S.F. prof says Jewish texts inspired Ben Franklin, other U.S. thinkers

Since the inception of the United States, Jews from Moses Mendelssohn to Sigmund Freud to common-sense columnists like Abigail Van Buren have had a profound effect on American thought and ethics.

So writes Andrew R. Heinze, author of “Jews and the American Soul” and director of the Swig Jewish studies program at University of San Francisco. He will be speaking at 1:50 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7, at The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St.

In his book, Heinz discusses the intersection of intellectual and popular culture. Jewish thinking, he shows, has been congruent with that of American philosophers and poets since the birth of the nation.

For instance, Benjamin Franklin and his “chart of virtues” was adapted by Menachem Mendel Lefin, an Enlightenment thinker from Podolia, a region formerly in southeastern Poland and now Ukraine.

“A disciple of Moses Mendelssohn, Lefin wanted to preserve traditional Judaism while introducing Jewish readers to modern scientific and general literature,” Heinze writes.

Lefin’s adaptation of Franklin was so successful that Polish Jews during the 1800s called Franklin “The Mussar [Jewish ethical movement] Sage of Philadelphia.”

The huge immigration of Jews to the United States from 1880 to 1924 was more than a physical migration. Jewish thinkers also crossed the Atlantic intellectually. Sigmund Freud — through his lectures in the United States, translations of his writing, and former disciples like Alfred Adler — had an incalculable influence on popularizing psychology in America.

And the Jewish contribution to American thought was profound: Freud and Adler; the great cultural anthropologist Franz Boas in the early part of the 20th century; and following World War II, thinkers including Martin Buber, Harold Kushner and Elie Wiesel.

Jewish thinkers were revolutionary in their arguments: human beings need not be defined or imprisoned by their childhood or religion or race; culture affects human behavior; and prejudice and pain can be understood, and, in many cases, overcome.

Boas is a case in point, Heinze explains: “As early as 1904, [Boas] questioned America’s cherished belief in the biological inferiority of African Americans, and, in a powerful article in ‘The American People’ he pierced the myth of a ‘pure’ European or an American race that would degenerate from intermixture with immigrants and blacks.”

Likewise, Rabbi Joshua Liebman became a best-selling American author during World War II. Liebman preached the rabbinical concept that “to save a single life is to save the world.” This resonated with American readers during a time when nearly half of a million Americans lost their lives fighting the Nazis and the Japanese Empire.

Heinze draws a link between Liebman and Emily Dickinson, whose powerful poetry from the 19th century became popular during World War II. Liebman quoted rabbinical sources, but his sermons also resonated with American texts. “If I can stop one heart from breaking/ I shall not live in vain,” Dickinson wrote.

In his exploration of the 1950s, Heinze applauds not only Jewish intellectuals, but also popular advice columnists such as Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren and Joyce Brothers, who Heinze writes, delivered an essential Jewish message that dovetailed with American idealism.

Brothers’ response to one letter writer: “Millions of people are ill-fed and ill-housed and others are persecuted because of their race or color or religion — and you have been working yourself into a rage because a bureau drawer refuses to budge.”

Today Jewish and non-Jewish Americans have embraced Elie Wiesel’s message, which Heinze says is one of inclusion — for those trying to keep faith in the world after the Holocaust, a world of continuing mass murder and genocide. Through his understanding of “psychic damage” and his belief in “restoration,” Wiesel has given hope to countless American Jews and Christians.

Jewish thinkers have not always been aliens in the United States. Heinze writes that “we conclude in the awareness that the story of American ideas about the mind and the soul is one in which Jews have been central actors rather than exotic peripheral characters.”

With this book, Heinze himself makes an invaluable contribution to Jewish and American thought.

“Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century” by Andrew R. Heinze (376 pages, Princeton University Press, $29.95).