The refreshing breeze came through the open windows in the Congregation Jeshuat Israel Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island on Saturday morning. Better known as the Touro Synagogue named for its first cantor Isaac Touro (1738-1783) and his son Judah Touro (1775-1854) who was its benefactor, the small building was lightly filled for Sabbath services on the July Fourth holiday weekend.
America’s oldest synagogue which opened in 1763, was a logical place for Jews to come to celebrate America’s birthday. In addition to being the only Jewish temple still standing in the United States from colonial days, America’s first president, George Washington (1732-1799), wrote a letter to the congregation in August 1790 which affirmed religious liberty:
“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.“
Washington made clear that all religious groups were not simply “tolerated” but very much a fabric of society. It was an incredible message for Jews to hear in the nascent country, as members of a persecuted faith who had first fled from Europe and then Brazil due to the Catholic Inquisition empowered by local governments.
My appreciation for religious liberty in this amazing country brought me to that synagogue for America’s birthday. As I climbed the few carpeted steps to recite the haftorah that Sabbath, my mind considered the text I read, which also tied Judaism to the founding of the United States.
The haftorah this July 4th was for Parshat Korach, which read from Samuel I: 11:14 – 12:22. The portion relayed how the Israelites demanded a king, and how the Prophet Samuel rebuked them for their plea. Samuel communicated that God had met their every need so it was shameful that they would seek to follow the example of other nations for a king to rule over them. Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of the Jews but it was done reluctantly, as he admonished the Israelites that God is actually the only king.
America’s founding fathers believed as much.
Thomas Paine’s (1737-1809), pamphlet Common Sense of 1776, called on the colonies to rebel against the king of England – and against all kings. He cited the story of the Hebrew Bible above in making his case:
“As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by Kings…. Near three thousand years passed away, from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of Republic, administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts…. Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them. The history of that transaction is worth attending to…. The hankering which the Jews had for the idolatrous customs of the Heathens, is something exceedingly unaccountable; but so it was, that laying hold of the misconduct of Samuel’s two sons, who were entrusted with some secular concerns, they came in an abrupt and clamorous manner to Samuel, saying, ‘Behold thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways, now make us a king to judge us like all the other nations.’… That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false.“
Paine argued vociferously against trading one sovereign (British) for a new one in America. He and the other founding fathers instituted a system of government where there was no place for a hereditary monarchy but a democratic republic with leaders chosen by the people.
George Washington was that first leader in this new experiment in governance. Not only did he believe that a monarchy was distasteful but also in the power of God. When he resigned his military post in 1783, he wrote of handing over “the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God.”
Seven years later, Rhode Island was one of the last colonies to adopt the U.S. Bill of Rights which enshrined that “all men, have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.” Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue just a few months later, cemented not just the “free exercise of religion” but that Jews will be protected as full citizens as part of the nation’s foundational laws, not the whims of a monarch.
The fame of the Touro Synagogue is very much tied to Washington’s letter which affirmed religious liberty. It should not be a surprise that Washington wrote such letter to the Jews, whose bible served as an inspiration for the American constitution and views of both religion and leadership.