Monday, September 27, 2004

Philosemitism and the Founding Fathers

Several weeks ago columnist James Carroll commented on the commemoration of the arrival of the first Jews in the territory that would become the USA:
An alien people comes to an already established national culture, does very well by transforming and inventing aspects of it ...
The problem with this story is that it leaves out that the process of Jewish immigration paralleled the invention of the nation. The refugees from Recife arrived in New Amsterdam to a land that was barely defined, that was hardly homogeneous or unified. It was a place where ideas about toleration and openness in public life were in their infancy.

Carroll attempts to remedy this by associating those Jews with the Dutch religious milieu from which they came. In particular, Carroll references Spinoza as a mediator between Jewish religious values and a society that would have the Jews assimilate. In the process, Spinoza helped to define key principles that would inform American political culture:
The point for us is that his fundamental (and, as this Christian sees it, fundamentally Jewish) idea that human beings participate in the divine, but are not themselves divine (Only G-d is G-d), spawns a political ideal in human rights, one the one hand, and of limited government on the other.
It is hard to argue with Spinoza's credentials. However, it is not clear how Spinoza's ideas could be transmitted religiously (not philosophically) into American culture. Certainly the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam made up the bulk of the early American Jewish community, but I doubt that they were the ones who gave Spinoza to America.

Edward Rothstein, reviewing an exhibition of Jewish culture in the early Americas, offers up Manasseh ben Israel as another figure who might have put a Jewish face on early America. Manasseh ben Israel's collaboration with Rembrandt sparked the imagination of Protestants about Judaism:
Manasseh ben Israel, for example, became a widely respected scholar in Protestant Amsterdam. His book, "The Hope of Israel" (1650), argued that a new age was imminent. The Spanish Inquisition was the last gasp of the old. Now Hebrew and Jewish studies were gaining in prestige; travelers in the New World were reporting that the American Indians were the lost tribes of Israel; moreover, he wrote in amazement, "our Synagogues are found in America." Rembrandt made an etching of Manasseh and illustrated his commentary on Daniel. And Manasseh traveled to England in 1655 to convince Oliver Cromwell to admit Jews for the first time since 1290.
Manasseh's work set off a Philosemitic trend in Protestantism, particularly those related to Messianism:

... Messianic ideas like Manasseh's were accompanied by a renewed general interest in Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible. In the New World some Puritans even advocated following Judaic law and making Hebrew the American language. In a volume of sermons, Increase Mather (who later became president of Harvard) predicted the imminent redemption and "Restoration of the Jews." ...

From the spirit of Judaic Messianism grew many dreams. In 1641 the Pilgrim leader John Cotton proposed a theocratic government based on the laws of the Hebrew Bible. But ... the Hebrew Bible also inspired different visions. Samuel Sewall ... , who was a judge in the Salem witch trials but later repented his role and, in 1700, wrote the first attack on the American slave trade. Roger Williams, the minister in Salem, also broke with Puritan ideas, arguing that there should be a "wall of separation" between church and state. His argument, presented to the English Parliament in 1644, is displayed: he requested a charter for the settlement of Providence, where there would be no "enforced uniformity of religion."

So the origins of America are inseparable from currents of Judaic Messianism.


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