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My Talk: Washington's Letter to Touro Synagogue

As I mentioned before the weekend, although I was (and still am) recovering from oral surgery, on shabbat afternoon I was scheduled to give a talk at my shul. The fact that July 4, American Independence Day, fell on shabbat was amusingly convenient. For one thing, it was more specifically the shabbat of the combined parshiot of Chukas and Balak, and so I had a convenient excuse to wear my Democratic donkey tie. You see, parshas Balak is the one that includes the story of Balaam talking to his donkey, and since my tie includes donkeys along with stars and stripes colored in red, white, and blue...

But I digress. A few people have asked me to reproduce the talk here. Since my talks tend to be extemporaneous, I can't reproduce it exactly, but for those who are interested, here's a short recap.

I began by riffing on the rabbi's drash from the morning, in which he talked about the great leaders sent to the Jews and the non-Jews, and I gave my opinion that the founders of American independence could be considered great leaders among the non-Jews. From that tenuous connection, I talked about freedom of religion in this country, and how it was never really the plan at the start to extend those freedoms as far as they did. The original colonists who came to these shores wanted religious freedoms for themselves, and in the end it turned out that the only way to protect their own freedom of religion was to protect the same freedoms for the many other sects that disagreed with them.

The idea that those same freedoms ought to be extended to the Jewish people was not one that a lot of colonists really would have embraced in the 18th century, but then came Washington's letter to Touro Synagogue in August 1790. Below, I've provided a link to the historical background, but the basic story was that Washington was touring the country and paid a visit to Newport, Rhode Island. The warden of the synagogue wrote a letter to Washington, welcoming him and giving Washington his own vision of the United States as a place where there would be freedom of religion for all. Washington responded with a letter in which he copied many of the warden's own words and made it clear that he agreed with the idea of freedom of religion for all.

The simple fact is that the United States of American was the first country in history to give full and equal civil rights to the Jewish people, and Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport is an important part of American history, for it established the precedent that all non-Christian religions were meant to be afforded the same protections.

I concluded my talk by ruminating on how lucky we have it here in our ability to practice our religion the way we want, and how I can't be sure if I would be able to manage trying to practice my religion in a society in which I would be persecuted for it. For the most part, in the USA (and especially in Massachusetts) my biggest problem in practicing my religion is arranging my vacation days for my holidays.


If you want more background, the story behind the letter can be found here: Jewish Virtual Library: George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island. The letter itself can be found here: Teaching American History: Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport by George Washington.

Comments

Thanks for the (family) history lesson. This is so cool!

I know I have both Seixas and Lopez ancestors, and I know my family is somehow connected with that synagogue. So it's a good bet that Moses Seixas and Aaron Lopez are probably both related to me, most likely via more than one relative.
I've long wondered whether Washington's letter was a deliberate gesture of reconciliation to a synagogue that had been Tory during the war.
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