Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, incorporated the famous description of America as “malchus shel chessed” into Halachah (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:29):
“Regarding the kindness that our government, the United States of America, where Hashem in His great mercy toward the remnants of the Jews of Europe, and gathered us here … and because this kingdom of kindness, whose sole purpose is to give benefit to all its residents, has many programs to support students in all of the state’s schools … certainly all of the Roshei Yeshivah, rebbeim and talmidim recognize all of the good of the state, and pray for the well–being of the state and all of its leaders, with all blessings.”
Even during the Golden Age of Spain, Jews were more tolerated than respected. No other country has given Jews such freedom and warm welcome as the United States. How did this relationship begin? What inspired it?
Growing up in America in the 1950s, yeshivah children began their day with davening and then the Pledge of Allegiance. And we all knew the self-evident truth that “all men were created equal…”
In 1790, a year before the First Amendment, George Washington was campaigning for ratification of the Constitution. Officially, he only needed to gain approval of nine states. But, with a unique sense of his destiny as the leader of an indivisible nation, he insisted he wanted the Constitution to be unanimously ratified by all 13 states.
One holdout was Rhode Island. To encourage their participation, Washington promised to make an official visit to the spunky state after ratification. When he and his entourage — including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson — arrived in Newport, Washington received a warm hero’s welcome, especially from the Jewish community.
Representing the community, Moses Seixas, gabbai of Yeshuat Israel, the first Jewish congregation in Newport, read an address he had written:
“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Al-mighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
President Washington was deeply moved by this reception. Perhaps he also thought of the support of Haym Salomon — hailed on a U.S. postage stamp as “Financial Hero of the American Revolution.”
In response, Washington sent a letter to the Jewish community of Newport that mirrored the words and feeling of Moses Seixas’s letter. The key words — now credited by history to Washington — set the standard for Jewish life in America for all time:
“While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.
“The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.
“If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
“It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
“May the Father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
Jews who grew up on these shores enjoyed the benefits of a society that was built on the words and vision of the Founding Fathers. Stories of government-backed pogroms, communist campaigns against religion or the horrors of the Holocaust heard from parents or grandparents were inculcated as part of the Jewish past, but seemed distant from the comfort and safety of America.
However, a brief reflection on what previous generations went through to remain loyal to Yiddishkeit, or even survive, should be enough to make one acknowledge our gratitude towards Washington — whose birthday is on February 22 — and the other Founding Fathers, who planted the seeds of the liberty that Jews in America still enjoy centuries later.