To Be A Jew: A Rabbi Asks If It Is A Misfortune 1888

Lecture on the Past and Present of the Hebrew Race and Religion

Temple Israel, on Greene avenue, is the only Jewish synagogue in the city wherein the Ancient Hebrew is discarded and the services held in English. Rev. Leon Harrison, Chazen, or pastor, of the Temple, is an advanced reformer and claims that prayers which are offered in the native language of the worshipers must of necessity be far more devout and heartfelt than those made in Hebrew, of which little or nothing is comprehended by the present generation. Mr. Harrison has been presiding at the Temple Israel nearly two years, but the Sunday service is a recent innovation. Last week Mr. Samuel Gabriel, a wealthy art dealer of Willoughby avenue, heard him preach and was so pleased that he had printed and issued at his own expense a large number of invitations to yesterday's service. As a consequence the building was uncomfortably crowded by a well dressed and representative congregation, of whom less than two-thirds were Hebrews. Messrs. A. Abraham and I. Wechsler, of the firm of Wechsler & Abraham: School Commissioner Goodstein, Samuel Wechsler, Lawyers Furst and Baldwin F. Strauss and Artist Philip Levy were among the well known gentlemen present. A professional quartet and organist is attached to the synagogue and in order to keep up the interest in his work of reformation, Mr.Harrison has arranged with the Rev. Drs. Gottheil, E. Silbermann, B. Kohler, of Synagogue Beth El, New York; F. Chadwick, L. Camp, Robert Collier and H. Leipsiger to speak during the present season. The service yesterday was a simple one, an opening hymn, a prayer, Mr. Harrison's discourse and a few chapters of the Bible taking the place of the usual ritual.

Mr. Harrison took as the subject of his lecture: "Is it a misfortune to be a Jew?" He said:

Heinrich Heine said, "Judaism is not a religion, it is a calamity." "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty," sings the psalmist in response, "God has shined." Heine pitted against David the King: apostasy against fidelity; epigram versus ecstasy. Which is right? Both were right. Judaism was not made for the laughing poet and sneering philosopher. Neither is the light of God, that shineth, always unobscured by lowering clouds. The cynic mourns the past. The saint glorifies the future. The scorner measures a faith and race by the yardstick of his own comfort. The seer estimates them by the world's consequent advancement. He deems them happy if the lever by which God lifts up all nations be but the seven league boots in which humanity may sweep onward and forward, even if trodden upon in the march. Judaism is a misfortune to its children if their eyes are so blinded by tears as to see naught but the blood in their path. It is their pride and pleasure if a history unparalleled can thrill the blood, if great deeds can stir the pulse, high thoughts ennoble and pure faith inspire. choose, then!

Decide for yourselves. Our History has, indeed, been a tragedy, but the world has been transformed by its performance. Had you rather play comedy? Has your part been a curse? Is it now a calamity? Oh Heine! court jester with a heart of lead, renegade, yet the pitiful Jeremiah of Israel, thou art not dead, not silent, but living in a thousand hearts. Speak, then, appalling chronicle of age long catastrophes, that we may know whether we are under ban or benediction. And nations come ye to the witness stand of truth and testify. Have not the pens of poet and romancer been dipped into the Oriental sunlight of the Hebrew intellect? Has not the statesman's portfolio been borne by Jewish hands, and Jewish brains spun out philosophy's profoundest systems?" Harmony has found no more melodious worshippers, and science through the same keen eyes has wrested from reluctant nature her deepest mysteries. Charity was cradled in Palestine. Religion there spread its wings for larger flights. The actor may be broken hearted, but on the stage his high intelligence, his infinite versatility, his wondrous sublimity and pathos entrance and transport thousands. He elevates them in spite of themselves. Yet beneath the tinsel are tears. Such a role has indeed been Israel's. We are now bent upon this problem: Was his grief greater than his genius? Is it indeed a misfortune to be a Jew? Let me put in cross examination but two questions: the answers should settle the matter. They are the two seales of the balance. The lightest will kick the beam. And these are the two questions: First, What has the world done for the Jew? Second, What has the Jew done for the world? What has the world done for the Jew? It has made him a target, a quarry for the chase, a honey comb whose honey is gold. it has robbed him in the name of re3ligion and murdered him in the name of a God of love. it has made his history a national epitaph. It is a sickening record. The torture chamber at Nuremberg contains many of the silent but convincing arguments that made proselytes for the meek and tender religion of a common brotherhood. I am loath to linger in this chamber of horrors. I recall these frightful memories to alleviate rather than to emphasize them. I am no pessimist, a morbid pleasure in brooding over past sorrows finds no place in my catalogue of delights. Let the dead past bury its dead. You think doubtless that as a race you have been exceptionally maltreated. You are mistaken.

You believe in your own special martyrdom among nations. No delusion so gross. Israel like all men and all nations has had its ups and downs, has suffered much and secured much. Remember only that in compassion all other nations are either in the cradle or in the grave. An old man feels that he has suffered more than an infant or a corpse. And Israel is the old man of nations, outliving all contemporaries, and witnessing the birth threes of modern Europe. Why should he not bear upon himself the burden of immemorial age, since its privileges have been his as well as its drawbacks? We forget that the world has to stagger along under the same load of woes and ills as ourselves. Countries, like men, have their troubles. Indeed men may be on the whole happy. Nations never. Consider Ireland, the crippled arm of England, Turkey the sick man of the East, Poland torn limb from limb by the vulturous beaks of its neighbors. In the dark ages, even, how the Hebrew agony is dwarfed by general calamities. Recall the crusades, three millions perishing in less than two centuries, including an army of 20,000 little children. Think of the Black Death devastating Europe like the breath of the destroying angel. And from these fatal plagues of sword and pestilence the Jews were largely exempt. Remember how even the expulsion from Spain brought hidden blessings in its train, though reddened by the blood of thousands. A sensitive and susceptible people, alive to every pervading influence, whether Pagan or Moslem or Christian, and moulded thereby, were saved thus from the shadow of a Loyola or Torquemada. The iron had not yet entered their souls. They were freed before the fetters had eaten into the living flesh. Behold an expulsion that was in reality a salvation. And Spain, imperial Spain, priest ridden, worried by the hounds of the Inquisition, deprived of its Jewish nerves and sinews, sinks from strength to weakness, from weakness to imbecility, from wealth and conquest to poverty and defeat, from 24,000,000 of inhabitants to a pitiful 6,000,000_ejected from a dying kingdom as blood is ejected from a hemorrhage, life departing with its passage. If the first and greatest consolation is to share suffering, have I not indicated in this international community of misfortune a real alleviation of our most tragic calamities? The Jews, then, are not unique in hardship. They are but one pained limb in a writhing body. They are the political barometer of nations.

Furthermore, we should be greatly rejoiced at our own survival. Seventy strong, our father Jacob came down to Egypt. We are now 7,000,900; but where and what is Egypt? Where is Babylon, the Queen of the East? Its very ruins are hardly discoverable. Where is now the haughty Roman eagle or the Macedonian phalanx? They have rushed by into oblivion and annihilation, even as the swift current sweeps past the feet of the spectator on the bank, never to return while he remains. How truly has Israel been called a moral asbestos which no fire of rage or flame of hate can ever consume. This is not strictly a consolation. We must survive if we are to enjoy the pleasure of consolation at all. A real comfort, however, has been the deep compassion, the true brotherhood, the almost divine pity uniting the afflicted people when sorely beset into a single household, a tender fellowship. Republics may have been ungrateful, this invisible commonwealth never. Israel never forgot its martyrs. No canonized saint was ever be wept with such genuine tears as the ten teachers martyred in different lands and times, whose clegy is chanted in the old time synagogues on the day of Atonement, the whole congregation sobbing and wailing as if some dear one had departed but yesterday. Judaism counts its illustrious dead as a mother, bending over the children's crib, counts the heads of the little ones. How this sympathy can cheer and tranquilize when all things in heaven and earth seem black and menacing. Not every race so prizes the national blood that runs in its citizens' veins. We have a day of remembrance for the burial of our many ancestors that fell in the last defense of Bather against the Romans. Contrast with that funeral day this Roman anecdote, with its moral pointed by rabbinical wit.

During the civil war between Marines and Sulla after one of the battles there lay at the gate a stenchful, decomposing pile of the bodies of the slain. "Permission to bury them?" cried Sulla, scornfully, "dead enemies smell sweetly." And these dead enemies were Roman citizens, but Roman cruelty extended to the nose, while the Jewish nose, so often and so jeeringly censured, is possessed of more sympathy than the Roman heart. We build tombs for the departed in our hearts as well as in the cemetery, and the former are more immortal. We love the living and remember the dead. A true union, not outward but inward, not racial but spiritual, cements us. So brotherly love has united itself to the convictions that on the whole all nations suffer alike, and that we after all have survived, convalescent and vigorous. This triple consolation is a threefold charm to banish historical nightmares. We do not want to be wept over as international tramps. We desire no pity as victims of a ruthless fat. We are not in any sense unfortunate, either in birth, heredity, strength of intellect, intensity of emotion, domestic virtues or practical abilities. We are not an over modest people, but neither are we suppliants for condescension and patronage. Quite the reverse. The Jews have been solicited by mercenary Christian convert mongers since Christianity became aggressive.

Christian denominations still dare to fling in Jewish faces the outrageous insult of a mission to save Jewish souls from damnation, while increasing numbers of seceding Unitarians deny Jesus as an incarnate God; while scientific men simply step forth from the intellectual thralldom of the church and philosophers flout at its creed as an exquisite fairy tale mentally adapted to the childhood of the world. Insolence unparalleled! To offer a faith abandoned by the noblest minds of the century, accepted by its own adherents only with the inward proviso of broad mental reservations _to offer such a faith to its spiritual progenitor; to the most rational minds in the world, and that, too, through apostates and renegades of more than doubtful character, can a church, headed by intellectual and honorable men believe that Judaism is so great a misfortune as to require such leaders, such a substitution and such corrections at the hands of its oldest daughter? We are not whining over our lot.

In my opinion history exalts the Jew upon a high pedestal of glorious memories. He has endured his share and more than his share of chastisement. There have been alleviations, but they were temporary and local. Our European existence has been almost a hand to hand struggle for bare life. That struggle is now practically over. I have already described its intensity and heroism. If to be one of such a race of heroes is a misfortune, then Hein is right and I am wrong. If otherwise, the question is practically settled even from the negative side. What remains is but the positive confirmation of legitimate Jewish pride by indicating, however briefly, the intellectual, moral and spiritual gifts of Israel to the world without recompense and almost without recognition. I have answered the question. What has the world done for the Jew, and I will now tell you in short compass what the Jew has done for the world.

Rabbi Harrison here broadly outlined the activity of the Jewish intellect in every department of faith, thought and feeling. This, though a very considerable portion of the discourse, can hardly be summarized or condensed. The origin of religion, of religious literature, philanthropy and medieval philosophy and finance were attributed to Jewish brain. The work of Jews in music, poetry, romance, statesmanship, science and liberal patriotism was fully presented. In conclusion Mr.. Harrison said:

We have occupied almost every role in history. We have given the world light in all its dark places. We have been almost omnipresent and I think the Jews deserve from the most rationalistic standpoint to be called the chosen people. Their very existence is a marvel and enigma, their prosperity is a double conumdrum, when, as once every natural resource was taken away from them and they had to contend against enormous odds, yet they made a good fight for the world and for humanity. They have done much for the world, more than ever has been or will be done for them. They are benefactors, not serfs; patrons, not a servile caste, but masters of finance, king of kings, premiers of empires and music makers for two hemispheres. Let it be noted, for we as Jews have practically ceased to be a nation. We are Jewish Americans rather than American Jews. We are satisfied to let the Hebrew people end here and now. The faith, the substance remains, the form may pass. Our silent testimony is behind us. Impeach it, who may; revile it, who dare: surpass it, who can.


Website: The History
Article Name: To Be A Jew: A Rabbi Asks If It Is A Misfortune 1888
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Brooklyn Eagle October 29, 1888
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