Chosen Peoples / Being the First “Arthur Davis Memorial Lecture” delivered before the Jewish Historical Society at University College on Easter-Passover Sunday, 1918/5678


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Copyright, 1919,

Printed by
The Lord Baltimore Press
Baltimore, Md.


Being The First “Arthur Davis Memorial Lecture”
delivered before the Jewish Historical Society
at University College on Easter-Passover
Sunday, 1918/5678






The Arthur Davis Memorial Lecture was founded in 1917, under the auspices of the Jewish Historical Society of England, by his collaborators in the translation of “The Service of the Synagogue,” with the object of fostering Hebraic thought and learning in honour of an unworldly scholar. The Lecture is to be given annually in the anniversary week of his death, and the lectureship is to be open to men or women of any race or creed, who are to have absolute liberty in the treatment of their subject.


Mr. Arthur Davis, in whose memory has been founded the series of Lectures devoted to the fostering of Hebraic thought and learning, of which this is the first, was born in 1846 and died on the first day of Passover, 1906. His childhood was spent in the town of Derby, where there was then no Synagogue or Jewish minister or teacher of Hebrew. Spontaneously he developed a strong Jewish consciousness, and an enthusiasm for the Hebrew language, which led him to become one of its greatest scholars in this, or any other, country.

He was able to put his learning to good use. He observed the wise maxim of Leonardo da Vinci, “Avoid studies of which the result dies with the worker.” He was not one of those learned men, of whom there are many examples—a recent and conspicuous instance was the late Lord Acton—whose minds are so choked with the accumulations of the knowledge they have absorbed that they can produce little or nothing. His output, though not prolific, was substantial. In middle life he wrote a volume on “The Hebrew Accents of the Twenty-one Books of the Bible,” which has become a classical authority on that somewhat recondite subject. It was he who originated and planned the new edition of the Festival Prayer Book in six volumes, and he wrote most of the prose translations. When he died, though only two volumes out of the six had been published, he left the whole of the text complete. To Mr. Herbert M. Adler, who had been his collaborator from the beginning, fell the finishing of the great editorial task.

Not least of his services lay in the fact that he had transmitted much of his knowledge to his two daughters, who have worthily continued his tradition of Hebrew scholarship and culture.

Arthur Davis’s life work, then, was that of a student and interpreter of Hebrew. It is a profoundly interesting fact that, in our age, movements have been set on foot in more than one direction for the revival of languages which were dead or dying. We see before our eyes Welsh and Irish in process of being saved from extinction, with the hope perhaps of restoring their ancient glories in poetry and prose. Such movements show that our time is not so utilitarian and materialistic as is often supposed. A similar revivifying process is affecting Hebrew. For centuries it has been preserved as a ritual language, sheltered within the walls of the Synagogue; often not fully understood, and never spoken, by the members of the congregations. Now it is becoming in Palestine once more a living and spoken language.

Hebrew is one example among many of a language outliving for purposes of ritual its use in ordinary speech. A ritual is regarded as a sacred thing, unchanging, and usually unchangeable, except as the result of some great religious upheaval. The language in which it is framed continues fixed, amid the slowly developing conditions of the workaday world. Often, indeed, the use of an ancient language, which has gradually fallen into disuse among the people, is deliberately maintained for the air of mystery and of awe which is conveyed by its use, and which has something of the same effect upon the intellect as the “dim religious light” of a cathedral has upon the emotions. Further, it reserves to the priesthood a kind of esoteric knowledge, which gives them an additional authority that they would desire to maintain. So we find that in the days of Marcus Aurelius an ancient Salian liturgy was used in the Roman temples which had become almost unintelligible to the worshippers. The ritual of the religion of Isis in Greece was, at the same period, conducted in an unknown tongue. In the present age Church Slavonic, the ecclesiastical language of the orthodox Slavs, is only just intelligible to the peasantry of Russia and the neighbouring Slav countries. The Buddhists of China conduct their services in Sanscrit, which neither the monks nor the people understand, and the services of the Buddhists in Japan are either in Sanscrit or in ancient Chinese. I believe it is a fact that in Abyssinia, again, the liturgy is in a language called Geez, which is no longer in use as a living tongue and is not understood.

But we need not go to earlier centuries or to distant countries for examples. In any Roman Catholic church in London to-day you will find the service conducted in a language which, if understood at all by the general body of the congregation, has been learnt by them only for the purposes of the liturgy.

Of all these ritual languages which have outlived their current use and have been preserved for religious purposes alone, Hebrew is, so far as I am aware, the only one which has ever showed signs of renewing its old vitality—like the roses of Jericho which appear to be dead and shrivelled but which, when placed in water, recover their vitality and their bloom. We may join in hoping that again in Palestine Hebrew may recover something of its old supremacy in the field of morals and of intellect.

To render this possible the work of scholars such as Arthur Davis has contributed. To him this was a labour of love, and for love. He would receive no payment for any of his religious work or writings. Part of the profits that accrued from the publication of his edition of “The Services of the Synagogue” has been devoted to the formation of a fund from which will be defrayed the expenses—after the first—of a series of annual lectures on subjects of Jewish interest, to be delivered by men of various schools of thought. We are fortunate that the initial lecture is to be delivered to-day by the most distinguished of living Jewish men of letters.

Arthur Davis was a man of much elevation and charm of character. He took an active part in the work of communal, and particularly educational, organizations. He was one of those men—not rare among Jews, though the rest of the world does not always recognize it—who are philanthropic in spirit, practical in action, modest, self-sacrificing, devoted to a fine family life, having in them much of the student and something even of the saint. It is fitting that his memory should be kept alive.

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