Rev. Ridley Hayim Herschell

Rev. Ridley Hayim Herschell, born at Stozelno (Posen), April 7, 1807, was strictly brought up, together with his four brothers, in Jewish orthodoxy. When quite young he had a desire to become a rabbi, and left home seeking to enter some rabbinical school. In his wanderings he was overtaken by robbers, but escaped. At the age of fourteen, he came to Rabbi Aron in the town where his grandfather Hillel resided; there he remained two years among the Chassidim, seeking, after their manner, in vain to become perfectly righteous before God. How he came to the knowledge of Him who is the Lord our Righteousness, he has himself recorded in the following pages:

Having been favoured by God with pious parents, their great care was to impress my mind from childhood with a profound reverence for God, and for the Holy Scriptures. I was taught to repeat the morning and evening prayers with great solemnity; and on the feast days my attention was particularly drawn to the impressive confession in our Liturgy, ‘It is because of our sins we are driven away from our land,’ &c.. On the Day of Atonement I used to see my devout parents weep when they repeated the pathetic confession that follows the enumeration of the sacrifices which were appointed by God to be offered up for the sins of omission; and many a time I shed sympathetic tears as I joined them in saying, that we have now no temple, no high priest, no altar, and no sacrifices. As I advanced in years and understanding, my religious impressions became stronger; fear and trembling often took hold upon me; and what was then my refuge, what the balm for my wounded spirit? Repeating more prayers, and asking God to accept the calves of my lips. This satisfied my mind at the time; but the satisfaction arose form ignorance of God as a holy and a just Being, and of my own state as a guilty sinner, whose prayers proceeding from unclean lips, could not be accepted as a sweet savour by the thrice holy Lord God of Sabaoth.

I continued in this state of mind until I was about sixteen years of age. During this period of my life, I often spent three sleepless nights in the week, studying the Talmud, and other Hebrew works. I also committed to memory several chapters of the prophets every week, in order that I might become sufficiently familiar with the Hebrew language to correspond in it. At this period I became acquainted with a Polish Jew, who had studied several years at the University of Berlin, and consequently had become acquainted with Gentile literature. He strongly advised me to give up the study of the Talmud, and devote myself to the study of German and secular literature. After a hard struggle of mind, I resolved to follow his advice, and accordingly went to. Here there was not only a change in the character of my studies, but an entire change in my habits and mode of life. Many things that I formerly regarded as essential parts of my religion, were considered by my fellow-students alt modisch (old fashioned), quite unfit for the aufgeklarten (enlightened.) At first my conscience was much disturbed, and I was often very unhappy; but, after a time, these feelings wore off; I conformed to the manners of my fellow-students, and I also ‘lived like a Christian,’ as the Jews in those parts are wont to say of such of their brethren as have no fear of God before their eyes. I formed acquaintance with many young Gentiles; and this I could now do with impunity, as neither they nor I troubled ourselves about each other’s religion; neither of us, in reality, having any, although they called themselves Christians, and I was a Jew. The only thing that reminded me what people I belonged to, was the look of contempt I received now and then from Christians; and the little children in the streets calling after me ‘Jew, Jew.’ Then, indeed, I realized that I belonged to the people who have become a proverb and a by-word among the Gentiles.

I well remember the first time I ever heard of one of my brethren becoming a convert to Christianity. It was a young Jew, who was apprenticed to a tradesman in the town where I studied. My idea of Jewish converts to Christianity was, that they renounced their national privileges and obligations; that they separated themselves from the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and publicly joined themselves to the ungodly Gentiles, who live without God, and without hope in the world. Although at this time I had laid aside many of the outward observances of the Jewish religion, I had still a strong attachment to the fundamental doctrines of the Jewish faith, because I believed them to be of Divine origin. The idea of any Jew becoming a Christian, therefore, seemed to me a dreadful apostasy; and I regarded the youth above-mentioned with mingled pity and contempt, as one who had forsaken God, and given up all hope of eternal life.

I pass over in silence several years of my life, which were devoted to the world, and the things of the world; during which time I kept such a measure of conformity to the customs of my religion as I considered respectable and consistent; but my early convictions and impressions were faded and forgotten; and I belonged to that class whom the Psalmist designates ‘men of the world, which have their portion in this life.’

In process of time the Lord laid His afflicting hand upon me. The death of my beloved mother, whose tenderness to me I remember to this day with the deepest gratitude and affection, was a heavy stroke to me, and plunged me into the utmost grief. I was then visited with sickness, and my conscience became much disturbed. What I then endured can only be expressed in the language of the sixth Psalm. I solemnly vowed to become very religious; I resolved to fast one day in every week, to repeat many prayers, and show kindness and charity to the poor. But this could not pacify my guilty conscience, as the study of German literature had weakened my confidence in religious observances, had driven me from my own religion, and given me nothing in its place.

One day I was in acute distress of mind, feeling, as David expressed it, that I had sunk ‘in deep mire, where there is no standing;’ that all my own efforts to free myself were of no avail, my struggles only made me sink deeper and deeper. For the first time in my life I prayed extempore. I cried out, ‘O God! I have no one to help me, and I dare not approach Thee, for I am guilty; help, O help me, for the sake of my father Abraham, who was willing to offer up his son Isaac, have mercy upon me, and impute his righteousness unto me.’ But there was no answer from God, no peace to my wounded spirit. I felt as if God had forsaken me; as if the Lord had cast me off for ever, and would be favourable no more. I fully understood the words of the Psalmist, ‘Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head; therefore my heart faileth me’ (Psalm xl. 12); and I felt that all my devotional exercises were what the prophet Isaiah was instructed to declare the sacrifices and offerings of the Jews in his days to be, vain oblations, an abomination in the sight of God.

I was far from my home and relatives; and my gay companions, seeing I was depressed in spirits, though ignorant of the real cause of this depression, earnestly urged me to frequent the theatres, and other public amusements, to cheer my mind. At first this partially succeeded; but the merciful kindness of God left me not thus to my own devices, but graciously interposed, and again roused me to seek after more solid happiness.

God, in his tender mercy, had again disturbed and disquieted my conscience so much, that I fully realized the words of the Psalmist, ‘I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly, I go mourning all the day long, for my loins are filled with a loathsome disease, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore broken; I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart’ (Psalm xxxviii. 6-8). I had no peace nor rest; but wherever I went, or however I was employed, I carried about with me a sense of misery that was intolerable. I could say with Job, ‘The arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit’ (Job vi. 4).

One morning I went to purchase and article in a shop, little knowing that God had there stored up for me the ‘pearl of great price,’ which He was about to give me ‘without money and without price.’ The article I purchased was wrapped up in a leaf of the Bible, which contained a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. The shopkeeper was, probably, an infidel, who thought the Bible merely waste paper; but God over-ruled the evil for good. As I was walking home my eyes glanced on the words: ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ This arrested my attention, and I read the whole passage with deep interest.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their’s is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.’ (St. Matthew v.3-10.)

I was much struck with the sentiments contained in this passage, and felt very desirous to see the book of which it was a portion; I had no idea what book it was, never having seen a New Testament. A few days after, God directed my footsteps to the house of an acquaintance, on whose table lay a copy of the New Testament. Impelled by curiosity I took it up, that had interested me so much. I immediately borrowed it, and began to read it with great avidity. At first I felt quite bewildered, and was so shocked by the constant recurrence of the name of Jesus, that I repeatedly cast the book away. At length I determined to read it through. When I came to the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, I was astonished at the full disclosure of the nature of Pharisaism, contained in it; and Christ’s lamentation over Jerusalem, in the concluding part: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’ affected me even to tears. In reading the account of the crucifixion, the meekness and love of Jesus of Nazareth astonished me; and the cruel hatred manifested against Him by the priests and rulers in Israel, excited within me a feeling of compassion for Him, and of indignation against His murderers. But I did not as yet see any connexion between the sufferings of Jesus and my sins.

In 1828 he entered the Operative Jewish Converts’ Institution, which was under the superintendence of Erasmus Simon, and was baptized April 14, 1830, when he took the name of his godfather, Rev. Henry Calbone Ridley. Owing to some scruples, he preferred to enter the nonconformist ministry, in which he also zealously laboured for the spiritual welfare of his brethren. He was one of the founders of the British Society. Among his converts was Dr. A. Furst, a very able missionary of that Society. Ridley Herschell edited a periodical under the title, “Voice of Israel.” He wrote also an account of his journey to his home, “A Visit to my Fatherland;” “Reasons why I am not a Roman Catholic.” With the assistance of Sir Culling Eardley he built Trinity Chapel, Regent Street, where he was, one might say, a father to the converts in London in 1845-6, and they reciprocated his love by sixty of them presenting him with a polyglot Bible, in eight languages, in 1845.

Bernstein, A. 1999. Jewish Witnesses for Christ. Jerusalem: Keren Ahvah Meshihit.