Parasha Ve’etchanan

Back From Vacation Shabbat Shalom. It is great to be back here this evening with Congregation Beth Shalom. Middy and I missed you.  We had a wonderful vacation, what I called our “Cultural Tour of the Midwest and the South.” We embarked on a road trip that took us to Springfield Illinois to explore Lincoln and to Hannibal Missouri, Mark Twain’s birthplace. We spent two days in St. Louis and another two in Branson, Missouri, before moving on to Memphis, Tennessee, Nashville and Louisville Kentucky.  I always have my antenna out for Jewish connections when we travel, and over the next few weeks I want to share some of those that I found. In this week’s parasha, we find the source of the most important prayer in our liturgy, the Shema. It is found, in its entirety, in Deuteronomy, chapter 6.  Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I found this the following quotation by Lincoln as I opened a book devoted to his sayings in the Lincoln Homestead bookstore: “When any church will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both Law and Gospel, "Thou shalt love the Lord with all thy heart and with all thy soul and thy neighbor as thyself", that church will I join with all my heart and with all my soul.” We know that Lincoln knew his Bible – he taught himself to read and write by studying the Bible by the light of the fireplace in the humble log cabin in which he was raised (a model of which is in the Lincoln Museum we visited.)  How was it, however, that he chose the very words of the Shema as the motto of the creed that he would gladly follow. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – these are the words from Leviticus that Rabbi Akiva said were the most important words of the Torah! It sounds that Lincoln would have been a good prospect to sign up for synagogue membership. Digging a bit deeper, I discovered that there had been plenty of speculation about Lincoln’s relationship to Judaism. Lincoln had a number of Jewish friends. He never professed a religion publically, nor was he ever identified with a particular Church. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, one of the most prominent Rabbis in this country at the time, asserted that Lincoln was, in fact, Jewish! Two weeks after Lincoln’s assassination Rabbi Wise published this in the Cincinnati Commercial “Abraham Lincoln believed himself to be bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. He supposed himself to be of Hebrew parentage, he said so in my presence, and indeed he possessed the common features of the Hebrew race in both countenance and features.” [1] There is no independent evidence that can establish whether Lincoln actually thought himself to be Jewish or whether he was simply exchanging pleasantries with Rabbi Wise.  But there were two actions Lincoln took during the civil war that demonstrate his sense of fairness when it came to our people who were just beginning to establish themselves in this country. Here is the first — In the fall of 1861, Rabbi Dr. Arnold Fischel applied to be Chaplain of the Cameron Dragoons, a New York regiment largely composed of Jews. His application was denied. Congress had a few months before passed an act, which was signed into law by Lincoln, that “chaplains must be regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination.” Prominent Jews and their organizations lobbied to change this law with Congress and with the President. In a letter dated December 14, 1861, Lincoln wrote to Rabbi Fischel indicating that he knew the law was deficient and promising to present a new law to the appropriate committee in Congress. “I shall try to have the new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you on behalf of the Israelites,” wrote Lincoln. In March, 1862, the Act was amended to authorize the appointment as Brigade Chaplain those who are of the “Catholic, Protestant or Jewish religion”. In addition to the Lincoln Museum, Library, Homestead and Law Offices, Middy and I also visited the Old State House, very near to Lincoln’s law office. It was in the Old State House that Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech in 1858. He made his headquarters for his Presidential campaign in an office adjacent to the governor’s office. It was the building where Lincoln laid in state in May 3-4, 1865. On the second floor of this building is a statue of Stephan A. Douglas, who Lincoln famously debated in his losing senatorial campaign of 1858. On that floor also hung a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant, who had come to that very office to volunteer his services to the Union cause at the outbreak of the Civil War. That brings us to Lincoln’s second action — In May, 1862, Grant’s army was stationed in the Tennessee/Kentucky area. As commander of the army, Grant was responsible for regulating the trade of cotton between the South and the North. A raging black market developed for Southern cotton. As cotton prices soared in the North, smugglers bribed Union soldiers to allow them to buy and transport Southern cotton without a permit. In the fall of 1862, Grant’s office was flooded by merchants seeking permits to trade Southern cotton. One of these businessmen was Grant’s own father, seeking a permit on behalf of some businessmen in Cincinnati, some of whom were Jews.  Grant had had enough. Although some of the merchants acting illegally were Jews, the majority were not. Despite this, Grant made a classic anti-semitic move. He issued order number 11, which ordered the expulsion of all Jews from the territories controlled by the 13th Army Core – an area that included Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi. These mass expulsions had been part and parcel of the historical experience of Jews in Europe for centuries, but this was a first for the United States. The Jewish community sprung into action. Cesar J. Kaskel of Paducah, Kentucky set out for Washington. He was escorted to the White House by Ohio congressman John A. Gurley, and apprised Lincoln personally of what was happening. The Bnai Brith Missouri Lodge dispatched a letter of protest to the White House in the name of “hundreds who have been driven from their houses deprived of their liberty and injured in their property without having violated any law or regulation …..of the thousands of our Brethren … who have died … for the Union …in the name of religious liberty, of justice and humanity.” The Board of Delegates of American Israelites in New York sent a resolution condemning “this illegal unjust and tyrannical mandate depriving American Citizens of the Jewish faith of their precious rights, driving them because of their religious profession, from their business and homes……” [2] Lincoln revoked the Grant’s order immediately. He expressed surprise that Grant had issued such a command, and noted that “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad.” He drew no distinction between Jew and Gentile, the president said, and would allow no American to be wronged because of his religious affiliation.[3] I do not want you to leave tonight thinking that Grant was an anti-semite, despite this black mark on his military career. He carried the Jewish vote in 1868 on his way to the White House, and named several Jews to high office. Grant became the first President to attend a synagogue service, when Adas Yisrael in Washington DC inaugurated its new building in 1876. He contributed $10 to the synagogue building fund, the equivalent of $200 today.[4] As President Grant  publically protested the mistreatment of Jews in Russia and Romania. I find this history inspiring in a number of ways. It shows Abraham Lincoln as upholding the highest ideals of this country, not only with regard to slavery, but with regard to the equality of all people. Furthermore, Lincoln, a very busy man, took a personal interest in the fate and the future of the Jewish people in the United States.  As the great liberator, he must have wondered about his connection to that other heroic liberator of our tradition, Moses. Perhaps this was partly on his mind when he noted his “Hebrew parentage” to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Through Moses, he must have indeed felt related to the Jewish people. I also find inspiration in the reaction of the Jews of the time to attempts to marginalize or exclude them from the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. They were a small minority in a country new to them, mostly first or second generation here. Yet they responded vigorously when their civil rights were threatened and were most effective in changing unjust laws directed against them as a group. American Jews would later be instrumental in the development of labor unions which ended the exploitation of the workers in our country. We advocated for the recognition of the State of Israel, and lent our energies and sense of justice to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. American Jews would be at the forefront of the feminist movement, and the movement to free Soviet Jewry. American Jews continue to be fully engaged in issues of social and economic justice down to our own day. That is a history to be proud of. Shabbat Shalom      

Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph
Congregation Beth Shalom
Naperville, Illinois