Monday, February 20, 2006

Guest Post by Charlie Hall: Reflections on Washington's Birthday

This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts by Charlie Hall. I first discovered him in the comments section at DovBear, then had the opportunity to meet him at the somber occasions of Serach's grandfather's funeral and shloshim. Today, I ran into him again at the OU conference down the block - he's always a fascinating person to listen to with a wealth of knowledge at his fingertips. Enjoy!

Reflections on Washington's Birthday

In our times it is common to be cynical. The basic goodness of everyone
and everything is in doubt. Sadly, this is true even in Judaism. Even
Orthodox newspapers and internet blogs are full of lashan hara, motzi shem
ra, and a generally negative attitude towards just about anyone or anything on a slightly different path, or with different political, philosophic, or halachic views.

So we approach the holiday commonly called "Presidents Day" but officially
in honor of George Washington, the first US President who before then had
been the President of the Convention that wrote the US Constitution, the
Commander in Chief of the Continental Army that won enough battles to
convince Britain to grant the United States independence, a delegate to
the First and Second Continental Congresses, a member of the Virginia
House of Burgesses, and a Vestryman in his Anglican Church parish. Before
him he had been a surveyor, an officer in what became in American the
French and Indian War, and the owner/manager of a large plantation. He was
born February 11, 1731 (old style) and died December 14, 1799. Is he
really worth a holiday?

Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, George Washington was
revered by Americans of all political and religious beliefs. His own
politics leaned more toward Hamilton than Jefferson, but he seems to have
been respected by all, before and after his death. He did not publicize
his own religious beliefs extensively, as has now become common with
American politicians, but seems to have kept them to himself, occasionally
attending services but rarely if ever taking communion. As a Vestryman he
was not just an important official in the local parish but also in the
local government since church and state were not separate in colonial
Virginia. He was an active member of the freemasons, an organization about
which I know little, but whose members built a huge monument to him:

Two examples show the esteem to which he was held by Americans: His
plantation, Mount Vernon, became in the mid-19th century the first
important historical tourist attraction, then and now under private, not
government, sponsorship:

Another was that a group that set out to help themselves and others to
give up drinking alcohol named themselves after him:

Yet as a Jew, the most amazing thing about George Washington was his
attitude towards us and our religion. In 1790, Moses Seixas, the President
of the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote to the new
President of the United States (which that state had only joined a few
months before):

President Washington's letter in response may not seem astonishing today,
but given the abuse that most Christian rulers of Europe had handed us for
almost a thousand years, it represents a complete break with tradition:

Washington's attitude set the stage for this country's unprecedented
acceptance of Jews as full members of society.

George Washington was not perfect. He was a slaveowner and does not appear
to have expressed doubts against slavery until perhaps the very end of his
life, when his will provided for all of the people he owned to be set
free. He does not appear to have expressed any qualms about the huge
social inequalities in Virginia's plantation culture; he was one of the
richest people in the United States although he may have been land poor
like many of his fellow aristocrats. The cherry tree story appears to have
been a fabrication of a sympathetic biographer. He lost as many battles in
the American Revolution as he won - but kept his army intact for the one
that really mattered, Yorktown. Overall, however, we can look back with
admiration, not cynicism. And celebrate a holiday in his honor.
Dr. Charles Hall has his Ph.D. in biostatistics from Johns Hopkins after receiving his undergraduate degree from Harvard College. He currently serves on the faculty of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Yeshiva University).
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  1. Nice one. Dr. Hall you're always welcome to post on Dovbear

  2. Hey - I invited him first! (or at least convinced him...) :)