A Key Cultural Indicator

David Stokes
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Posted: Nov 30, 2008 12:00 AM
A Key Cultural Indicator

The annual national ritual just passed is an important indicator yielding clues about our future. I am not talking about Black Friday and the economy, but rather the day before. There is an often-overlooked connection between Thanksgiving and the state of popular culture.

In the final analysis, Thanksgiving may be the most important holiday on the American calendar because of a direct relationship between gratitude and numerous individual and collective benefits.

As with its spiritual cousin forgiveness, there are self-evident therapeutic plusses when we learn to think, feel, and express thankfulness. When we regularly remind our children and grandchildren – “what do you say?” – as we present them with some sweet morsel, we are doing much more than trying to teach politeness. We are highlighting a skill that can, in fact, make the world a better place.

The Apostle Paul wrote a famous letter to a fledgling group of first-century Christians trying to live their faith against the backdrop of the world’s then most powerful city – Rome. In the epistle, he itemized the ills of society. His purpose was to prove and promote the gospel of Christ as the only real cure.

Paul described a culture sick with rampant immorality and superstitious idolatry. There are clear parallels to our present day. And reading Romans chapter one backwards – from worst case to root cause – we find a key plot-point about what greases mankind’s perpetual and predictable experience with the proverbial slippery slope.

“Neither were they thankful,” says the Apostle, highlighting the sin of ingratitude. In other words, a seemingly small discretion – maybe more of an oversight than anything else – leads to chaos and catastrophe. And history tends to repeat itself.

Therefore, Thanksgiving could very well be our most vital national observance. In the early days of our history people understood this. Leaders too. In fact, our heritage is rich with reminders about the importance of gratitude to our country’s life and health.

America’s narrative is rife with stories about Thanksgiving proclamations, gatherings, meals, traditions, football, and of course, the obligatory pardoning of a turkey by the president of these United States. School children rehearse that day long ago when the Plymouth pilgrims broke bread. We note things Lincoln said (he’s all the rage these days). And doubtless you have heard about what our first president, George Washington, declared while proclaiming the first “official” national day of Thanksgiving in 1789:

“I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”

We hear much these days about our “Judeo-Christian” heritage and its early and enduring influence on our culture. A look back at the founding era of our nation reminds us, however, that only about 2,500 Jews actually lived in the colonies in 1776. Usually those of us who speak of that early dual influence are referring to the Christian Bible with its Jewish roots.

But pointing this out is not to say that Jews were not active and represented during the colonial and founding periods, quite the contrary – there are some fascinating and often overlooked stories.

Gershom Mendes Seixas is a case in point. He was “American Judaism’s first public figure.” In 1768, he was appointed hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York – the only synagogue serving the city’s approximately 300 residents. He was just 23 years old at the time and largely self-taught in the Talmud with much help from his devout father, though never actually an “official” rabbi. In fact, it would be several decades before a rabbi was ordained in America.

Seixas was the first Jewish preacher in this country to use the English language in his homilies. He was a gifted teacher and tireless worker. And when it came to the American Revolution, he was a patriot – as demonstrated by his actions while the colonies were struggling to actually realize the independence that had been recently proclaimed.

His synagogue, like the much of the greater public, was somewhat divided on the issue of independence. But Seixas used all of his persuasive skills to convince his congregation that they should cease operations in advance of the approaching British occupation of the city during the early days of the war.

He fled to his wife’s family home in Connecticut, carrying various books and scrolls precious to the synagogue for safekeeping. In 1780, he accepted the leadership role at a synagogue in Philadelphia, where he became an outspoken cultural voice regularly calling on God to watch over General Washington and the great cause.

When the war ended, he was invited back to resume his work with Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. He returned with the books and scrolls to serve from 1784 until his death 32 years later.

When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, Seixas was asked to participate as one of the presiding clergyman. This was certainly an act of gratitude by Washington for the preacher’s stalwart support during the war. It was also, though, an expression of the commander-in-chief’s thinking about the importance of religious freedom and diversity in the new nation.

Later that year, as the nation set aside the last Thursday in November, the date designated by the new president for Thanksgiving, Seixas preached a sermon to his New York congregation.

His Thanksgiving Day message was based on a text from the Psalms where it talked about how King David had “made a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Seixas told his listeners that they had much to rejoice about – “the new nation, its president, and above all, the new constitution.”

Warming to his theme, he reminded his audience that they were “equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government,” and that they should be good citizens in full support of the government. Beyond that, they should conduct themselves as “living evidences of his divine power and unity.” He further admonished them “to live as Jews ought to do in brotherhood and amity, to seek peace and pursue it.”

As we bask in the glow of yet another Thanksgiving Day, and as our nation grapples with several challenging problems, I think Gershom Mendes Seixas’ sermon is every bit as relevant to all of us today as it was to those in his synagogue 219 years ago.