In August of 1790, George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island as a good will gesture, Rhode Island having recently ratified the U.S. Constitution after a contentious delay and thus affirmed the authority of President Washington’s national government. During this visit President Washington met with the leaders of Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport.
The Hebrew Congregation of Newport, founded in 1658, was the second Jewish community formed in the Colonies, the first and oldest being Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam (now New York City, of course), founded in 1654. The Touro Synagogue in Newport was constructed in 1763, and is the oldest synagogue in the United States.
The founders of these first Jewish communities in what were to become the United States of America were Sephardic Jews. They were on the run from the Spanish Inquisition, which had chased them all the way to the New World, and they sought refuge from persecution and death. Rhode Island, created on the principle of freedom of religion by Roger Williams, offered that haven. That welcome set the course of the United States as a pioneer and as a beacon of religious tolerance to this day.
On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the Hebrew Congregation’s leader, presented a public letter of welcome and gratitude on behalf of his community to President Washington. Seixas welcomes the President, thanks the Almighty for Washington’s leadership, and then writes,
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine…
For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men — beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: — And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.
Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island
Moses Seixas, Warden
August 17th 1790
The next day Washington returned the gesture with a penned response. This letter is credited with enshrining the principles of religious freedom and tolerance that form the DNA of our democracy. The letter reads, in part,
…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 were 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…
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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
It is interesting to note that the immortal phrase, “a Government, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” was not Washington’s original coinage, but in fact the words of Moses Seixas! Be that as it may, Washington had the wisdom to repeat that felicitous phrase, and thus it entered the lexicon of the guiding principles of these United States.
It is also important to remember that these enlightened sentiments did not extend to the African Americans who were brought here in chains, or to the Native Americans who were being decimated and displaced by our founding generations. Our national ethos is still crippled by that legacy. Nonetheless, the underlying principle of equality expressed by Seixas and Washington has given us the foundation to continue striving and struggling toward its genuine realization.
I share this piece of Jewish and American history quite intentionally on the day that we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States. Our new President thus far shows little understanding of or respect for the rights of all Americans as defined in our Constitution. He thus far shows no empathy for the plight of the refugee seeking our shores. I want to remind us all that the United States (despite some tragic and heartless lapses) has provided a home for millions of Jewish people, the vast majority of us arriving here as refugees, fleeing persecution from nations that had no laws protecting minorities or ensuring freedom of religious expression. I ask you to slowly reread the exchange of letters above, and reflect on their profound content. These sentiments were shared at a moment when our nation was but a few years old, but they remain astonishingly fresh and relevant. (You can find the full text of both letters here.) I want to remind us that as both Jews and as Americans it is our duty to protect and preserve these freedoms and protections, not merely for ourselves, but for any who are threatened.
And, on the Shabbat when we begin the Book of Exodus, which tell us that “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8), I want to remind us that we cannot take our freedoms for granted. That king fears the Hebrew foreigners, and oppresses and enslaves them, institutionalizing generations of suffering and bondage. I want to remind us that the midwives Shifrah and Puah defy the Pharaoh’s orders and at great risk to themselves ensure that the Hebrew babies survive. I want to remind us that in our tradition, Shifrah and Puah are heroes. As Jews and as Americans, our values are aligned and they are clear: welcome the stranger, protect the powerless, and stand up to potential tyranny and injustice. Let us be attentive, and see what is asked of us in the coming days, months and years.