Posts Tagged Moses Seixas
George Washington’s letter to the Newport Synagogue is justly celebrated as one of the first official descriptions of what Free Exercise and Non-establishment meant in the United States, although the Bill of Rights wouldn’t become officially part of the Constitution for over a year. What’s less well-known is the letter of congratulation written by Moses Seixas to Washington, as the new President visited Newport as part of a tour of the country. Here are the two letters:
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his short book, Zachor, makes the claim that Jews, up until the Enlightenment and its rationalist influences, had essentially given up recording history, instead seeing events through a shared cultural memory. While history happens to someone else, your memories can only be of things that happened to you. As a result, almost all Jewish recordings of contemporary events are in a voice that either echoes Biblical events, or analogizes to Biblical personages. Instances where local kings intervene to prevent massacres are recorded in scrolls that mimic Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther), for example. This has the effect of providing a context for everything, but it also prevented Jews from seeing anything as actually new.
Western civilization, on the other hand, studies history as events that may have happened to others, but from which we can learn. That historical accounts are not treated as entertaining stories, but as a description of how we got where we are, doesn’t change the fact that they’re written with the distance of time.
These two views of history are on full display in the two letters. Seixas makes no fewer than four scriptural analogies. The whole tone of his letter is one that is trying to shoehorn current events into ancient paradigms. Washington’s letter is more familiar to our way of thinking. His history – with which he was personally fully conversant – is implied, rather than stated, and his Biblical reference is a blessing, not an event.
Washington was President of a Constitutional Convention filled with men who studied the Greeks, the Romans, and other republics in-between, and put their lessons to use in designing our own government. Seixas was struggling to describe his awe that he had the privilege to live in a time when a new concept of citizenship had been born and put into practice.
And yet, each realizes that this country is something new under the sun. It’s not just that bigotry gets no sanction, it’s that “tolerance,” which implies that (in this case) the Jews have their rights by sufferance of the majority, isn’t the operative principle here. Full citizenship and participation in the government are completely unconditional on one’s faith or religion.
Which is why, as Jews, we ought to celebrate Independence Day with a special fervor and gratitude, and why we have a special obligation to help preserve that order,