DC Event Spotlights Role of Jews and Jewish Thought in America’s Formative Years

Written by Jason Langsner on . Posted in Community News

On Feb. 14, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik discussed the relationship between religion and American government and the contributions that biblical ideas have made to American political thought at an event hosted by the Hoover Institution. The discussion, which took place in partnership with the Tikvah Fund at the Hoover Institution’s Washington, D.C., satellite office, was part of the institution’s monthly “Opening Arguments” series and was moderated by Research Fellow Adam J. White.

The Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution (“no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”), judicial musings from the late-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the rule of law, and Lee’s previously introduced First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) were topics covered under the broad umbrella of religious freedom at the program. Rabbi Soloveichik, director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel — the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States — also shared his research on Jonas Phillips and the legacy of his family.

In 1787, Phillips sent a letter to George Washington about a proposed provision that would require public office holders to subscribe and pledge an oath to both the New and Old Testaments. Certainly, such a provision would be untenable for any observant Jewish individual to have made then and to make today.

In September 2017, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Lee described Phillips as “a penniless Jewish immigrant, an indentured servant, a hard-working businessman, and an American patriot who served in the Philadelphia Militia during the Revolutionary War.” At the Hoover Institution event, he related how Phillips wrote military correspondence in Yiddish during the American Revolution to fellow Jews because the British King and his censors weren’t “that good in Yiddish.”

The Jewish population of the newborn United States of America accounted for “scarcely one-tenth of one percent of the national population,” according to Brandeis University Professor of American Jewish History Dr. Jonathan Sarna, said Soleveichik. Although small in numbers then, the importance of Judaism and the Jewish people had and continues to have a large role to play in framing law in this country, Soleveichik said. For instance, although the American Jewish population today accounts for approximately 2 percent of the nation’s total population, the U.S. Congress is 6 percent Jewish and the U.S. Supreme Court has three Jewish members: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

Lee, a Mormon, expressed his feeling that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a “kinship with our Jewish brothers and sisters as one too who have felt persecution.”

The program also served as an introduction to the eight-part online course Rabbi Soloveichik is teaching on the Tikvah Fund’s website, entitled “Jewish Ideas and the American Founders.” The course is meant to expand his audience from in-person speaking engagements, serve as an archive of his research, and share his discoveries about the ways in which Judaism was interwoven into the founding of America.

Comprising a group of scholars and leaders from Stanford University, the Hoover Institution’s mission is to “improve the human condition by advancing ideas that promote economic opportunity and prosperity, while securing and safeguarding peace for America and all mankind,” according to its website.

By Jason Langsner

 The Hoover Institution’s monthly “Opening Arguments” series can be viewed at www.hoover.org.