It is a bittersweet coincidence – that the fiftieth yahrzeit of President John F. Kennedy and the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address should occur during the same week.
In many ways, of course, President Lincoln and President Kennedy are soldered together in our memories. That both were assassinated has become part of our national mythology, even our martyrology. Indeed, other presidents have been assassinated, but no one speaks, nowadays, of the murders of William McKinley and James Garfield (except that we have somehow memorized that the latter was shot by a “disappointed office seeker”). The deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy, being ideological in nature (or, so we believe; the jury, literally, is still out on Oswald's motivation for shooting JFK) have placed them both within a unique setting in our collective imagination.
The parallels are famous and even quirky: both were assassinated on Fridays; Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy and Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln; both assassins were themselves killed before they could be brought to trial; both were succeeded by men named Johnson.
And both were outstanding orators whose words live on beyond them, in ways that few presidents can truly claim.
Which brings us to a rabbi, Sabato Morais, whose name has been forgotten by many American Jews, though certainly not by our scholars – and who might actually have been more influential than we might have once thought.
To be accurate, Sabato Morais was technically not a rabbi; he was what was known in the nineteenth century as a “minister-hazzan.” He was actually the founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Born in Italy in 1823, he started his career as the assistant hazzan at the venerable Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, and in 1851 became the hazzan at the equally venerable Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. He had a broad concern for the Jews, whether Sephardi or Ashkenazi, and was absolutely pivotal to every philanthropic concern in Philadelphia.
In his book Jewish Preaching in Times of War, http://www.amazon.com/Preaching-1800-2001-Littman-Library-Civilization/dp/1904113540Marc Saperstein describes a sermon that Morais gave during the Civil War. He gave it on July 4, 1863, which also happened to be the fast day of the seventeenth of Tammuz. It was at the same time that Lee's armies were retreating from the battle of Gettysburg, ninety miles away to the west – a battle that would ultimately become the bloodiest military venture in American history. General George Gordon Meade would say: “I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield.” Decaying horses and human bodies, rotting in the July heat.
Saperstein points out that Morais delivered this sermon at the request of the Philadelphia Union League. Amazing. Nowadays, we are quite accustomed to rabbis delivering sermons and lectures in public, gentile or interfaith gatherings.
But in 1863? Here, as we approach Thanksgiving, we can voice our gratitude for the utter uniqueness of the American Jewish experience. It is difficult to imagine a European contemporary of Sabato Morais being approached by gentiles to offer wisdom publicly.
Here is how the text of his oration unfolded: “I am not indifferent to the fact, dear friends, to the event that four score and seven years ago [my emphasis – JKS] brought to this new world light and joy.”
“Light and joy” is a well-known Jewish phrase. It is orah v’simchah, from Esther 8:16, and it makes a guest appearance in the havdalah liturgy as well.
“Four score and seven years ago?” According to Saperstein, Morais regularly sent the texts of his sermons to Philadelphia sermons and to the Jewish press. The late Rabbi Bertram Korn, a scholar of the Civil War period, said that “more of Morais’ sermons were printed in the daily press than any other American rabbi’s.”
A coincidence? The legend has it that Lincoln scribbled those 272 words (272! Only 272! In fact, when he was done, people looked at each other and said, “Is that all?”) on the back of an envelope. Had Lincoln read the widely-circulated sermon that Morais had given, in which the minister-hazzan used that elegant phrase, and either a. unconsciously used it or, b. quite consciously used it, albeit without attribution?
We will, of course, never know. Neither will it matter. And even now, some faithful reader of this essay will be rushing to prove to his/her friends that “a rabbi was Lincoln’s ghostwriter for the Gettysburg Address,” which, of course, is far from the truth.
But in our American Jewish heart of hearts, we would like to remind ourselves that ours is not the first era when the words of rabbis have been taken seriously by those outside the circles of the Jewish people.
We might choose, rather, to believe that the immortal phrase “four score and seven years ago” somehow, uncannily, rose off the pages of Sabato Morais’ manuscript and made its way into the most famous oration ever delivered on American soil.
And that such a migration is itself a metaphor for the powerful, though sometimes even subtle, effect that the Jewish word has had on America itself.