There are those occasions when the secular and Jewish calendars converge in an unusual harmony. We all remember “Thanksgivukkah” and this year features the equally rare “Hanuyearsikkah”. But this month my thoughts go to an exceptional April convergence. Let me start with a question:
Q: When was the first time you could cast a vote for a Jewish candidate in a US presidential primary?
A: 40 years ago, in 1976, and the candidate was Gov. Milton Shapp
Well, of course, that’s if you lived in Massachusetts, Illinois or Shapp’s home state of Pennsylvania. By the time the primary calendar turned to Maryland in late May, Shapp had dropped out, after taking less than 5% of the vote in his home state. Another early favorite in the election season with strong ties to the Jewish community, Scoop Jackson, had also pulled out after the Pennsylvania primary. In fact, out of the 16 candidates who had entered the Democratic race only a handful remained by the time voting took place here. The winner, by a wide margin, was Jerry Brown. But Brown and the ABC (“anyone but Carter”) campaign started too late to stop Carter’s momentum. We may not have voted for the eventual Democratic nominee and president, but Maryland holds the distinction of being one of three states to vote for the only 1976 candidate who is still in public office forty years later.
So what makes this Maryland primary night different than all other Maryland presidential primary nights? Well, by my count it is the first time that Passover and presidential primary elections have converged in this state. From the 1960’s through 1984, Maryland Primary Day was in May, too late for Passover. From 1988 through 2008 Primary Day moved around between mid-February and early March, too early for Passover… even in 2012 when it was pushed back to late March it was still too early to overlap that year.
But this year the match between the Jewish festival of freedom and the secular exercise of liberty is “just right.”
Now Moses did not need to run in a primary, this didn’t mean he was immune to politics.
One of the earliest references I could find to political selection was in the Parsha Yitro in the Book of Exodus. In that section, Moses in the wilderness is overwhelmed by the burden of adjudicating every dispute in the community. He gets advice from his father-in-law Jethro (the first political consultant?) that he should appoint a system of judges to handle lesser cases. Jethro goes on to tell Moses “But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens.”
I make no claim to Biblical scholarship, but I find it interesting that the subject of the appointment of judges comes one chapter ahead of the delivery of laws on Mt. Sinai. This sequence – officials first, laws second – suggests to me an awareness that even the most noble and principled law can be perverted by unjust or corrupted men.
Today each of us plays a bit of the role played by Moses in selecting leaders for our community. The scale may be different, but as we go to the polls to choose a leader for the three hundred millions, I think Jethro’s advice about seeking people of substance, humility, honesty and financial integrity still applies. Let’s follow the example of Moses and choose wisely.
A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.
Despite the wintry weather, we were pleased to welcome Dr. Rafael Medoff, the founding director of The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, to speak at the JMM this past Sunday. His talk focused on Maryland’s Jew Bill and explored how American Jews came to achieve full political equality in the United States. As Dr. Medoff explained, before there was a finalized federal constitution, the original 13 colonies had to have their own system of governance, which established the connection between one’s religious faith and the right to hold public office come. As each state enacted it’s constitution in 1776, each had to consider and articulate the qualification to hold public office. Many states, including Maryland, required an affirmation of one’s Christian faith in order to hold public office and enjoy other civic opportunities. The purpose, however, was not to exclude Jews, rather to affirm the Christian spirit of the new country but, consequently, it had the effect of excluding people. Critical turning point came after the Federal Constitution and northwest ordinance were enacted in 1787, which allowed the principle of full equality without Christian affirmation to be enshrined. However, the road to remedying the conflicting federal and state previsions was lengthy and complex and had a lasting impact on both local and global politics. It is this complex journey of the Jew Bill that sits at the heart of Dr. Medoff’s talk.
We are happy to invite you to listen and enjoy and even share this talk with friends and family!
We hope you will join us for our next talk on Sunday, March 29th at 1pm, where we’ll welcome Dr. Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University. She will be speaking on 19th century Egyptology and the collection of Mendes Cohen!
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. – US Constitution, Article VI (1787)
Many wonderful things happened over the recent winter break. Mitzvah Day was a huge success. We all had fun making jigsaw puzzles for the kids at The Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai. Gil Sandler gave a terrific talk on some of the colorful characters of early Baltimore. Throughout the next week, we had a steady flow of last minute 2014 gifts to JMM – and we’re very grateful for your generous support.
But for me, the greatest surprise came from a single visitor, Yosef Kuperman. Yosef had come to see The A-mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit. I just happened to be in the lobby when Yosef walked through the door and we struck up a conversation. What I discovered was that Yosef had a most unusual hobby. Beginning with an independent study project he did at UMBC, Yosef had made himself an expert on the “Maryland Jew Bill” – the law that finally overturned Maryland’s required oath to the New Testament. He had studied original speeches, voting data, and correspondence to get a much clearer picture of the forces that shaped this landmark legislation.
The current film, Selma, visits the period in our history when “tests” were used to disenfranchise voters. My conversation with Yosef reminded me of the long history of so-called “tests” to deprive people of equal rights. The American experience has its roots in the “test acts” of 1673 in England. The acts which required office holders to disavow transubstantiation and the invocation of saints was designed to bar Catholics from public service (these tests remained English law until 1828). In America several states in rewriting there constitutions in 1776 replaced these detailed tests with a single oath to either affirm Christianity or the New Testament. The US Constitution of 1787, quoted above, would appear to have settled the question, but that was not the case. Maryland maintained its oath requirement, at least on paper, decades after the US Constitution was ratified.
Solomon Etting is generally credited with initiating the repeal effort in 1797, but all attempts at passage before the War of 1812 failed. I was aware of the fact that in the immediate post-War period the oath became a political wedge issue – with Democrats generally supporting repeal and Federalists weighing in on trying to preserving Maryland’s agrarian interests against the “foreigners” of Baltimore. What Yosef brought to my attention is that by 1823 when the Jew Bill again fails to pass, the Federalists are already in decline and that there are many Democrats who are ardent opponents of the legislation. What becomes clear from reading the speeches of the period is that many office holders came to Annapolis having made a pledge to their constituents on this issue. In some instances, it seems to have served as a proxy for proving their own Christian character to their districts.
I encourage you to visit the website I have provided and read for yourself the arguments made in favor of religious tolerance. I think you will find some of the rhetoric surprising, particularly Delegate Worthington’s case for attracting a larger Jewish community to improve the state’s economy. I think you will find some of the public debate about religious liberty has echoes in our own time as well. Perhaps we are not through with the real “test.”
A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.