Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington.
In a letter to the president of the Touro synagogue in Newport, George Washington famously wrote that the U.S. government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Photo by Forward
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A few weeks ago, my synagogue had a program at the new Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It is a wonderful museum, with many important artifacts of Jewish life in America over the last few centuries. As I perused the exhibits, I found myself meditating on the famous letter that former U.S. President George Washington wrote to the Jewish community of Newport, RI in August 1790. This letter became well known for its succinct articulation of religious liberty in the new nation of America. And, as we mark Presidents’ Day here in the U.S., it is an appropriate time to reflect on its message.

Upon receiving a letter of congratulations from the Jewish community of Newport, the new president responded as follows:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by 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…”

For 18th century Jewish immigrants from Europe, whose greatest hope was not for freedom, but “toleration,” this letter signaled a new paradigm. America would not just tolerate its Jews, but it would give them freedom to practice as they wished. Washington articulated a vision of a nation whose founders valued religious liberty for all people. Of course, this value has not always been achieved, but simply holding it up as a goal was extremely significant. The first president of the United States went on to write:

“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.”

Here, Washington gets his inspiration from the fourth chapter of the prophet Micah, which is a powerful vision of the day when “the house of the Lord is established,” and all creatures live in peace. As Jon Meacham writes, “The image of every man being free from fear, comforted by the shade of his own conscience, is vivid and enduring, and places the ideal and the reality of liberty and mutual understanding at the heart of the American tradition from the first year of the first presidency.”

This allusion to Micah’s vision was in line with the founders’ vision of America as a new promised land. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wanted the seal of the United States to depict scenes of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. As I walked through the American Jewish History Museum, this image of America as a new promised land stuck with me. Is America a new promised land for the Jews?

In asking this, I do not mean to replace Israel as our Jewish homeland. I agree with my colleague Rabbi Jeff Cymet, who wrote beautifully last week of the need for all of us Jews living in the Diaspora to remember that we are still in exile. But the fact is that millions of Jews don’t live in Israel – and most of them who don’t live in Israel do live in the US. And this vision of religious liberty laid out by Washington was and is a major factor in this demography.

But what was George Washington saying about religious liberty in this letter? At a time when issues of religious liberty come up often – both in America and in Israel – his words can be instructive. Washington lays out a vision of religious liberty that puts responsibility not just on the government, but on the people as well. The government may not interfere in religious practice, but at the same time he charges adherents of religion to “demean themselves as good citizens.” In other words, just as the government should not coerce religion on its people, so too people should not coerce religion on their government. Religious liberty cuts two ways.

We still struggle with defining the boundaries of religious liberty. But, in these conversations, adherents of religion must not forget Washington’s qualification of enjoying religious liberty as good citizens. We each have the right to sit safely under our own vine and fig tree, but not everyone needs to like grapes and figs. Understanding this is what helps make us a good citizen – and a good Jew.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.