The Altars Rebuilt

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The Altars Rebuilt  (1890) 
by Isaac S. Moses
1890 sermon for the morning of Yom Kippur

And Elijah drew nigh unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions '? If the Elemal be God, follow him : but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. Then said Elijah to the people, I, one only, remain a prophet of Hie Eternal ; but Baal' s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. And Elijah said to all the people, Come near to me. And all the people came near to him, and he repaii fd the altar of the Lord that was broken down. And it came to pass at the time of off er in gup the meal offering, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, O Eternal, God of Abraham, oj Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day, that thoit art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Answer me. O J-'.tei nal, answer rue, that this people may know that thou art God,, and do thou turn their heart back again. Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when the people saw it, they fell on their *** and they said. The Eternal, He is God, the Eternal, He is God.'

Were to-day, by some miraculous proceeding, one of the ancient Seers of Israel to come among us, say the austere prophet of Gilead, the fearless and undaunted Elijah, addressing us in his wonted plain, undisguised words, rebuking us for our negligence in matters that con- cern our holiest interests, threatening us, in the burning anger of his conviction, with dire calamities and utter destruction, or lifting up his tearful voice in prayer to the God of our fathers, imploring him to turn the perverted heart of his children unto Him, or performing before our eyes any of the miracles reported of him in the chronicles of old; what, my friends, do you think, would be the impression produced upon us ; what kind of reception would we accord him ? I am afraid we would in this respect not be " better than our fathers." We would, perhaps, listen to him, appreciate his good intention, then turn to our wonted occupation and way of thinking. His words, I am bold to sav, would not effect a radical change in our opinions, nor leave a lasting impression upon our hearts. Some of us would even raise serious objections to his ministraton.

To a great many, the lean, long, haggard figure of the mountaineer, the dark, piercing look, the coarse, unfashionable habilament, the plain, unpolished speech, would seem decidedly out of date and place in a modern Jewish congregation; badly fitting into the frame of our services and gatherings. The man to conduct our divine worship, and to speak to us the word of God, is not expected to be of the Elijah type; but rather a portly, polite gentleman, not careless even of the smaller duties of dress and gesture, unobtrusive in mien and look, careful and measured in speech as well as in action, knowing his position to be, not a leader of public opinion, not a pathfinder of new ways and methods, but simply a trained orator and skillful expounder of opinions and customs held by those who placed him there, and whose word of wisdom and might generally the latter may displace him from his honorable post. No ! Elijah would not do at all in a modern Jewish congregation. A man who has the audacity to frown at the king, and to lay the charge of corruption and murder upon his very crown ; who, in face of an over- whelming majority of prophets and priests, eating at the king's table and fawning at his majesty, declares that he Elijah alone is right; that the word of God in his mouth is truth, and that those who obey the king's behest and minister at the new altars of Baal and Astarte are traitors to their God and their people ; a man who could speak so disrespectfully of those who differed from him in their religious opinions, and who, in a fit of rage, could slaughter four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal such a man, and be he the greatest of God's prophets, the most earnest and convincing defender of Israel's faith, could not be elected to the pulpit of the smallest or the most ignorant of our congregations. He could not get so much as a hearing.

In synagogues and churches the name of Elijah is uttered with great reverence, and is associated with many living hopes of the two religious systems. Whether in the literal or spiritual interpretation of the great Messiah's idea, Elijah holds the title of predecessor and preparer of the way. In a New Testament vision he appears by the side of Moses ; in Jewish tradition, he comes to every family gathered around the festive board on the eve of the Passover, partaking of the cup of wine specially placed at his disposal; he is present whenever a son is introduced into the covenant of his fathers ; he often appears to toiling, care-worn men, giving a coin or a key which change whatever they touch into genuine gold, or teaching them a simple word which, uttered at the right time, turns the tears of grief into pearls of happiness. And still, I hold, were this same Elijah to come among us, living, speaking, acting in accordance with his character, he would find himself confronted by the same difficulties which he found in the days of Ahab. No doubt, to the " gentlemen " in Samaria, the wild preacher from Gilead was a most repulsive sight ; to their refined taste, his growling, thundering voice was very unsympathetic; his denunciations coarse and untimely. They preferred the smoother eloquence of the royal prophets, and the sweet, enchanting music coming from the lips of Astarte's priestesses. But, friends, we need have no fear that Elijah will ever come to frighten or to fret us with his presence; he will not intrude upon our well-regulated system of worship, nor offend our culture by his rude speech.

Whether Elijah ever lived at all, is a disputable question among scholars ; but if he did, he quitted the scene of life over twenty-seven hundred years ago, and is not likely to be in a position for itinerant preaching. Even should we believe in the literal word of the Bible, that Elijah was taken up by a fiery team and in body ascended to heaven, it is not at all probable that, remembering the sad experiences of the past, and foreseeing the poor result of his work among us, he should leave his serene home, and undertake a new journey to the earth. So let us dissuade our minds from any anxiety on that point. Neither Elijah, nor any of the old thundering prophets, will trouble us to-day.

And yet I assure you, though Elijah is dead, and the prophets that lived after him are dead also, one prophet is here among us who thinks, and feels, and speaks with the soul of Elijah, one who with the courage and fearlessness of the prophets of old, cries to us in accents not to be overheard or misunderstood, appeals to us in words that burn like leaping flames into our souls, chastising us for our sins and follies, and calling us back to our duty to our God and to the religion of our fathers. It is none else than the Day of Atonement itself! This day comes to us, indeed, like the prophet Elijah, plain, old fashioned, sombre looking, unyielding, uncompromising. What it tells are not festive congratulations; it is not a day of gladness, but of deep, earnest self-examination. Of all the festivals and sacred days of Israel, this day alone has retained its original character; with Elijah it says: I alone have remained a true prophet of God ! It has not yielded to the pressure of the times, and refuses to be "reformed." As a true prophet, it brings its heavenly message of warn- ing to rich and poor, high or low, without fear or favor, and challenges us to. a test between the results of true religion and the beguiling influence of make-belief and self-deception. As yet, this prophet has never spoken in vain; year after year it has aroused in us holier feelings and noble resolves, and often has brought us back to our better selves. Let me, to-day, be its interpreter; let me speak to you in plain, earnest, undisguised words of the sins and evils we have committed, let me plead to you in the name of Him, before whom falsehood cannot stand, and deception cannot abide. Oh, that I had the power of Elijah to call down the heavenly fire of true conviction upon the altar of your hearts, that I could shame into silence the false prophets carelessness, selfcomplai- sance, cowardice, time-serving, greed and stupidity that step between you and your God to lead you away from the religion of your fathers ! Alas, mine is but the weak word, quickly spoken and soon forgotten ! And yet I trust that God will bless this word of mine that it shall not return empty, but shall bring to pass that for which it was sent. Oh my God, strenghten me for this work, and take away from my eyes the fear of man, and let thy truth alone and the thought of thy presence guide me in this hour !

1. To the prophets of old religion was not a matter of tradition or conventionality, far less was it to them a matter of business or policy, as it was to the priests or kings. With them religion was the deepest and most conclusive of all convictions, it was life itself. God, to their minds, was not a term for an indefinite religious aspiration, but the life of their life, the soul of their soul. Their very occupation and name became to them symbols of their divine mission. Elijah means : My God is Jehovah, the Eternal, I know no other. To him I have devoted my life, my powers. This name stands as the type of all prophets of Israel, before and after Elijah. They were all men of thorough-going conviction; their faith in the God of Israel did not rest upon popular assent, but was a direct voice speaking to them through their own consciousness. Such men are always in the minority. The true people of Israel have always been few in number. The masses are not moved by conviction, but by convenience; their God is not Jehovah, the Invisible, the Eternal, whose law is unyielding truth, whose service is uncompromising devotjon to duty, whose nature is unchanging love, justice and holiness; but Baal, the visible deity, whose symbol is the sun, now smiling in friendly rays, now hidden behind obscuring clouds, to-day kissing the flowers out of their sleep, to-morrow parching up field and meadow, that all creatures languish for thirst a type of that idol worshiped at all times by the masses, the idol called: Public Opinion. The masses are swayed by the outlook of temporal prosperity; they bend the knee before the successful hero ; they praise the victorious conqueror. Let the tide of fate s\\ cep against them, and the loudest praises quickly change into public accusations. He who yesterday knelt in reverence before the child of fortune, will to-day, when the sun of luck no more smiles upon it, be the first to strangle it, if by this act he may win the favor of the new powers that be. Public opinion is no gauge of the worth of a man; it is not the measure of value of principles or institutions; it is no criterion of truth or right. "The voice of the people is the voice of God," is one of those favorite catchwords skillfully employed by demagogues to tickle the long ears of his sovereign majesty the Public. One man with the con- viction of truth in his heart is a majority, and his voice is the voice of God. And when his words fall like thunderbolts upon the torpid souls of the massees, awakening into consciousness whatever there is yet in them that is divine, and thus morally forcing their assent to his convictions, then, and then only, the voice of the people becomes the voice of God.

2. This spiritual fact is the key to the right understanding, not only of the activity of Israel's prophets, but to the great question of the Mission of Israel.

What is the meaning and purpose of Israel's existence, what is the position he occupies in the life of the nations, what is his destiny in the larger kingdom of the spiritual life of humanity? The prophets of old, as well as the best and noblest minds of the people, conceived this mission to be at all times a divine one. Israel is to be a people of God, that is, his mission is to historically body forth those religious ideas which constitute mankind's true dignity and wealth; developing upon the basis of his national life those laws, institutions, and ideals which have given value and direction to the higher life of humanity. That this was.his divinely appointed mission, and not the result of accidental combinations, that Israel did not happily or unhappily blunder into his true vocation, but was purposely led, nay often forced, upon his line of action, is testified by every page of his wonderful history. To many a nation of antiquity the thought of its mission dawned when its history had closed; but Israel's history begins with a clear outline of his divine calling. The true, the ideal Israel, though constituting but a minority of the people, always thought, felt, and acted in the spirit implied in the name, Elijah: "My God is Jehovah; I am sent into this world to proclaim his truth, to preach his holiness, to testify of his righteousness, to spread the knowledge of his justice and love, to teach the nations the fatherheacl of God and the brotherhood of man, to build up the kingdom of God on earth."

3. Not so did this mission appear to the majority of the people, their leaders, priests and kings. To them the worldly welfare was the first concern. To be a strong, prosperous nation, to push the border lines of the country far into the neighboring kingdoms ; to build strong cities, stud the mountains with fortresses, and crown the hills with royal palaces and stately temples, was the ambition of those who, through popular favor, treachery, rebellion, or the massacre of dynasties, held the reins of government. To them the religion of Israel was but a part of the state machinery, and Jehovah, the God of Israel, stood on a par with all other respectable or disrespectable deities of the surrounding heathen nations. To win their favor, and the political alliance of the people who worshiped them, was considered an act of prudence and statescraft. Baal and Jehovah were all the same to them, if but by the change some profit was visible, new conquests, better times, new markets for Israelitish goods, honors at foreign courts ; or, to the stupid majority, the outlook for a good harvest or immunity from prevailing sickness.

Against such treachery and faithlessness toward the inmost life of Israel the prophets protested most vehemently, even at the risk ot their own lives and not in vain. Before their thundering voices the thrones of idolatrous kings trembled, and the walls of their palaces sunk into ruins. This inward conflict between the ideal interests of the people and the question of material welfare could end but in the destruction of the Iraelitish commonwealth. Yea, the great zeal of the prophets for the purity of the religion of Israel, for the ideal life of the people, was the direct cause of the total annihilation of the Jewish State. They killed the body that the soul might live. What would have been the fate of the people without these uncompromising upholders of the ideal mission of Israel ? If the policy of their kings had obtained, the nation might have existed a few hundred years longer; the princes would have built some more palaces, filled their stables with more horses, their courts with more slaves, their harems with the daughters of many nations; the nobles and grandees would have enjoyed more gorgeous feasts, the priests would have continued tor some time longer to slaughter victims, and unctiously sprinkle their blood upon the altars, to swing the censer with grace and dignity, and with well-trained, melodious voice utter the prescribed benediction. Israel's merchants would have carried on much longer a successful and profitable business with Tyre, Sydon, Egypt and Babylon. But the religion of Israel would have been stifled by this material prosperity. The God of hosts would have lost his identity among the host of gods, and Israel would have shared the fate of those very nations whose beliefs, customs and laws they were so eager to accept. Through the loss of his political existence, Israel has saved his soul alive, and has become, by the very martyrdom which he had to endure, the Savior, the Messiah, of humanity, the mediator between God and man. The soul of Israel is his religion, which, in one form or another, is now the animating spiritual force in the life of the civilized nations of the earth.

4. Nor is this mission of Israel, to be the prophet of true religion, ended in our time, though some of the fundamental principles of his faith have been universally accepted. The last word of Israel has not yet been spoken; Judaism, Christianity, Mohammedanism, are not final truths, but phases of his spiritual life. The religion of humanity, the all-embracing faith of an Universal Religion is yet to come, and as of old, Israel is the Elijah, the forerunner and preparer of that great messianic time out of the soul-life of Israel must that future religion of humanity be born. This is no dream, nor proud self-exultation, nor the vaunt of despair it is the verdict of history as well as of faith. Of all the nations of antiquity, before and after Israel's appearance in history, none has survived a certain period of time. Within the limits of a few hundred years the proudest and most powerful nations had exhausted their productive genius; they gave their contribution to the wealth of human- ity, and then disappeared from the face of the earth. Their mission was ended. New nations sprang up in their stead, to take up the task of humanity, to labor at the solution of some new problems, and to con- tribute their share to the larger life of mankind. But^all along the line of history we see Israel continue his life-work. Deprived of his national independence, twice exiled and robbed of his rights, driven from land to land, and proclaimed an alien wherever he set his weary foot, plundered, tortured, burned, massacred, on account of his faith, Israel could not be destroyed, but still exists, and is to-day as numerous as he has ever been in the days of his kings! What truth does his historical exception teach us ? What else, but the divine lesson that Israel's mission is not yet ended, that his presence is still needed as an essential element of humanity ?

5. Applying these truths to our own wants and the problem of to-day, the question comes home to us with double force: What are we ? If not a Religions Community, inspired by the life-mission of Israel, what place do we hold in the organic life of modern nations ? It is not difficult to find the answer, though it be humiliating to our self-love. Then there is no room for Israel on this earth! Then we stand on a level with the Gypsies or some other wandering tribes who have out- lived the mission of their people, and who, in smaller or larger numbers, present the painful spectacle of a degraded race. The irreligious Jew, the Jewish atheist, is an anomaly, an historical self-contradiction. To claim superiority on the strength of some racial differences and distinctions ; to boast of the keenness of the Jewish intellect and ability, so gloriously demonstrated by the large number of our successful merchants, finan- ciers, artists, statesmen, or even politicians; to "point with pride" to borrow a favorite phrase of our great after-dinner orators and political aspirants to the great men that come from "our people," gracing the pages of modern history, our Rothschilds, Bleichroders, Mocattos and Belmonts; our Disraelis, Cremieaux and Laskers, our Mayerbeers, Mendelssohns, Rubinsteins and Offenbachs, our Rachels, Davisons, Barnais and Sarah Bernhardts not to mention the innumerable host of famous Jewish chess-players, billiardists, dancers and ward-poli- ticians to hold these up as the types of Israel's genius and the flowering of our millennial historical career, is a most sorrowful misinterpretation of the grandest and holiest mission, of the noblest and loftiest purpose that has ever been conceived by any nation on the earth ! All these worldly achievements may be very desirable, but they are of secondary importance. Israel shall not exclude himself from the practical life of the nations, but shall remain in close contact with all tha^t concerns the welfare of the people with whom he shares a common political life; but his true, his higher mission, is to be a prophet of God, to exemplify in his domestic relations, in his social intercourse, in his religious associa- tions and intellectual labors, the spirit that animated the prophets of old, the spirit that breathes through the Mosaic legislation, aiming to tone down the harsh distinctions of wealth and poverty, to inspire with the fervor of his enthusiasm the moral endeavor of the age, to clarify through the purity of his faith, and the unselfish devotion of his life to humanity's highest tasks, the faith of mankind in the One, Eternal God of Israel, the Father of all men.

6. If this be our mission now, as it has ever been in the past, the question which the Day of Atonement puts to us is : "Have you been true to your mission?" And the answer comes back: We have not ! We have been true to our material interests, but false to our divine trust. We have striven to accumulate wealth at the cost of our religious and intellectual life. We have sacrificed the soul for the body, the end for the means ; we have given God for Baal ! From our houses we have banished the faith of our fathers ; with our own hands we have broken down the altars of devotion, and brought our children up in ignorance of Israel's great truths. We have sold our Sabbaths and our holidays, and bartered away the rest of the body and the peace of the mind. To our sons and daughters we have set the example of cold indifference or stupid sneering at the holiest and most venerable forms of our ancestral faith, and now we wonder why the heaven of our spiritual life is closed and the ground of our religious activity is dry and barren ; why our prayers are without devotion, our services without uplifting inspiration ; why our children turn away from our sanctuaries to seek not a truer faith, but the enchanting worship of Baal and Astarte wealth and pleasure!

7. If we are not true-hearted and sincere in our convictions, if we ourselves are halting between two opinions, how can we call down the heavenly fire of true faith upon the souls of our children ? That we may be better able to fulfill our mission, God has endowed us with wonderful faculties and abilities, which have made us proverbial ; he has given us greater vitality, to survive the storms of hatred and persecution ; wealth and wisdom, to emulate in the solution of the greatest problems of mankind. What use have we made of these faculties and endowments? Have our sacrifices in behalf of toiling and suffering humanity, in behalf of the ignorant who are striving for light, the down-trodden who are yearning for liberty, the poverty, misery and vice stalking in our streets have our sacrifices for all these things been commensurate with our means ? What have we done for the honor of Israel, for the strengthening of our faith, the spreading of our truths, the sanctification of God's name among the nations, that through our actions we may kill the hydra-headed monster of prejudice and race-hatred still prevailing against the descendants of Abraham ? Where are the Jewish libraries, high schools, seminaries and universities, established by our Jewish Astors and Vanderbilts ? How piteously poor do the few attempts at a larger humanitarian work look in comparison with our wealth and numbers in this country. I mention with due respect the praise-worthy efforts made by collective bodies and by some large-hearted individual men and women our asylums and hospitals, which must live from hand to mouth, our theological seminary in Cincinnati, which ekes out a preca- rious existence, the manual training school in this city, the royal char- ities of Mr. Jacob Schiff, of New York, and last, but not least, the blessed work of the "Society for the Education of Jewish Orphans," created by the munificence of Mrs. Elisa Frank in our midst, who thereby has set a noble example of the true uses of wealth.

But I ask you, is this sufficient ? Should not a city like this possess a Jewish library, offering ample information as well as living instruction, in the shape of lecture courses on the most vital questions of Israelitish life ? Should not a Jewish community like this provide an institution where our daughters may receive as thorough and classical an education as in the best and most fashionable seminaries in the land, with the additional bene- fit of Jewish religious influence, and not leave the task of moulding the heart and mind of the wives and mothers of the coming generation, to the quiet proselytizing efforts of Catholic and Methodist schools? -

Nor should we overlook the dangers threatening the honor and faith of Israel in connection with the increasing immigration of brethren from lands of barbarism, political misrule, and religious darkness. If Christian associations go to the trcjuble of establishing missionary schools among them, shall not we, who are of their flesh and blood, take a warmer interest in their moral and intellectual welfare, and by patient toil, by kindly and brotherly treatment, win their confidence, their implicit trust, and raise them up to that level of American citizenship on which we stand ?

Yes, ignorance, intellectual and spiritual torpitude, is the evil which besets modern Israel; the Baal against whom we must fight with the weapons of the ancient prophets, with the weapons of the spirit, the weap- ons of truth, sincerity and faithfulness to principle. Step up to your duty, ye leaders in Israel, you fathers and mothers, build up the altar of your faith, put the fragments of the religion of your childhood together, and place upon the rebuilt altar the sacrifice of your devotion, your love, and see whether the true God of our fathers will not accept your offerings and respond with the heavenly flame of enthusiasm kindling the hearts of our children for the higher, the deviner life of Israel ! Witness the miracle which sincere faith can perform before our eyes. If this Day is a true prophet of God it will not leave us ere we shall have decided for ourselves whether we shall serve Adonay, the God of our fathers, the God of truth, and right, and duty, or whether we shall continue to follow Baal, the idol of selfishness, pleasure, mental and moral indolence, pride, ignorance and stubborness. Behold, long enough have we prayed to our idols to open for us the heaven of happiness and to shower upon us the blessing of true religion. Long enough have we followed after every fashion and worshiped at the altars of every new theory : Atheism, materialism, agnosticism they have not responded to our call, they have not answered the soul's cry for the God of truth. But now, this day comes near to us, like the prophet Elijah to misguided Israel of old, and with the words of his prayer it thrills our souls with awe and reverence. In tones that will forever ring through the ages, piercing the ears of indifference and arousing the hearts of the faithless to their duty, it cries: "O Eternal, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all those things at Thy word. Answer me, O Eternal, answer me, that this people may know, that thou Adonay art God, and do thou turn their heart back again !" Touched by the spark of faith, rekindled by the heavenly fire, we cry out with penitent Israel of old, even as we shall once utter with our last breath: "Adonay ha-Elohim The Eternal, he is God ; the Eternal he is God !" With this prayer and with this answer we dedicate and consecrate ourselves anew to the service of the God of our fathers, to the divine mission of Israel, to be the Elijah of humanity.

Amen.