"Lincoln and the Jews": A Conversation with Author Jonathan Sarna

April 9, 2015

“This is the 150th anniversary of the most momentous Pesach in American history,” says Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of Jewish Studies in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. On the fifth day of Passover in 1865, Jews across America learned the grim news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination as they gathered for Shabbat prayers. “Amazingly,” says Sarna, “the first eulogies for Lincoln were given in synagogues because he died on a Saturday morning. Rabbis had to rip up whatever they were planning to say and instead give an off-the-cuff eulogy.”

His book Lincoln and the Jews, co-authored by Benjamin Shapell, founder of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, and published by Thomas Dunne Books, inspired an exhibition by the same name at the New-York Historical Society. Running through June 7, 2015, the exhibit chronicles Lincoln’s relationships with individual Jews and explores their implications for Lincoln, for America, and for the Jews.

I had the opportunity to interview Professor Sarna following the exhibit’s opening.

The largest number of letter exchanges in the exhibit are between Lincoln and Abraham Jonas, a Jewish member of the Illinois State Legislature, whom Lincoln called “one of my best friends.” How influential was Jonas in Lincoln’s political career? Might Lincoln not have pursued the presidency had Jonas not urged him to run?

More than many historians have realized, Jonas was very important to Lincoln’s political aspirations, serving as a kind of fixer and behind-the-scenes operator. Jonas was instrumental in organizing one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He put Lincoln’s name forth early to Horace Greely as a possible candidate and helped engineer Lincoln’s victory at the 1860 National Republican Convention in Chicago. As for whether Lincoln would have taken the same path without Jonas, I cannot write counter-factual history. But there is little doubt that Jonas played a significant role in Lincoln’s political career.

 Where did Jews stand on the slavery issue?

Jews were divided on slavery, just as other white Americans were. One of the most influential rabbis in the United States, Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun Congregation (then Orthodox, now independent) gave a memorable pro-slavery sermon, arguing that slave property was expressly placed under the protection of the Ten Commandments. Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore (Reform) insisted that slavery went against the very moral essence of the Bible. Raphall was looking at the literal text, Einhorn at the spirit of the text.

I should add, this was not an issue of Orthodox versus Reform; plenty of liberal Southern Jews were thrilled by Raphall’s pro-slavery sermon.

Where did Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the Reform Movement in America, stand on slavery?

It was not his finest hour. Wise’s favorite word was “union,” as reflected in the names of the institutions he created: the Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [now the Union for Reform Judaism]. If it took slavery to preserve the Union, to avoid a civil war, so be it. He was prepared to compromise on slavery for the sake of peace.

Wise, a lifelong Democrat, had vociferously opposed Lincoln, but later did a turnabout. What prompted his change of heart?

Wise was among the delegation of Jewish leaders who traveled to Washington to protest General Grant’s infamous General Orders #11, expelling Jews from his territory. By the time the delegation reached the capital, the order had been overturned by Lincoln, so instead they decided to thank the president. Wise left the encounter with Lincoln star struck and wrote a favorable account of the meeting, yet he still opposed Lincoln at every opportunity. When Lincoln was assassinated, Wise turned on a dime. Not only did he deliver a magnificent oration in Lincoln’s memory, he claimed that in his presence, Lincoln “supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage” – a claim dismissed by most scholars.

It is as if Lincoln had entered the Jewish imagination.

In many ways, that’s true. In his book We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, Rabbi Gary Zola shows how the values of Lincoln became the values American Jews wanted to live by. In that sense, Lincoln is remembered as a great teacher, remarkable for how he taught in a matter-of-fact way. A case in point: When he went to Richmond and saw newly freed slaves kneeling before him, he told them gently, “Don’t kneel to me…You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”

Would you say that Lincoln saw himself as a modern Moses?

We have no historical evidence of that. I suspect that Lincoln, who knew his Bible inside out and drew sustenance from it, admired Moses as the emancipator of the Hebrew slaves and may have contemplated their commonalities. But Lincoln was so modest that I find it hard to imagine that he saw himself as a Moses.

At the conclusion of the seder, we say “Next year in Jerusalem.” On the last day of Abraham Lincoln’s life, Mary Todd Lincoln would write, “he appeared to anticipate much pleasure from a visit to Palestine.”

Like Moses, he freed the slaves but didn’t make it into the Promised Land.

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