Every Independence Day, I explore the Jewish side of the Founding of America. Previous years have reflected on Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. This year: George Washington.
George Washington and the Jews: Partners in American Liberty
As you might have noticed, I have something of an Independence Day tradition. Each year around July 4, I teach about a connection between Judaism and one of our Founding Fathers.
You might remember my first sermon from this bima two years ago when I introduced myself to the congregation with a sermon about my fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, and his concept of religious freedom. Last year, I spoke about the infamous feud between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
This year, I keep the tradition alive with another notable from early America, a man who needs no introduction: Mr. George Washington.
But first, a few words about a man who rides a talking donkey.
That would be Balaam, one of the main characters of this week’s Torah portion. Balaam was a non-Israelite seer hired by the King of Moab to curse the Hebrew People. Four times, Balaam lifts his voice in divine prophecy and four times, words of blessing come forth instead of curses. Though elsewhere, Balaam is reviled as an enemy of the Israelites, in this week’s parashah, he is an instrument only of God’s divine favor, bestowing good and happy tidings on the People of Israel.
The most famous line Balaam utters is later repurposed by the Rabbis as the opening prayer of the morning service:
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwelling-places, O Israel (Num. 24:5).
We witness in this verse a sacred transformation. Evil intention bent toward violence is redeemed and reinvented as hallowed blessing. The blessing is later emphasized and magnified by Jewish tradition, forming a hallmark of Jewish prayer for the past 1100 years.
So, what’s the connection between Balaam son of Beor and George Washington? Both Balaam and Washington are remembered as non-Jews who promote Jewish prosperity and security in their home. Like Balaam, Washington is regarded as a benefactor of the Jews, an outsider who confers a blessing that reverberates throughout American history. This reputation is earned primarily through his letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790.
George Washington, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, was a Virginian committed to the principle of religious freedom. In 1790, the year that Rhode Island ratified the Constitution to become the thirteenth state and, notably, the year after Washington’s inauguration, President Washington visited Rhode Island for the first time in office. Attending him were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Supreme Court Justice John Blair, among others. The entourage was celebrated by the city’s notables, many of whom read letters of welcome and felicitation to the new president. Among these civic leaders was Moses Seixas, warden of Touro synagogue, who read a letter written by him on behalf of the Newport Jewish community. The following day, Washington and his staff visited the synagogue, and Seixas once again read his letter to the president and other honored guests.
Later that day, Washington wrote his reply to the Jewish community. His letter contained a sentiment that has become central to the notion of American religious freedom for Jews and non-Jews alike. He wrote:
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were 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, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Washington here makes two key points. The first is that America should not be a place merely of religious tolerance but rather of true freedom. The Jews, recently emancipated in Western Europe, had come to rely upon toleration, by which a governing majority allowed them to practice their religion in peace. But here, for the first time in history, America would not be a place where a condescending majority would by its charity permit minority groups to exist. Rather, America would be a place where all good citizens would be equally valued no matter their religious affiliation.
Second, and perhaps more enduring, was Washington’s mellifluous assertion that America would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” These words have become something of a Jewish-American “Mah Tovu,” a blessing from a non-Jewish leader that inaugurated an epoch of unparalleled advancement and achievement by the Jewish community. In the popular imagination, Washington has become a modern Balaam, a true prophet who blessed the Jews.
But one significant detail changes the picture and marks a critical difference between Balaam and Washington. You see, Washington’s lauded language about bigotry and persecution didn’t spring fully-formed from his own mind. Rather, it was offered to him as a gift by none other than Moses Seixas himself.
In the letter that Seixas addressed to Washington on behalf of the Jewish community—the letter to which Washington would famously reply—Seixas affirmed the unprecedented opportunity afforded to Jews by the American project of liberty. He said:
Deprived as we have hitherto been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now, with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty Disposer of all events, behold a government, erected by the majesty of the people, a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship, deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.
We see here that Washington’s famous turn of phrase was taken directly from Moses Seixas. This repetition was far more than linguistic imitation; rather, it was Washington’s subtle way of honoring and accepting Seixas’ view of America. By copying the phrase, Washington elevates otherwise minor comments to the level of presidential sanction. Moreover, we might conclude that Washington adopted not only Seixas’ phraseology but also his ideology, thinking in a new way about the responsibility of the American government to protect the religious freedom that it envisioned for its people.
The line of influence from Moses Seixas to George Washington to the general society is paradigmatic of the special role that the Jewish community has played throughout American history. From its inception, Jews have helped America to live up to its own promise. By offering our unique perspective born out of particular Jewish values and communal Jewish experiences, our community has offered indispensable critique and creativity without which our larger society wouldn’t be what it is today. There have been myriad challenges and setbacks in Jews’ full engagement with both the American people and the American government, but all along, we’ve been active participants and partners in the great American experiment.
While sometimes we may look to America as a blessing handed to us on a silver platter, that’s not the full story. George Washington is not Balaam. Rather, the first president and the country he led have had a consistent and impactful relationship with Jews and Jewish values. We have here an opportunity—I might say even a responsibility—to contribute to the American polity from our own distinct vantage point, bringing Jewishness to bear upon America in order to help bring our country closer to its own ideal. Each of us can take up the theme of Moses Seixas, articulating our view of America’s greatest potential. As we do, we share with our neighbors of all faiths our vision of an ideal world in which all reside peacefully in tents of beauty, in dwelling-places of holiness.
 “Mah Tovu” opens Seder Rav Amram, which is from the 9th century. See http://reformjudaism.org/mah-tovu-torah-prayer.
 “George Washington. A Reply to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport (c. August 17, 1790).” Quoted in The Jew in the Modern World, Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, p. 458-459.
 “The Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. Message of Welcome to George Washington (August 17, 1790).” Quoted in The Jew in the Modern World, Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, p. 457-458.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”