We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, a Documentary History by Gary Phillip Zola • Southern Illinois University Press • 528 Pages • $49.50
Book Review By Martin Gottlieb, The Dayton Jewish Observer
To what degree was Abe Lincoln Jewish? That’s the basic question raised by We Called Him Rabbi Abraham, a new book by scholar Dr. Gary Phillip Zola that comes complete with two subtitles: Lincoln and American Jewry and A Documentary History.
Completeness is a hallmark of the book. But don’t expect a thorough analysis of Lincoln’s DNA or his family history. We are talking here mainly about being Jewish in some sense larger than biology and religious identification.
Zola, besides being a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. This book is the work of an archivist. Zola does the editing and introductions. There are letters, speeches, articles, resolution, sermons. And, while much of the book is about Lincoln and the Jews he knew, the real impact has to do with Lincoln’s earthly afterlife: that is, with the way he has been seen — and embraced — by post-assassination generations of Jews.
First, his actual life: Lincoln knew a surprising number of Jews, given that Jews were less than half of one percent of the national population in 1850, at 50,000 to 100,000. Every town in Illinois seemed to have a Jewish merchant who claimed to know Lincoln. Once, in greeting a delegation of Jews, Lincoln was quick to note that his chiropodist was Jewish. But even if that line resonates of “some of my best friends,” in context, it doesn’t seem to be a defense against prejudice.
Three specific Jewish issues arose during Lincoln’s presidency. One was whether a Jew could be chaplain in the army, given that some units were heavily Jewish. He was for that.
Dayton area Congressman Clement Vallandigham played a role in the debate. When a law was passed limiting chaplain positions to Christians, Vallandigham — a Democrat and bitter critic of Lincoln — was the first to complain on the floor of the House. But when the matter came to Lincoln’s attention, he immediately favored changing the law, and it was changed.
Second, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant banned Jews “as a class” from all territory he controlled. He was concerned about traders bringing materials into the South that Grant didn’t want the Confederacy to have, and about traders buying Southern products (especially cotton) for resale elsewhere, thus giving the South money Grant didn’t want it to have. Lincoln overturned the order immediately upon hearing about it and Grant was contrite, saying it didn’t really represent his views. His wife was horrified by it.
Third, the war years saw a movement to add Christianity to the Constitution, making the country officially Christian. Lincoln didn’t take a concrete position, presumably because he wanted to stay as focused as possible on the war. He wasn’t looking for issues that would divide Northerners.
Jews were not a solid Republican bloc. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the Cincinnatian sometimes called the father of the Reform movement in this country, was with many other Jews, a Democrat and Lincoln critic. He figures prominently in the book. Meanwhile, most Jews living in the South were loyal to the Confederacy.
It was really after the assassination that Lincoln came to be an icon to Jews as a class. In other words, Jews were pretty much like Christians in that regard.
And yet Zola argues convincingly that something about Jewish adulation of Lincoln is worth pausing over: the religious thing.
It’s not just the name Abraham, though that alone has set many Jewish minds to work.
Here we have in Lincoln a man who, though obviously an intense believer at least at some stages of life, never embraced a specific Christian church or denomination.
Harold Holzer, the renowned Lincoln scholar, is quoted by Zola: “The fact is Lincoln believed deeply in God the Father, but from early adulthood on, notwithstanding 20 years of Sundays in Baptist churches with his family, he seldom mentioned the Son or the Holy Ghost. He did not embrace Jesus as messiah or savior.”
But there’s more. There is, basically, the whole Lincoln persona. Has there ever been in public life — that is, setting aside your favorite zayde — a more archetypal mensch? Gentle, yet firm; self-effacing; determined to stay focused on the big picture, as opposed to petty jealousies; determinedly moral in his understanding of the big picture.
And, after all, his role on slavery made it inevitable that he would be called the American Moses.
Here’s an American rabbi in 1909, the Lincoln centennial: “Lincoln’s religion was devoid of formalism and ritualism; it was free from soul-cramping dogmatism; it was untainted by bigotry. It was a high expression of those fundamental virtues, those basic qualities that mark the highest manhood. …Like a Moses….”
From another centennial address: “(I)f there is any congeniality between the soul of a people and the character of a person, it is the striking similarity between the ideals and aspirations of the Jewish people and those of Abraham Lincoln…Liberty and human dignity are the only ideals which have filled our soul, the only traits which have marked our character, the only motives which have made our history, the only features which have characterized our religion… ”
Zola’s book is repetitive because in making the case that certain kinds of statements about Lincoln were common among Jews, he feels he has to document the point. His lucid introductions to various collections of documents may be enough to satisfy many readers.
The aforementioned Wise insisted after the assassination that Lincoln told him that he thought he was of Jewish descent. Zola doesn’t give that much weight, because Lincoln is not known to have said that to others. Clearly, though, Wise came to sense a certain something about Lincoln. So did others.