Kosher Bookworm

In 1927 book, American Jews viewed Lincoln


Throughout history, heads of state have served as the personification of their people and their civilizations. For some, their legacy was to be one of cruelty, for others of plunder and ruin.

The American Republic is fortunate to have had presidents who not only served well in their time, but who were able to extend their legacy of honest and effective governance beyond their time into eternity. Such is the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, whose 215th birthday we celebrate on Feb. 12..

The Jewish people have experienced all kinds of rulership, from the benign to the macabre, and all variations in between. Lincoln set the marker for excellence, integrity and regard for equality that has yet to be equaled.

One of the many books that was gifted to me by my late father, Max Gerber z”l, was “Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of the Synagogue,” by Emanuel Hertz, published in 1927.

Its 682 pages contain a cross section of sermons and essays written and delivered by America’s Jewish spiritual leaders marking the life of Lincoln from the weekend of his murder to the first decades of the 20th century.

This remarkable collection includes references to numerous encounters Lincoln had with American Jews, and describes their challenges as the Jewish faith emerged as an equal religious expression both in civilian life and in the military.

Gen. Grant’s infamous and bigoted General Order No. 11 is noted; Lincoln’s firm resolve in staunching this infamy is given high and favorable profile.

• • •

Much of what we know of Lincoln’s regard for the Jewish people comes to us from those who were to play a part in his rise to power, such as Abraham Jonas and Simon Wolf. There was never even the faintest hint of any disregard both to our people or our faith by this president. He was our friend, and his legacy is further testimony to this.

This book also details the loving and affectionate regard that American Jewry had for the slain president both during his lifetime and in the decades that followed.

In his forward to this book, British Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz shares an incident related to him firsthand by his mentor, Rabbi Benjamin Szold z”l:

“He had occasion to accompany a poor Jewish woman to the White house and beseech the President to pardon her wayward son, who had deserted. She told her story in Yiddish, of which the President did not understand a word. But Abraham Lincoln only saw before him a mother imploring him for the life of her child; and as he listened to her unintelligible and yet agonizing plea, the tears coursed down his cheeks.”

Needless to say, mercy won out over a harsh judgment. Such was the President of the United States, even during war time.

Rabbi Hertz, further commenting on Lincoln, states: “Few public men possessed his mastery of speech, his wonderful mother-wit and rare eloquence. Several of his utterances are among the most perfect things in the language. His Gettysburg Address stands unparalleled since the days of Pericles; while in his stand for national righteousness and his absolute belief in the irresistibility of right, he has the accent of Israel’s Prophets.”

• • •

Among the many sermons and essays within this large book was one that stood out not only for what was uttered in its message, but for who said it. Among the ideas and opinions expressed were the following:

“Like Joshua, Lincoln lived to see the cause of the nation triumph, to behold the Union victorious and peace and tranquillity prevailing in the land.”

“Moreover, in Lincoln himself were fused all the essential elements of Judaism. If he can justly be called the first typical American he can more justly be said to represent the summation of all the noblest qualities of Judaism.”

“And when the day will come and the American nation following its great prophet, Lincoln will become a model of justice, and through justice a pattern of peace to the world; when the American nation, led by the spirit of its great savior and preserver, will add its share to the realization of the day which the Jewish prophet’s inward vision foresaw thousands of years ago; when there will be universal peace growing out of universal justice and the American nation will show itself worthy of this, its greatest son, then the birthday of Lincoln will be the greatest holiday of a happy, progressive humanity and will represent a milestone in a new era of mankind’s history.”

These are the words of Rabbi Bernard Revel, the founding president and the first Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, delivered at the Centenary Celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday, in New York City, on Feb. 12, 1909.

It is in this spirit that I would like to bring to you attention the works of one of the great Lincoln scholars of our time, Harold Holzer. His works are many, but I commend to you for starters his essay titled “Lincoln and the Jews: The Last Best Hope of Earth” (2000). Within this essay you will find not only fine scholarship from a world class interpreter of history, but the fine hand and pen in use on behalf of American Jewish History.

We live in troubled times. Even as children we were taught that we study history so as not to repeat its mistakes. We hear that admonition every day, on the news, from the pulpit and in daily conversation. Our economic situation drives us to review the past and to evaluate the lessons that should be learned from past errors.

In order for us to hold our public leaders accountable we in turn must be informed. Now is as good a time as any to crack open those history books again. What better subject to begin with than Lincoln?

A version of this column was published in 2009.