An Eye-Opening Introduction to the Jewish Influence on America's Founding

A new online course illuminates how Jewish teachings, combined with the age’s best Enlightenment sensibilities, helped to create and to guide the young republic.



Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745–1816), the first native-born Jewish religious leader in the United States.
Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745–1816), the first native-born Jewish religious leader in the United States.
Observation
Dec. 12 2017
About the author

Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book is Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.


The Tikvah Fund’s new online course, Jewish Ideas and the American Founders, is a must-view and a must-hear. Its star—I use the word advisedly—is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, well-known to readers for his enlightening contributions to Mosaic as well as to Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and other publications. Meir Soloveichik serves as the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

For lovers of Jewish ideas and American political history, these eight one-hour videos constitute an eye-opening introduction to the Jewish influence on the American founding and the early republic, relayed through Rabbi Soloveichik’s erudite insights into the religious underpinnings of some of America’s basic political ideas. The course does not overreach into the exaggerated, apologetic, and untrue claim that America is simply an outgrowth of biblical ideas. Instead, this telling helps us see how Jewish teachings, grounded in the Hebrew Bible, and the age’s best Enlightenment sensibilities together helped create and guide the development of the young republic.

Rabbi Soloveichik conveys this central lesson through stories about and reflections on specific instances of Jewish involvement at key moments in early American history. Who knew, for example, that at the 1788 parade in Philadelphia celebrating the adoption of the Constitution, a special kosher table was set out for the city’s Jewish inhabitants, with “a full supply of soused salmon, bread and crackers, almonds, and raisins”? Sensing a teachable moment, Rabbi Soloveichik notes jocularly that way back when, Jews were devouring the colonial equivalent of bagels and lox. But then he draws out the larger point: what this incident and others like it show is that, from the beginning, religious tolerance was an American principle—and, with exceptions, American practice.

Once the new constitutional system was put into place, the definition of that principle, and its limits, continued to be an issue. In, for example, his famous 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington went out of his way to set up a critical distinction between a false type of tolerance—by which “one class of people” might condescendingly extend certain privileges to another, inferior class—and the American system in which all enjoy “their inherent natural rights” equally, provided only that they “demean themselves as good citizens.”

Indeed, as Rabbi Soloveichik shows, the letter to the Newport community was only one of three Washington missives to Jewish communities, mainly (as in this case) in response to letters he’d received from them. One such exchange, with the acting rabbi of the congregation now led by Rabbi Soloveichik, is highlighted in episode 5 of the series: “Washington, [Gershom Mendes] Seixas, and Giving Thanks.” The episode reveals that, then as always, Jews could be demanding constituents. It also reveals Washington’s keen instincts as a politician. By responding to multiple letters from different communities, he avoided favoring one over another, while seizing the opportunity to convey distinctive if also complementary messages regarding aspects of American tolerance.

But Jews were not just supplicants, seeking various dispensations from the new government. From the start, as Rabbi Soloveichik demonstrates, Jews were crucial contributors to the American enterprise. In one episode, we learn the story of Uriah Phillips Levy, a long-serving officer in the early days of the U.S. Navy. Facing down anti-Semitism, including in the form of several religiously prejudiced courts martial, he persevered, and along the way helped eliminate flogging as a disciplinary tool. In the fullness of time, Commodore Levy would also rescue Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello, buying and restoring it after decades of neglect and thereby enabling us to visit this important historic site to this day.

If there is an overarching motif to Rabbi Soloveichik’s lectures, it is that of home and marriage. In episode 4, “The Founding Father and the Ḥuppah,” he memorably recounts the acutely sensitive reactions of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration, to a Jewish wedding he’d attended in Philadelphia in 1787; as it happens, the bride and groom, Rachel Phillips and Michael Levy, would become the parents of Uriah Levy.

Rush’s notes, in the form of a report to his wife, cast precious light on what the Jewish wedding ceremony looked like in the colonial period. But the founding father also grasped the deeper significance of what he witnessed in the marriage ceremony itself—that, in Judaism, the institution of marriage was the means by which Jews not only sustained their peoplehood but renewed their bond with God, His commandments, and His love. Through Rabbi Soloveichik’s interpretive lens, moreover, we ourselves are led to perceive another marriage in this union of two outstanding American Jewish families: namely, the conjoining of Jewish history and destiny with American history and destiny, a union that over the centuries would prove synergistically consequential for both parties.

 

 

From his first lecture on Jonas Phillips, the grandfather of Uriah Phillips Levy and the most important American Jew most of us never heard of, to his final lecture on marriage and the American covenant (“The Home We Build Together”), Rabbi Soloveichik’s online course is a model of story-telling, insight, and deep, thought-provoking analysis. Whether he is ruminating on the birth of religious liberty, on the meaning of Jewish and American freedom, or on the surprising light shed by the Jewish theology of marriage on the political coming-together of disparate states in a national union, there is rich material here that will be of great benefit at once to secular Jews curious about their religious patrimony and to religiously observant Jews curious to learn more about the political ideas that formed the world’s greatest democracy.

As with the Tikvah course by Ruth Wisse on Daniel Deronda, the Soloveichik course comes with a Study Guide offering additional primary sources and discussion questions. These will prove especially helpful to those wishing to delve further into the issues raised by the course, or just to lodge the contents of the jam-packed lectures more firmly in their memory.

And jam-packed they are. Rabbi Soloveichik fills each with history, philosophy, religious practice, politics (in small doses), and (in much larger doses) humor. The last-named element comes in a variety of forms, from jokey set-pieces to amusing historical anecdotes that nevertheless convey a serious moral message, to witty comments and asides like the tidbit that a Jewish wedding requires the presence of a ten-man prayer quorum, with the consequence that “in Judaism it’s impossible to elope unless you bring along ten of your closest friends.”

Speaking of jokes: if you think an American rabbi can’t do British humor, you haven’t heard Rabbi Soloveichik reciting the exchange on the divine right of kings between King Arthur and a surprisingly well-informed peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Of course, the exchange is there in episode 3 not just to get a laugh—which it does, keeping the lecture lively—but to illustrate a point about the legitimacy of rulers: the very debate in which the framers engaged during the crafting of the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution. Specifically, the Monty Python interlude serves to invite viewers into Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the influential anti-monarchy pamphlet that was an intellectual catalyst for American independence and whose central argument is an elaboration of a rabbinic dispute over the propriety of kingship. Here we see Rabbi Soloveichik at his agile best, uncovering the genealogy backward from Common Sense to Paine’s immediate source, John Milton, and from there to the talmudic passage that Milton explicitly engages.

Every lecture opens and closes with a dialogue between Rabbi Soloveichik and Jonathan Silver, the host of the excellent Tikvah series of podcasts. These frame the discussion and provide additional context. An expert interlocutor, Silver adroitly sets up the lectures at the start and deepens the discussion at the end.

The net result is a series that rewards its viewers with enduring lessons about what it means to be an American, what it means to be a thoughtful citizen, and what it means to be a Jew. And there is a final inducement: the close listener and viewer will eventually learn what Rabbi Soloveichik regards as his favorite biblical verse. I can tell you that his selection is an inspired one, and an inspiring one, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. To find out, you’re just going to have to watch.

You’ll be very glad you did.

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More about: American founding, American Judaism, History & Ideas