Henry Hellyer – From the Rabbis to Christ – a personal testimony
A Russian Jew’s Story of his soul struggle for light and peace
I. LIVING IN THE TALMUD
II. A SON OF THE LAW
III. IN THE SCHOOL OF THE RABBIS
V. GROPING IN THE DARK
VI. COMING TO THE LIGHT
Dedication of the Second Edition
To pious Jewish motherhood—to my own good and faithful mother—this heartfelt experience is most affectionately dedicated. It was she who toiled patiently and bravely under adverse conditions and circumstances within the narrow bounds of the Jewish Pale in southern Russia, to give her boy the best possible chance in life. It was she who, with the utmost care and zeal, so instilled into my mind and heart a faith in the God of our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that it lingered in me and protected me from utter spiritual ruin until the time came when by his grace he found me and saved me.
The prayer of my inmost soul to the God of Israel is that the same light which enlightened my own dark and dreary life may also dawn upon her and all dear ones whom I love more than my own life.
HENRY L. HELLYER.
I LIVING IN THE TALMUD
How pleasant it is for the weary traveler who has reached his happy home at the end of a long, difficult journey to look back at the rough road he has traveled. Sitting in the cool shade of the sheltering trees, surrounded by his own loved ones, safe and secure from all danger, how he likes to tell of the perils through which he has passed and to give thanks to the Almighty for his protection and guidance. And as he looks back over the perilous road with its pits and snares which he himself has so narrowly missed and beholds his friends and brethren struggling there, his heart goes out to them, and he raises his voice to them, that perchance they may hear him and heed his warning ere it is too late.
In his incomprehensible and wonderful way, God has led me through a seemingly inextricable maze of dark caverns into the light of his salvation through the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. I cannot understand how he did it; but this I know, that the Spirit of God has rested upon me through Jesus, and that, whereas I was lost, now I am saved.
I love to read the story of the transformation of Saul of Tarsus, Acts 9: 1-4, into Paul, not only because in it is manifested the wonderful power of the gospel of Christ unto salvation, but also because the story of Paul’s conversion is that of the conversion of practically every Jew who comes into the fold of Christ, and therefore, my story also; and because the zealous spirit shown by Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ, is the spirit in which labors every Jew who truly and sincerely enters into fellowship with his Messiah, the Lamb that taketh away the sin of the world.
I was born in southern Russia in 1880. My parents were of the ordinary type of poor Jews, who make up about ninety-five per cent of the entire Jewish population of that locality. They were very religious and zealous for the Law of Moses as set forth, not by Moses—as everyone who knows the conditions existing among the Jews will testify—but by the rabbis in the Talmud, which is quite a different thing. At the age of four years, when scarcely able to lisp, I was sent to a Jewish private elementary school—cheder—where I was taught to read Hebrew. That year my father died, and then began on the part of my mother a bitter struggle to maintain me at school and to keep her own soul and body together. To add to our misfortunes, our house burned down, and mother was now obliged to provide rent also. I was too young to realize the severity of her struggles. Then I already had enough to do to keep my entire childish attention occupied. For, besides attending to my studies, I was obliged to go, during an entire year, twice daily to the synagogue to repeat prayers for the repose of my father’s soul, as I was taught that this was the only way to keep it out of purgatory. Also, under the guidance of my dear mother and, likewise, of my teacher and companions at school and elsewhere, all of whom were of the same race and type as myself, I was occupied every minute of my waking hours in either doing something or avoiding doing something else, for the sake of my own salvation, as well as my father’s repose and my mother’s future safety. We Jewish children were taught that our parents—the dead as well as the living—were responsible for every one of our actions or omissions until we should attain the age of twelve. At that age every Jewish orphan becomes personally responsible to his Maker. Those Jewish children who have both parents living receive an additional year of grace. There were six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Law which I had to observe, besides customs too numerous to mention, which were to be observed just as strictly as if they had been commandments! The infraction of any one of them meant damnation.
If, in my childish speculations, I ever ventured to ask why a certain act was either commanded or prohibited, I invariably received a stern rebuke. “Jews are not permitted to inquire,” I would be told. “Such is the Law, and anyone expressing doubts or inquisitiveness exhibits a dangerous tendency toward becoming a ‘Goi’ (Christian), or a ‘Meshúmod’ (renegade Jew).”
Such answers soon put an effective check to any inclinations that I may have possessed for research beyond the six hundred and thirteen commandments and the several thousand customs. The word Christian was in itself sufficient to make the hair stand on end with terror on any Jewish head; for, as everybody knew, the Christians were the boys with the brutal faces who ran about bare-footed with whips and cudgels in their hands, attacking every Jewish boy they met, and from whom I myself had been obliged to flee on more than one occasion. Christians never went to a Jewish cheder (school), nor to a synagogue; did not study the Commandments, did not know the Jewish God; instead, they ran about wild, cursed and blasphemed, went to churches (horrible thought!) and ate pork! And, of course, I was going to keep all the commandments and all the customs, and even invent new ones, if possible, rather than become as one of them. As the years passed by, the gulf between me and the Christians grew ever wider and deeper.
In the meantime, I had learned to read Hebrew quite fluently and had been instructed in the book of Leviticus. At the age of eight years I was given to understand that, as I had now reached a mature age, and had studied as much of the Bible as was desirable or even permissible to a true Jew without the saving guidance of the Talmud (lest the word of God lead him into error and so to eternal damnation) it was now incumbent upon me to begin the study of the Talmud forthwith.
My, mother’s poverty had increased with the years. Yet she struggled bravely, and often denied herself food, to the end that I might continue my studies, as her life’s ambition was to see me became a rabbi.
My elder brother was working at the tailor’s trade. Under the local industrial conditions, he was obliged to devote many hours each day to his work in order to earn even the bare necessities of life, and was therefore deprived of all opportunity to study the Law. In other words, he was of no spiritual value to his parents, to himself or to the Jewish community. He was lost. Having thus lost one son, my mother redoubled her efforts to save me by maintaining me at school, and often spoke to me of the glorious future which awaited me as a rabbi in Israel, whose duty it would be to expound the intricate points of the Law concerning “clean” and “unclean” food and other matters of like vast importance. She told me of the certainty of a high place in heaven after such a life on earth, and of her own bright prospects hereafter as the result of having produced such a son.
As I grew older, I became more and more absorbed in the study of the Talmud. At the same time my feelings toward the Christians grew more and more bitter. The Christians caused us Jews to live huddled together in miserable little towns, without the opportunity to earn a reasonable livelihood; the Christians occupied all the government positions to which no Jew durst even aspire; the Christians owned all the lands in the country, the Christians frequently got drunk and boisterous, and assaulted and robbed, or even murdered, the Jews. What, then, could a Jew have in common with a Christian?
While I was forming this unfavorable opinion of the Christians, my teacher and my companions took particular care to discredit in my sight their chief abomination, Jesus Christ, the God of the Christians, who was worshiped in those abominable and detestable places, the Christian churches. Who did not know the true history of that blasphemer and impostor! Before I reached the age of ten years, I had the following account of my Saviour drilled into my mind.
Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary. She never spoke to the boy of the circumstances surrounding his birth, but, of course, the entire community among which they lived knew them well, and the children with whom Jesus associated frequently taunted him with them. To his persistent inquiries, his mother gave only evasive answers, and Jesus finally, tired of being thwarted, determined to learn the truth. One day his mother stooped into an open trunk in search of something; this was the boy’s opportunity. In an instant he had dropped the lid on her neck and threatened to decapitate her if she did not confess the truth. She confessed, and Jesus then and there determined to make a name for himself in spite of his ignoble birth, and at whatever cost. Accordingly, he betook himself to Egypt and was there instructed by the magi in the various secret incantations which gave those wise men the power to perform miracles. Upon his return to his native land, he imitated the magi and soon obtained a numerous following as a miracle worker. One day, inflated by his successes, he proclaimed himself God; this angered the rabbis, who attacked him, compelling him to flee for safety, and he ran into the only place whither the Jews dared not follow him—the Holy of holies—as it meant instant death for anyone except the High Priest—and to him also except on the Day of Atonement—to enter that place. Here Jesus possessed himself of the tablet on which was inscribed the name of Jehovah (the Shem Hamforash), and by secret combinations of its letters, and by magic incantations, he was enabled to soar into the air. At this many fell down and worshiped him. At the sight of such terrible blasphemy, the rabbis rent their garments, and one from amongst them, a particularly, holy man, offered up an earnest prayer imploring the God of the Jews to give him greater power than that possessed by the impostor, to the end that he might save his people Israel from the terrible danger that threatened them of becoming idolaters. Immediately his prayer was answered; he rose higher in the air than Jesus was able to fly, and sought to confound and humiliate his opponent by an unmentionable act. As might have been expected, under these circumstances, his incantations immediately lost their effect; Jesus fell to the ground and was promptly crucified by the rabbis. And this was “their God.”
Having gained this knowledge of what I was told was his true history, I hated and despised him even more than before, and my contempt for the blinded, foolish Christians increased; likewise, my resentment against them for worshiping such an unclean, blasphemous impostor, who had actually dared oppose the rabbis! And I exulted over the fact that he had met his deserts on the cross. The churches, until then unclean to me, became a hundredfold more detestable and execrable; in passing them, it was my duty—if I wished to preserve my prospects for future salvation—to expectorate in their direction and to pronounce anathemas against them. The Christians who were sometimes gathered in their courts inspired me with terror and repelled me beyond description.
At home and at school I daily heard reports of new atrocities committed by the Christians against the Jews; I was taught that I could expect nothing else from people who worshiped an impostor who had bequeathed to his followers his hatred for the Jews for the opprobrium cast upon him. The news of the most oppressive measures enacted by the government, or the most horrible crimes committed by the populace against the Jews, awakened no surprise in me, but only resentment against them and “their God.” My resentment was made all the greater when—in our boyish quarrels—the Christians openly asserted that to mistreat an unbelieving Jew was equivalent to an act of worship and greatly redounded to the glory of Jesus Christ.
I write this not in a spirit of anger—God forbid!—but with profound pity both for the unfortunate Russians, whose Christianity consists entirely in Greek ritualism with very little trace of spirituality, and for my equally unfortunate Jewish brethren who dwell among them and who have come to regard the religion of their Russian oppressors as true Christianity; they have never heard of any other. Between these two races there is constantly kept up the vicious circle formed by brutality and ignorance on one side, and resentment and misunderstanding on the other.
A SON OF THE LAW
Time went on, and with it also my study of the Talmud. As I grew older, my plays became fewer and my studies more constant. Steadily my life was settling into the rut of fulfilling the Law. But as yet I was comparatively free from care for my spiritual safety, for, as I had not yet reached my twelfth year, the burden of my transgressions fell on my deceased father and on my mother. I tried to live according to the Law, and at times I felt quite proud of myself for the reason that, having it in my power to cause my parents untold suffering in the hereafter, I was meek and loving enough to do my best in the opposite direction. I felt particularly proud when some of our Jewish neighbors remarked upon my conduct to my mother.
As I approached my twelfth birthday, when I would become a “Son of the Law” and assume full responsibility before God for all of my actions, mother often spoke to me about the approaching event, setting forth its importance and significance, and admonishing me to beware of the consequences of any possible thoughtlessness on my part in connection with the Law. I felt very important at the thought that I would at last join the community of Israel as an independent member, sharing in its blessings and privileges in this world, and in its hopes and promises in the world to come.
At last the fateful day arrived. In a night I was transferred from a child into a man. My heart swelled with pride when, for the first time, I found myself praying with phylacteries on my forehead and on my left arm. I felt that a great change had taken place in my life, though I did not, as yet, realize its full import. I knew that I was free to act as I pleased with regard to the Law, my mother being no longer responsible for my actions, could now only advise, but not command. I was an independent and free member of the community, and I was satisfied.
But, like Jonah’s gourd, this satisfaction, born of the consciousness of my self-importance and based upon nothing substantial, perished the selfsame day and left in its stead dread, doubt and uncertainty. I was now a Jew dependent on my own actions for my salvation. While no longer responsible for my religious behavior to my mother, I had become responsible to a being of vastly greater power, namely, Jehovah, who, as I well knew, could consume me with the breath of his nostrils. His eye was now upon me watching to see whether I repeated every word of my morning and evening prayers, or omitted a sentence; whether, on the Sabbath, I carried my pocket handkerchief tied around my thigh, as I should, or dared leave it in my pocket, permitting it to constitute a burden and thus laboring by carrying it; whether, on the same day, I dared touch the only copper coin I possessed in order to ascertain whether it was still safe in my pocket or had been, peradventure, lost. His threatening hand was ever extended over me. Every step I made, every glance I cast, every word I uttered or failed to utter, every move of my every muscle, was to be a factor in my future state. I could no longer cast the burden of my sins on my poor mother, nor on my deceased father; I, I myself, was the responsible party. I had no excuse for neglecting the works, for I had received four years’ instruction in the Talmud and was acquainted with the six hundred and thirteen commandments and with many of the fences built around them by the rabbis, as well as with some of the secondary fences built around the first row.
My life, therefore, became very strenuous, but even then I could not remain satisfied, for, in the first place, there were points which the rabbis had disputed but had left undecided. What was I, a poor child, to do when the rabbis had been unable to arrive at a conclusion as to what was best to do? Yet, act I must, for life was not a theory, but a stern reality.
My instructor could not enlighten me on such points; being helpless himself, he endeavored to conceal his helplessness by becoming angry whenever I ventured to approach him on this ground. “What impudence,” he would cry, “what audacity; what presumption to seek answers to questions which our rabbis—blessed be their memory—did not see fit to answer!”
I could not go to my mother for advice, for the men alone study the Law in Israel. What was I to do?
Then there was the dictum of the rabbis, “All Jews are responsible one for another,” continually staring me in the face. Of what avail was my own strict religious life, when so many other Jews neglected their duty? With all of my prayers and fasting, how could I ever escape eternal damnation, when I knew several boys who omitted at last half of their prayers? And how could I hope for mercy, when several of our Jews had gone over to the Christians?
Slowly life lost its charms and finally became a veritable nightmare. With every breath I drew, I felt that I was accumulating sin upon sin, and I also felt that I was powerless to stem the tide. And many a time I wished that God had been merciful enough to remove me from this world before I had reached my twelfth birthday, for then I should have appeared before him pure and guiltless.
At this juncture an apparent ray of light shone out from amidst the gloom. In the prayers for the Day of Atonement I read, “Repentance and Prayer and Charity remove the evil of the decree.” Here was hope indeed; this, at last, was so clear that no one could mistake its meaning. Surely, I need no longer be troubled in spirit about uncertainty in action. Repentance, Prayer and Charity. How easy! Once again my salvation was secure, and once again my spirits rose to a very high pitch. I repented of all of my sins of commission and omission; I redoubled my zeal at prayer and repeated the Psalms, and I gave my only copper coin to the poor. For a while I was contented.
But this condition was only a short truce. Very soon I noticed that prayer could not help me decide the questions which the rabbis had left undecided; that I could not repent of all of my sins, for sometimes I forgot all about some sins I had committed; that it was absolutely impossible for me to repent of the sins which other Jews had committed and for which I, nevertheless, was responsible; and that I had nothing to give to the poor, for I was very poor myself. Thus, my poverty became a barrier to my salvation. Only the rich could purchase a place in heaven!
My life became a veritable torture. I saw the gates of heaven closed in my face, hopelessly and forever. Whether I kept the Law or desisted, I felt that I was only adding to the strength of the locks and bolts. And as I studied the position of the Jewish community generally, my heart sank still lower within me and I could only repeat with the prophet, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.”
In my anguish, I cried out to God for enlightenment, but no answer came. Everything around me pointed toward me as the architect of my own salvation, and toward the Law as the means.
IN THE SCHOOL OF THE RABBIS
At the age of fourteen years I had finished all preparatory studies. It was now necessary for me—if I was to become a rabbi—to repair to a “Yeshiva,” a seat of higher learning, there to receive further training. Accordingly, I set out for western Russia. I had no money, and was therefore obliged to travel on foot. The journey was long, weary and tedious; I was footsore and—the greater part of the time—hungry, but my spirits were buoyant, for I realized that now at last I was going to a place where I would receive proper training in the Law; where all dark things would be illumined with the wisdom of the rabbis; where all doubts would disappear; where, in a word, I would leave the Judaism of the common people behind me and penetrate into the mysterious realms of the Judaism of the elect of Israel.
I dared not look beyond that, for the sight that met my gaze was too dazzling to be true.
I could see myself, after the lapse of a few years, a holy rabbi, seated at the head of a long table, poring over tomes of the Law, and explaining to the people the intricate points connected with such things as the proper slaughtering of poultry, or a piece of beef which has accidentally come into contact with a drop of milk, and other matters just as intimately connected with the salvation of Israel. And everybody who came to me addressed me as “Rabbi” and awaited my decision with bated breath! On my word hung the fate of the chicken or the piece of beef; according to my decision, the meat would serve as food to a Jewish family or go to a “Goi” at reduced rates. The prospect was so dazzling I scarcely dared contemplate it.
With an indescribable sense of awe I entered the great seat of higher learning. I imagined myself in the presence of God himself and scarcely dared breathe. The instructors there appeared to me as spiritual beings removed far above the earth and in direct communication with God on high—just such men, in fact, as I had been given to understand the authors of the Talmud had been before them. The students seemed to me to reflect in their faces the spirituality of the masters. And how could it be otherwise? Were they not all prospective rabbis—holy men in Israel without sin or blemish?
Eagerly I took my seat. With bated breath I began the study of the Law, expecting to see heaven open and the whole mysterious truth of Judaism burst upon me in all its radiance and glory.
During the first few days things bore a peculiar air of sanctity; but when my first impressions wore away, I began to notice things as they really were. My studies were in nowise different from those which I had pursued during the preceding few years; they were only more advanced. The air was filled with the same old disputes and doubts; the masters displayed the same old impatience at any attempt on the part of the students to explain the things which the rabbis had left unexplained. Every tendency toward independent research was throttled in its incipiency; every attempt at original thought was decried as damnable heresy. They must all travel the beaten track without deviating an iota either to the right or to the left.
I still consoled myself. with the idea that God, in his wisdom, had revealed to his children as much of the Law as was necessary for them to know, and that these present and future leaders of Israel, surely knew the ground on which they stood. It behooved me, then, to study my masters and my colleagues and gain salvation by imitating their lives.
After the first few weeks, when the novelty of the situation had worn entirely off and my studies had become a matter of mere routine, I began to study the surroundings. The instructors were too important looking and too overbearing in manner to be approached. When, in the course of my studies, I did muster up sufficient courage to approach one of them for an explanation of an obscure passage, he looked at me with great contempt for my evident ignorance and—in a severe tone and very rapidly—explained the passage, apparently to his own satisfaction, and, turning in his chair, devoted his attention to another student. I was left dazed and bewildered. I never dared nor cared to ask for any more elucidations.
In the dozen or more prospective rabbis who studied at the same table with me I was greatly disappointed. To say that there was a lack of spirituality about them is to express it very mildly. Their business in life was to spend a certain number of hours each day in the unavoidable but evidently very irksome study of the Law in order that when reasonably proficient therein, they might obtain a rabbinate or open a school and thus be enabled to live.
Their studies were interrupted by frequent intervals during which much gossip of a social and political nature was indulged in. They lived in a world of their own creation. It would have been amusing to an intelligent person to listen to the views which those young men expressed on the current topics of the day, exhibiting as they did their awful ignorance of the most elementary propositions connected with anything outside the Yeshiva. Their conversation on more intimate subjects was not always fit for the ears of a boy of my tender years.
Having been disappointed at my own table, I determined to get acquainted with and study some of the students who were very near the completion of their studies. Some of the men, indeed, had already completed their work; they occasionally served as assistant instructors while waiting for vacancies that they might begin their rabbinical careers. Like the masters, they had become inflated with the idea of their own importance, and their pride and arrogance before the younger students knew no bounds. However, by exhibiting a due spirit of humility and submission, I managed to get better acquainted with some of them. To my disgust, I noticed that they were essentially the same as the students by whom I was surrounded at my own table; they were only a few years older and they knew a little more of the Law. Their main object now—while waiting for a rabbinate—was to find a wife who possessed money. It did not matter what else the young woman might be—all daughters of Israel were alike—but she must have money, and her parents must be able to support the newly married pair for a number of years. The more proficient the young man was in the knowledge of the Law, the more money must his prospective bride have, and the more years must he be supported.
My admiration soon turned to disgust, and later to an absolute loathing. I loathed the Yeshiva and all that it contained. Higher Judaism with its mysteries had now vanished. There remained the same old doubts and uncertainties. Even the prospect of becoming a rabbi had lost its charms, for it meant that I must resemble—eventually—those young men.
Satan had his dwelling place in that Yeshiva. In his subtle way, he began to whisper into my ears that it was absolutely useless to look for higher ideals—that there were none. The whole world was corrupt, and the leaders of the people more so than others. God’s mercy and salvation were a myth; God had never meant to save humanity; he had given us the conception of heaven for the sole purpose of tantalizing us into vain attempts at getting into it, but its gates were eternally and hopelessly shut against us. Religion was a delusion, a cloak to beguile people into paying the expenses of the learned ones. As for truth and union with God—these were nonexistent.
I cannot tell whether I was the only one in that institution tortured by such thoughts. I took good care to conceal my feelings from those around me; perhaps others acted in the same manner. I had to bear my burden alone and watch myself sinking deeper and deeper into indifference and hypocrisy. I was threatened with spiritual annihilation. However, my early training asserted itself before it was too late.
My loathing for the school grew daily until it turned to a veritable horror of it. I could no longer bear the thought of remaining an inmate of it—a living lie—or of associating with the prospective rabbis. I realized that to remain where I was meant spiritual decay and final death. One day I concluded to leave the place.
Then began a period of wandering throughout Russia in search of a spot where a poor Jewish youth could find work to do and a place to live. But wherever I went I found the same conditions prevailing as in my native place. The Russians were everywhere worshiping ikons of the “Mother of God” and of numerous saints, and striving to avenge the crucifixion by oppressing and mistreating the Jews; while the latter were striving to live up to the letter of the Law, in total disregard of its spirit, and nourishing an implacable hatred for Christ and his followers. Not a single missionary voice was raised in all the confines of that vast empire to tell to the Jew of the loving Saviour whose wounds bled anew at every crime committed in his name.
Disappointed with my brethren in Russia, I crossed the border into Austria; I traversed Germany and crossed into England. Everywhere I found bigotry and fanaticism, modified, it is true, by history and surrounding circumstances, but nowhere eradicated. I was looking for perfection and found none. Wherever I went among my brethren, the Law was the only thing offered me as of supreme importance, and the Law could not satisfy me.
Finding no rest abroad, I returned to my native place and confided my troubles to my dear mother. With tears in my eyes, I explained to her the doubts that tormented me and gave me no rest, and begged her to suggest something that would reassure me. She listened very patiently and at last very soothingly said:
“My son, this restlessness is sent upon you as a punishment from the God of Israel for your sin of leaving home. Stay here, my child, resemble the rest of the Jews, observe the Law, and you shall be satisfied and find rest for your weary soul.”
I left for England again.
After varied experiences in Hull and in London, I finally found myself working at the tailor’s trade in Glasgow, Scotland. I was now a well-grown youth, able to discern things. My scruples in regard to my spiritual life had left me, to a certain extent; the old doubts no longer troubled me; my fears concerning my salvation slumbered. From association with various Jews in various walks of life, my religious life had become, like theirs, a mere succession of mechanical observances of certain rites, and repetition of certain prayers at certain times. All round me trusted to the Law for their salvation; why not I?
I passed my days at the tailor’s shop where I was employed, and my evenings at the lodging house where I shared a poorly furnished room with several other young Jews in the same poor circumstances as myself. Here my time was spent in reading such literature as I could understand. Being of a contemplative disposition, I did not seek any outside amusements, and my life flowed very smoothly.
Of course, I lived amongst my own brethren as I had in Russia, and as in Russia, too, I was surrounded by Christians. For some reason the latter never forced themselves upon my attention, and—strangely enough—I could sometimes forget that I was a Jew, and that some of the people around me were not Jews, but Christians. Scotchmen or Englishmen to me were only Scotchmen or Englishmen, and although they went to church, I seriously suspected that they were not true Christians, else —surely—they would have persecuted me. As I had no occasion to dread them, I did not hate them. Those who claimed to be the followers of Jesus had ceased to interfere with my peace and well-being, and I soon ceased to think of Jesus. But he had noticed me.
Among my roommates there were two young Jews of unsettled habits and very elastic morals. Often, while I remained in my room during the evening, they spent their time in sundry resorts and returned usually late, rather the worse for liquor, boisterous, using unbecoming language and, seemingly, proud of their condition. Though my religious sense was slumbering, the shock of the misbehavior of these two Jews at times reawakened it. They were a thorn in my side, first, because they were Jews, members of the chosen race, whose prime business in life should have been the fulfillment of the Law; and, second, because I knew that I was responsible for them before God, and that the greatest devotion on my part would fail to atone for such sins. To my remonstrances they answered with sneers and blasphemy, and their wickedness grew from day to day.
I had given them up as hopeless, sent into this world by Jehovah as a further punishment of Israel for their great sins, when, to my surprise and gratification, I began to notice a change in the two young men. They still spent their evenings away from home and returned late, but they were now quiet in their manner, and if one of them attempted to use boisterous language, the other would check him with the question, “What would Mr. Matthews think of this?” At times their old habits would reassert themselves; but after such occurrences they usually looked ashamed and depressed in spirit.
I asked them where they now spent their evenings. They answered that they went to a mission presided over by a Jew who had accepted Christianity and was preaching Christ to the Jews. They added that I could derive some spiritual benefit from an occasional visit to that place.
In an instant my old prejudices and my old hatred for Christ and Christianity returned in all their vehemence, and I literally fumed and raged. The idea of asking me, a true and faithful son of Abraham, to profane the holy name of God by going to a mission and listening to a “Meshúmod” preaching “their God,” “the God of the Gentiles!” If the preacher had been only a poor, ignorant Gentile (although, of course, I should not have gone to listen to his profanity) the invitation of those two Jews would not have been so preposterous, for a Gentile could not be expected to understand the enormity of his blasphemy in exalting the name of Jesus of Nazareth. But a Jew! Think of a Jew who had the Law and who knew the true God, preaching idolatry and inviting his brethren to leave the God of our fathers and to worship the man who not only hated us himself, but commanded his followers to hate and persecute us! Think of a Jew advising his brethren to bow their knees before the images of the “Mother of God” and of the saints, to go to church and do the thousands of things which, as I thought, went to make up the Christian religion! And I shuddered as I recollected some of the Jews in Russia who had gone over to “them.” I cannot describe my feelings towards those men, in fact, it would be useless to attempt it, for only an orthodox Jew can conceive the depth of my hatred for them.
It was in vain that my two Jewish friends endeavored to explain to me that their missionary did not resemble the typical Christian of my conception. To me all converts from Judaism were alike, pledged to carry out what I had been taught were the behests of Jesus to hate the Jews as long as the world endured. Then, I was sure, their motives in embracing Christianity were in every case of the most sordid kind. I remembered one young Jew in Russia, a school-teacher, who had applied for a position to which was attached a monthly salary of ten roubles in excess of that which he was receiving. On being informed that his religion barred him from that position, he promptly “became a Christian” by joining the Greek church, and received the coveted appointment. I remembered another young Jew who had become a Christian for the sake of a petty commission in the army, which no Jew could hold in Russia. Still another one had done the same thing for the sake of a position as schoolmaster in a village school, with a salary of twelve rubles a month! Think of a Jew consenting to worship in a place of abomination during his entire lifetime here and to go to eternal perdition after death for the sake of such miserable inducements! And that was not the end of the story of their degradation. Their Christian neighbors (although glad, of course, to have won over at least a few of the unbelievers to their side), could not, in their sober moments, fail to see into their mercenary motives, and looked upon them with suspicion; it behooved them, therefore, to manifest a great zeal for the cause of Christ and, as a rule, they vied with the Gentiles in going to mass, in observing the feasts and the fasts and, particularly, in hating and persecuting their (former) brethren. When, in connection with this religious zeal, we take into consideration the fact that these renegades were, without exception, confirmed infidels, their character will stand out clear and well defined. As a consequence, their names were a hissing and a byword in every Jewish household, and shame and reproach were heaped upon every man, woman and child in any way connected with them.
And this missionary into whose unclean place my two friends were trying to entice me, what could he be, but another of those miserable, sordid renegades, who had contracted with the Devil to preach Jesus and persecute the poor, innocent Jews, while his life endured, for the sake of some monetary consideration? I felt certain that such were the facts in the case. And as for his eagerness to preach Christ to the Jews, was not that an indication of his great hatred for our race? What other means could he have selected half as efficacious for bringing misery upon Israel as the inducing of some of the weaker members of the community to damn their own souls and those of their relatives for all eternity? Incidentally, their great crime reflected on the safety of all Israel, for we were all responsible one for another. Altogether, it was a diabolical scheme, cunningly laid and
carried out. The missionary was altogether too horrible a creature to associate with.
My two Jewish friends had not as yet become Christians, although they had been visiting the mission for some time, and, on the whole, they were morally improved. But then, they were really as bad as Christians, for they did not observe the Law at all, and their morals were very loose. And, after all, it would have been better for them if they had remained in their horrible state, for now they were confronted by the tremendous danger of becoming Christians, in comparison with which drunkenness and all other crimes were mere pastime and innocent amusements.
I firmly resolved to steer clear of the accursed place; and I strove to forget it.
However, my curiosity had been aroused. Often, when the two Jewish youths returned home, sober and in good spirits, I caught myself speculating on the nature of the mission. I ascribed these thoughts to Satan, and earnestly prayed to God to deliver me from the tempter. But in spite of my prayers the desire to visit the mission grew stronger and stronger within me.
One incident particularly served to stimulate this desire. One evening my two Jewish friends returned from their usual haunts rather late, and I could see at a glance that they had not spent the evening at the mission. They were discussing their exploits with evident satisfaction, when one of them suddenly interrupted his friend, exclaiming, “That is all very well, only, what would Mr. Matthews say to this ?” A hush fell over the two young men and they both looked guilty and ashamed. I was greatly astonished and asked them if Mr. Matthews, being a renegade, would not rejoice if he knew that they were so very bad, almost as bad as Christians? “As bad as Christians?” they said. “Henry, you know not whereof you speak. We can never be like them, for true Christians are good.” Of course this appeared so ridiculous that I burst out laughing. Who could imagine a good Christian? My friends simply said, “Come and see.” They seemed so positive about their statement that I began to think at times that, possibly, I had received a false impression of the Christians. Such thoughts were only fleeting, for the next moment I usually thought, “But think of the Man they follow!” How can they be good? Nevertheless, my desire to visit the mission grew stronger and stronger. Once I had almost offered the two young men to accompany them, when the horror of the contemplated step presented itself to me in all its blackness.
So the summer passed. The evenings grew longer and colder and more tedious in the cheerless lodging house. My two friends spent correspondingly happier hours at the mission; they looked very comfortable on returning.
I now permitted myself more often to think of the place which they described in such attractive terms, and gradually the place began to lose its terrible aspect. At least, I reasoned, no possible harm could befall me if I should step into the mission, for no one could compel me to become a Christian against my will, although there is this common belief among the Jews that the missionaries often use trickery once they have you inside their mission. One of their favorite methods (so we were told) was to brand a cross upon the seduced’s left arm on the place where one of the phylacteries is put during the morning worship. This is done by every foul means imaginable; its purpose is that the victim might never again be able to return to Judaism. Perhaps my influence would serve to bring the poor, miserable renegade back to his duties as a Jew!
One evening, when my friends found me particularly depressed they urged me to come with them to the mission. I consented. But the next instant I began to feel that I was a monster, a traitor to the cause of Israel, to the Law and to the God of the Jews. I thought of my mother, my sister, my brother and of the everlasting shame that I would bring upon them by my thoughtless and blasphemous act. I, a true Jew, a son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a child of the Law, would step into a Christian mission and listen to the blasphemous teachings of the Jew-hating, God-hating Christ; who commanded men to indulge in all of those excesses to which the Christians gave themselves up, in obedience to his voice! If, as the rabbis taught, I was entitled to a reward for merely entering the synagogue, even though I did not pray, then I would be, of course, in danger of damnation for entering an abominable mission, even though I did not bow to Jesus. I grew nervous and could scarcely eat my food; but, desiring to appear strong and brave, I concluded not to withdraw my consent.
After supper I started for the mission. My heart beat wildly and my cheeks grew pale as we approached the terrible place. I fancied that all Israel was looking at me, and I cast furtive glances to see if any Jews saw me. Fortunately, the mission was situated away from the Jewish quarter, and I met no Jews. Several times I was on the point of bolting, but the desire to appear brave restrained me. My brain was on fire, my knees were bending under me, a thousand voices rang in my ears, each one crying that I was lost, lost!
Yet I could not resist the force that was impelling me onward, for it was God himself who, in his great mercy, had looked down upon me, a poor, lost sheep, and had sent his Son to find me. Moving against my will, and crying out to myself in the anguish of my soul, yet not possessing strength enough to retrace my steps, I, with my two companions, soon found myself in front of the mission.
How can I describe my feelings at that fateful moment? Here I was, about to enter an accursed, abominable mission. I, the pious Jewish youth, whose duty it was to avoid everything connected with Christ and his followers, to detest his churches, to resent his cruelty, to hate every Jew who spoke his name, I was about to enter a mission devoted to preaching him to the Jews! I could see my mother and my sister and brother looking at me in terror, and my townspeople pointing their fingers at me in their rage; I could hear the entire Jewish race shouting at me in their fury; I could see the Law hurling its curses at me, and Gehenna open at my feet. In my terror, I wished to run away from that horrible place, but God would not let me. I was powerless to turn; I felt that some mysterious force, stronger than I, was controlling me and leading me on.
Presently I found myself within the building. Trembling in every limb, I stood there, conscious of being in a very pleasant, warm room, but terrified at the thought that, at any moment, the terrible renegade was liable to pounce upon my defenseless person and baptize me forcibly, thus making me a Christian, as, I knew, the Russian Government had been wont to do with young Jews in the days of Nicholas the First.
While I was still trembling, he came. I looked at the venerable Israelite with his benevolent face and kindly eyes; I felt the warm grasp of his hand; I heard his friendly, fatherly greeting, and I stood literally dumb with astonishment. When finally I did regain the use of my voice, I could only stammer these words:
“Surely, you are not a Meshúmod?”
“No, no, my child,” he answered, “I am not a Meshúmod; what an idea!”
“But you believe in Jesus Christ?”
“With all my heart. But, my friend, I also believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the only true God. I am a Jew like yourself, and I love my people. I know what you have in mind when you speak of a Meshúmod, and I must tell you that you will find nobody like that in this mission. Our religion is the religion of Israel, with some slight difference, which I cannot now discuss with you. But we shall speak of it some other time.”
“And you believe in Jesus Christ?”
“Yes, brother; with all my heart and soul,” answered the venerable missionary.
For the moment I felt that I was reduced to a state bordering on imbecility. I could not explain the situation. This patriarchal Jew, with flowing beard and sweet, kindly eyes,
looked very much like a rabbi; he claimed to love the Jews and to believe in the God of our fathers; and yet, in the same breath he confessed his belief in Jesus Christ! Surely, one of us two was mad, and I was certain that it was my mind which was affected; I felt that the struggle through which I had gone lately had been too much for me.
While I was still standing there in my bewilderment, the friendly, fatherly voice of the missionary invited me to look around and make myself comfortable.
The room was large. A bright, cheerful fire was burning on the hearth; several groups of Jewish young men were gathered at several tables, some reading very earnestly, while others were playing chess, checkers or other games, chatting pleasantly and apparently feeling quite contented. I examined some of the books that lay scattered on a long table and noticed that they were written in various languages. Among others, I picked up one which had the name of Jesus Christ printed in large Hebrew letters on the front page; this I quickly dropped as if it had burned my hands, and went into the next room.
This, too, was a cheerful place, bright and warm. In the center were two long tables presided over by a young man and a young woman, respectively, both neatly attired, who were teaching a number of young Jews to read and write English. The teachers were not Jews; yet study their faces as I would, I could discover nothing but kindness and benevolence in them; they literally shone with goodness. I almost wished that I could discover at least a trace of brutality about them in order that my established opinion of the Christians should not suffer at the very first close contact with those whom I had been taught to hate, but it was in vain; kindlier faces I had never seen in my life. Certainly, I could not remember a face half as kindly among the prospective rabbis at the Yeshiva. This room was fitted with a small pulpit from which Mr. Matthews addressed his visitors nightly after school and held special services every Saturday and Sunday.
A third room, adjoining the schoolroom, also looked very inviting. This was the missionary’s private sanctum in which he met, entertained and instructed earnest inquirers. Next to this room were Mr. Matthews’ private apartments, where his daughter kept house for him.
I was so engrossed by what I saw that I could not give myself any clear account of what I felt. The entire place bore an air of welcome; I felt better than I had ever felt in my unattractive lodgings; so much better, that in a few minutes I had forgotten that I was in a mission where Christ’s name was preached, that the presiding genius of the place was a renegade Jew whose object was to induce me to betray my people and to believe in “their God.” I only knew that I was surrounded by an atmosphere of peace and repose such as I had never known in my life before. My petty troubles and tribulations were hushed in that place of rest, and I was living a new, hitherto untasted life.
The evening passed very rapidly, and it was rather late when Mr. Matthews mounted his pulpit and offered up a short prayer invoking God’s blessing on Israel, such as I had never heard in a Jewish synagogue. While he was praying, I somehow imagined that I was the victim of a practical joke.; that I was amongst orthodox Jews who had merely brought in the name of Jesus for the pleasure of confusing me, but that now, at prayer, they were compelled to act naturally and, of course, did not dare to pronounce that hated name in the presence of God. However, Mr. Matthews soon began to pray God that his brethren might be brought by the Spirit to recognize him who had died for their salvation. These, of course, were strange words to Jewish ears, and to me they had no meaning whatever. The missionary spoke of a Saviour, a Redeemer, our Elder Brother. I understood not a word of all of that, for I had never heard of Jesus in that light before; to me he was “their God,” and nothing more.
Presently, however, Mr. Matthews concluded his prayer, telling God that he asked those things for Israel in the name of Jesus Christ. Then I realized that he was, after all, a Christian and that he had blasphemed in daring to bring that detestable name before God. Just why he had prayed to “our God” in the name of. “their God,” or just why, having a God of his own, he had prayed to “our God” at all, I could not understand. But the name of Jesus Christ pronounced so boldly in my presence had a peculiar effect on me. I imagine that if a sharp-pointed dagger were driven into my heart, I should feel as I did at that moment.
[this page cut off on the right margin, words in brackets supplied]
The prayer over, Mr. Matthews pressed my hand, inviting me in his fatherly way to [come] again soon, assuring me of his friendship and apologetically explaining to me that in [case] of need or misfortune, I was not alone the world. His manner was so warm and friendly that I caught myself wishing that I might remain with that man, that I might never again be compelled to return to my [dismal] lodgings.
The next instant I awoke, as it were, from my trance. A million voices suddenly [burst] forth within me, bidding me flee from the accursed place and the patriarchal traitor. I for got his benevolent face, his kindly eye, his warm, sincere handshake and proffers of friendship; I forgot the restfulness and peacefulness of the institution, and the fact that those young Jews who had spent such a useful and enjoyable evening under its roof would, in its absence, in all probability, have spent it in low dives laying the foundation for a low, vicious life. I only knew that the place was a mission, the man a missionary, a renegade, a traitor, and I in imminent danger of becoming a Christian. And I fled.
GROPING IN THE DARK
That night I could not sleep. The enormity of the crime I had committed loomed up before me like a hideous monster, growing ever larger and heavier, as the sleepless hours slowly rolled by, and threatening to drive me mad. I grew feverish and deliriously tossed from side to side, vainly trying to drive the besetting visions from before my eyes. If I could see the terror of my near and dear relatives before I entered the mission, I could now hear the despairing cry of my relatives; if I could see the finger of scorn pointed at me before, I could now hear the imprecations hurled at me by enraged Israel. I—who had been carefully trained in the knowledge of the God of the Jews and of the Law, who had been taught always to remember that I was a Jew, as long as breath endured—had proved a traitor to my God, to my nation and to the Law by entering an unclean place where the name of Christ, Israel’s archenemy, was spoken. I felt that I was lost; I did not even dare to pray, for I well remembered the Talmudic maxim that “all sins might be forgiven save the sin of worshiping strange gods.” And had not my visit to the mission been an act equivalent to idol-worship?
I groaned aloud and cast about for a means whereby I might atone for my terrible act of treason. I thought of the three graces: Repentance, Prayer and Charity. And again I groaned as I realized that not even they could wash away my stain. My case was hopeless. Under the circumstances, I did the only thing which seemed to hold out any hope for me—I resolved never to step into that accursed place again and to do penance for my crime in the hope that perhaps God would not permit me to perish.
The succeeding few weeks were an endless round of misery and torture to me. I tried hard not to think of the missionary nor of his mission; but it seemed that my very effort to banish them from my mind brought them before me with greater constancy and persistency. The missionary was ever before me, reaching out his friendly hand; his soft, kindly eyes were always looking into mine; his fatherly voice was ever telling me of his love for the God of his fathers—my fathers—and for the people of Israel—my people—ever reminding me that I had a friend in him, and inviting me to come and see him again.
At my lodgings, after the day’s work was over, the struggle continued. The bare walls and floor of the poor apartment where I found shelter had never looked very comfortable or inviting; the coarse jokes and levity of my Jewish roommates had never attracted me. But since that fateful visit to the mission the place seemed like a prison to me, and I could scarcely tolerate the ways of my companions. I attempted to pursue the same light reading that had helped me while away the evenings in days gone by, but I could not concentrate my mind upon it. In a few minutes I would usually find myself thinking of the peaceful, warm, bright rooms at the mission; of the kindly, patriarchal missionary and of the beaming faces of the teachers. Everything invited me to come and forget my loneliness and my poverty. Then, there was the mystery of the situation. The rabbi-like missionary had declared to me that he was a Jew, not a Meshúmod, that he was devoted to Israel and to Israel’s God, and yet believed in Jesus Christ with all his heart. I could not understand that, since it was against all my past experience, I must inquire.
So one evening, several weeks after my first visit to the mission, having silenced my conscience, I found myself walking slowly and undecidedly to the same place again. The old desire to turn back was still strong within me, but I resisted it. My heart still beat wildly, and my knees bent violently.
I did all in my power to quiet my feelings, assuring myself that it was my duty to investigate the missionary’s doctrine to the end that I might overthrow it. The same old thought of bringing the missionary back to the Law possessed me, and I tried to persuade myself that I, and not he, was the true missionary. I felt competent to demonstrate his error to my lost brother, for I relied on the Law to bear me out in my argument. Mentally I was myself arguing with the old gentleman, telling him all I knew about Jesus the impostor, the God-defying and Jew-hating blasphemer, telling him all that the rabbis had ever said against idol-worship. And I could see how the miserable renegade in a short time gave up the fight and again confessed the God of his fathers. I became so enthusiastic over this thought that, unconsciously, I increased my speed. My fears and misgivings left me.
In a few minutes I found myself at the mission. Again I felt the warm pressure of Mr. Matthews’ hand and heard the welcome of his gentle voice. In the peaceful, benign atmosphere of the quiet mission all thoughts of bitterness and of strife fled from my mind. Again I saw several young Jews reading very attentively, a few others amusing themselves in an orderly manner, and, in the adjoining room, a number of others still studying under the guidance of several Christian young men and women, just as benevolent looking as those two whom I had seen on the occasion of my first visit to the mission. That same mysterious sense of peace and well-being possessed me, and even in greater degree than before.
I spent a very pleasant evening, and again Mr. Matthews dismissed us with a prayer and spoke of Jesus as our Friend who had given up his life on the cross to the end that we might have everlasting life. Once more I felt that sharp, unpleasant sensation about my heart.
Of course, I had been looking all my life for a means of salvation—all Jews were doing the same every day; I had kept the Law scrupulously in the hope of salvation; in my prayers, together with the rest of my brethren, I had invoked the merits of the saints, hoping to get salvation through them, yet never feeling sure of my ground. I welcomed, therefore, the thought of a Saviour. But why did not Mr. Matthews mention as my Saviour some rabbi who had written some nice little fence about a point of the Law in the Talmud? Such a Saviour I could have welcomed with joy. But when I heard that my Saviour was he, the “God of the Gentiles,” a pang of horror, cutting and repelling, shot through my heart. I could not contain myself, and as soon as he had finished speaking, I asked the missionary how he, an intelligent Jew, could speak in that manner about the greatest enemy the Jews had ever had.
“My son,” he answered very calmly and kindly, “I see that you have heard of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you are really interested in the subject, join me over a cup of tea next Thursday evening, and we shall discuss it. A bright young man like you might be able to convince me that I am wrong; I am not too old to learn.”
I eagerly accepted the invitation, particularly when Mr. Matthews informed me that there would be nothing about the tea which could in any way offend my orthodox instinct. I wondered greatly that he was not afraid to offer such a challenge to a Jew who, he might have known, could expose his error and shatter his idol in short order. I already gloated over the thought of how I would confound the missionary.
The succeeding two days I spent in reviewing my knowledge of “their God.” I felt that I was going to fight the battle of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob against the abomination of the Christians, even as the zealots of old had fought against Baal and Astarte, and that it behooved me, therefore, to gird my loins with the strength of knowledge. I recalled every word that I had ever heard concerning Jesus Christ, seeking a point of vantage, from which to attack him. I reviewed the scandalous story with which I was so familiar, and the atrocities which the Christians had practiced, and were still practicing against the Jews—and stopped. Try as I might, I could not discover that I possessed any knowledge whatever bearing on the person or claims of Jesus of Nazareth. I could hurl invectives against him; I could upbraid the Jew who believed on him for being a traitor to the God of Israel, but for the first time in my life I was forced to admit to myself that my reasons for so doing were based on nothing; that I knew nothing of Jesus, save the story I had been told at home.
On the other hand, why should a child of the Law devote his time to the study of such an abomination as the life of Jesus Christ, the God of the Gentiles? Was not that story sufficient to confound all those who believed in him? And besides, since all Jews spoke so much against Jesus, I reasoned that there must undoubtedly be an abundance of passages in the Law which confirm their views, although I myself had never come across any of them. Now, if only I mentioned the Law and the Prophets in a general way, what could the missionary possibly say in the defense of his God? And I already saw myself emerging from the contest with colors flying.
Thursday evening I repaired to the mission. Mr. Matthews met me with his usual cordiality and ushered me into his private room, where he introduced me to his daughter, an estimable lady about thirty years of age, who greeted me so pleasantly that, in spite of the knowledge that I was with a pair of renegade Jews, I was forced to admit to myself that never in my life before had I felt so comfortable or at ease as I did in that pleasant room, warmed by the presence of those two followers of Jesus even more than by the bright fire on the hearth.
Soon I was seated at the table. Mr. Matthews chatted very pleasantly about various subjects connected with my past experiences and present life, but not for an instant did he touch on the one thing which was foremost in my mind and for the sake of which I was there—the discussion of Jesus. Surely I had already obtained a victory without speaking. The miserable sinner knew that I had the Law on my side.
Yet I was not quite satisfied with my easy victory; by every instinct of the rabbinical training I had received, I felt impelled to confound my adversary and to compel him to admit his defeat. While I was planning the first step of attack, the old gentleman, as if divining my thoughts, suddenly changed the subject and asked me about my hopes for the hereafter. This gave me the desired opening. Very warmly I upbraided the old gentleman for forsaking the only people in the world who were certain of a place in heaven, since it was their God who owned it. How could he ask me about my hopes? The sole fact that I was a son of Abraham insured me a high place in Paradise; and he, as a Jew, knew well that no member of any other nation was destined to see heaven.
I was excited, but my host was calm and placid. Not for an instant did his pleasant smile leave his countenance; his voice was quiet and cheerful. He reminded me that there were many bad men among the Jews. I retorted that the spiritual condition of the Jews did not matter, that the one important fact was that they were Jews. To his suggestion that many of them did not believe in the God of Abraham, I replied that even this was not important, so long as they remained Jews and did not bow their knees to idols, for, when they should come to see our God face to face, they would, of ne