An Open Secret about the Pilgrims

For many American Jews, Thanksgiving is the one holiday that can be celebrated with Christian neighbors, but maybe this makes even more sense than we realize.

If you’ve ever searched for your car keys while they are in your hand, then you know that something doesn’t need to be hidden to go unnoticed. While we talk about Pilgrims around the Thanksgiving table, few of us actually understand who or what they were. This was a movement that lasted for well over a century. It intersected with Jewish rabbis and brought the study of Kabbalah and rabbinic texts to the new world. The keys have been in our hand all along, and somehow we have failed to notice.

In 1608, a group of young creatives left northern England for Amsterdam. They were part of what had become an underground Christian movement. The group first sought to restore the local church, but when clerical action was taken upon its membership, they chose to separate from the church entirely. The group was being watched; some were taken into custody, and others continued to meet in secret.

William Bradford, who would later become the governor of Plymouth Colony, was eighteen when he landed in Amsterdam. By the age of seven, he had lost both of his parents. When Bradford was twelve years old, he secretly went with a friend to listen to a radical preacher sporting a long white beard. The man insisted that moves taken by the Church of England to distance itself from the Catholic Church had not been enough. It was obvious that followers of Christ should not be bowing down to statues and kissing the rings of clergymen, but this man insisted that Christ had asked for more. The grassroots movement he attached himself to looked to the “Old Testament” for inspiration. [1]

It was in Amsterdam that Bradford and the rest of his young community came into contact with Jews for the first time. The Jewish people had already been expelled from England for 300 years by the time Bradford left that country.[2] In the Netherlands, religious freedom was a possibility for those wanting to separate from the church and for Sephardic Jews. [3] This including conversos who had been baptized but refused to give up Jewish tradition and continued to practice Jewish law. The group moved to an urban center called Leiden. Jews Bradford’s age were learning at the university in Leiden at that time.[4] Bradford became a producer of fabric and was working with Sephardic merchants who came in and out of Leiden’s large ship canals.[5]

By the time Bradford was thirty years old, he had become a leader in the community, which made plans to relocate to the New World. When the group landed in New England, they had already been living in the Netherlands for almost fifteen years. They came dressed in the clothing of Western European merchants. Our collective imagination of what the Puritans and separatists looked like is cartoonish and inaccurate. The separatists were indistinguishable in dress from the Spanish Jewish merchants to whom they sold goods, which sometimes included a humble black skullcap [6] and beard.

In New England the end of the workweek was not called Sunday but Sabbath as a matter of religious fidelity. After 3 pm the previous day, no work was to be done. On Sabbath, activities such as cooking, carrying a burden, hair cuts, and travel were not only forbidden but illegal. Old World Christians joked that the Creator’s request for one day a week wasn’t good enough for the separatists; they demanded a day and a half!

In reality those who had separated from the church looked to Jewish practice as a model for Sabbath observance.[7] The prohibitions they observed, which began in the afternoon before the Sabbath, sound eerily similar to the opening passages of the Jewish Mishnah in tractate Shabbat. New England separatists did not attend “church,” but rather went to the “meeting-house,” [8] which is simply an English translation of “synagogue.” Here they sat on benches to sing hymns, most of which had been penned by King David.

At the age of sixty, Bradford composed a book of Hebrew vocabulary and phrases. He imagined a time when Hebrew would become the language of the New World. Cotton Mather was a generation removed from Bradford, whom he referred to as “Holy Bradford.” [9] For Mather, Bradford was a sage of the previous generation. Cotton Mather continued in the leadership of the movement along with others and casually quoted talmudic passages throughout his journal entries. He rose early in the morning for prayer and spent many hours in his study, which contained some 3,000 books. He would often fast and admired the practice of Jewish sages. He wrote in one entry,

The Jews report of R’ Zadok, that he did so mortify himself with fastings that he was commonly called חלשא Chalsha, that is The Weak![10]

After the composition of a new Catechism, Cotton Mather wrote, “I prefaced the Catechism, with an address unto the Jewish Nation, telling them in some lively terms that if they would return to the faith of the Old Testament and believe with their own ancient and blessed patriarchs, this was all that we desired of them or for them.” [11] The separatists are sometimes accused of replacement theology. This is incorrect. Increase Mather, the father of Cotton Mather, wrote,

The Jews who have been trampled upon by all Nations shall shortly become the most glorious Nation in the whole world, and all other Nations shall have them in great esteem and honor. [12]

Seventy years after Bradford wrote his book of Hebrew vocabulary. Rabbi Judah Monis became an instructor of Hebrew at Harvard, which, at that time, was a school of theology. Rabbi Judah was born into a Sephardic converso family who took baptism and continued in Jewish practice like some of those who had escaped to the Netherlands. He had been born in Algiers but received a rabbinic education in Italy. The rabbi led services in the synagogues of Jamaica and finally relocated to New England.[13] Finding it difficult to believe that the rabbi supported the teachings of Jesus, the staff at Harvard asked Judah Monis to make a declaration of faith with a private immersion that he would later have to repeat publicly. Some at the university remained skeptical of a rabbi who espoused the teachings of Jesus and quietly continued to observe Shabbat according to Jewish law.

For the New England separatists, the event was a sign that they had been fully justified in their separation from the church. They believed that Jews and Christians would come to meet someplace between the two traditions before a great war against “the Turks and the Catholic Church.” [14] This, of course, would culminate in the coming of King Messiah, who would rule from Jerusalem. The addition of Rabbi Judah Monis was surely a sign of great things to come.

Puritan minister Ezra Stiles was both the President of Yale University and a student of Rabbi Judah Monis, who was one of two rabbis the minister was in communication with regarding his learning of the Zohar and his kabbalistic formulations of Christian faith.[15]

American history is complicated, and so were the religious identities of its colonists. The tombstone of Rabbi Judah Monis describes his religion as that of a Jew and his faith as that of a Christian.[16] The tombstone of William Bradford describes him as Puritan just below a Hebrew engraving, which reads, “HaShem is the help of my life.” The governments and institutions created by Pilgrims and Puritans remain intact. We speak of the Pilgrims each year at Thanksgiving, and somehow we’ve forgotten to communicate who they were.

  6. Gerald R. McDermott, Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths “Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods” (London England: Oxford University Press, 2000), footnote on p.155.
  9. 30.
  10. Ibid., 182.
  11. Ibid., 298.
  12. 22.
  14. 22.

First Fruits of Zion