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A Plea For Education.

by Isaac Leeser


In resuming the subject of our last month’s leading article, we will at once advert to the singular objection we occasionally hear to the establishment of Jewish schools, that by so doing we would prevent our children from becoming acquainted with those of other creeds, give them contracted ideas, and encourage the growth of sectarian prejudices from and towards others differing with them in faith. The persons who reason thus, take it for granted, that school associations are powerful levers to remove mutual undeserved prejudice, and hence, they believe that it would be injurious to do the least to weaken this softening influence. It is certainly true, to a great extent, that to be brought in mutual contact is perhaps the best remedy to remove, or to soften rather, the unfounded impressions and gratuitous ill-will which mankind entertain towards each other, since by this means we discover, that what we imagined so wrong in those differing from us, is by no means so formidable as we were told by others, or as we conceived it to be from our notions. So there may also be strong friendships springing up between school-companions which last through life; friendships which could only have been knit together between souls yet unused to the guiles of life, and untainted by its passions.

We have presented the argument, we think, in its strongest light, and it then amounts to this, that in order to wean our children from unjust prejudices against other sects, and to render these friendly to Jews, it is necessary to abandon a strictly Jewish system of education, and leave the formation of the youthful mind to any other than teachers professing our religion.

We imagine that our liberal friends mistake altogether the means which are to conduce to the end proposed. We will merely remark in passing, that we are second to no man in true feelings of liberality; we believe, in accordance with our ancient teachers, “that the righteous of all nations are children of everlasting life;” as far as our means will reach, we will be ever ready to assist all persuasions, without questioning whether they return thanks for the good they enjoy to the God of Abraham; we believe that we are bound to be just to all, even to our persecutors; but we do not think that we are at liberty to let  persons who do not believe with us in the same immutable principles of faith, instil, unchecked, their peculiar views into the souls of our young children; to taint these with views inimical to our ideas of religion, and adverse to the hopes of their parents. We think it a singular display of liberality, to place the younger members of the Israelitish people in positions, where they must constantly hear doctrines propounded and principles illustrated which are against what their parents, if they give them any instruction in religion, inform them to be divine truths. We do not charge gentile teachers with any direct attempts to employ a wrong and undue influence to warp the minds of children entrusted to their care for general education, though, we doubt not, that such methods are not rarely resorted to to produce a powerful impression wherever an opportunity offers; but we merely lay it down as an undeniable fact, that the bias of the teacher will naturally impress itself upon his system of instruction, and, in consequence, leave its traces upon the pupils who attend him. For instance, in speaking of morals, and their influence on life; how will a heathen convey them? as the emanation of the wise and intelligent, a Socrates or a Plato, if he be a Greek, or of Cicero and Seneca, if he be a Roman; and that they must be practised if we wish to embellish our life with all the graces of which it is capable: the Jew will justly tell you, whatever man may have elicited through deep reflection and study had need to be perfected by divine revelation, and that to lead a happy life, we must adhere strictly to the ordinances regulating the course of man to man, those relating to personal holiness, and those which respect our devotion to God; whilst the Christian cannot rest here, but he must tell you, that morals are nothing unless perfected by what he calls the true faith, into the details of which it is useless for us to enter. If, then, such a one teaches morals at all, and we do not believe it possible to conduct education without some instruction herein from one quarter or the other, it must be by basing them upon his peculiar creed; for you cannot expect that he will step beyond his own convictions to teach your children what he does not believe himself, or in a manner different from what he believes to be the truth. You cannot expect that a teacher will turn hypocrite, merely to earn your approbation and secure thereby the attendance of Jewish pupils; since in free schools he is beyond your reach, and in pay schools he will look to his own interest more by pleasing the majority of his patrons, than by gratifying the few Jews, who, though their accession be of value to him, will not compensate him, if by pleasing them he displeases those who believe Christian morality and Christian dogmas absolutely requisite for their children’s salvation. We do not blame this system; for, as we already said, if the parents and teachers think their doctrines are right, and necessary to the happiness of mankind, they would be neglecting what they conceive the best interests of the children, not to impress the doctrines and views in question upon their minds. We only say that, under the best circumstances, Jewish children are exposed in Christian schools to receive the same impressions which are made on others; or if they are not to be allowed to attend the instruction in morals which the other children enjoy, they must grow up in ignorance of the sacred duties of life, unless their parents become their constant preceptors at home, to instil that what is not acquired at school; and then we must assume that all parents are duly qualified to be able to lay the foundation of a good character in their children. But is this the case? Or, which is more to the purpose, can this absence of direct instruction prevent indirect impressions being constantly conveyed through the fellow-scholars who are not Jews? We have already hinted, that the school-books, beinng written by Christians, have all, without exception, a sectarian tendency; and, besides this, the constant intercourse from day to day chiefly with those only who are of a contrary opinion, will be but too likely to draw Jewish children from the observance of a religion, of which they can, under the circumstances in question, receive only a very imperfect knowledge. They will at once see that the religion of their parents is not the universal belief; so far from it, that but few profess it; they will be asked, Why they are Jews? and how are they to counteract the feelings called up by the first circumstance, or reply understandingly to the query?

We believe and argue from the consideration, that our parents are anxious to bring up their children as Jews, and that they would be sorely grieved, were they to abandon our precepts, either through infidelity or apostacy. We therefore ask them all respectfully, and beg of them not to pass the question lightly over, whether they expect that the end proposed used can be obtained by having them educated in Christian schools, as has been the case exclusively hitherto in America, with but few exceptions? Can they be so blinded as to imagine that all the knowledge requisite can be obtained from parents who themselves know perhaps little, or gather it up from casual intercourse with religious persons? Is it not as likely that they will learn Christianity, or imbibe an indifference to all religion, which latter is so much the case, a fact which we all have so often to deplore? And all this mischief is to be maintained simply that our children may form friendships at school, and learn to be free from prejudice! They ought to be so from all sorts of unfounded ill-will against all differing from them in religion; but in the name of truth, let them learn what they are to believe and do! let them be informed in the reasons of the life of their parents! let them acquire a conscious dignity, a becoming pride, in the name of Jew! The best of us are exposed to constant temptation during our whole life, being, as we are, surrounded by the evil example and the silent influence, not the less potent for that reason, of adverse beliefs and varying conduct. It is therefore imperatively demanded, that we implant early the proper prejudice, to call it so, into our children, so that they may become proof against the open and silent attacks of those differing from us, and be firm in the profession of the lineage and faith of Israel, though alone in the midst of thousands.

We contend, that many of our poorer children have not become attentive members of the Jewish faith, and that some of the wealthier have left the Synagogue through infidelity or apostacy, because they had not a good foundation for a religious character attainable in their schoolboy years; they had no example at home to induce them to be pious; the parents probably spoke disrespectfully of all religions; or they were too ignorant to interpret to the inquiring mind the reasons or perhaps the details of observances demanded by Judaism; added to which there were so few books, we may say none at all, within reach, to do that for our youth, that is, instruct them, which the parents were either incapable or unwilling to effect at home. We deem it as much our duty to protect from the curse of irreligion, or erroneous belief the children of other Israelites as our own; not to look only for the good of one city, but for the benefit of all communities where we reside, especially those of the same country. It can therefore not be a matter of indifference to us what becomes of the offspring of the poor or irreligious, whilst we have the means and the will to instil proper principles in our own household. We ought to have a more enlarged appreciation of our duties; we ought to feel a pleasure in propagating our faith, not indeed by preaching it abroad to those not of Israel, but by endeavouring all we can, by straining all our nerves, that no one belonging to Jacob should be withdrawn from the bosom of the chosen people by the criminal neglect of those who, by their wealth, intelligence, or influence, could save one soul from the fowler’s snare. We contend, moreover, that we know of but one remedy in the premises, and that is, the establishment of Jewish schools, and the selection of Jewish teachers of enlightenment and high endowment to sit in the teacher’s chair. We may be met with the objection that, if we even had such schools and such teachers, the rich, the exclusives, as they term themselves, would not take advantage of them, and would still send their children where they could mingle with those belonging to Christian parentage of the better classes of society: perhaps this may be so, for pride exhibits itself in strange antics, even to its own injury; but let this evil have to be endured; still there are thousands of the poorer and the middling classes (we hope no one will take offence at our use of these conventional terms) to whom religion is a subject dear as life; and these would doubtless hasten to place their children in a position, where, independently of worldly learning, they can and will acquire that knowledge which best embellishes the life of the wealthy, and is a priceless jewel to the afflicted in their hour of sorrow. But we do not fear that ultimately the rich would act so injuriously to themselves as to detain their children from Jewish schools; let them only see that they are well conducted; that order and decorum reign among those who frequent them; that there are those in attendance whose friendship and acquaintance will be a source of comfort to their fellow-scholars in after-life: and our word for it, they will soon learn to forego their silly prejudices, and gladly avail themselves of the instruction of men and women who will have no occasion to poison the springs of affection in the youthful mind; who will not inculcate that the religious practice the children see at home is folly and wickedness; and give them such companions, that they need not constantly defend themselves against their unfriendly assaults, nor be for ever taking up the gauntlet of controversy, which they are compelled to do where teachers and scholars are of a religion differing from that of Israel.

But we have said enough for once; we mean, however, to resume the subject hereafter.