This past Saturday I donned a top hat to play Abraham Lincoln in Hollywood, Florida, in a special Sabbath program which was the brainchild of Rabbi Edward Davis. He is a history buff who augments his pastoral duties with little spontaneous forays into thespian staging of our past. No audition for the part of Honest Abe was required. As a six-foot-two conservative commentator with a small writer’s beard, I was elected.
>The weekend featured two public events. On Friday night there was a communal meal (215 people at a subsidized $20 a plate) featuring Civil War Era dishes, including a meat loaf seasoned with some heavenly combination of spices unlike anything common in today’s fare. After the entrée, there was a debate where Rabbi Davis spoke first, reciting a sermon delivered by a Rabbi Raphall of New York in 1861, arguing that slavery could not be deemed a sin according to the Bible.
Then it was my job, in character as Lincoln, to make the case against slavery. I began with some amusing self-introduction, which quickly won the crowd into my corner.
Coming back from the dead for this weekend is a real treat. Amazingly, I have been gone more than seven times twenty years, but who is keeping scores?
The Pony Express has been replaced by motor vehicles and yet the mail has not improved much. In fact, I am still getting letters delivered to my Gettysburg Address.
The man who fired the first shot for the North in the Civil War was Colonel Abner Doubleday, who also invented the game of baseball. What do the Civil War and baseball have in common? They are both dominated by those damn Yankees!
Then I shifted into the substantive portion of my presentation. Yes, it was true the Bible had made provision for slavery. Indeed this afforded a protection for the human being against the possibility of utter starvation for self and family. If a person found himself bereft of marketable skills and merchandise, beyond the reach of governmental, institutional and private charity, his ultimate resource was to offer his freedom for sale.
Yet in latter times that vehicle was proving too unwieldy. It was daunting to police such a system against abuse. I went into some length describing the difficulties Jews had encountered in India, trying to own slaves on the Biblical system. We find rabbinical letters, as early as the 16th century and as late as the 19th — criticizing their behavior towards the slaves and even towards freedmen who were being kept at arm’s length from society.
I noted that a “recent” book, Das Kapital by Karl Marx, while flawed in its prescriptions, offers an insightful theory to the effect that industrialization eliminates the need for slavery in world economies. Machinery will replace that layer of the least valuable brute labor. In a time of developing technology coupled with inadequate systems for protecting the slave from abuse, it is fair to denote slavery as a de facto sin.
THE SECOND PUBLIC EVENT took place on Saturday afternoon and involved a formidable challenge. I had to hold a 60-minute press conference in the persona of Abe Lincoln, fielding all and sundry questions for a crowd of about a hundred very knowledgeable people.
Some of the questions had been solicited in advance via e-mail, so I was able to prepare a bit, but most of it was done on the fly. Here are a few choice excerpts to the best of my recollection (no recording done on the Jewish Sabbath):
Q: Mister President, I heard that you once climbed out of the window in the Illinois Legislature to break quorum, but you later said you regretted it. What do you think of modern attempts to break quorum?
A: Let me address that globally, without reference to particular parties or issues. I think the idea of quorum is to protect members against having their voices silenced by their inability to be present. The moment a legislator is informed of the session and he refuses to attend, he should be deemed as exercising his democratic vote by abstaining. He should be considered present and he may be counted towards the quorum.
Q: Mister President, when Stephen Douglas said that slavery should be a personal choice you mocked the argument, and it was considered illegitimate in American political debate for many decades. Now this argument has been resurrected in favor of a woman’s right to abortion. Do you still dispute it in this new context?
A: There are two responses to this. One is technical and legalistic. The other is ethical and moralistic.
Legally, logically, there is a distinction because the slave has the rights of a human being. Thus the personal choice of the owner is nullified by the right of the person whose life he wishes to constrain. However, the law does not recognize the fetus yet as a person — rightly or wrongly — and thus the choice of the mother may be said to prevail.
Ethically, morally, I submit to you that one of the highest privileges and responsibilities of a woman is as custodian for the rights of her child. The child cannot protect itself, in the womb as well as for some years after birth, and it counts on the mother as its protector. This is a high calling of womanhood, one that breeds great nobility of soul.
Without trying to use this forum to argue for changes in law, I would appeal to the conscience of woman as custodian. If you had custody of an older person’s assets and you frittered away the money, people would be scandalized. Yes, the right of choice is yours, but you exercise it not only in your own interest but as custodian for the interest of another. You should respect your position as trustee to make no choice to the detriment of your charge.
Q: Mister President, how long did you have to sit for that pose on the copper penny?
A: Nah, I refused to pose for a penny. I only posed for the five-dollar bill, then I made the penny guy copy from that.
Q: Mister President, as founder of the Republican Party, what message would you send to today’s members?
A: This party was founded to vest liberty in the citizen and to curb the excesses of the state. But liberty is not license and ought never be squandered on the base and the crude. God allows man — and woman — to choose the noble, the sublime, even the holy. If we wish the state to relax its fetters on our liberty, we must be prepared to provide ourselves the moderation bred in conscience.