephraimite, which by the management
of the pseudo-priest obtained a great celebrity among the tribe
of Dan, at the time when idolatry flourished among Israelites.
Witness also the oracle of Delphi, and other divinations of
ancient pagans, where a certain degree of cunning and artful
double-dealing benighted the minds of inquirers, whilst they
believed themselves in possession of divine replies. Of course,
under such a system it was dangerous for the worshippers of
one falsity to attack that of the other too much, and the policy
of the priests, who knew at least themselves that their art was
mere deception, must have been not to interfere with each other
unless their interest suffered thereby. But if even we concede
them a thorough and sincere conviction, for the mind may
labour under strange hallucinations : still the great alleged tole-
ration may have proceeded from the knowledge that there must
be something yet beyond the things then adored, more power-
ful, more energetic, and more holy. But still a Socrates was
accused of blasphemy for approaching the truth ; and Moses
feared to sacrifice unto God among Egyptians out of fear of
persecution. It will, therefore, appear that toleration was not
inherent in paganism, nor universal among pagan nations, and
it is not supported by any historic evidence to fasten intole-
rance upon the early possessors of revelation, nor upon the
receivers of the law from Sinai. Abraham was charitable to
all ; his house received the traveller of the desert, and believers
and idolaters were fed of his bounty. With the Canaanites he
lived at peace, and swore fealty and truth to people whom he
once feared as enemies of his life. Isaac and Jacob were no
less distinguished for their benevolence to the people among



whom they dwelt ; and we may safely aver that the history of
the patriarchs furnishes no instances where a single trace of
intolerance or bigotry is discoverable. Certainly the fragment
of the life of Joseph which has come down to us does not
afford any evidence of intolerance ; for we find nowhere a pic-
ture of greater truth and fidelity than is given in that simple
and short narrative. Equally futile is it to look in the law of
Moses for evidences of intolerance. In not a single passage is
persecution for opinion's sake allowed ; and if you take away
the commandment enjoining the removal of idols from the land,
we have even no prohibition against the worship of idols in
Palestine by strangers ; in truth, it would appear that no one
had any right to see after their conduct in their own houses ;
and provided they offended not publicly the laws of the land,
no one could molest them according to our laws. The public
prohibition of idolatry cannot, however, be called an act of
intolerance. For emphatically speaking the law of Moses was
the political as well as the moral code of our people, their
thought, their actions, their worship, and their hope and pros-
perity, were all to be regulated according to its ordinances ;
idols were accordingly considered as a political nuisance, mili-
tating by their presence against the sovereignty of the Eternal
Lord, the invisible King of the people He had chosen. Ac-
cording to this view, idolatry was naturally an offence against
the state, its prohibition therefore no persecution, but merely
the enforcement of the acknowledgment of the Lord, as the
sole Sovereign of Palestine. At a future day we may enlarge
on this subject, and place it in a stronger light before you ; but
at present we must hasten to resume the subject from which
we started. We may therefore maintain, that since no perse-
cution is authorised or even allowed by Scriptures, and since
the single prohibition of the possession of the idols was afterwards
much neglected, greatly to the destruction of the peace and pros-
perity of Israel, it is not consonant with truth to charge the
Israelites with the crime and folly of originating religious perse-

We have thus seen that ignorance and tyranny had been
made the lot of mankind, disfiguring, by their rapid strides, the
creation of the Omnipotent. The warnings, as was said in the
early part of this address, of the flood and the confusion of


tongues had failed to instruct the world that the Ruler of the
universe would not allow transgressions against his will to
remain unpunished. It will therefore appear that retribution,
nay, extermination of the entire mass of men, had failed of
effecting the divine economy, the spread of a universal religion
over the face of the earth. Two thousand years had rolled
over the world since its first creation, and yet but few would
acknowledge the great Creator who had displayed unto them
so often his mighty power. Should He again desolate all?
sweep off again the mass of mankind ? If again they multi-
plied, the same consequence would have ensued, unless He, to
whom all is possible, had vouchsafed to remove the tendency
to evil inherent in human nature. But this suited not the plan
of the Lord, who, in forming man, imparted to him the know-
ledge, and consequent choice, of good and evil. He preferred
schooling the world to his service, and to educate his crea-
tures, so to say, to a knowledge of himself, and a correct per-
ception of the truth. The time, indeed, may seem long to us,
whose years are but brief, and whose thoughts are bounded by
corporeal limits ; but to Him, whose years are unending, and
whose wisdom is infinite, what are three thousand years ? is
his existence affected by this to us long duration 1 Certainly
not ; and we therefore need not, should not, wonder that the
world has been left gradually to come unto the service of the
Lord, and that not any sudden change has been effected since
the mission of Abraham. Your attention has before this been
directed to the kind of education the world has undergone since
the days of this great apostle ; how God took him from his
erring father's home, and, leading him through lands untrodden
by him before his old age, caused him to teach the truth
wherever he, the Patriarch, pitched his tent. You also know that
after his death Isaac became the prophet and blessed one of
the Lord, transmitting the truth to Jacob, whom his God sur-
named Israel. You know also how the aged father went down
to Egypt to behold his long-lost Joseph before his death. It
was then in Egypt that the promise made to Abraham, " that
his seed should be made as numerous as the stars of heaven
and the sand upon the shore of the sea" began its fulfilment.
" The children of Israel increased and multiplied, and the land


was full of them," so that the suspicions of the ruler of the land
were roused against them, and he devised a plan for lessening
the number of the strange people whom his predecessor had
invited to sojourn in the land of Goshen. A long servitude
was this cunningly devised plan, and to it was at last added the
slaughter of all the Hebrew male children. Imagine to your-
selves a state more hopeless than this, if you can. To all the
sickening horrors of perpetual thraldom, where the great leveller
alone of all humanity can bring release from the galling bonds,
was superadded the approaching annihilation of their entire
nation. The whip of the task-master, the cry of the driver,
banished all thoughts of self-liberation to a people scattered
over all the land of Egypt as slaves, compelled to build the
towns of the king's treasure, to dig his immense canals, to con-
struct his stupendous aqueducts, and to till the soil of their indi-
vidual oppressors. We have no account of any attempted
rising of the Hebrews ; but where was the hope of its being of
any use ? Without arms, or at all events unused to wield them ;
without concert in their ranks ; fatigued too much by day to
brood in secret conclave over daring deeds by night ; watched
by troops that had overrun every land then known to civiliza-
tion ; perhaps mistrusting each other for fear of having by one evil
report reaching the Pharaoh's ears their daily toil, as actually
did happen, doubled in intensity : they were compelled to submit
to a state of degradation, which perhaps long custom had made
habitual to them. The father toiled whilst his strength endured ;
the son and grand-son had to submit to a like yoke ; and there
was accordingly engendered such a feeling of inferiority to their
free neighbours, as almost to place these in their own estimation
in a scale of excellence far above themselves. Similar cir-
cumstances produce similar effects in our own day, nay, in this
very land, and this will give us some insight into the fact that
deep-rooted hatred never prompted a violent outbreak during
a period of full two hundred years. The tradition that their
forefathers had been the favourites of the All-Father was still
current among them ; they were yet distinguished in comeli-
ness of feature and colour of the skin from the people among
whom they lived ; for even in servitude was Israel the peculiar
people, and thus wisely Jiad the Lord preserved this nation,


whom he had chosen for his service. Living in luxury and at
ease, a residence of so long a period might perhaps have caused
them to amalgamate by degrees with the Egyptians ; incipient
repugnance would in progress of time have been dissipated,
and consequently no distinct nation of Jacob's sons could ever
have travelled out of the land of their sojournment. Observe
now the divine economy. Immediately after the death of the
sons of Jacob, by which the first link with the original fathers
was broken, and when, consequently, the original receivers of
revelation had ceased to be on earth, the Lord suffered that
the aversion of the Egyptians to the shepherd-people should
take its natural course, that is to say, to produce a reciprocal
aversion, strongest of course on the part of those who beheld
the beasts they worshipped made the food or otherwise the
merchandize of the strangers, whom they regarded first as so-
journers and guests, and afterwards doubtlessly as intruders. It
was also the will of God, that the children of Abraham should
be servants during a part of the period appointed for their being
strangers in a land not theirs. But the sinful cruelty afterwards
exercised we may reasonably believe was in contravention to
the purposes of God, as much as the sinning of any one of us ;
the bondage in short was decreed, to preserve our people till
they had grown up into a mighty nation, for imposing which
the Egyptians would hardly have been accountable ; but the
cruel oppression of the individuals, the slaughter of children,
the haughty contempt of the God of Israel, these were sins which
merited and received condign visitation. But whilst we had
been thus preserved, we had, as already remarked, lost much,
if not all, of our national self-respect, we were Israelites by
compulsion more than any thing else, as the Egyptians were
too proud to receive us among them as equals ;* and although
it is undoubted that many yet retained a due knowledge of and
reverence for the simple worship of the patriarchs, still it is
equally certain that the mass were tainted, if not wholly cor-
rupted, by the system of idolatry among which they had so

* Witness the pride of Spanish nobles, that they are from an unmixed
family, and not in anywise connected with persons outwardly Christians,
descended from Jewish or Moorish families.


long dwelt. Yet during this period of suffering it was made
manifest to them that there is a Power who forsakes not the
humble, and who permits not the proud and lofty to bear down
with too heavy a hand upon the lowly ; for every device to
diminish them had signally failed. Consequently all hope of
better days had not perished within them ; and when therefore
the time of trial was ended, there were many, perhaps all, who
at once readily believed the joyful message with which the
prophet was charged, to announce unto them a speedy deliver-
ance through the fresh display of the might of the Eternal One.
Soon thereupon were wrought signs and wonders, deeds un-
heard of before and never since seen again were of daily oc-
currence, in order to prove " that there is none like the Ever-
lasting Lord our God." The oppressor was made to feel that
the Creator's power was yet capable of doing all as at the
creation, and the Israelites were convinced that his promises
never fail of a fulfilment, if even the period of suffering should
have been continued beyond the time they imagined as the
termination of patient endurance. All the world, too, was
instructed that no one can withstand the outstretched arm that
wields the everlasting sceptre ; and the contemner of the hea-
venly mandate succumbed and said : " The Lord is righteous,
and I and my people are wicked ;" and again : " Rise and go
out from the midst of my people, you as well as the children of
Israel ; but bless me too." Joyfully the ransomed went forth ;
and thus was completed the redemption which had been pro-
mised ; and thus had the people been educated who, whilst
receiving the law, were to become thereby the blessing of all *
the families of the earth, like the looked-for torch, suddenly
sent down to the hopeless miner, who vainly gropes his way to
the lost entrance, amidst the appalling gloom which reigns in
the bowels of the earth. Ay, this glorious light was kindled
on yon Sinai, and this light of the unchanging God is to be the
guide unto the heavenly portals of eternal bliss to the now be-
nighted sons of men. And thus speaks the prophet (Malachi
iiil 6) :


" For I am the Lord, I change not, therefore ye sons of Jacob are not con-

In truth, the same Providence which watched over us when
in slavery under Pharaoh's tyranny has ever since guarded
us ; and whenever troubles have encompassed us we were
always saved by the same mighty Hand that piled up the
waters of the Red Sea ; and whenever enemies strove to make
us forget the law, the same potent Voice that spoke at Sinai
preserved its influence over our mind, so that the holy legacy
has not been forgotten. If therefore our children and the sons
of the stranger ask, " What is this service unto you ?" we may
answer, " It is because the supreme Ruler fulfilled his word,
and took unto himself a people from the midst of another, to
diffuse through their agency, life, liberty, salvation, and truth
to the utmost ends of the world on which our lot is cast."

Father of Israel ! preserve us farther in thy grace, and look
not unto our follies and transgressions, though they be many,
but have regard unto the covenant Thou sworest unto our
fathers, that Thou wouldst be their God, and unto their children
for ever. Amen.

Nissan 10th
April 5th



LORD of the universe, whose glory filleth all the earth, we
come to adore Thee, because of the great truth and kindness
which Thou hast ever displayed unto thy servants ! How
many were the dangers that threatened us in days gone by ;
but by thy gracious aid they were turned into salvations, and
calamities which well-nigh had overwhelmed us, were made


new evidences that Thine is the power to humble the proud,
and to exalt the lowly. Display then to us who worship Thee
in our captivity the same grace and mercy which erst Thou
bestowedst upon our ancestors ; and let thus all the sons of man
be made conscious that Thou alone art the God in the heavens
above and on the earth beneath, and that beside Thee there is
no god! Amen.


Loudly pealed the thunder, and bright lightnings flashed
amid the terrific clouds of gloom, when the Most High lowered
his glory on the chosen mountain ; violently shook the earth,
and the skies dropped down water, when on Sinai the law was
given ; and at the footstool of Divine Majesty lay prostrate an
adoring people, lay worshipping an awe-struck nation, when
their King came to cause them to hear his words. It was then
that every one of the redeemed multitude beheld the evident
tokens of divine revelation, and heard the words of truth pro-
ceeding immediately from the mouth of the Holy One ; and
they felt that it was indeed the Almighty, their Creator and
Redeemer who had delivered them from the tyrant's power,
who now spoke to them, and that to be his chosen people
meant that they could purchase his especial favour and vigi-
lance by obedience to the laws that were promulgated to them
on that day. In my last address, your attention was called
to the extraordinary circumstance, (at least remarkable to Is-
raelites, though so very common among gentiles,) that the priest-
hood had a knowledge and religion, differing widely from that
of the community. The former had access to the temples, fes-
tivals, and the so-called mysteries of their innumerable divini-
ties ; whilst the latter were excluded from all participation,
except distantly, in these matters. A religious address is not
well calculated to enter deeply into an investigation of this sub-
ject ; but a mere cursory reading, even of the history of the
Romans, Greeks, Babylonians and Egyptians will satisfy any
one of the correctness of this assertion. I will merely extract
from a late popular w r ork, by no means favourable to revela-
tion, a short description of the Eleusinian mysteries, to illustrate
more clearly what I mean when using this word in reference


to heathen rites. " These" (that is, the lesser mysteries) " were
afterwards preparatory to the greater ; for which the candidate
was obliged to fit himself by religious ceremonies, symbolical
rites, and various acts of devotion, the design of which was to
withdraw his attention, at least for a time, from business and
pleasure, to keep him pure, chaste, and unpolluted, and to ex-
cite his curiosity in relation to the expected revelations. The
period of purification continued a year ; and no one could be
admitted to the mysteries without purification, on pain of death.
The ceremony of admission was performed by night : the can-
didates, crowned with myrtle, were obliged to wash their hands
at the sacred threshold with holy water : public proclamation
was also made, that the mysteries should be approached only
with pure hands and pure hearts. Pure Greek only was to be
spoken. The celebration of these mysteries commenced on
the fifteenth day of the month Boedromion, and continued nine
days. It consisted principally of representations of the history
of Ceres and Proserpine, the tortures of Tartarus, and the joys
of Elysiurn, which were exhibited in the most striking manner.
The chief design was, by sensible means, to spread among the
people a conviction of the immortality of the soul, and of a future
state of rewards and punishments. The initiated were under
the peculiar protection of the gods, and they alone were certain
of the joys of immortality. Very different from these lesser were
the greater mysteries, which contained the secret doctrines
that were the chief object of the institution, and were commu-
nicated only to a few (the Epoptae), in the recesses of the sanc-
tuary. Secrecy was enjoined under the most dreadful penal-

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 3 of 26)