As Lincoln’s birthday approached, I was feeling curious about the relationship between President Lincoln and the Jewish community. And as it turns out, there were indeed two significant episodes in which Lincoln asserted his presidential authority on behalf of the Jewish community. And as it also turns out, there is something fascinating about the way that the Jewish community did – and didn’t – think and speak about Lincoln. About this, I will share not a judgment of the community, rather an observation that I think is important and instructive.. But first, the two episodes.
The first episode began in July of 1861 when Congress adopted a bill authorizing the Union’s regiment commanders to appoint regimental chaplains, provided that they were “ordained ministers of some Christian denomination”. The bill’s wording – which was pointedly different than the Confederate law authorizing the appointment of any “minister of religion” – drew little Jewish attention at first. But when one Pennsylvania regiment specifically elected a rabbi as their regiment chaplain, and his credentials were rejected, the issue was taken up by the American Jewish press, which labeled the law an unconstitutional promotion of Christianity above other religions. The rejected chaplain, the reverend Arnold Fischel of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in NY, personally met with President Lincoln about the issue, and he secured Lincoln’s promise to instruct Congress to amend the wording of the law. And indeed the amended wording was passed on July 17, 1862.
The second episode is somewhat better known. It began on December 17th 1862 when General Ulysses S Grant issued General order #11, expelling all Jews from the areas under his command, which encompassed Mississippi and Kentucky. Grant blamed “Jews, as a class” for the widespread smuggling and cotton speculation that was affecting the area. One of the expelled Jews, accompanied by congressman from Cincinnati, went directly to the President, who had not heard of Grant’s order, and who immediately ordered the general-in-chief of the army to send a telegram to Grant stating that “if such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked”.
Both of these episodes were of course consistent with Lincoln’s broader attitudes and philosophy. Even before becoming President, he was well known for his belief that the US ought be more true to its credo declaring all men equal, had spoken forcefully about the unjust oppression of the Negro slaves, and opposed efforts to block Catholics and immigrants from achieving citizenship. These same views extended to the Jewish community as well.
Now for the non-judgmental observation about the Jewish community at the time. It struck me as I was reading excerpts from Jewish eulogies that were offered during the deep and dark mourning following President Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865, which occurred on the Friday night of Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Pesach. Certain themes were ubiquitous in these eulogies. Lincoln is remembered for his character and for his leadership through the country’s most difficult hour. Rabbi Bernard Illowy mourned, “thy hands were never bound by the wiles of others… thou didst hear nothing but the wishes of thy people, thou didst fear none but God, who alone was thy guide and trust”. Over and over Lincoln was compared to Moses, as by Rabbi Max Lilienthal who proclaimed that “like Moses, he was ever thoughtful of the duty allotted to him, to bring his people back to enjoy the whole land.” Many others extended the comparison, noting that the President too had died as he stood on the precipice, as he was about to finally see the fruits of his hard labor. And, of course, he is remembered and thanked for his efforts on behalf of the Jewish community. Isaac Lesser, who led Cong Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia for many years, referenced both the chaplain episode and General Grant’s order #11 in his eulogy. Col. Philip Joachimson, who had been invited to a New Orleans synagogue to deliver a memorial address said, “We, as Jews, had a distinct ground to love, respect, and esteem him…. His mind was not subject to the vulgar clamor against Jews…” The president of Bet El Emet in Philadelphia spoke of the way that Lincoln “ was never appealed to by us, in vain. On every occasion he promptly recognized our claims as a religious body…. And acceded unhesitatingly to our just demands..”
What’s interesting, and upon reflection striking, is that, despite the frequent comparisons to Moses, and the proximity to Pesach with which all of these eulogies were delivered, very few Jewish eulogizers praised Lincoln as the emancipator of the slaves. This part of his legacy didn’t, generally speaking, have any special resonance for us. Which points to the simple reality that we, as a community, didn’t make any connections or draw any parallels between the story of the black slaves and our own story. We just didn’t go there.
Even the few eulogizers who did highlight Lincoln’s role as emancipator, did not do so in the context of Egypt and the Exodus. Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise alluded to the teaching of Isaiah , as he exhorted his audience, “let us effect and perpetuate the great desires which heaved in the breast of Abraham Lincoln… Let us break asunder, wherever we can, the chains of the bondsman, the fetters of the slave,” And Rabbi Sabato Morias, of Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia, alluded to the teaching of Hillel in declaring, “To forbear doing unto others what would displease us, was his golden rule. It was this maxim that he illustrated in the immortal document of emancipation that bears his honorable signature.” Isaiah, Hillel – but no citations from the book of Shmot. Even while we were comparing Lincoln to Moshe, and even while we were doing so in the weeks following Pesach. The black slaves themselves made the connection all the time of course, “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land, Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.” But we did not.
And in truth, this is all perfectly explicable given our cultural and historical circumstances in 19th century America.. In the south, slavery was a deeply-rooted cultural and economic institution, where Jews relied on slaves no more – but no less – than their Gentile counterparts did. And while Jews in the north, like Gentiles in the north, were anti –slavery, this was not the war was about. The war was about preserving the Union, which for people like us – immigrants from Europe who were living in freedom for the first time – was very very important. And as Jews we were actually disinclined toward the abolitionist cause, as the die- hard abolitionists tended to be Protestant evangelicals whose mission included converting Jews, and – because history is a crazy thing – some of whom were pretty anti-Semitic. And when we did hear our rabbis talk about the slavery, the issue they were often discussing was the politically-tinged question as to whether or not slavery was sinful. And for the record, some argued that it was not. B’nei Jeshurun’s Rabbi Morris Rafall (in New York) for example, after cataloging all of the great Biblical figures who owned slaves, asked, “Does it not strike you, when you declare slavery to be a sin, that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?” The cultural and historical circumstances of the time just didn’t take us to the place where we’d draw a parallel to – or experience empathy with – the situation of the black slaves.
It’s not a judgment. Rather an observation. But it’s an observation that reminds us that we must never rest easy, or be complacent about the level of religious and moral insight we’ve achieved. Our religious and moral insight need to be always be progressing. And we need to possess the openness and courage that this process demands, for there are always higher and more refined insights and realizations to reach. And this too, is part of Lincoln’s legacy. His attitudes toward abolition famously evolved as well. In this way too, he is a hero and a model.