Rethinking Judaism in Early America

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Yisroel Ben-Porat


Book Review of Ogren, Brian. Kabbalah and the Founding of America: The Early Influence of Jewish Thought in the New World. New York: New York University Press, 2021. (All page numbers in the article refer to this work.)

In 1790, Isaac Pinto of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, translator of the first English siddur in America, wrote a letter to Rev. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College. Evidently, Stiles’s Hebraic acumen had impressed this Jew, who addressed his recipient with the delightful neologism “Rosh ha-Yeshiva ha-Yalensi”―head of the Yale Yeshiva (185)! This remarkable anecdote highlights the synergy between Judaism and Protestantism in early America. Brian Ogren’s fascinating new study Kabbalah and the Founding of America argues that Jewish mysticism significantly influenced early American Protestant theology. While the notion of colonial Kabbalah seems strange and implausible, Ogren has unearthed a treasure trove of neglected sources to reconstruct a forgotten intellectual tradition. These findings, situated at the crossroads of Jewish studies and early American history, should be of great interest to Jewish readers.

Having written and edited several books on Kabbalah, Ogren is uniquely qualified to assess the complex and varied usages of Kabbalah by early American thinkers. Yet despite his background in Jewish studies, Ogren makes an important caveat: “This is not a book about Jews; it is a book about Protestant American colonial and revolutionary uses of Jewish texts and thought, and their resultant impact on views of Judaism and on the shaping of wider American religious sensibilities” (2). Indeed, these intellectual activities occurred despite the overwhelmingly small Jewish population in early America (at most three thousand out of nearly four million people by 1790).[1]

Nevertheless, Jews do appear throughout the book. One significant character is Judah Monis (1683-1763), who converted to Christianity in 1722 and subsequently taught Hebrew at Harvard for several decades. Other examples include several visiting rabbis in Newport, Rhode Island befriended by Ezra Stiles, such as R. Raphael Hayyim Isaac Karigal (1733-1777) of Hebron. Additionally, the book draws heavily on Hebrew and Aramaic sources, translating and citing from the original language. Such analysis can only be properly appreciated by people deeply proficient in rabbinic literature. The resulting product, like some of its characters, is a liminal book that may alternately alienate, captivate, or confound both Christian and Jewish audiences.[2]

The book is structured both chronologically and biographically. In his first two chapters, Ogren considers Kabbalah as a point of contact between Quaker and mainstream Protestant thought. He identifies and analyzes a hitherto unstudied manuscript that he attributes to George Keith, a Scottish missionary who fashioned a unique strand of Christian Quakerism. The text, which draws heavily upon a variety of kabbalistic ideas, made its way from Pennsylvania to the library of the famed Mather family in Massachusetts. Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), son of Rev. Increase Mather (1639-1723) and scion of American Puritan colonists, engaged in an intellectual exchange with Keith. This debate “brings into focus some of the contrasts but also some of the commonalities between Jewish Kabbalah, Keithian Christian Quakerism, and the Puritan Congregationalism represented by Cotton Mather” (56-57). The finer points of this discussion will likely elude most readers who do not have an advanced background in kabbalistic texts; however, the overarching intellectual significance of Kabbalah for these thinkers emerges clearly. While Keith deviated from mainstream Quaker thought, Mather arguably represented the center of New England’s religious culture.

The subsequent two chapters, focusing on the conversion and kabbalistic writings of Judah Monis, constitute the most fruitful part of the book. Ogren segues from Cotton Mather to Monis via the former’s father, who was deeply fascinated by Sabbateanism. In colonial New England, Protestants believed fervently in the imminence of Jesus’s second coming, a precondition of which included the mass conversion of the Jews. The Sabbatian messianic movement inspired Increase Mather to write a great deal about conversion. Thus, Monis’s decision to join the Protestant fold engendered a great deal of excitement among the clergy. Ogren deepens our understanding of this episode in two ways: first, by discovering new information on Monis’s early life; and secondly, by providing a close reading of Monis’s polemical use of Kabbalah.

Born in 1683, Monis’s early life remains largely unknown. Most available records begin after he immigrated to New York in 1715, where he lived before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1720. A newspaper report on his conversion two years later described Monis as a maskil (a Sephardic term for a lower-level rabbinic ordination below the status of hakham) who studied in Livorno (Italy) and Amsterdam. In his own writings, Monis referred to the prominent anti-Sabbatian R. Jacob Sasportas (1610-1698) as his teacher. Ogren has unearthed new evidence that this assertion was more than merely rhetorical: a ketubah of David and Rachel Monis, dated 1679 in Livorno, with R. Sasportas as an official witness. Given the uniqueness of the surname, David and Rachel Monis were most likely parents or close relatives of Judah Monis. R. Sasportas served as rosh yeshiva in Livorno before assuming the leadership of Yeshiva Etz Hayyim in Amsterdam in 1680. Monis would have been sixteen years old when R. Sasportas died in 1698. Thus, a real-life connection seems more plausible than previously considered.

However, we should be careful not to overemphasize Monis’s rabbinic training. Sixteen is still a rather young age to study Kabbalah, a subject traditionally reserved for advanced students―and Monis was certainly not an ilui (prodigy). Ogren argues that if Monis had lied about his status, he would have assumed the title hakham rather than maskil as reported in the newspaper. Yet scholars of Monis’s Hebrew writings have found a great deal of errors and oddities, suggesting a lower level of expertise than what he claimed.[3] Perhaps, then, we should not view Monis, per Ogren’s suggestion, as a serious student and teacher “tapped into a kabbalistic network moored in textual learning before arriving in North America” (113).

A lack of expertise may have also played a role in Monis’s problematic treatment of Kabbalistic sources. Following his conversion, Monis published three pamphlets asserting his sincerity and the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, cleverly entitled The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth. The latter text argued that Jewish Kabbalists believed in the doctrine of the Christian Trinity. Ogren provides a novel analysis of Nothing but the Truth, showing how Monis employed his sources inaccurately and selectively. Jewish readers may find some of the proof texts amusing if not perplexing. Monis mistranslated Rambam’s article of faith that God is ehad be-ahdut she-ein kemotah ahdut as “He is One, and not One like his Unity,” thus purportedly supporting the Christian position that “God is One and Three, and not Three, but One” (121; italics in original). This misreading gravely misrepresents Rambam’s clearly anti-Trinitarian view, as the beginning of the yesod explicitly states that God is not one of a pair or group or divisible into parts; elsewhere, Rambam explicitly rejects a Trinitarian read of the Shema Yisrael verse.

Similarly, Monis cited a tradition attributed to Rav Hai Gaon, recorded by Rabbeinu Bahya ben Asher, that reconciles the ten sefirot with the thirteen divine attributes of mercy by identifying three unified supernal divine lights. Yet not every triad refers to the Christian [upper case] Trinity; Ogren, drawing upon Gershom Scholem, clarifies that although the “message is clearly [lower case] trinitarian . . . . Correlation of trinities does not imply identity” (126). Indeed, a grouping of three divine attributes illuminating the ten sefirot does not logically lead to a tripartite divinity of God, Jesus, and Holy Ghost, though it makes sense that Christians have used this text for polemical purposes. Monis also misappropriated the Zohar’s comment on the Shema Yisrael verse, which insists on the unity of the three appearances of God’s name; Ogren shows how Monis took the passage out of its context regarding ta’amei ha-mitzvot (reasons for the commandments) and distorted its meaning by Christianizing the Aramaic term ruah kudsha as “Holy Ghost” (131). Of course, one may add that the multiple iterations of God’s name do not imply a multifaceted identity, especially as the very end of the verse clearly negates such a possibility.

Monis’s intellectual influences remain somewhat enigmatic. Interestingly, he did not draw upon Lurianic texts in Nothing but the Truth, but elsewhere he compiled a compendium of such sources in a manuscript now housed at Harvard University Archives. Additionally, neither he nor the other thinkers in this book seem to have engaged with the kabbalistic studies of Renaissance Christian Hebraists. Given the host of inaccuracies in Nothing but the Truth, Ogren poses a provocative question: “How much of that, if anything, remains ‘Jewish,’ whatever this multifaceted term of identity may mean?” The answer, despite Monis’s claims to the contrary, resoundingly negates such a characterization. “Monis is clearly drawing from those texts in a cherry-picking manner,” Ogren concludes. He translates his sources “into a language of Protestant cultural faith, and in doing so he transforms both the texts and the theology contained within” (146).

Ogren does not take a firm stance on the vexed question of the sincerity of Monis’s conversion, which has received a great deal of attention. Some have speculated that pragmatic considerations—to receive a teaching position at Harvard—may have motivated his conversion, and that he remained merely a nominal Christian. Others have suggested that Kabbalah may have led him to genuinely believe in Christianity. This book follows the lead of Michael Hoberman and other scholars, who avoid the issue in favor of a contextual approach and instead focus on how contemporary Protestants viewed the meaning and significance of his conversion.[4] Ogren compellingly illustrates the paradoxical nature of Monis’s identity, in which his very affirmation of Christianity hinges on his prior Jewishness.

In his final chapter, Ogren takes his story to the revolutionary period, focusing on the kabbalistic writings of Ezra Stiles, a polymath scholar who achieved a stunning mastery of Hebraic material. Stiles apparently once met with Monis, and he also had intellectually fruitful relations with the Jewish community in Newport (especially R. Karigal, with whom he was particularly close and had a remarkable correspondence in Hebrew). Once again, Ogren brings to bear characteristically deep archival research. Though he unfortunately could not locate Stiles’s annotated copy of the Zohar, he analyzes and reproduces Stiles’s “Oration Upon the Hebrew Literature” delivered at Yale’s commencement in 1781, which strikingly called for more Hebraic learning at early American colleges.

Stiles’s place in the founding generation inevitably leads to larger questions about the role of Jews in America’s origins. Ogren’s conclusion challenges the assertions of twentieth-century Jewish historians Jacob Rader Marcus and Arthur Hertzberg that Judaism remained disconnected from Protestantism in colonial America. On the other hand, Ogren is careful not to take his findings too far, tempering the anachronistic projections of postwar scholars of Puritan Hebraism such as Lee M. Friedman, who invoked ideas of the melting pot and cultural pluralism. Ogren also rejects the old thesis of intellectual historian Perry Miller, who argued that the Puritans founded New England as part of a world-historical mission to serve as a model for a new age of Reformation in Europe. Building on other scholars who have problematized this notion of Puritan New England as an experiment upon a blank slate, Ogren argues that his findings demonstrate “a greater continuity with Europe and the rest of the world . . . beyond Puritanism” (198).

This historiographical levelheadedness is laudable, but one may nevertheless quibble with the title and framing of the book. The phrase “founding of America,” reinforced in the introduction by citing Thomas Jefferson’s and John Adams’s remarks on Jewish thought, belies the book’s heavy focus on New England. It implicitly reflects the outmoded tendency to view that region as the origin story of the United States.[5] In truth, however, New England constituted merely one quirky corner of a decidedly vast early America that transcended the boundaries of the original thirteen colonies. Except for Ezra Stiles, most of the thinkers surveyed in this book did not anticipate the founding of the United States. This handful of New Englanders might suffice for larger claims about the region’s intellectual and religious history, but they fall short as a founding narrative of America.

As an intellectual history of Jewish thought, the book does not fully address the kinds of questions that might animate early Americanists. Scholars of colonial New England would want to better understand how Kabbalah fit into the broader framework of Protestant theology and how it connected to internal theological developments in the period. For example, it would be instructive to situate discussions on the kabbalistic idea of Adam Kadmon (primordial man) within the rich Puritan literature on Genesis;[6] similarly, Monis’s polemical appropriation of Kabbalah might shed additional light on contemporary anxieties about conversion, theology, and religious identity.[7]

Nevertheless, it is a testament to Ogren’s research that it raises questions beyond the scope of its analysis. His findings make a valuable contribution to the field, and future scholars who grapple with the historical relationship between Judaism and Christianity will undoubtedly cite this work. While the opacity and complexity of Kabbalah may continue to stymie scholarly inquiry, it behooves us to understand how Hebraic ideas have influenced major early American thinkers.

[1] William Pencak, Jews and Gentiles in Early America, 1654-1800 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 1; see also the estimates here compared to national census data since 1790.

[2] For a book focused on Jewish perspectives, see Laura Arnold Leibman, Messianism, Secrecy, & Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life (Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2013). Notably, Leibman does not include Monis in her book, reflecting the tensions surrounding his Jewish identity.

[3] See, e.g., Eisig Silberschlag, “Judah Monis in Light of an Unpublished Manuscript,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 46/47, Part II (1979-1980): 495-529; Rachel Wamsley, “Teaching Hebrew to the Puritans” (adapted from her 2018 article).

[4] See, e.g., Shalom Goldman, God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 31-51; Michael Hoberman, New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011), 86-120.

[5] Abram C. Van Engen has ably deconstructed this myth in City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020).

[6] See, e.g., Philip C. Almond, Adam and Eve in Seventeenth-Century Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Zachary McLeod Hutchins, Inventing Eden: Primitivism, Millennialism, and the Making of New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[7] See, e.g., Thomas Kidd, The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Yisroel Ben-Porat is one of the editors at The Lehrhaus and a PhD candidate in early American history at CUNY Graduate Center. He serves as Graduate Teaching Fellow at The City College of New York, and he teaches twelfth-grade history at Ohr Yisroel of Tenafly in affiliation with the Middle College program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. After studying in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh for a year, he graduated summa cum laude from Yeshiva University in 2018 and received his M.Phil from the Graduate Center in 2021. His dissertation focuses on how Puritans used the Hebrew Bible as a legal and political text in the seventeenth century Atlantic world.