He was not yet 20 when he became a Rabbi, and after officiating for several years in different communities in northern Hungary, Isaac Lichtenstein finally settled as District Rabbi in Tapio Szele, where he remained for nearly 40 years, laboring ceaselessly and unselfishly for the good of his people.
Early in his ministry a Jewish teacher in the communal school of his district casually showed him a German Bible. Turning the leaves, his eye fell on the name of "Jesus Christ." He became furiously angry and sharply reproved the teacher for having such a thing in his possession. Taking the book, he flung it across the room in a rage; it fell behind others on the shelf where, dusty and forgotten, it lay some thirty-odd years.
About that time a fierce wave of anti-Semitism broke out in Hungary, culminating in the now historic "Tisza Eslar affair." In that picturesque little Hungarian town, situated on the Theiss, 12 Jews and a Jewess were thrown into prison, accused of having killed a Christian girl in order to use her blood for ritual purposes – the most tragic part of the case being that a little Jewish boy, who had been kept some time from his parents by the police commissary, was prevailed on by threats and cruelties to appear as the chief witness against his own father (the synagogue sexton) and recite a concocted circumstantial tale of the supposed murdered girl.
As in every other case in which this diabolical charge was ever brought against the Jews, the blood accusation in Tisza Eslar was ultimately demonstrated to be false and baseless. It remains to the glory of true religion that a number of prominent Christian men, notably Dr. Franz Delitzsch, of the Leipzig University, rose to the occasion not only to defend the Jews, but also to tear the mask from all who by their acts scandalized Christ in the eyes of Jewry.
The mental state of Rabbi Lichtenstein at this time is best revealed in his Judenspiegel (Jewish Mirror):
"'Often have they oppressed me from my youth, may Israel say' (Psalm cxxix). No long explanation is needed to show that in these few words the Psalmist sums up the bitter experiences and sorrows which we, at least of the older generation, have suffered from our youth up at the hands of the Christian populations surrounding us.
"Mockery, scorn, blows, and all manner of humiliation, have been our portion even at the hands of Christian children. I remember still the stones which were thrown at us as we left the synagogue, and how, when bathing in the river, and powerless to prevent, we saw them cast our clothing, with laughter and insult, into the water.
"Once with sorrow and weeping, I saw my father felled to the ground without the least hesitation by a nobleman, so-called, because he had not quickly enough made room for him on a narrow path. But these sad experiences are known well enough to need no dwelling on; and would to God that such persecution of the Jews by the Christians were altogether a thing of the forgotten past!
"As impressions of early life take a deep hold, and as in my riper years I still had no cause to modify these impressions, it is no wonder that I came to think that Christ Himself was the plague and curse of the Jews – the origin and promoter of our sorrows and persecutions.
"In this conviction I grew to years of manhood, and still cherishing it I became old. I knew no difference between true and merely nominal Christianity; of the fountainhead of Christianity itself I knew nothing. Strangely enough it was the horrible Tisza Eslar blood accusation which first drew me to read the New Testament. This trail brought from their lurking-places all our enemies, and once again, as in olden times, the cry re-echoed, 'Death to the Jew!' The frenzy was excessive, and among the ringleaders were many who used the name of Christ and His doctrine as a cloak to cover their abominable doings.
"These wicked practices of men wearing the name of Christ only to further their evil designs aroused the indignation of some true Christians, who, with pen on fire and warning voices, denounced the lying rage of the anti-Semites. In articles written by the latter in defense of the Jews, I often met with passages where Christ was spoken of as He Who brings joy to man, the Prince of peace, and the Redeemer; and His Gospel was extolled as a message of love and life to all people. I was surprised and scarcely trusted my eyes when I espied in a hidden corner the New Testament which some 30 years before I had in vexation taken from a Jewish teacher, and I began to turn over its leaves and read. How can I express the impression which I then received?
"Not the half had been told me of the greatness, power and glory of this Book, formerly a sealed book to me. All seemed so new, and yet it did me good, like the sight of an old friend who has laid aside his dusty, travel-worn garments, and appears in festive attire, like a bridegroom in wedding robes, or a bride adorned with her jewels."
For two or three years Rabbi Lichtenstein kept these convictions locked in his own breast. He began, however, in his synagogue to preach strange and new doctrines which both interested and astonished his hearers. At last he could contain himself no longer. Preaching one Saturday from Christ's parable of the whited sepulcher, he openly avowed that his subject was taken from the New Testament and spoke of Jesus as the true Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel. Ultimately he embodied his ideas in three publications appearing in rapid succession which created a tremendous sensation among the Jews, not only in Hungary, but throughout the continent of Europe. And no wonder; for here was an old and respected Rabbi, still in office, calling upon his people in burning words to range themselves under the banner of the long-despised Jesus of Nazareth, and to hail Him as their true Messiah and King.
As was inevitable, no sooner did official Jewry realize the significance of Rabbi Lichtenstein's position and writings than a storm of persecution broke loose upon him. From the Jewish pulpit and in the Press anathemas were hurled at his head, and he who but a few weeks before was classed among the noblest leaders and teachers was now described as a disgrace and reproach to his nation – all because he dared pronounce the hated name of Jesus.
The calumny was spread that he had sold himself to the missionaries. Some even asserted that he had never written the pamphlets himself, but had only been bribed to affix his name to them. He was cited to appear before the assembled rabbinate in Budapest. On entering the hall he was greeted with the cry, "Retract! Retract!"
"Gentlemen," said the Rabbi, "I shall most willingly retract if you convince me I am wrong."
Chief Rabbi Kohn proposed a compromise. Rabbi Lichtenstein might believe whatever he liked in his heart, if he would only refrain from preaching Christ. As to those dreadful pamphlets which he had already written, the mischief could be undone by a very simple process. The Synod of Rabbis would draw up a document to the effect that the Rabbi wrote what he did in a fit of temporary insanity and all that would be required of him would be to add his name to this statement. Rabbi Lichtenstein answered calmly but indignantly that his was a strange proposal to make to him seeing that he had only just come into his right mind.
Then they demanded that he should resign his position and be formally baptized, but he replied that he had no intention of joining any church. He had found in the New Testament the true Judaism, and would remain as before with his congregation, and preach it in the synagogue.
He did so, and this in spite of many persecutions and reproaches which were heaped upon him. From his official place as District Rabbi he continued to teach and to preach from the New Testament. This was a touching testimony to the strong attachment of his own community, which alone had the power to make request for his dismissal. Judaism being a state religion in Hungary. As a matter of fact much pressure was brought to bear upon them, and some members of the congregation and the relatives of his wife were completely ruined by loss of trade; but still they clung to him.
By this time Rabbi Lichtenstein and his writings had become widely known, and different church and missionary organizations sought his services. The Papacy, too, soon learned of the existence and significance of the man, and a special emissary from the Pope visited Tapio Szele with tempting offers if he would but enter the service of Rome. To all he had but one reply: "I will remain among my own nation. I love Christ, I believe in the New Testament; but I am not drawn to join Christendom. Just as the prophet Jeremiah, after the destruction of Jerusalem, in spite of the generous offers of Nebuchadnezzar and the captain of his host, chose rather to remain and lament among the ruins of the holy city, and with the despised remnant of his brethren, so will I remain among my own brethren, as a watchman from within and to plead with them to behold in Jesus the true glory of Israel." At last, however, after losing his all in the endeavor to save some of the members of his congregation from ruin, and with his health much impaired by the many trials and sorrows which fell to his lot in consequence of his bold stand for the truth, he voluntarily resigned his office as District Rabbi.
He settled in Budapest, where he found ample scope for his talents, but the opposition to him was relentless. He was shadowed and even physically attacked on the street. His barber was bribed with 50 kronen to disfigure his beautiful beard. His landlord kept a close watch on everyone who visited him and reported to the rabbinical authorities. But as a stream stemmed in its course forces for itself new channels, so he was continually interviewed and drawn into discussion by Jews from every walk of life. "Wisdom cries without and causes her voice to be heard in the street," he wrote to his friend, David Baron. "Doctors, professors and officials, as also educated ladies, come to my house. Many families of position also visit us who condemn the harsh conduct of the rabbinate here in relation to me. Many foreigners also visit me. I have often very grave, important discussions with Talmudists and Rabbis from a long distance, who wish to bring me to a compromise; and it is worthy to note that many who had formerly no knowledge of the New Testament, and stared blankly and incredulously at me when I quoted its sublime doctrines, have afterwards begged to possess one."
For over twenty years it was given to Rabbi Lichtenstein to witness in many parts of the Continent to the truth as he saw it in Christ. At last the storms of controversy, of misunderstanding and antagonism, began to tell on him. His spirit, however, remained undaunted. About this time he wrote: "Dear Jewish brethren, I have been young, and now am old. I have attained the age of 80 years, which the Psalmist speaks of as the utmost period of human life on earth. When others of my age are reaping with joy the fruit of their labours, I am alone, almost forsaken, because I have lifted up my voice in warning, 'O Israel, turn to the Lord thy God, for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take these words and turn thee to the Lord thy God.' 'Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way.'
"I, an honored Rabbi for the space of 40 years, am now, in my old age, treated by my friends as one possessed by an evil spirit and by my enemies as an outcast. I am become a butt of mockers who point the finger at me. But while I live I will stand on my watchtower, though I may stand there all alone. I will listen to the words of God, and look for the time when He will return to Zion in mercy, and Israel shall fill the world with his joyous cry, 'Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!' "
Quite unexpectedly he was taken ill and lingered only a short while. As he realized that his end was approaching, in the presence of his wife and the nurse, he said:
"Give my warmest thanks and greetings to my brethren and friends; good night, my children; good night, my enemies, you can injure me no more. We have one God and one Father of all who are called children in heaven and on earth, and one Christ who gave up His life on the cursed tree for the salvation of men. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit."
The day was dismal; it was eight o'clock in the morning of Friday, October 16, 1909, that the hoary Rabbi entered into the presence of his Lord.
Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein was a Jewish believer in the 19th century. He served as the Chief Rabbi of the Northern District of Hungary from 1857-1892.(1) He passed away on Hoshanah Rabbah in 1909.
Photos from Google Images.