By: Yisroel Ben-Porat  | 

What Jews Can Learn from the Puritans

I recently wrote a research paper on the Puritans, a group of Christians who sailed from England in 1630 and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As I conducted my research, I realized that the subject matter is fascinating to consider from a Jewish perspective, and I’d like to share my findings with you. Although many aspects of Puritanism are theologically unacceptable according to Judaism, the story of the Puritans has surprising relevance for Jews.

One significant common denominator between Puritans and Jews is the struggle with modernity. Puritanism, unlike other branches of Christianity, strongly emphasized the Old Testament. When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, they attempted to create a biblical society modeled after ancient Israel, with a legal system substantially based upon Mosaic Law. Historian Theodore Bozeman describes this phenomenon as the “primitivist dimension” of Puritanism - a desire to reject modernity and return to the original biblical culture. Similarly, Jews have constantly grappled with the challenges of modernity. Throughout history - in Canaan, Greece, Rome, Germany, and America - there has been a constant tension between Torah values and those of the majority culture. Jewish communities have often pondered a difficult dilemma: should we divorce ourselves from modern society, or should we harmonize the Torah with modern society?

R. Lichtenstein characterized this question as a binary of “confluence and conflict” - a dilemma that historically has prompted much debate. Even today, some Jewish communities pursue the latter option, whereas others follow the former. The Puritans’ efforts to create a pure society according to their worldview illustrates that the influence of modernity is not specifically a Jewish concern, but rather a phenomenon that faces other religions as well. The Puritans’ decision to escape modernity should cause us to question our own contemporary involvement in Western culture: why or why not, in what manner, and to what extent should we attempt to harmonize the Torah with Western literature, philosophy, and history? I do not aim here to provide an answer, but merely to spark personal introspection about this important issue.

There are other aspects of Puritan theology that should be of interest to Jews. Like Protestants, Puritans believed in sola scriptura, that scripture is the sole basis of all truth. This belief constitutes a rejection of Catholic papal hierarchies, ceremonies and traditions that have no basis in scripture. Sola scriptura also rejects the Catholic Church’s interpretive authority and instead advocates for understanding the biblical text on the simple, literal level. If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of a similar phenomenon in Jewish history: the medieval Karaim (Karaites), or the earlier Tzedukim (Sadducees) who rejected the Torah she-b’al peh (Oral Law) of traditional rabbis, often referred to as the Perushim (Pharisees).

I am not the first to draw such an analogy. In 1650, theologian John Dury argued that the Karaites and Pharisees “differ from one another… as Protestants do from Papists; for the Pharisees, as the Papists, attribute more to the authority and traditions of their rabbis and fathers than to the word of God; but the Karaites will receive nothing for a rule of faith and obedience but what is delivered from the word of God immediately.” Dury, himself sympathetic to Protestantism, elaborated on this contrast: “As their principles and affections are thus different, so are their opinions, and the course of their life extremely opposite; the Pharisees are full of superstitious imaginary foolish conceits, and talmudical questions and niceties in their sermons and books; [but] the Karaites are rational men that take up no doctrines but what the Scriptures teach.”

Yet Dury’s analogy, although it constitutes an attack on traditional Judaism, can actually serve to strengthen our belief in Torah she-b’al peh. The Puritans’ religious experiment in New England demonstrates the foolishness of following the literal understanding of the Bible in practical law. Firstly, the Bible is extremely ambiguous and is notoriously susceptible to varied interpretation, even within exegetical traditions. Without a Torah she-b’al peh, one can manipulate the text to reach any desired conclusion. Secondly, the Bible, when understood literally, is barbaric by modern standards - especially regarding corporal punishment - and would thus seem to be inapplicable to a modern society.

To illustrate the folly of sola scriptura, I will use the Puritans’ adultery legislation as an example. Although theoretically Puritan law, like the Bible, prescribed capital punishment for adultery, only once did the American Puritans ever execute people on that basis. Why only this once? Legal historian Carolyn Ramsey argues that the anomalous execution occurred because one of the adulterers was a religious dissident. Despite lacking testimony from more than one witness - which is required by biblical law - the judges conveniently decided that the adulterers’ confessions qualified as an equivalent thereof. It is clear that although, officially, Mosaic Law constituted the basis for capital laws, in reality, law followed the whims of the judges.

Tellingly, a few months following the execution, then-governor John Winthrop declared in his “Discourse on Arbitrary Government” that “judges are gods upon earth” and thus have the authority to exercise leniency “as occasion shall require.” Winthrop adduced biblical evidence for this notion: “David’s life was not taken away for his adultery… in respect of [public] interest and advantage, he was valued at 10,000 common men; Bathsheba was not put to death for her adultery, because the king’s desire had with her the force of a law.” In other words, Winthrop manipulated the biblical text to suit his political purposes, clearly revealing that the true locus of Puritan legal authority lay not in God’s hands, but in those of man.

Winthrop’s discourse contains another point noteworthy for Jewish readers. While marshalling support for his claim of judicial latitude, Winthrop demonstrated great respect and reverence for the avos (Patriarchs): “Adultery and incest deserved death, by the law, in Jacob’s time (as appears by Judah’s sentence, in the case of Tamar): yet Ruben was punished only with loss of his birthright, because he was a Patriarch.” Winthrop here refers to a passage in the Torah that, translated literally, states that Reuven committed incest with the concubine of his father Yaakov. Bothered by the apparent impropriety of Reuven’s actions and the lack of punishment thereof, Winthrop felt forced to conclude that the elevated status of the avos renders them above reproach. Granted, Winthrop’s exegetical logic contradicts the traditional Jewish view, which maintains that Reuven did not actually commit incest (and even if he did, status as a “Patriarch” would not constitute a valid excuse). Nevertheless, Winthrop’s reluctance to criticize the avos, and his efforts to downplay their mistakes, reflects an admirable attitude that has rich implications regarding our interpretations of biblical characters.

Recently, in some circles, it has become popular to analyze biblical characters - including the avos - as if they were regular people. This methodology is comfortable exposing apparent flaws in these characters. However, traditional Jewish interpretation views the avos and other righteous characters as extremely holy people who lived on a level much higher than we can imagine. According to the latter view, it is inconceivable that such people had flaws similar to our own, and it would be disrespectful and inappropriate to criticize them. I believe that Winthrop’s comment enables the following kal vachomer (a fortiori argument): if the Puritans, who believed in sola scriptura, nevertheless held the avos in extremely high esteem (despite seemingly incriminating verses), all the more so should we have a similarly humble perspective, for we are not bound to the literal interpretation, and we have an exegetical tradition that often eliminates or minimizes the avos’ mistakes.
I hope that I have demonstrated how a body of knowledge seemingly antithetical to Judaism can in fact contain much valuable information that enriches our perspectives. In this case, the Puritans can serve as a means of reflection upon our involvement in general culture, a source of inspiration for the validity and necessity of Torah she-b’al peh, and a rejoinder to embrace traditional interpretations of biblical characters.