Do Americans, and Jewish-Americans, Need A Separation? Not According to Abraham©
A Pre-and Post 2020 Election Sermon
Lech Lecha 2020/5781
Our two sons both love each other and fight each other with a deep passion. One afternoon during the summer, they were fighting and screaming at each other so much that we had to put them on opposite sides of the house.
After a few minutes my wife called our boys out of their respective sides and asked if they’d learned their lessons.
Our oldest son answered, “Yes, I’m never going to bother my younger brother again!”
His younger brother thought for a moment, looked at his brother and said, “Are you moving somewhere?”
I think I have written and said these words more in the last ten years than in my whole life, and I’ll say it again: it seems we are more divided today than ever. I don’t mean choosing one candidate over another. For hundreds of years, with the exception of 1860, our nation chose a president who represented a political party. One side won, one side lost. And then, in a ritual that seems so predictable and boring, one president would hand over their power to the next president, even if they were from opposing sides (peaceful transfer of power). We take it for granted as Americans, but we should not.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected by 40% of the popular vote, and won the majority of the electoral college vote, in a four-person presidential election. On December 20, 1860, a special convention called in South Carolina unanimously passed an ordinance of secession. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana followed in January, and Texas voted to secede on February 1, 1861— rather than recognize the new American president who was to be inaugurated in March of 1861.
But, I always wondered something: why didn’t Lincoln, and the Union, just agree to a separation, or, a divorce? They were facing an issue, slavery, where after over 80 years of trying, could not come to a true compromise, because, in the end, there could no be compromise.
This separation reminds me of a passage from Parashat, Lech Lecha:
Abraham, I mean Abraham the first Jew, is called by God to leave his land to a land that God will show him. He goes to this new land with his wife Sarai, their possessions, his nephew Lot, and their followers. Everything seems to be working well for the first family, until they grew, both in people and in wealth. The Torah states (Genesis 13:6-7):
וְלֹא־נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו כִּי־הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו׃
So that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together.
וַיְהִי־רִיב בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה־אַבְרָם וּבֵין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה־לוֹט וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי אָז יֹשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ׃
And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle.
Abraham has a choice – try to bring these feuding neighbors together, or separate. He makes a decisive decision:
וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל־לוֹט אַל־נָא תְהִי מְרִיבָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ וּבֵין רֹעַי וּבֵין רֹעֶיךָ כִּי־אֲנָשִׁים אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ׃
Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.
The Jewish Publication Society commentary (by Nachum Sarna) tries to interpret why Abraham makes this decision. Abram takes action while the discord is still in its initial stage at the lower level and before it can sour relationships between him and his nephew.
Sometimes, in order to attain Shalom Bayit, you have to leave the house.
Why didn’t Abraham, and I mean Abraham Lincoln, just let the South leave then? There were a number of reasons that he articulated through his writings and speeches:
1. Physically the states cannot separate.
2. A government that allows secession will disintegrate into anarchy.
3. Americans are not enemies, but friends.
4. Secession would destroy the world’s only existing democracy, and prove for all time, to future Americans and to the world, that a government of the people cannot survive.
It was that last piece that was probably the most important one, and it relates to the year: 1860. If you traveled the earth in 1860, and visited every continent and every nation, you would have found many examples of monarchies, dictatorships, and other examples of authoritarian rule. But in the all the world, you would have found only one major democracy: The United States of America. Democracy had been attempted in one other nation in the eighteenth century – France. Unfortunately, that experiment in self-government deteriorated rapidly, as the citizens resorted more to the guillotine than to the ballot box. From the ashes of that experiment in self-government, rose a dictator who, after seizing control in France, attempted to conquer the continent of Europe.
The world was watching, and many were waiting for the United States to fall so their way of government would be vindicated. It sounds so eerily close to what we are going through.
Lincoln understood this well, and when he described his nation as “the world’s last best hope,” these were not idle words. Lincoln truly believed that if the South seceded and formed its own government, it would have forever ended the hope of people everywhere for a democratic form of government.
So what did the American Jews do? What side were they on? Surely we would not fight for the South and slavery when our narrative is based on freedom and liberation from slavery! But, not surprisingly, the 25,000 Jews who lived in South supported the Confederacy and the institution of slavery, and the 150,000 Jews of the North, supported the Union. Jewish soldiers joined the ranks of both armies, fought and gave their lives for their respective causes. And both sides believed that God, and the Jewish tradition, supported their side.
Taking a step back, the sides they took actually shows how accepted we were in America, more accepted than in any other country in the world at the time. In the South, Judah Benjamin served at different times as the Confederacy’s attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state, and, despite his intermarriage and complete lack of personal religious observance, always acknowledged his Judaism and always was known as a Jew.
Jewish soldiers in the north rose to high ranks in the military. In his book, American Judaism: A History, Jonathan Sarna writes, “Whatever pride Jews took in the military and civilian achievements of their fellow Jews was offset by the sadness, anger, and bewilderment engendered gendered by the sectional cleavage, especially as it pitted Jew against Jew and family members against one another.
One Jewish Confederate wrote to the popular Cincinnati Rabbi Max Lilienthal.
“Since you have discarded the Lord and taken up the Sword in defense of a Negro government, your picture that has occupied a place in our Southern home, we return herewith,” The soldier scrawled his angry words across the face of the rabbi’s lithograph, thereby disfiguring it, and warned that he “should be happy to rid Israel of the disgrace of your life.”
A few sentences later, however, he had a change of heart. “Should you ever desire to cultivate any acquaintance with me,” he concluded, “I affix my name and residence.”
I imagine Rabbi Lilienthal didn’t pay him a clergy house call.
Even close relatives sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of the struggle.
Sarna writes, “Four of the children of Abraham Jonas, for example, fought for the South, one for the North. Septima Levy Collis’s brother died fighting for the South; her husband was wounded fighting for the North. Cary Gratz and his stepbrother/cousin Jo Shelby actually battled each other at Wilson’s Creek. As the invading northern armies moved into the South, such problems multiplied. One southern Jew found his house guarded by two Jewish soldiers from Ohio. “They felt very sorry for us,” he recalled, “but could afford us no help.””
Some Jews didn’t fight and chose silence instead to keep the peace.
Now is the time when you are waiting for me to tell you which way is the best way to stay united. The truth is, I don’t know. We have two competing values that we hold: justice and equality for all, which many Jews believe is endangered, and peace, which also many Jews believe is endangered, depending on who will be elected.
Families, yes, even and especially Jewish families and friends, are being torn apart. We are taking sides, just like the Jews of the North and the South in 1860.
As I return to Abraham and Lot, I come to what happens after they leave each other. Lot is taken captive, and Abraham fights for him.
A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies.
Epithets are important. The Torah makes sure that we see that Abraham is called, the Hebrew, Ivri. Ivri is a Hebrew word that means ‘cross over to the other side’. It is because of where Abraham came from – from the other side of the tracks as we would call it; he crossed two great rivers, from Mesopotamia, Iraq, to the land of Canaan, Israel.
Abraham could have left Lot to be a captive. After all, they had a separation, they went on their own paths. But Abraham crosses over and saves him, and by saving Lot, fighting for him, he saves his family and learns a lesson: sometimes, separation is not an option.
We seem to be caught between two sides that are seemingly irreconcilable. What I worry about is that we can have a repeat of 1860, not just for America, but for our community.
There are different ways we can resolve our differences: we can listen to each other, to truly try and understand why our family members and friends are voting for either candidate, without trying to convince the other. We can also explain why that choice hurts us, and how, for some, it could mean a darker future. We could be silent and choose peace over conflict and just keep our votes silent.
I am fearful for what will happen, and I hope that we wake up and realize that there is more that unites us than divides us. I’ll end with Abraham Lincoln’s famous words spoken at Gettysburg:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The decisions we make in these next weeks and months will determine whether this experiment continues on. Let’s fight, not against each other, but for each other.