Every year I look forward to our synagogue’s Martin Luther King Shabbat joint service with the local Baptist church. Am I the only Jew who loves Gospel music and is longing to hear Adon Olam sung to Oh Happy Day? I’ve never understood the “Quaker/Methodist” orientation of our Jewish services in the Diaspora. Most of the congregation sits silently or davens in hushed tones. It produces a very quiet, respectful and downright boring setting. I’ve always thought our services should ring out with song and affirmation like a full Baptist revival. If you feel it, express it.
The highlights of the annual MLK Service always are the passionate music and the pastor’s sermon. One thing about the Black Church, their pastors know how to preach.
This year, in speaking about Dr. King, the pastor reflected on how he did not just materialize out of thin air. In fact, King stood on the shoulders of his brave ancestors “who shared his DNA like Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.” When he mentioned Tubman, I admit to feeling an extra sense of pride. She was perhaps the greatest “conductor” along the “Underground Railroad”, the collection of safe houses that smuggled runaway slaves from the American South to the North and up to Canada in the days leading up to the Civil War in 1861. Tubman led 13 missions and “never once lost a passenger.” Two months ago, during a trip back to my old hometown of Auburn, New York, I passed by Harriet Tubman’s house.
Just a stone’s throw from the Tubman House is the estate of former New York Governor and Senator William Henry Seward. Seward sold the nearby property to Tubman and risked his political career to take in fugitive slaves as a stop along the Railroad. Seward would go on to become Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State.
With a population of 30,000 Auburn is not very big. Its Jewish community, always small, now is almost non-existent. But during a week in the United States when we celebrate the birth of one of the foremost proponents of freedom and equality among the races, how many other towns can boast two such giants to the cause? While we continue to debate the meaning of freedom, justice and security in the Middle East and around the world, the tale of two very different people from my little town is worth knowing.
Slavery is America’s original sin. No one is sure why the Dutch brought the first slaves to America in 1619, but by American independence in 1776 the institution had died out in the North but was the economic lifeblood of the South. When the delegates to our Constitutional Convention met here in Philadelphia in 1787 to try to figure out how to govern the newly independent yet unruly States, they couldn’t even agree whether or not a slave should be counted as a person. They finally compromised. Enshrined in our beloved Constitution is the statement that each slave counts as 3/5 of a human being. On this shaky foundation our great Republic lay during its first 70 years.
By the mid 1800’s the slavery question no longer could be fudged. The North would not tolerate it; the South wouldn’t give it up.
Into such slavery was Harriet Tubman born. During her childhood, she was beaten, whipped, and badly injured by a malicious slave owner. In 1849 she escaped, then returned to the South to smuggle out her family. Nine years later she was living in Canada and continuing to sneak South to free slaves. That was when the former Governor and now Senator from New York, William Henry Seward, offered to sell her some land he owned near his own home in Auburn so she could be closer to the South and more easily able to coordinate smuggling operations.
Seward was a passionate abolitionist. As a Senator his leadership often is cited as one of the reasons that California, certainly not in the North, was admitted as a Free State in 1850 (while California’s northern neighbor, Oregon, by law actually banned black people from even setting foot in the State). As Governor, Seward insisted that fugitive slaves in New York be given a full jury trial and threw his office behind the abolitionist movement. His feelings were so well known they might have hurt him in seeking the Presidency in 1860. Instead, the Republican Party turned to the unknown Lincoln.
Lincoln chose Seward as his Secretary of State, where he became one of the President’s closest confidants during the Civil War. On the day Lincoln was murdered, Seward was stabbed and badly wounded, but later recovered and served under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. In 1867, Seward convinced Johnson to buy Alaska from Russia. Laughed at as “Seward’s Icebox”, it became one of the richest places on earth for its resources and natural beauty.
For guidance toward the modern world, it’s instructive that neither Seward nor Tubman was a pacifist. Both could be cold, calculating realists. When Lincoln first came to Seward and showed the draft of his Emancipation Proclamation ordering the slaves to be freed, Seward demurred. He feared it would bring European recognition of the South and he wanted to wait until a Northern military victory lest the document look like a plea for help from a desperate government rather than a clear statement of moral purpose. As for Tubman, she fought with Northern snipers during the Civil War. Both believed in a basic moral principle of human freedom, but both understood the necessity of security as well.
Like Martin Luther King, I believe both Seward and Tubman would have been admirers of Israel. All of them, however, would be unsparing in their criticism yet understanding of its awesome security challenges. Having actually fought the fight and seen evil up close, they would not have been swayed by idealists positing easy, “morally pure” solutions. I doubt either would have had tolerance for BDS or our vapid and facile Jewish intellectuals who seek to weaken Israel in order to cleanse it of the sin of occupation. Simultaneously, I doubt either would have approved of those on the other side of the political spectrum who are so committed to their own self-righteousness they go out of their way to antagonize the rest of the world. Freedom is difficult enough without a belief of monopoly on truth.
After many years away I now return frequently to Central New York State. When I pass the Seward and Tubman houses I marvel how two such different people helped change the world together, and I retain immense pride in my town. As we in America remember Dr. King by struggling to understand the true way forward to produce equality, and as we Jews struggle to understand the nexus between Israeli security and the rights of others to their aspirations, reflect for a moment on the words of that great Auburnian Harriet Tubman. “Every day begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Sounds a lot like Herzl doesn’t it?