Ulysses S. Grant and the Art of Teshuvah

This summer I read Jonathan Sarna’s short new history, When General Grant Expelled the Jews.  I think most Jews in America have grown up with the common wisdom that sees Grant as an anti-Semite.  He was, after all, responsible for the single most overtly anti-Semitic incident in U.S. history – the infamous General Order No. 11, which makes Sarna’s book, rehabilitating Grant’s reputation, illuminating.

First, a little of the history.  The order expelled all Jews from Grant’s entire war zone, which stretched from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico.   The charge was essentially trading with the enemy – some Jews, as well as non-Jews, were involved in the lucrative cotton smuggling trade between North and South.  Only about 100 Jews may have been affected by the order, but the very idea of an “expulsion” of Jews in America and the order’s language targeting Jews “as a class” sent shock waves through the American Jewish community.  Mobilizing quickly to lobby the President, the Jewish community succeeded in having Lincoln revoke the order two weeks after it was issued.

It may well be that the order arose out of Grant’s own frustration with his conniving father, who had gone into partnership with two Jewish clothiers and who tried to get Grant to sign off on a secret cotton permit for them.  In any case, Grant maintained silence about the order until after he was elected President in 1868, when he disavowed it.

But what happened next was astonishing.  According to Sarna, Grant took a series of actions related to the Jewish community that ushered in a short-lived but remarkable “golden age.”   Grant appointed more Jews to public office, and to higher public office than they had ever held before; he worked to strengthen church-state separation, and he responded sympathetically to Jewish lobbying in 1869 to help Jews in Russia who were being expelled (for smuggling!).   Grant’s pioneering statement on the role of human rights in American diplomacy should probably be better known: “The United States, knowing no distinction of her own citizens on account of religion or nativity, naturally believe in a civilization the world over which will secure the same universal liberal views.”  Grant even had the forebearance to sit through the entire three-hour dedication of Adas Israel’s synagogue in 1876.

In short, Grant did some serious teshuvah.

And he did teshuvah the old-fashioned way, the way that our Jewish tradition bids us – not with a glib apology, but with his actions that left no doubt as to his true intentions toward the Jewish community.

This whole episode, and Sarna’s masterful book rehabilitating Grant’s reputation, started me thinking.  Why have we as a community forgotten about Grant’s teshuvah for the past 150 years, and only remembered his infamous act of anti-Semitism?  One could imagine an alternate telling of history in which both the order and Grant’s subsequent acts were linked together inextricably as a sign of how much better America has treated Jews from early on.

One reason might be that when we hold a grudge, it is often tangled up with our own deepest fears. Grant’s sin seemed to have been more egregious for the words that went astray than for the physical harm he caused – in particular, for stirring up the fear and anxiety of us American Jews that this haven of America might come to despise us or treat us as outsiders.

But it also raises the issue of whether a wrong done to us – whether by a public or private person – lasts longer in our own imagination than it should.  From all we know about the way that the brain works, this makes sense – our brains encode trauma so that we can avoid it in the future.  And we certainly have good reason to see anti-Semitism under every rock.  Maybe this is why Maimonides instructs us that we are required  to forgive those who have done teshuvah and sought a reconciliation.

In the Talmud, the rabbis debate how mercy is actually achieved on the High Holidays.  They use the image of a scale, with a person’s merits heaped on one side and the sins on the other.   Rabbi Eliezer then proposes that God leans on the merits side of the scale to make it heavier and the person more worthy of mercy in God’s eyes.  Is that a hint to us as well?  We do plenty of judging of other people all year long; but perhaps on the High Holidays our task is to remind ourselves how to judge others:  we should remember to consider the person as a whole, weighing the good deeds with the bad.    And then we should, ever so slightly, try to lean on the side of the good.