In June 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a noted physician and academic, was invited to a wedding at the Philadelphia home of Jonas Phillips, a German Jewish immigrant who’d made his fortune in the New World. The non-Jewish Rush wrote to his wife, Julia, about the experience: “At 1 o’clock the company, consisting of 30 or 40 men, assembled in Mr. Philips’ common parlor, which was accommodated with benches for the purpose. The ceremony began with prayers in the Hebrew language, which were chaunted by an old rabbi and in which he was followed by the whole company.”
Rush did not understand a word, he recalled to Julia, except for an “amen” or “hallelujah” here and there. But he did notice two salient things about the service: “the haste with which they covered their heads with their hats as soon as the prayers began, and … the freedom with which some of them conversed with each other during the whole time of this part of their worship.”
This sentence — which represents Rush’s realization that Jews are a talky people — is a favorite of Rabbi Dr. Meier Y. Soloveichik. The director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and the rabbi of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, Soloveichik explicates Rush’s letter to Julia in an hourlong lecture as part of a new Tikvah Fund online course called “Jewish Ideas and the American Founders.” Dedicated by Allen K. Schwartz in memory of his wife, Barbara R. Schwartz, “and in tribute to all Jewish Americans, both strangers and neighbors,” the course is comprised of eight lectures by Soloveichik, all meant to illustrate the impact of Jewish ideas on America’s founding.
The original course — part of a Tikvah program for American undergraduates — was recorded this summer in New York and then followed by discussion groups. The online option offers a video of the lectures or an mp3, along with a downloadable study guide meant to inspire the discussion experience students had in New York. It costs $40 to access the lecture series; the study guide is included in the price.
Soloveichik, who regularly speaks and writes about Jewish theology, bioethics, wartime ethics and Jewish-Christian relations, first became interested in the subject matter when he came across a mention of Jonas Phillips in an article by Michael W. McConnell, the Richard & Frances Mallery professor and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School. “Who was this Jew living in Philadelphia in 1791 who refused to testify on Shabbat?” Soloveichik wondered. His research revealed a true Jewish hero, who serves as the starting point for his lecture series, whose first episode is titled “Jonas Phillips: The First Truly American Jew.”
Phillips’ story is, in many ways, a classic immigrant’s tale, and Soloveichik narrates it and presents its broader meaning with animated intelligence that easily draws the viewer (or listener) in.
Jonas Phillips was born in 1736 in Germany and came to America in 1756. His travels took him from indentured servitude in the South to bankruptcy in Albany. His fortunes changed when he arrived in Manhattan, where he did what Soloveichik said was essential for an Ashkenazi Jew in Colonial America who wanted social mobility: He married a Sefardi, the well-known Rebecca Mendez Machado. Her father, David Mendez Machado, was chazzan at Congregation Shearith Israel, which Phillips also joined. In 1776, with British troops sailing for Manhattan, the congregation members “fled across the plains of Harlem and Washington Heights,” Soloveichik said with a chuckle, and decamped to Philadelphia, where Phillips continued his business as a merchant.
In July of that year, Phillips sent a letter and the Declaration of Independence to his friend Gumpel Samson in Amsterdam. The letter, written in Yiddish, never got to Samson because it was intercepted by the British, who believed the strange lettering to be some kind of Patriot code. But Phillips’ words, which Soloveichik reads in Yiddish and then translates to English during the lecture, include “one sentence that is extraordinary,” Soloveichik says: Phillips refers to the Declaration as pertaining to the “gantze medina,” the whole country. This is notable because America was still very far from being a whole country, yet Phillips saw it that way. He also correctly predicted that the Americans would win the war; by the time they did, he was one of the richest Jews in America and an esteemed friend of the Founding Fathers.
But it is a second letter, Soloveichik notes, that is more important in the history of Judaism. This one is addressed to George Washington regarding the state constitution requiring that every person serving in the legislature acknowledge, upon taking office, that both the Old and New testaments are products of divine inspiration. He wrote to Washington: “To Swear and belive that the new testement was given by devine inspiration is absolutly against the Religious principle of a Jew and is against his conscience to take any such oath. By the above law a Jew is deprived of holding any public office or place of Government which is a Contradectory to the bill of Right Sect. 2 viz. … It is well Known among all the Citizens of the 13 united states that the Jews have been true and faithfull whigs; and during the late contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the states with their lifes and fortunes, they have supported the cause, have bravely fought and bleed for Liberty which they can not Enjoy.
“Therefore if the honourable Convention shall in their Wisdom think fit and alter the said oath … then the Israelites will think themself happy to live under a government where all Religious societys are on an Eaquel footing. I solecet this favour for my Self my Children and posterity and for the benefit of all the Israelites through the 13 united States of america.”
In every word of this request — including the date on the letter, which is written “Philadelphia 24th Ellul 5547 or Sepr 7th 1787” — Phillips is demanding for Jews the same rights as other new Americans.
“Let’s pause and ponder the audacity, the sheer chutzpah, Phillips is exhibiting,” Soloveichik says, adding that he is articulating a desire to be both stranger and neighbor — to be both an American but also a religious Jew, even as he participates in government. What resulted from this request was a document that precluded a religious test of any kind as entry into public service.
Phillips was determined to be simultaneously American and Jewish, and his assertion of his religious rights, along with his full embrace of the new country he lived in, led to great success. A founding member of Mikveh Israel, Phillips had 21 children, and his many descendants played increasingly important roles in the development of the new country. One grandson was the first Jew to hold major federal office; another was chief justice of the Supreme Court. His great-grandchildren included the first Jewish commodore in the U.S. Navy and a governor of South Carolina.
But his story is just the beginning of Solveichik’s chronicle. The rest of the lecture series includes episodes on the seal of the United States, which initially depicted Moses; the Talmudic influences found in Thomas Paine’s writings; the Jewish role in constitutional ratification; and the first proto-Zionist American speech, among other topics. For more information, go to tikvahfund.org.