Those almost Jewish puritans
By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF
I had a long talk with our Rabbi the other day about Thanksgiving. Since I’m always looking to celebrate and write about Jewish holidays, I proposed that we Jews grab Thanksgiving and put it on our list. I must have won the argument because here I am writing a Thanksgiving story. (I won the Christmas debate last year when I repeatedly insisted that: 1) it was all about one of our team who stood the world on its head, 2) it gloriously benefited Jewish merchants, 3) Izzy Ballein (Irving Berlin) wrote the holiday anthem (White Christmas), and 4) Chanukah was in the rear vision mirror – Tu B’Shevat was months away and my shriveled up imagination desperately needed a holiday topic.
I think I overcame his reluctance when I pointed out that it really had a religious core since we show our appreciation to the Creator for his blessing of the harvest; to He who makes the magic of the seed and produces the rain, which energizes it into the vegetable member of his kingdom. And its resemblance to Shavuous is obvious. A harvest holiday.
I had some even better arguments unknown to most of us that I didn’t even have to deploy: Puritanism’s Jewish roots – a fact unknown to most Jews and Christians according to historians of that period including McCauley. I learned most of this synthesis in “Bible and Sword” by Barbara Tuchman.
The key fact is their Puritanism – a form of Christianity – that accented the Old Testament and drove them to sympathy with Judaism. It was the core of the faith of those who founded our America.
All this reminds me of the best theological secret of the past millennium – especially to Jews. It concerns those wandering, persecuted Puritans. Strange people. Revolutionary in their religious beliefs. They loved the Tanach – our Chumash and all. Historically, it is non-debatable.
Before you slice into your traditionally rare, half-done turkey this Thanksgiving, give a thought to those strange birds, the Pilgrims.
What a rare breed they were – typical of the exotics who stand the world on its head. Hacking, sniffing, trembling with chills in the late New England Fall, they sat down to the first Thanksgiving. They gave thanks, as we do, before every meal. More prayerful than usual because it was their Seder equivalent. And so what if half of them had fluttered skyward that year? Those celestial beings were happier than the earthly survivors, since they were wrapped in warm clouds and dined to their full at heavenly tables. The survivors were not in mourning. You see, they believed in Heaven.
These alienated folks left the 17th Century urbanity of London for the stone-cold wilderness of savage North America. The “New Zion”, they called it – does that give you a clue?
“The Puritans’ mania for the Old Testament developed directly out of their experience of persecution by the established church,” says Barbara Tuchman in “Bible and Sword.” Tuchman is a famed historian highly respected by her colleagues and she verifies, by chapter and verse, my vague suspicions that our American forefathers were SO Jewish that you wonder why the old pictures don’t show them in yarmulke and teffilin.
Historians are well aware of this, though most of us Jews aren’t. But I never knew the details until I was spellbound by Tuchman’s book. Fleeing persecution, they saw themselves as 16th Century Israelites; named their kids Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca. Did you know that the seals of Yale and Harvard are in Hebrew of all things?
“They paid a respect to the Hebrew language that they refused to the language of their gospels….,” Tuchman tells us. Even McCauley, the greatest of English historians, rants about their “Hebraic leanings.” It was no secret – they flew the flag of Moses and metaphorically, culturally waged war with Episcopal Christianity.
Another historian, Cunningham, sums it up neatly: “The general tendency of Puritanism was to discard Christian morality and to substitute Jewish habits in its stead.” How many pulpit rabbis know this and preach it to their flock? No wonder that America, of all our historical homes through time and space, has given us such comfort. Its roots, moderately nurtured by Judaism, are ours.
Let me not exaggerate these persecuted Puritans. Though quick to see the analogous relationship between Pharaoh and the English monarch, they remained Christians in name and deed if not in attitude and worldview. This hatred of the ruler, King James, led them to a love of republicanism that was the most significant freight in that floundering tub, the Mayflower. “The judicial laws of Moses are binding on Christian Princes” was one of their articles of faith. So stated one of their opponents, the Bishop of London.
And the G-d of those rebels was the thunderer of Exodus, not the gentle deity who repeatedly communed with Jesus, that gentle Jew. And they saw him as just that, a Jew; and like them, a target of the whip, the lash.
The Tuchman book deals with more than Puritanism and its Jewish leaning. It has much more to say about the British culture and politics that led up to the Balfour declaration and the State of Israel. But the revelations of our Puritan forbears are fascinating. I don’t work on commission, so you can reach for your wallet when I tell you every Jew should read this informative book.