Judaism, Political Thought, and Jewish-Americans
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, two of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, begin on September 29 and October 8 this year. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Customarily, it is a time of inner renewal and divine atonement. Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the new year, is also known as the Day of Atonement. It is the holiest day of the year for Jews and has central themes of atonement and repentance.
Jewish-Americans have had a profound impact on the United States’s founding and development. A number of JMC fellows have written about Judaism’s impact on western, and subsequently American, political philosophy. On the occasion of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jack Miller Center presents the following collection of resources on Jewish political thought and Judaism’s role in American political and historical development.
From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790
After being elected president in 1789, George Washington received several letters of congratulation from religious organizations. One such letter came from the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. Washington’s response to the congregation has become a well-known example of American religious liberty.
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
[Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790]
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Commentary and articles from JMC fellows:
Judaism and the Founding
Wilfred McClay, “Leviticus on the Fourth of July.” (Jewish Review of Books, July 3, 2019)
Glenn Moots, “The Complications and Contributions of Early American Hebraism: A Response to Sheila Wolosky and Andrew Murphy.” (Hebraic Political Studies 4.2, May 30, 2009)
Eric Nelson, “Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776: A Contemporary Account of the Debate over Common Sense.” (The William and Mary Quarterly 70, 2013)
James M. Patterson, “The American Nehemiad, or the Tale of Two Walls.” (Journal of Church and State, Volume 57, Issue 3, Summer 2015)
The Influence of Jewish Political Thought
Luigi Bradizza, “Shylock, Tubal, and the Charge of Anti-Semitism.” (Perspectives in Political Science 43.4, 2014)
Jonathan Jacobs, “Aristotle and Maimonides on Virtue and Natural Law.” (Hebraic Political Studies 2.1, 2007)
Jonathan Jacobs (editor), Judaic Sources and Western Thought: Jerusalem’s Enduring Presence. (Oxford University Press, 2011)
Jonathan Jacobs, “Judaism and Natural Law.” (The Heythrop Journal 50.6, 2009)
Jonathan Jacobs, Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Jonathan Jacobs, “The Reasons of the Commandments: Rational Tradition Without Natural Law.” (Reason, Religion and Natural Law: Plato to Spinoza, Oxford University Press, 2012)
Jonathan Jacobs, “Tradition, Rationality, and Moral Life: Medieval Judaism’s Insight.” (Judaic Sources and Western Thought: Jerusalem’s Enduring Presence, Oxford University Press, 2011)
Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought. (Harvard/Belknap, 2010)
Eric Nelson, “From Selden to Mendelssohn: Hebraism and Religious Freedom.” (Freedom and the Construction of Europe: New Perspectives on Philosophical, Religious, and Political Controversies, Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Eric Nelson, “Talmudical Commonwealthsmen’ and the Rise of Republican Exclusivism.” (The Historical Journal 50, 2007)
Thomas Pangle, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003)
Steven Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism. (University of Chicago Press, 2006)
Steven Smith, Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity. (Yale University Press, 1997)
Steven Smith, “Spinoza’s Paradox: Judaism and the Construction of Liberal Identity in the Theologico-Political Treatise.” (Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 4.2, 1995)
Contemporary Religious-Political Issues
Jonathan Jacobs, “Acquiring Universal Values Through A Particular Tradition: A Perspective on Judaism and Modern Liberalism.” (European Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, Fall 2013)
Stephen Presser, “The Federal Courts, a Menorah, and the Ten Commandments: Whose Religious Iconography Is Constitutional?” (CHRONICLES: A MAGAZINE OF AMERICAN CULTURE, March 2003)
Stephen Presser, “The Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” (Peace in the Promised Land: A Realist Scenario, Rockford Institute, 2005)
Judaism in America:
Jewish Ideas and the American Founding
The Tikvah Fund offers an eight-lecture online course on the Jewish ideas that inspired America’s founding generation, led by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. The lecture series is one of six online courses offered by the Tikvah Fund, a non-profit organization committed to advancing Jewish excellence and Jewish flourishing in the modern age.
Forgotten Patriot: Haym Salomon
Haym Salomon is an oft-forgotten, yet indispensable patriot. Just as the Yorktown Campaign was heating up, the Polish-born Jew secured the necessary loans that Washington needed to feed and clothe the Continental Army. In addition, Salomon brokered bills of exchange for the American government and extended interest-free personal loans to members of Congress, including James Madison.
A Jewish Founding Father?
JMC fellow Andrew Porwancher argues that Alexander Hamilton was of Jewish parentage. After extensive research into Hamilton’s family and upbringing, Professor Porwancher has found indications that the founder has Jewish roots. Porwancher’s book on the topic, The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life, is under contract with Harvard University Press.
Jewish Immigration and the American Experience as told by the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress provides many relevant documents on the Jewish-American experience, from a Hebrew prayer book for immigrants to Einstein’s handwritten theory of relativity.
Antisemitism and Assimilation in the 20th Century
The National Humanities Center has several articles on religious groups in America, including one by Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden on the Jewish-American experience.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Jewish political thought or the Jewish-American experience, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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