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Celebrating Presidents Day with the American Moses

Celebrating Presidents Day with the American Moses

“Who was the first Jew?”

I enjoy asking religious school students – and my own children – this question. It’s so much more than a Torah trivia question. What an important and meaningful experience, to know your origins and the foundational stories of your culture and religion (not to mention those of your family and community).

Students sometimes respond with the names of Adam, Noah, or Moses. They were all great people, but it was, in fact, Abraham and his wife, Sarah whom I like to refer to as the “George and Martha Washington of Judaism.”

As American citizens prepare to celebrate Presidents Day next week, it occurs to me that a biblical-American-leaders analogy also works in reverse: President Abraham Lincoln is rightfully to be considered an “American Moses” to the U.S.’s Black community for his role in abolishing slavery. So in the spirit of Presidents Day and in honor of his birthday this month, I want to suggest that George Washington is, in fact, the “American Moses” to Jewish Americans.

How so?

Perhaps you’ve heard of President Washington’s famous letter of 1790 to the Jewish community of Newport, R.I. Responding to Jewish concerns about religious liberty and civil equality, President Washington assured the Jews of Newport:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

Religious freedom and civic equality were clearly not always the case for Jews living in the colonies and fledgling states. But with the extraordinary leadership of President Washington and his enlightened and equitable perspective (and those of people like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who championed church-state separation and religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution), by the end of the 18th century it could be said:

"On the national level and in most of the American communities where Jews actually lived, they had achieved an unprecedented degree of equal footing." (Professor Jonathan D. Sarna in American Judaism: A History)          

Today, living in 21st century America, I think we can safely say that our country has allowed the Jewish people to grow, flourish, and thrive here, like nowhere else outside the land of Israel throughout history. A remarkable achievement!

We owe an inestimable debt of gratitude to President Washington, our “American Moses,” and to the many United States presidents who secured and supported not only our religious and civil liberties, but those of all faiths, cultures, and nationalities who came to these shores (though it certainly  took entirely too long for Black Americans and other groups).

In this election year, we do well to remember the wisdom and vision of leaders like Washington, Lincoln, Madison, and Jefferson, whom we honor this month. To those current presidential hopefuls who would close America’s doors to Muslims, migrants from Mexico, and refugees from Syria, President Washington’s message of 1790 to the Jews of Newport still resounds:

Happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

Rabbi Rick Schechter is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai of Glendale in Glendale, CA.

Rabbi Rick Schechter
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