America’s Founding Fathers and Judaism

While American Jews have always admired the nation’s founders for their vision, they tend to ignore that these great men had little respect for Judaim as a faith.

Constitution 311 (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
Constitution 311
(photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
In America, the July Fourth holiday is a day of picnics, barbecues and fireworks. For me, as for many American Jews, however, it is much more: Independence Day represents the safe haven and the opportunities that the United States gave to our grandparents 100 years ago and to us today. American Jews – like all Americans – cherish the values of freedom of speech and assembly enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
We understand that more than two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson and James Madison fought for a separation of religion and state that in our own time allows us to worship our God in freedom.
Although Jews comprised a small part of the population of colonial America, the country’s Founding Fathers realized the importance of freedom of worship for even this small minority. George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island affirms the American commitment that bigotry would have no place in the US and that Jews would not be a tolerated minority but would “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
That commitment has withstood the test of time.
WHILE AMERICAN Jews have always admired the nation’s Founding Fathers for their genius and vision, they tend to ignore that these great men had little respect for Judaism as a faith. It is true that John Adams praised Jews on many occasions in his personal correspondence.
America’s second president called the Jews “the most glorious nation that ever inhabited the earth.”
Adams, challenging the anti-Semitism of French Enlightenment luminaries like Voltaire, argued that Jews “have influenced the affairs of mankind more and happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.”
God, Adams exclaimed in a letter of 1809, had “ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing nations.”
Why was this American Founding Father so full of praise in his assessment of Judaism? Adams, in the reality of his life and as a leader of the Federalist Party, knew few Jews and had no Jewish friends. Jews, indeed, supported Adam’s political nemesis Thomas Jefferson. What was Adams’ point of reference for understanding the Jewish contribution to civilization? The answer to this question comes in another letter that Adams wrote to an American-Jewish admirer in 1819. In the letter, Adams endorses the return of the Jews to their homeland in Israel. This proto-Zionist impulse sounds wonderful on the surface – but then Adams explains the reason for it: Once Jews return to the Land of Israel, they will “wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character and possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians.”
It is clear that Adams, like all of America’s Founding Fathers, supported the Jews’ right to worship their God in peace and prosperity. But as a typical man of the Enlightenment, Adams expects Jews to “see the light” and to leave Judaism. Jews embrace Enlightenment and Emancipation even today, without realizing its ground rules. The American and French revolutionaries granted Jews citizenship and equality but did so fully expecting that Jews would assimilate into the majority culture. And, in fact, that is what is happening in America today. Assimilation and intermarriage are eroding American Jewry and sapping its vitality. Today’s ethnic pride and multiculturalism are not forces that are strong enough to stem the tide of the phenomenon of “the vanishing American Jew.”
Thomas Jefferson was a zealous defender of the wall of separation between church and state. For that, American Jews should be thankful. But, as with Adams, we should not ignore Jefferson’s attitude toward Judaism. While Thomas Jefferson upheld freedom of Jews in America to hold fast to their faith, he belittled Judaism in private. In an 1803 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Jefferson accused Jews of having a “degrading and injurious” understanding of God that was “imperfect” and was devoid of “sound dictates of reason and morality.” Jews “needed reformation,” the Founding Father wrote, “in an eminent degree.”
Seventeen years later, in a letter to William Short, Jefferson claimed “Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue.” It was Jesus, Jefferson wrote, who “exposed their futility and insignificance.”
Jefferson was the creature of his place and time. He could write the famous words that all men are created equal yet own African slaves. The logic of his political ideology led him to defend freedom of religion in America, while at the same time ridiculing the Jewish faith. In fact, there were many Jews who agreed with Jefferson that the Judaism of the ghetto was superstitious and tribal.
As an American Jew, I am a great admirer of the Protestant men who founded this great country. But I am troubled by the reality that most of the founders only knew Jewish reality through the “Israelites” of the Hebrew Bible and had little understanding of Jewish history, belief and culture as they all developed in the Diaspora. The granting of religious freedom was not done with an understanding of the rich heritage of Judaism. Rather, this freedom was given with the understanding that it would be used to negate traditional Jewish identity. It was simply the logical outcome of political ideology, not love of Jews.
And, if we, as American Jews, want to understand why our numbers are dwindling and our influence waning, perhaps we should realize that America, as a nation, addresses our needs as Americans, but is indifferent to our fate as Jews.
The writer is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University’s Lifelong Learning Institute in Davie, Florida.