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How a Jewish congregation in NYC memorialized President Abraham Lincoln

From The Weekly Standard: When Lincoln died on Passover, Jews prayed for the soul of a man not a Jewish believer.

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Congregation Shearith Israel dedicating its new synagogue building on September 12, 1860

Congregation Shearith Israel dedicating its new synagogue building on September 12, 1860. Lithograph from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 29, 1860

On Sunday, April 9, 1865, Generals Grant and Lee met in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Lee surrendered, and the Civil War came to an end, with 360,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate soldiers dead. The news broke all over the United States on April 10, which, in the Hebrew calendar, was the morning before the eight-day holiday of Passover was to begin.

Rabbi Arnold Fischel of Congregation Shearith Israel served as an unofficial hospital chaplain for Jewish soldiers in military camps and a Washington, DC hospital recovering from Civil War wounds.

During the Civil War, Rabbi Arnold Fischel of Congregation Shearith Israel served as an unofficial hospital chaplain for Jewish soldiers in military camps and a Washington, DC hospital. Photo: American Jewish Historical Society

We can imagine the elegant symmetry that those Jews sympathetic to the Union cause saw in the advent of their Festival of Freedom, commemorating the Israelite exodus from slavery, coinciding with the Confederacy’s defeat. … We can imagine their finding a double meaning at their Seder tables that Monday evening, as they uttered the immortal words of the Haggadah: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

It was four days later, on Friday evening, when the president was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Carried to a boarding house across the street, Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on Saturday. It is often told that all those crowded around his deathbed turned to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who said simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Jews heard it from their fellow Americans on the day of the celebratory service held on the Sabbath during Passover. Bertram Korn, in his American Jewry and the Civil War, describes the scene:

“Jews were on their way to synagogue or already worshiping when tidings of the assassination reached them. .  .  . Jews who had not planned on attending services hastened to join their brethren in the sanctuaries where they could find comfort in the hour of grief. The Rabbis put their sermon notes aside and spoke extemporaneously, haltingly, reaching out for the words to express their deep sorrow. .  .  . Samuel Adler of Temple Emmanuel in New York began to deliver a sermon but he was so overcome that he could not continue.

Alfred T. Jones, Parnas of Beth El-emeth Congregation of Philadelphia, asked [the well-known Jewish scholar and writer] Isaac Leeser to say something to comfort the worshipers; he did, but it was so disconnected that he had to apologize: ‘the dreadful news and its suddenness have in a great measure overcome my usual composure, and my thoughts refuse to arrange themselves in their wonted order.’” …

Congregation Shearith Israel in 1860. Drawing courtesy of Congregation Shearith Israel

One of the most striking—and indeed, controversial—moments took place in Congregation Shearith Israel, in New York, the oldest Jewish congregation in America.

There, Marken recounts, “the rabbi recited the Hashkabah (prayer for the dead) for Lincoln. This, according to the Jewish Messenger, was the first time that this prayer had been said in a Jewish house of worship for any other than those professing the Jewish religion.”

President Abraham Lincoln pushed through a bill authorizing Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Army. Source: New Era Illustrated Magazine, April 1904, 276

President Abraham Lincoln pushed through a bill authorizing Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Army. Source: New Era Illustrated Magazine, April 1904, 276

“It is, indeed, somewhat unusual to pray for one not of our faith, but by no means in opposition to its spirit, and therefore not inadmissible. We pray for the dead, because we believe that the souls of the departed as well as of the living are in the keeping of God. .  .  . The prayers, therefore, offered up this day for the deceased President are in accordance with the spirit of the faith which we have inherited as children of Israel, who recognize in all men those created like them in the image of God, and all entitled to His mercy, grace and pardon….”

At the same time, the reciting of the prayer—which asks on behalf of the deceased for a “goodly portion in the life of the World to Come”—also embodied the belief the members of Congregation Shearith Israel had in Lincoln’s spiritual immortality.

A focus on spiritual immortality may have been Stanton’s original intent as well; because … it very possibly is not quite accurate. The closest source we have to an eyewitness is a Corporal Tanner, a soldier, who took dictation from Stanton. Tanner described the final moments of Lincoln’s life in his own words:

“The Reverend Dr. Gurley stepped forward and lifting his hands began ‘Our Father and our God’ and I snatched pencil and notebook from my pocket, but my haste defeated my purpose. My pencil point (I had but one) caught in my coat and broke, and the world lost the prayer, a prayer that was only interrupted by the sobs of Stanton as he buried his face in the bedclothes. As ‘Thy will be done, Amen’ in subdued and tremulous tones floated through the little chamber, Mr. Stanton raised his head, the tears streaming down his face. A more agonized expression I never saw on a human countenance as he sobbed out the words: ‘He belongs to the angels now.’”

Stanton’s original reference, then, may have been to Lincoln’s place amongst the angels, not the ages…; and if he did not say it, then perhaps the first ones to say it were the members of Congregation Shearith Israel. …

This Passover marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, 150 years since the end of the Civil War, 150 years since American Jews first said a prayer for the soul of a non-Jew, a man named Abraham.

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On April 19 and April 20, 1865 New York City did a day of fasting and held memorial services for the president. Next Friday, A Journey through NYC religions will run the memorial sermon by prominent evangelical Christian pastor Stephen H. Tyng of St. George's Church.

On April 24, 1865 the slain president's funeral procession went through massive crowds in New York City.

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Meir Y. Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel ("The Spanish & Portuegese Synagogue) in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. The article has been condensed and edited. For the full version, which includes Lincoln's use of the Passover passage from the Book of Ezekiel 37, see The Weekly Standard for April 20, 2015.

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