Rabbi's Recommended Reading

The Abraham Lincoln We Tend to Forget: A Deeply Religious Man

We tend to fall into the natural habit of misunderstanding the past, because we automatically and mistakenly apply our present-day default assumptions to other eras.

Since the 1940’s, our understanding of the separation of Church and State has developed in the direction of getting the government out of the business of recommending public prayer. This development has, in some ways, been beneficial for American religious minorities, such as Jews. Most people who worship are conventional in their mode of expression. Christians are apt to pray in the name of Jesus, as their religion mandates. Since the majority tends to be insensitive about just how exclusive their prayer language can be, the result is a quandary for the Jew: where is the Jew to find his place as an American, if “American prayer” is offered in the name of Jesus?

But the secularization of our public square is not only a gain. The basic Jewish advice regarding prayer is, “when you stand in prayer, know before Whom you stand.” This is the motto written upon the curtain of our Holy Ark in Temple Israel, and it is repeated in almost every synagogue.

Among the ills facing America in our day is a coarseness and mean-spiritedness that threatens the basic institutions of civic discourse. I have to wonder if some of this degradation of our spirit is connected to our forgetting, on a massive scale, before Whom we must render account?

In that spirit, and in honor of the birthday of our 16^th President, Abraham Lincoln, I am offering for your recommended reading two of his presidential proclamations. In each, he asks the nation to dedicate time to repentance. Prayer and fasting are transparent to us today, but “humiliation” requires elucidation: “Humiliation” in the language of the 18^th and 19^th centuries meant that people should stop being slaves to their egos. Instead of being totally energized by winning the debate and destroying the person holding opposing views, Americans needed to “Get over themselves” and focus on becoming far better versions of the people to which they had allowed themselves to regress

On Lincoln’s birthday, perhaps we, as a nation, could take more of his message to heart—
Rabbi Michael Panitz

XVI President of the United States: 1861-1865

Proclamation 85—Proclaiming a Day of National Humiliation, Prayer, and Fasting
August 12, 1861

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation
Whereas a joint committee of both Houses of Congress has waited on the President of the United States and requested him to “recommend a day of public humiliation, prayer, and fasting to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnities and the offering of fervent supplications to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessings on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace;” and

Whereas it is fit and becoming in all people at all times to acknowledge and revere the supreme government of God, to bow in humble submission to His chastisements, to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and to pray with all fervency and contrition for the pardon of their past offenses and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action; and

Whereas when our own beloved country, once, by the blessing of God, united, prosperous, and happy, is now afflicted with faction and civil war, it is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals to humble ourselves before Him and to pray for His mercy–to pray that we may be spared further punishment, though most justly deserved; that our arms may be blessed and made effectual for the reestablishment of law, order, and peace throughout the wide extent of our country; and that the inestimable boon of civil and religious liberty, earned under His guidance and blessing by the labors and sufferings of our fathers, may be restored in all its original excellence:

Therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do appoint the last Thursday in September next as a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting for all the people of the nation. And I do earnestly recommend to all the people, and especially to all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations and to all heads of families, to observe and keep that day according to their several creeds and modes of worship in all humility and with all religious solemnity, to the end that the united prayer of the nation may ascend to the Throne of Grace and bring down plentiful blessings upon our country.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed, this 12th day of August, A.D. 1861, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-sixth.


By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State

President Lincoln repeated this gesture, a year and a half later:

Washington, D.C.
March 30, 1863
Senator James Harlan of Iowa, whose daughter later married President Lincoln’s son Robert, introduced this Resolution in the Senate on March 2, 1863. The Resolution asked President Lincoln to proclaim a national day of prayer and fasting. The Resolution was adopted on March 3, and signed by Lincoln on March 30, one month before the fast day was observed.
XVI President of the United States: 1861-1865

Proclamation 97—Appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer
March 30, 1863

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation
Whereas the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations, has by a resolution requested the President to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation; and

Whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord;

And, insomuch as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too
proud to pray to the God that made us.

It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do by this my proclamation designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do hereby request all the people to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite at
their several places of public worship and their respective homes in keeping the day holy to the Lord and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

All this being done in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace. In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 30th day of March, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-seventh.


By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State .

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