One hundred and nine years ago, on January 1, 1909, our magnificent tabernacle was dedicated to the use of its congregation and clergy. Named for benefactor Judah Touro, designed by noted local architect Emile Weil, and constructed by George J. Glover, Touro Synagogue has long served as a beacon to the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of New Orleans.
There can be no better description of the religious, social, and architectural changes made manifest by this exceptional building, than the words of Touro’s honored Rabbi Leucht at the synagogue’s dedication on January 1, 1909.
(From RABBI L LEUCHT)
“Blessed are ye in the name of the Lord, the creator of Heaven and earth. Blessed are ye men and women who have helped to build this altar. Blessed are ye who stood by me in moments of great trial and anxiety. Blessed are ye who have come to lend your presence at the dedication of our new house of worship, testifying that you are with us, that you rejoice with us, in this moment of our glory. After years and years spent between struggle and hope, we at last have succeeded in this, our great undertaking. What was a dream of years today it has ripened into fulfillment, and with all my heart I exclaim once more, we praise thee, O God, that thou hast granted us to behold this day.
Thanks to you all men and women of my congregation, who, in one of the darkest days of a commercial crisis, one of the most appalling that ever swept this country, felling houses stout and strong; uprooting fortresses of finance, dethroning princes of wealth and power, even, in those awful days, you resolved to build a house to the honor and glory of our God, and here it stands in inspiring completion, once more a testimony of Israel’s hope and faith, proving for the thousandth time that, in the darkest night of his pilgrimage, the son of Jacob always hoped for the morning, never forgetting the encouraging message, “My God is mine, I shall not fear.”
The erection of a house of worship means, however, far more than a house of prayer for a particular denomination of creed, it appeals to the whole Commonwealth in which it stands, proving, above all else, that in spite of the spirit of materialism by which we are surrounded, yet there lives in us a longing after the ideal, that the human heart is still willing to offer sacrifices upon the altar of the higher things in life, that the fear of God and his worship have not been obliterated from our soul’s shrine, and thus another homestead for the universal God has been erected, before whom we are all alike, and who blesses all men alike.
Let us, then, in this moment of consecration and sanctification ponder upon the theme “The Synagogue and its Mission,” and may the well-know verse – “And ye shall build me a sanctuary and I will dwell therein,” lead us in our contemplation.
A Jewish house of God, above all, stands for the acknowledgement and worship of that universal spirit, the spirit that created and governs the world and all that is, and Israel, since it sprang into history has endeavored unceasingly to convey it to the peoples of the earth. This is the mission of the Jew, his destined life and way, and from that supreme historic moment, when there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount and the voices of the trumpet exceeding loud, the voice of revelation pealed from the chasms of Sinai, reverberating around the world through all times, we, the children of that people, who trembled in the camp, never ceased to seal with our heart’s blood the truth entrusted to us. I do not propose at this day of dedication and rejoicing to conjure before you the record of our suffering in the past, on account of our sacred trust, nor shall I disturb this moment of good-will and peace by rehearsing before you the cruel deeds of the present perpetrated against the loyal son of Jacob, but let me assert once more that then and now we have never wavered to stand by our God as we conceive him, as we acknowledge him, as we see him upon the height and in the valley, the Adonai Echad all the times.
We live at a time when it seems that all powers of the earth endeavor to sweep Israel and his claim to recognition into oblivion.
Scientists and scholars step into the arena, challenging him to a mortal combat. The old soil of the Orient is excavated and undermined, and ancient tables of stone of bygone ages are brought into the light of day in order to prove that our monotheism has been borrowed from heathen and cruel nations, that Israel has no merit, no originality, and no claim to the world redeeming message of Sinai, that our whole religious system is but a plagiarism of what was long before we ever entered as the champions of the Universal God.
We, however, need not fear. We will outlive, as we have outlived every pseudo-scientific, political and social onslaught. We simply point to Sinai, knowing full well that the “voice of Jehovah,” omnipotent and eternal, will never cease to sanction for what we stand and live and die. The truth coming from God’s mountain, has become the basis of the world’s morality, and the cornerstone of human society upon which rests the whole fabric of law and order. This voice of Sinai sweeps over all times and distances; it speaks louder than all research and excavation; it will silence all doubts and objections; it will build altars to our ideal – our God.
We admit that there never was a positive religion, including our religion, that had a right to maintain that it alone initiated a beginning, that it was the first impulse to all religion; for, in this case, like in all else concerning the spiritual nature of man, it roots upon some previous awakening of the human heart with which it had to reckon and to reconcile to its own conceptions and convictions. Judaism never has been and is not, a spirituality, a completed system of laws and ethics; no; for in the course of human evolution, with its recurring historic reasons, marking as with annular rings the growth of mankind, the old tree, full of sap ever youthful in virility, covers itself with new foliage, and its roots are strengthened by the rays of every new light breaking through the firm amount of every age. Israel has never ceased to be a member of mankind, and has always manifested living interest in all that has affected human race. Judaism marched forward and backward with the rest of the people; but, in spite of its isolation, has never unlinked itself from the great purposes and ideals of the world in which it lived. Israel has been and ever will be, amenable to development. Its motto is from the lower to the higher, from night to light, from storm to peace. As long as man is a conscious being, he will press forward and strive for the highest, and so will we seek and endeavor to find God in the light of the age in which we live and by which we behold the “signs of the times.” Let them find Assyrian scrolls, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Babylonian tablets, they only prove what we never denied, that the Jewish religion evolved out of Semitic heathenism. This very heathenism was the fertilizer, was the spiritual prerequisite, containing in part an original principle, which was its aim, and which principle still nourishing and upholding the world’s civilization. This living principle assures us that we are not dying of senility, nor are the grave diggers ready to entomb us. Gathered under the banner of continuous development, never permitting the germ of life to pale or wither, we can safely endure all the tornadoes of the world’s history, for these germs of life will always ripen into blessed fruit, when kissed by the sun of tolerance, civilization and humanity.
The erection of this new temple adds another germ of life to the spiritual development of this great Commonwealth. Here we shall continue to teach and to preach that worship means work for the higher acknowledgement of Jehovah. Not retrogression, but progression; not death, but life. This invoking the spirit of truth. We simply follow the divine behest.
“And ye shall build me a sanctuary and I shall dwell therein.”
This spirit of development from the lower to the higher, from the night to the light, has also been felt in the evolution of the synagogue. In the mutation of human events Judaism has advanced and retrograded, has marched forward and backward. The temple service of old at Jerusalem was not the highest expression of Jewish faith, it was but one phase of its development, agreeable to the grasp of the people of that time. Just as a river will never flow against its own stream, so we will never return to a worship which we have outgrown, and for which our civilization has hardly an understanding. Its purpose completed, it is dead for all times, it has been buried out of sight, and no Messiah’s call shall ever return it to life. Out of the ashes of the crumbled sanctuary has risen, phoenix-like, prayer finding a homestead in the Jewish house of worship, and there the Jew has brought his faith, his hope and his aims. Our Synagogues were not simply altars of prayer, where the heart could free its burdens, seeking help at the hands of God – they were also schools and academies, where the Jew was strengthened and fortified in the law and doctrine of his people, where not only his heart’s sentiment, but where also his mind’s activities were developed, and from which radiated the flame, warming and cheering the son of Jacob throughout his eventful and tragic pilgrimage to this day. The Synagogue always reflected the times in which the Jew lived; what wonder, then, that the Synagogue of the Ghetto was mantled in darkness and permeated by a depressing atmosphere! Its ritual and its prayer breathed forth but pain and sorry, subjection and submission. And as the Ghetto gates had to be fortified against the clamoring enemy on the outside, so likewise the Synagogue built around its wall strong fortresses, denying entrance to the spirit of a new era, endeavoring to throw a new light through the dingy windows of the Ghetto Shul. It cannot be my task this evening to follow the manifold phases of that movement, bringing light in to our temple; it must suffice to simply call attention and indicate the development of our Synagogue until it has reached its present status, and at once I must assert that we of to-day, in our own way, represent the old Jewish spirit with the same zeal, the same enthusiasm, unimpeded and undefined.
The walls of the Ghetto crumbled, its streets widened, the redeeming sunlight of intolerance and of liberty drew the people into a broader world, and there fell the letters from the soul of Israel, and lifted the veil of darkness from the Synagogue. God’s free air penetrated its gates, cleansing it from cobwebs of superstition and the mildew of bygone ages. This spirit crossed the ocean, invaded this God-blessed country that never knew the Ghetto, proclaiming as its highest, dearest and noblest dogma that all men are equals before the law, recognizing no religious of her own, that she is neither Christian nor any other creed’s vessel; that all men may seek their God upon the height of their own conviction undisturbed and unmolested, and under her protection the Jew built his temples in which he taught the old Jewish faith in its newer garb. And, like our God, who proclaimed: “I, the Lord, I change not;” so have we, born in his image, never forsaken the rock upon which our fathers built their faith. Fell of love and reverence, we have endeavored to separate the husk from the kernel, the essential from the ephemeral, the eternal from the temporal. For Judaism is not a conglomeration of stationary laws, customs and ceremonies, but, as Lazarus puts it, “The kernel of Judaism consists in its laws of ethics, and the one religious basic thought of the unity of God, planting and nursing a purified, ennobling and deepening God – consciousness in all people, form the main concepts of Judaism.”
To the continued development of such Judaism we have built this altar, and to remain true and loyal to its standard shall be its mission.
This synagogue shall be more than a lecture hall, for often has it been charged that the modern temple has directed its aim toward the intellectual, and that, in the pursuit of spiritual advancement and enlightenment, it has lost the softer vibrations of the heart, determining the true accents of faith. It has often been asserted that the modern temple service was chilly and distant, and that the chest notes of enthusiasm, of sweet prayer and deep devotion has been lost on the way to the height. It cannot be my task tonight to investigate this serious charge, but I know that it shall be our endeavor to harmonize and to link together heart and mind in sacred alliance, and that we shall continue to impress upon our hearts that this hall is not simply a place to learn, but also to love the ways of God, to honor and to serve him, “with all our heart and soul and might.” Here we shall teach our people whence we came, always pointing proudly to our history and its development. Here we promise to lead and to uplift and to strengthen our people, helping them to find hope and strength, even in the martyrdom of sorrow and pain.
Here we shall be strengthened in the thought that we never need to blush for our law, for our history, or for our faith. Our synagogue is our home, whence we can retreat, should the world’s injustice deny us our right, refusing us love and recognition. Here we at once comprehend that it is a design of Providence that we must struggle with Esau, in order to keep us alive and keen, preventing our going under in the depth of materialism or being submerged in the icy wave of cold intellectualism. Here our eyes shall always behold the finger of God, pointing to the redemption of man, to the great Messianic time, when the children will no longer hate and persecute each other for “the greater glory of the Father,” but where all will seek him and find him upon the height, bending the knee, crying aloudly in unison, “He is the one, and his name one.” This is the reason why we seek for no return to the glories of the temple destroyed. We regret not the altars of gold, that lie in ruin, for Israel saved the flame, placed it in the sanctuary of his heart, carried it from land to land, from sea to sea, and, guarded by the cherubim of courage and strength, it never burned low.
From this flame we have taken today once more a spark and kindled the perpetual light, whose luster shall proclaim from sunrise to sunset that all partitions dividing mankind are not erected by God, but by man, and his light is not vouchsafed to one, but to all. Therefore, we cry out, “Not back to Jerusalem, but forward to humanity. Not in Palestine, not in one country, no in one language, not under one flag, can we find the fulfillment of our mission. Israel’s temple had to be destroyed, Israel has to be removed forcibly from the land of his fathers. It was the design of Providence to disperse him all over the world, enabling him to enter upon the thornful path leading to that crest; where will stand a temple, whose foundation is the earth, and whose roof is the dome of Heaven – then Jerusalem has been rebuilt, and the Messiah has come.
I behold in a vision the sanctuary of the future, dazzling in light and sparkling in glory. All the world is assembled in its courts. Israel, God’s High Priest, with the miter of victory upon his thorn-crowned brow, kneels at the altar. Angels of peace and cherubims of love stand sentinel at God’s habitation. The white banner of universal brotherhood is unfurled to the breeze. Under this standard are gathered all men, and, from the throne of the Almighty sweeps down the benediction.
“Ye have built me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell therein.””