I recently started reading Eric Foner’s “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” which won a Pulitzer this year. It’s a subtle yet fast-moving narrative about Lincoln’s evolution from a man merely averse to slavery to the one who would abolish the institution forever in America. Slavery in America is inexhaustible topic for historians, but a subject harder to come by is Jews in America, at least before the late 19th century.
The reason is fairly obvious: very few Jews were here until after the Civil War. Of course there were Jews have been in America from even before there was a United States (see my article about that here), but they really don’t have much of an impact on American life until late-1800s. But that’s not to say they had no impact at all. A fascinating time when they did, surprisingly enough, deals with Lincoln and the Civil War.
Over the weekend, the historian Karen Abbott published a wonderful piece on the New York Times’ Civil War blog, “Disunion” (it’s the war’s 150th anniversary, so get used to reading about the war if you haven’t already). The article’s about how Lincoln turned the Army chaplaincy into an explicitly Christian position into a non-denominational one.
In brief, here’s how it happened: at the start of the Civil War, northern legislators enacted an a law requiring the Volunteer Army chaplaincy be occupied by a “regularly ordained clergyman of some Christian denomination.” It was signed into law, but several legislators dissented. Moreover, the first American council of rabbis, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, sent a letter to Lincoln demanding the “Christian” qualification be taken out.
At first, Lincoln did nothing. The war had begun and there were more urgent matters than appeasing the country’s 150,000 Jews, about a half a percent of the population. But at least one regiment ignored it, and had an unordained Hebrew teacher, Michael Allen, served as chaplain for a Pennsylvania regiment. Allen was popular with his troops, but when a Y.M.C.A. enlistee got wind of the Jewish chaplain he complained to higher-ups. Before Allen could be dismissed dishonorably, he stepped down on his own.
The rabbinical board was having none of it, however. They engaged in good old-fashioned activism instead. First they tested the law by explicitly asking the War Department to enlist a prominent rabbi, Dr. Arnold Fischel, who served in New York’s Shearith Israel synagogue, to be an army chaplain. The War Department rejected him. But that kicked off a nation-wide petition from citizens—the vast majority non-Jewish—who resented the exclusionary law.
By the end of the year, on Dec. 15, 1961, President Lincoln responded to the board of rabbi’s appeal. In a letter Lincoln sent to Fischel, he wrote: “I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites. Yours truly, A. Lincoln.”
Despite the encouraging sign, six other prominent rabbis, unaffiliated with the board of rabbis, actually protested Fischel appeal. They were equally offended by the law, but thought the Board of American Israelites did not truly represent American Jews. Though their efforts might have derailed the law’s repeal, the Christian qualification was ultimately removed by July of 1862.
Fischel never did end up becoming a chaplain, but by the end of the war, three rabbis did. Ever since, Jews have been allowed to serve as chaplains in the army.