Sunday, November 11, 2018

Lincoln and the Jews

Attended a lecture tonight sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies by Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University on "Lincoln and the Jews," which turned out to be a highly entertaining as well as informative experience. Prof. Sarna is a top-notch lecturer and I was already familiar with his subject from having seen an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society on the subject, which in turn was based on his book that bears the same title as his lecture.

My general interest in the Civil War and Lincoln, in particular, has grown over the years, sparked to some degree by my giving more attention to my grandfather's extensive writing on Lincoln. He was both an historian and a collector--in fact, he seems to have spent much of his fortune earned from successful law practice on collecting Lincolniana.

One of his books was a compilation of eulogies delivered by rabbis in the U.S. following Lincoln's assassination in 1865, entitled Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of the Synagogue. At the question time after the lecture, I asked Prof. Sarna what he might be able to say about contacts between Lincoln and Jewish leaders, rabbis in particular.

Prof. Sarna's reply was comprehensive in his noting that Lincoln definitely had met several prominent Jewish clergymen, including Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, who was the principal founding spirit of the Reform movement in the U.S. And he also referred to the massive gathering of rabbis who travelled to Washington to protest General Grant's notorious order expelling Jews from a war zone in Kentucky.

He has written an entire book about this incident, and did observe that Lincoln had revoked Grant's order before the rabbis even managed to descend on Lincoln at the White House--this was a time when visitors were able to get to see the chief executive much more easily by just going to the White House.

There was much of interest in Prof. Sarna's talk, including accounts of individual Jewish friends and colleagues of Lincoln. He also referred to Lincoln's extraordinary familiarity with the Bible and his inclusion of Biblical references in many of his speeches and writings. He also noted that Lincoln cleared the way for the first Jewish chaplain to be appointed in the U.S. Army and would have named the first female chaplain had he not felt constrained by existing law.

One of Lincoln's most effective uses of Biblical sources was in the Second Inaugural. Perhaps Prof. Sarna might have mentioned it had he more time because many are unfamiliar with the major part of the address that precedes the famed "With malice toward none..." concluding paragraph:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

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