The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, by Jennie A. Brownscombe. Wikimedia.
This year we mark the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing on the shores of Massachusetts. There is of course much that Americans can learn from the voyage of the Mayflower and its passengers. But since tomorrow is America’s day of thanksgiving, I want to attempt to inhabit the minds of America’s Pilgrim ancestors, whose Christian faith was deepened by Jewish texts and whose acts of gratitude were conscious reenactments of the Jewish past.
William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony’s second governor, was also the author of a famous history of the colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. A more recent history of the Pilgrims, Nick Bunker’s Making Haste from Babylon, notes a meaningful anomaly in the governor’s history. Bradford chose a highly unusual style for his chapter describing the Pilgrims’ journey across the Atlantic and their arrival at their new home. Eschewing the custom of most travelogues of the day, which document even the most granular details of mundane happenings aboard the ship and the minutiae of navigation, Bradford casts the Pilgrim journey in the grand context of the Bible’s sacred history.
Bunker connects Bradford’s account with the biblical commentary and psalter of the Cambridge-educated English Hebraist Henry Ainsworth, whom the Pilgrims held in high esteem. We know the Mayflower’s passengers had, in addition to the Ainsworth Psalter, at least two copies of his major work, his Annotations upon the Five Books of Moses, one belonging to John Howland, and the other to William Brewster. As Bunker puts it, “By way of Ainsworth, Bradford fell under the influence of Judaism, its rabbis of the Middle Ages, and their manner of interpreting the Bible and the vagaries of human life. It was because of this that Bradford wrote about the Mayflower as he did.”
Ainsworth, like other Puritans of his time, valued access to the Hebrew original of the biblical text and studied rabbinic writings as he developed his own mode of interpretation. He regarded Maimonides especially highly and quoted him throughout his Annotations. He also cited with approval the statement of the sages of the Talmud and Midrash that the Torah has 70 faces “and all of them truth.” As Bunker suggests in his history, “When Bradford read the Bible, or meditated on his life, he looked for 70 meanings too.”
Just as Bradford saw the Pilgrims’ journey across the Atlantic in biblical terms, so he also found in Maimonides’ writing a ritual of thanksgiving that he could reenact when they had, at long last, safely arrived: “At Provincetown, the Pilgrims fell on their knees and thanked God, says Bradford. Again,” notes Bunker, “behind his narrative lies a Hebrew model. It came by way of [his] knowledge of a Jewish ritual, the birkat ha-gomel, a ceremony of thanksgiving.” Both the first official English prayer book for sailors, published in 1618, and Bradford’s account of the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving prayer drew from Psalm 107. Bunker again:
Writing about the Mishnah, the Jewish code of laws, the rabbi [i.e., Maimonides] said that the words of [Psalm 107], including the verses quoted by Bradford, gave birth to the Jewish rite of thanksgiving. The Talmud lists four occasions when the birkat ha-gomel was compulsory: the healing of a sickness, the release of a prisoner, the end of a voyage, and the arrival of travelers at their destination. Ainsworth listed them too, and described the form taken by the Jewish prayer. It was a public confession of the goodness and majesty of God, of exactly the kind the Pilgrims performed at Provincetown. A year later, most likely in October 1621, after their first harvest, the colonists held the festivities commemorated by the modern Thanksgiving.
There were no Jews aboard the Mayflower. But there were Jewish ideas. What we today refer to as the Mayflower Compact was intended to create a community on the basis of a shared moral purpose, rooted in the equality warranted by the fact that every woman and man is created in the image and likeness of God. Scholars such as Daniel Elazar and Donald Lutz see this mode of founding a society as rooted in the idea of the covenant (brit) that is so fundamental to the Jewish political tradition. And Bradford understood the Pilgrims’ first act of thanksgiving upon landing as mirroring the Talmud’s blessing of thanks upon surviving a life-threatening voyage. But the connection to Judaism goes beyond Bradford’s use of classical rabbinic sources.
Many scholars have turned their attention in recent years to Hebraism and the influence of Jewish ideas on the political and legal thought of the Atlantic world. What we find here with Bradford’s Hebraism is more fundamental even than law or government; we find here a Hebraic influence upon the very civic culture out of which law and government will emerge. The birkat ha-gomel is never recited alone, but always in front of others, requiring the presence of community. The blessing was instituted in the place of the thanksgiving offering that the survivor would have brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The one saying birkat ha-gomel necessarily looks beyond himself to the relationships that give him meaning: to the nation and to God. The Pilgrims’ theology was not Jewish, but Bradford, who also taught himself Hebrew later in life, nonetheless turned to Maimonides and the Mishnah to give form to his heartfelt gratitude for making landfall after a difficult and dangerous sea voyage.
The modern American holiday recalls the Pilgrims’ second thanksgiving, not their first. If the thanksgiving of 1620 was a spontaneous upswelling of the gratitude of survival, the thanksgiving of 1621 was already a conscious effort to remember that earlier gratitude, and to train our eyes on the new reasons we have to give thanks. The second thanksgiving was, in other words, a conscious attempt to forge a tradition, and it’s as valuable today as it was in the 17th century.
The Pilgrims were not Jews, and neither are most Americans today. But the act of remembrance and renewal, looking simultaneously to the past and future, was initially mediated through the Jewish inspiration to America’s Pilgrim fathers. It was needed then to bind a people together, and in our own time of fraying social trust and decaying cultural institutions, the Jewish people, Eternal Israel, can again offer up our moral inheritance to our fellow citizens. America and the West are in need of cultural renewal, and the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea remind the Jews again and again that, through repentance and rededication, they will be able to return from exile and rebuild what was lost—that the dry bones will walk again.