This post (the second of two; read part one here) is by Sarah Levy, an intern at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, who is compiling a bibliography of Judaica printed in America from the early colonial period until the mid 1800s.
Even though Jews made up a tiny percentage of the population of early America, this time period still boasts of quite a variety of Jewish-related books– written by Christians. For a long time, Christians far outnumbered Jews in the production of Jewish histories, Jewish catechisms, Hebrew grammars, Bibles, and Bible studies in North America. Sure, you’ll find some sermons delivered by a rabbi, but far more by a Christian preacher, and most likely about how the conversion of the Jews is eminent, not to worry. For the most part, writings about Judaism were important insofar as they contributed to learning about Christianity.
The first extensive, original work on Judaism written and published in North America (by a Jew for Jews) was Rabbi Joshua Hezekiah DeCordova’s Reason and Faith (1791). DeCordova defends Judaism from the attacks of the “absurd” and “corrupting” modern Enlightenment thinkers, who “foolishly” reject God and limit themselves to their senses. He argues that not only is Judaism rational, but that the Jews themselves are the progenitors of Western civilization and the moral superiors of the Greeks. But while this work might have been written specifically to fortify the faith of DeCordova’s Jewish Jamaican community, the copy owned by the New-York Historical Society was actually printed by a non-Jew (F. Bailey) for a Christian audience! What interest would Christians have in a book which claimed to completely prove, through reason and an examination of history, the validity and superiority of Judaism?
The rise of secular thinking threatened Christians as well as Jews. The theologian authors from this time period lamented the apathetic and heretical attitudes people began to assume towards religion. For example, Joseph Priestley dedicated his A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses (1799) to a certain Lord Grafton for actually caring about Christianity “in an age in which many who occupy a distinguished rank in life pay little attention to it, in which many openly abandon the profession of it.” The work is filled with fervent prayers that the “madness” of atheism doesn’t spread. In this climate, any defense of religion could be seized as a weapon, especially one which, like Faith and Reason, engages with the philosophers in their language and shows how reason and logic can be compatible with belief.
But this was really a three-way battle, and alliances weren’t so clear cut. While the Christians were willing to side with their Jewish “brothers” against the atheists, they never stopped their missionary activity, leading the Jews to sometimes side with the atheists against the Christians! Speaking out against the persecution, slander, and harassment the Jews historically received in Europe, the anonymous author of Israel Vindicated (1820) declared it a moral imperative that he expose Christianity for its supposed lies and weaknesses. In page after page of fictional letters, he attacks the divinity of the New Testament, the morality of Christians, and– the gravest insult of all– the existence of Jesus Christ. He rallies his Jewish brothers to stay true to their religion, “the religion of reason and philosophy.”
Yet the reader notices a curious thing about the footnotes in Israel Vindicated: time after time, undeniably secular, anti-religious authors and books are quoted. Many of these authors found Judaism as problematic and unenlightened as they did Christianity. Scholars now say that the anonymous author, who called himself “an Israelite,” was probably none other than the journalist George Houston, a known freethinker and most certainly not a Jew. So why would Houston write a book singing Judaism’s praises? Most likely a group of Jewish leaders, feeling the urgent need to defend themselves from the Christian missionary threat but fearful of retaliation, employed Houston for the job. Retaliation could not be avoided completely, however. Mordecai M. Noah, first Jew to run for sheriff in New York, lost his election in 1822 partly because of a newspaper exposé alerting the Christian public of the scandalous things “an Israelite” had written about their religion. The struggle was fierce as Christians and Jews both fought attempted to maintain their statuses and stay relevant to their followers and each other in a changing world. A common enemy does not always necessarily create the best of friends.
DeCordova, Joshua Hezekiah. Reason and faith, or, Philosophical absurdities, and the necessity of revelation. :Intended to promote faith among infidels, and the unbounded exercise of humanity among all religious men. (Philadelphia: Printed by F. Bailey, 1791).
Houston, George. Israel vindicated : being a refutation of the calumnies propagated respecting the Jewish nation : in which the objects and views of the American Society for Ameliorating the Condition of the Jews, are investigated. By an Israelite. (New-York: Published by Abraham Collins, 268 Greenwich-street, 1820).
Korn, Bertram W. “The Haham deCordova of Jamaica.” American Jewish Archives 18, no. 2 (November 1966): 145.
Priestley, Joseph. A comparison of the institutions of Moses with those of the Hindoos and other ancient nations; with Remarks on Mr. Dupuis’s Origin of all religions, The laws and institutions of Moses methodized, and An address to the Jews on the present state of the world and the prophecies relating to it. (Northumberland [Pa.] Printed for the author by A. Kennedy, 1799).
Sarna, Jonathan D. “The Freethinker, the Jews, and the Missionaries: George Houston and the Mystery of “Israel Vindicated.”” AJS Review, Vol. 5 (1980), pp. 101-114. Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Association for Jewish Studies.
Singerman, Robert. Judaica Americana Vol. I (xix).