Thursday, November 21, 2013

George Washington and the Synagogue

In Newport, Rhode Island, stands the nation's oldest synagogue, built in 1763. Its age, and its symbolic significance for religious freedom, are already enough to make it noteworthy. But it has added importance because George Washington visited it, and did so to underscore the nation's commitment to free worship. Eric Tucker, writing for the Associated Press, reports that

The history of the synagogue starts with a group of Sephardic Jews who arrived in 1658 in Rhode Island - a colony founded by Roger Williams and his followers on the principle of religious tolerance. They established a congregation, and the synagogue was built a century later designed by Newport architect Peter Harrison, whose other notable buildings include King’s Chapel in Boston.

The tradition of freedom of belief began with the early settlers like Roger Williams and William Penn, and was carried forward to the next generation of colonists. Religious freedom was a widespread value among the colonists. In New York, John Rogers, during a 1783 sermon, declared that

Another instance of the divine goodness to us, and which we may not pass unnoticed, is, his providing us in 'New York with so good a constitution, for the securing our inestimable rights and privileges. I do not say it has not its imperfections ; but it is upon the the whole, equalled by few, and surpassed by none of the constitutions of the sister states, in wisdom, justice, and sound policy. The rights of conscience both in faith and worship, are fully secured to every denomination of Christians. 'No one denomination in the state, or in any of the states, have it in their power to oppress another. They all stand upon the same common level in point of religious privileges. Nor is this confined to Christians only. The Jews, also, which is their undoubted right, have the liberty of worshiping God in that way they think most acceptable to him. No man is excluded from the rights of citizenship on account of his religious profession. Nor ought he to be.

Washington's visit to the synagogue set a clear tone for the new nation. As the war was winding down, Washington's presence in the building was a message that Jews and Christians in America, despite differences in belief, had a common heritage which would form the foundation for a natural law view in which personal freedom and individual liberty would be goals of the political system. After visiting, George Washington wrote to the leaders of the synagogue:

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.

The depth of Washington's consideration of the congregation which met in the synagogue is manifested in the fact that his first visit to the location was in 1781, and his letter to them was written in 1790. Clearly, the group had a significant spot in Washington's mind. The degree of religious freedom to which he was committed was astounding at that point in time: Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz notes that in the 1700's, Jews in the United States "had the privilege of praying as free citizens," while the rest of the world "didn't have much religious tolerance." In the two centuries following Washington's visit, while a few other nations in the world embraced the notion of religious freedom, the relative situation remained much the same: while America strives to offer unprecedented levels of freedom to its citizens, much of the world remains oppressed by governments which restrict, regulate, and tax. Eric Tucker writes that

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also attended services at Touro, as did poet Robert Frost.

Leaders like Eisenhower defended the Judeo-Christian value of tolerance against Soviet Communism during the Cold War in the twentieth century, and we defend it against the terrorist attacks of Islamofascism in the twenty-first century. The Touro synagogue in Rhode Island has became an enduring symbol for this struggle, and for the need to defend freedom against the inevitable attacks on it. Perhaps Robert Frost was considering the need to dedicate one's self to liberty's defense when he wrote

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,

The United States must keep its promise, remaining vigilant despite fatigue, defending the peculiarly Judeo-Christian concepts of freedom and liberty. That is the nation's duty.