On Monday, February 17 — that’s both Presidents’ Day, marking the births of two of our most iconic presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both born in the second half of February, and one of the three days on which Jews read Torah aloud at morning minyan every week — Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes will bring the two together.
During the Shacharit service, after the Torah has been taken out of the ark, carried around in procession, undressed, unfurled, kissed, read, closed, and recloaked in its velvet and silver, Rabbi Prouser will read the Gettysburg Address, which he’s translated into Hebrew and set to haftarah trope. (That’s the one breach of standard synagogue protocol here — generally we read the haftarah aloud only on Shabbat and holidays.)
This year, for the third time, Rabbi Prouser has invited local dignitaries, some Jewish, some not, to the service, to hear the prophetic voice of Abraham Lincoln, set in the Gettysburg Address in short, strong, vivid phrases, Hebrew-like in their intensity and momentum.
This year, one of the guests will be Dr. Joshua Zeitz of Hoboken, a historian who has taught at Princeton and Harvard and is the author of “Lincoln’s Boys.”
Often, when we look at the Gettysburg Address, we see literature, he said; it’s brilliant, but it’s so filled with phrases that since have become clichés — a testament to their brilliance, of course — that often it can seem saccharine, he said, but the address actually is radical. Delivered in 1863, two years into the bloody American Civil War, halfway to its ending, as a dedication of a newly made cemetery filled with soldiers who had died fighting that war, it was, among other things, a canny campaign speech as Lincoln worked toward his second electoral victory as president, Dr. Zeitz said. And Lincoln wasn’t even the keynote speaker — that was Edward Everett, the ever-present politician from Massachusetts whose speech was listed on the program as an “oration.”
It was long, and set off Lincoln’s 272-word gem of a speech to perfection.
It is easy for us to forget that the parties have completely realigned themselves since Lincoln’s day. Then, it was the Democrats who represented big money, old families, and the southern slaveholding aristocracy (we should pardon that one word modifying the other); the Republicans were the party of immigrants, the less wealthy, and change.
“There were scores of important Republicans — senators, congressmen, other important politicians, and newspaper editors at this dedication,” Dr. Zeitz said. “Lincoln used it as the opportunity to reframe the purpose of the war.
“He had been meticulous in defining the war, until the address, as being fought just to defend the nation,” Dr. Zeitz said. “When he reframed it as a war to ‘create a new birth of freedom,’ he acknowledged that it no longer just was about preserving the union. It was arguing that it was time now to create a country that no longer had slaves.
“Lincoln was making the war be about emancipation.”
There was a clue in the speech that all his listeners picked up on immediately. It begins “Four score and seven years ago.” That’s 87 years. “Do the math,” Dr. Zeitz said: 87 years before 1863 was 1776. “It was more than just using a fancy way of saying numbers,” he continued. “Lincoln was arguing that the country’s founding document was the Declaration of Independence,” famously written and released that year, the year that we now think of as the year of our country’s birth.
Then, 1789, the year after the Constitution was ratified, the year that its provisions went into effect, is the year that was considered the nation’s first.
The Declaration of Independence is a statement of beliefs. It is not a legally binding document. The Constitution is legally binding. But the abolitionists — whose ranks Lincoln joined — “claimed the Declaration as their own,” Dr. Zeitz said. The Declaration does not talk about slavery. “The abolitionists viewed the Constitution as a sullied document, because it included servitude and left some human beings out.”
“So when Lincoln goes back to 1776, he is embracing a very controversial abolitionist argument,” Dr. Zeitz said. “People who heard it understood it. And then he talked about the new birth of freedom!
“He almost was embarking on a new American revolution, to perfect what had been imperfect.
“It was a very radical speech,” he stressed. It was widely reprinted and distributed. “The Republicans loved it. The Democrats hated it.”
In another echo of today’s politics, “Lincoln was very polarizing,” Dr. Zeitz said. “We think of him today as unifying, but he elicited the kind of polarization we see today. He was violently polarizing.
“He became an increasingly popular wartime president, but the opposition hated him.”
Not only did the South want to retain slavery, people who lived in the Midwest “had no interest in freeing slaves,” Dr. Zeitz said. “They were perfectly willing to risk their lives and livelihoods to save their country — but they were white supremacists.” They would not fight to wipe out slavery — they were fine with that grotesque institution.
“People tend to view the Gettysburg Address as about sacrifice — and it is — and he was not jettisoning the argument that it was being fought to save the country — but the war was not to save it as it had become,” Dr. Zeitz said.
“We were fighting it to restore the values of 1776.” And in urging that fight on, by providing it with one of its most emotionally resonant images, President Abraham Lincoln sowed the seeds for much of what was to follow in the next few years, and beyond to our time.
So Rabbi Prouser, who loves history and has identified at times as Republican, and who is working very hard to maintain both an apolitical position and a moral core, has chosen to mark Presidents’ Day and the genius of Abraham Lincoln by reading the Gettysburg Address aloud.
The decision was not at all related to the polarized if not actually toxic political atmosphere we’ve all been trying to breathe through — Rabbi Prouser has been doing this program for three years, starting long before anyone could have predicted the results of the 2016 election — but it seems prescient today. And somehow it seems even more potent in his shul — which is old, elegant, attractive, and comes with a very strong sense of history that seems to radiate out from its old wooden pews.
This year, the reverberations from the bimah will be even louder.
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey
What: Will read the Gettysburg Address at morning minyan
Where: At his shul, 558 High Mountain Road in Franklin Lakes
When: On Monday, February 20, during minyan, which begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 9:15.
Who else: It’s open to the whole community; many local elected officials and politicians will be there. Dr. Joshua Zeitz will have an aliyah.
What else: Light breakfast after the minyan.
For more information: Call the shul at (201) 560-0200 or email it at firstname.lastname@example.org