Every nation has its own disposition and exigences, its own notions and aptitudes; they have their root in its first origin, their substantiality and continuance in its mode of organization; and as essential properties, they are, therefore, inseparable from its existence. An unbiassed observer of mankind will not look for those properties in things secondary and incidental, nor is it in the general human character that he will frivolously strive to discover the cause of their being; for there he will find only Man, — and not the Accidental, the National, which distinguishes one set of men from another.
There is not, therefore, any nation which can be pronounced utterly incapable of cultivation, or of improvement and refinement in manners. If it can be proved that the elements of its character were originally good, and that its matter and form suited with its intrinsic worth; no one will dispute, but that it could only be the particular circumstances in the long vicissitudinous course of its history, which, having by little and little put the Jewish nation out of its right point of view, have remodelled the whole, and made it appear in an altered, and, not unfrequently, a disadvantageous shape. Remove those disadvantages, and the Jewish polity will at once assume an attitude of dignity and respect. Only the training must go forth from the nation itself; and the germ of self-cultivation must expand itself anew, else all our endeavours will be fruitless. Salutary effects may only then be reasonably expected, when innate though dormant powers are stimulated afresh; then shall we have the pleasure of beholding in the great garden of God, the flower, once ready to sink down, bloom again, raise her drooping head, and go on flourishing by the side of — and in the best harmony with — her sparkling sisters: whereas foreign cultivation, or that introduced from without, whether forced on or borrowed, would either annihilate her altogether, or at least suppress and deform her. Neither individual man nor entire nations will admit of being re-fashioned after foreign patterns. Organizing Nature has assigned to every kind of matter, as well as to every climate, its particular capabilities and productions; and Art can effect nothing except it fall back upon the indigenous soil.
Hence the great men of all nations, once seized with the ardour of perfectioning their contemporaries, have founded their intended improvements on maxims already extant. Acquainted with the human heart, they considered it a paramount duty to be as tender as possible, with that which was held most sacred by the people they had to deal with. The old was merely made to assume a more modern form, and, by a new and better appearance, which they well knew how to give it, adapted to their noble design, in conformity to times and local situations. They did not despotically deviate from whatsoever was generally recognized, and generally venerated; it was not everything that they condemned and arbitrarily declared unfit; that only which was really harmful, which outraged God and man, they vigorously sought to put down. Detrimental abuses hallowed by superstition, erroneous opinions leading astray, immoral proceedings varnished over by zealots with the colour of religion, were marked as infirmities in social man, and removed on account of their noxiousness. It was thus that those Philosophers succeeded in becoming useful to the age they lived in, knowing, like a certain Rabbi, wisely to separate the bitter husk from the savoury kernel. And if the excellent axioms which they strove to diffuse were not received with equal alacrity everywhere, yet time has vindicated the tendency of their undertaking, upon the whole; while posterity is ejaculating thanks and blessings on the memory of those guardian angels of humanity.
There was a time when the Hebrew people, faithful to the bliss-fraught religion of their forefathers, could count themselves among the happiest nations on earth. Manners and customs then qualified them as a people consecrated to God, who by their moral and political constitution most gloriously distinguished themselves from any other nation then existing. At that happy period it was, that, favoured by temporary circumstances, the Israelitish people attained a certain high degree of perfection, nationality exalting itself to general philanthropy, while, under the auspices of a pacific Monarch, the salutary effect of peace to the nation failed not to manifest itself. With that wisdom which the pious idea of an eternal and universal Father alone could support, they widened the horizon, and enlarged their sympathies for those of a different opinion; and toleration, content, peace and happiness, pervaded the mind of the nation. And whence did they derive that pious spirit? From Religion; from her who, throughout, lays the greatest stress on brotherly love and the moral worth of man; from her, with whom reason and eternal truth, virtue and justice, are the main rule and constant aim.
But not only to the flourishing house of Jacob, did Religion offer tenets and laws conducive to salvation; in her there are, besides, peculiar comforting and encouraging promises to the dispersed flock of Israel. When the national independence ceased, and the emigrant members of the nation wandered about all partis of the world, they took away with them, of all their treasures, nothing but their religion. She wandered with them in all directions; with her, those poor victims of tyranny sought and found aid and consolation. Despite of all scoffing and contumely, despite of the many persecutions they had to endure for her sake, they continued true to her, the more true, the greater the cruelties exercised toward them.
After overcoming many sufferings, after various revolting and barbarous treatment, which rendered mankind more and more hateful to those tormented men, they returned into the bosom of the Divine One, there to gather fresh strength, fresh resolution, firmly to encounter still more cruel destinies lowering with crushing weight over their heads. — But wherefore these gloomy pictures of former ages? The noble-minded turn away disgustingly from these appalling scenes, to where more agreeable objects tempt their view. Then let me throw a veil over this horrid part, and skip that page in the records of our hapless ancestors, lest I should again depress our spirits now raised by modern and better scenes to the most pleasing expectation. A new chapter commences in the history of the Jews, opening with gladder events and becoming more and more cheerful and pleasant as it proceeds. The minds of most nations are now regulated by the rules of Equity; the iron barrier which separated the hearts of men for thousands of years past, the spirit of toleration has pulled down. Humanity is the watchword sounding from every tongue, and approximating to each other the hearts of all men. On the Jewish nation, too, this change is exerting a very salutary influence. Men begin to think of, and feel sympathy for, the Jew, being well aware of the wrong done him in former ages, by debarring him from his just share of the common stock of humanity; well aware of the aggravated wrong done him, in ousting him, at the same time, from the means whereby he might participate of that common stock. Thank God! the times are over, when the ideas of Jew and Man were considered heterogeneous. The Jew, too, now feels his worth as a man; and he feels it with thanks to his fellowmen. His inner consciousness tells him that he too is destined by nature to apply his faculties for the welfare of the whole.
But all the obstacles are not removed yet. The wild bee of raw uncultivated ages has left a dangerous sting behind in innermost mankind, which cannot be extracted but with the wisest caution. On the one part, they think they have discovered in the Jews’ system of conduct, nothing but immoral motives, and absolutely set them down as an isolated set of men. On the other hand, much remains yet to be done; many a notion wants refining: much of what is defective requires to be supplied; and a world of misapprehension to be explained and set to rights.
To elucidate the foregoing assertions by historical and literary data, is in a great measure the object of the present undertaking, which, as far as the “Jerusalem” is concerned, I had been advised twelve years ago to consign to the press, by several individuals who honored my “Memoirs of Moses Mendelssohn” with their approbation. Now the want of leisure, which then prevented me from following their suggestion has, alas! changed into too great an abundance, and I have deemed it expedient, in presenting a translation of “Jerusalem” to the British Public, to accompany the same with those publications which were the cause of that extraordinary production, some of which have become very scarce; and to add thereto, in the form of notes, a selection of the most approved articles by several Jewish authors, all more or less connected with, or bearing on the main subject. Perhaps it may be as well here to observe to the generality of my readers of either religious persuasion, that, in the character of a Disciple, as I fairly may be supposed to be, of the leading system of this work, I do not (with the exception of a very few interspersed remarks of my own), by any means hold myself accountable for every thesis, doctrine, or opinion, broached or laid down in the same. Too obscure for a censor, too timid for a reformer, and too conscious of my own defects for a satirist, my ambition, in this instance, soars no higher than the hope of having furnished a tolerable translation; and even in this I may be disappointed, unless, on being arraigned for innacuracy of style, an indulgent Public would, in extennuation, admit my plea: that I am not — what, without any disparagement of my own country, I should esteem an honour — a native of this.
Most Noble and Learned Sir,
I have received a letter from your worship, which was welcome to me; and I read it, because yours, with great delight, if you will please to allow for the unpleasantness of the subject. For I do assure your worship, I never met with anything in my life which I did more deeply resent, for that it reflects upon the credit of a Nation, which amongst so many calumnies, so manifest (and therefore shameful) I dare to pronounce innocent. Yet I am afraid, that whilst I answer to them, I shall offend some, whose zeal will not permit them to consider that self-vindication, as defensive arms, is natural to all; but to be wholly silent, were to acknowledge what is so falsely objected. Wherefore, that I may justify myself to my own conscience, I have obeyed your worship’s commands; for your request must not be accounted less, at least by me. I presume your worship cannot expect either prolix or polite discourses upon so sad a subject; for who can be ambitious in his own calamity? I have therefore despatched only some concise and brief relations, barely exceeding the bounds of a letter: yet such as may suffice you, to inform the rulers of the English nation of a truth most real and sincere, which I hope they will accept in good part, according to their noble and singular prudence and piety. For innocence being always most free from suspecting evil, I cannot be persuaded, that any one hath either spoken or written against us, out of any particular hatred that they bare us, but that they rather supposed our coming might prove prejudicial to their estates and interests, charity always beginning at home. Yet, notwithstanding, I propounded this matter under an argument of profit (for this hath made us welcome in other countries), and therefore I hope I may prove what I undertake. However, I have but small encouragement to expect the happy attainment of any other design, but only that truth may be justified of her children. I shall answer in order to what your worship hath proposed.
And in the first place, I cannot but weep bitterly, and with much anguish of soul lament, that strange and horrid accusation of some Christians against the dispersed and afflicted Jews that dwell among them, when, they say (what I tremble to write) that the Jews are wont to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, fermenting it with the blood of some Christians whom they have for that purpose killed: when the calumniators themselves have most barbarously and cruelly butchered some of them, or, to speak more mildly, have found one dead, and cast the corpse, as if it had been murdered by the Jews, into their houses or yards, as lamentable experience hath proved in sundry places: and then with unbridled rage and tumult they accuse the innocent Jews, as the committers of this most execrable fact: which detested wickedness hath been sometimes perpetrated, that they might thereby take advantage to exercise their cruelty upon them; and sometimes to justify and patronize their massacres already executed. But how far this accusation is from any semblable appearance of truth, your worship may judge by these following arguments.
1. It is utterly forbid the Jews to eat any manner of blood whatsoever, Levit. vii, 26, and Deut. xii, where it is expressly said, “And ye shall eat no manner of blood;” and in obedience to this command, the Jews eat not the blood of any animal. And more than this, if they find one drop of blood in an egg, they cast it away as prohibited. And if in eating a piece of bread, it happens to touch any blood drawn from the teeth or gums, it must be pared and cleansed from the said blood, as it evidently appears in Sulhan Haruch, and our ritual book. Since, then, it is thus, how can it enter into any man’s heart to believe that they should eat human blood, which is yet more detestable; there being scarce any nation now remaining upon the earth so barbarous as to commit such wickedness?
2. The precept in the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill,” is of general extent; it is a moral command. So that the Jews are bound not only not to kill one of those nations where they live, but they are also obliged, by the law of gratitude, to love them. They are the very words of Rabbi Moses of Egypt in Yad Hachazaka, in his Treatise of Kings, the tenth chapter, in the end: “Concerning the nations, the ancients have commanded us to visit their sick, and to bury their dead, as the dead of Israel, and to relieve and maintain their poor, as we do the poor of Israel, because of the ways of peace; as it is written, ‘God is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works,’ Psal. cxlv, 9.” And in conformity hereto, I witness before God (blessed for ever,) that I have continually seen in Amsterdam, where I reside, abundance of good correspondence, many interchanges of brotherly affection, and sundry things of reciprocal love. I have thrice seen, when some Flemish Christians have fallen into the river in our ward called Flemburgh, our nation cast themselves into the river to them, to help them out and to deliver their lives from death. And certainly he that will thus hazard himself to save another, cannot harbour so much cruel malice as to kill the innocent, whom he ought out of the duty of humanity to defend and protect.