Lincoln in Jerusalem

On Feb. 16, 2020, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought once again partnered with Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem for a sold-out event on the impact of the Hebrew Bible on America.

Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik speaking at Beit Avi Chai on Abraham Lincoln
Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik speaking at Beit Avi Chai on Abraham Lincoln

Following the success of the Israel launch for the Straus Center’s best-selling Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land in the summer of 2019, this evening, the night before Presidents Day in the United States, offered a lecture by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, the Straus Center’s director, on “Abraham Lincoln, the Bible, and Leadership.”

Following introductory remarks by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern, senior adviser to the provost and senior program officer of the Straus Center, Dr. Soloveichik, who is co-teaching a course with historian Harold Holzer on Lincoln and the Bible this semester at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, enthralled the crowd with a discussion of the impact and legacy of Lincoln.

Focusing his remarks around Lincoln’s relationship with the Hebrew Bible and American Jewry’s relationship with the president, Dr. Soloveichik began by detailing the career of Rabbi Sabato Morais of Congregation Mikveh Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Philadelphia. Morais, an Italian immigrant, delivered a sermon on July 4, 1863, which that year fell on the fast day of the 17 of Tammuz on the Hebrew calendar. In it, he compared America to Jerusalem, praying that the destiny of America would not parallel the destruction of the walls of Jerusalem that Jews mourn over each year on that date.

In the context of that sermon and that comparison, Morais used the phrase “four score,” a phrase of biblical cadence he acquired as he learned English by reading the King James translation of the Bible. As renowned historian Dr. Jonathan Sarna has written, it is very possible that Lincoln read Morais’ sermon in the newspaper (in that era, rabbis’ sermons were disseminated in this manner), and historians know that Lincoln had sent Morais a letter in response to an earlier sermon of his. Quoting Sarna, Dr. Soloveichik explained that this leaves open the possibility that the most famous phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “four score and seven years ago,” was inspired by Morais’ usage of the unique phrase.

Moving on to another Jewish contemporary of Lincoln, Dr. Soloveichik then discussed the gift Abraham Kohn, the city of clerk of Chicago, sent the president, the story of which served as the centerpiece of the Wall Street Journal article Dr. Soloveichik had written that ran the same weekend as the lecture.

The gift was an American flag with verses from the biblical book of Joshua inscribed on it sent to encourage the president to “be strong and of good courage,” words God had used to encourage Joshua as he entered the Promised Land. Lincoln, inspired by the gift, hung it in the White House and in a speech shortly thereafter used another biblical phrase, “may my right hand forget its cunning,” to evoke a parallel between Israel and America, the latter of which, in Lincoln’s words, was “an almost chosen nation.”

Lastly, Dr. Soloveichik discussed Pvt. Joseph Joel, a Union soldier who wrote about how he and his fellow soldiers observed the Passover seder, the annual commemoration of the Israel’s being freed from Egypt. Lamenting the separation, both calendrical and ideological, between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, Dr. Soloveichik praised, in contrast, Israel’s juxtaposition of its Remembrance Day and its Independence Day. As he stressed, the lesson of Lincoln’s usage of the Bible was to remind his audiences that freedom brings with it covenantal responsibility, a central theme of the Passover celebration and a message echoed in contemporary Israel’s holiday structure.

Noting that Lincoln was assassinated over Passover in 1865 and that Mary Todd Lincoln reported after his death that one of his final wishes had been to visit the Holy Land, Dr. Soloveichik argued that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is forever tied to the Festival of Freedom. “America is only exceptional if it remains loyal to its covenantal founding,” Dr. Soloveichik stated. And Americans, Israelis, and Jews the world over must strive to be actively engaged with our divinely mandated covenantal duty.