According to Benjamin Franklin’s letters, he took the inspiration for two of his parables “from an ancient Jewish tradition”.
One of these parables – commonly referred to as the Parable against Persecution, or Abraham and the Stranger – is a story about the biblical patriarch Abraham, told in King James Version language, which expounds the obligation of religious tolerance.
Although Franklin did not mention the second parable by name, this has long been thought to be his Parable on Brotherly Love, and in 1947 Rabbi Max Gruenewald demonstrated how it draws on rabbinic source materials.
Franklin (January 17, 1706–April 17, 1790) composed the Parable against Persecution no later than 1755 and brought it with him from the American colonies to England. Exceedingly fond of hoaxes, he memorised the parable and would “read” it aloud from the Book of Genesis, thus “proving” the scriptural importance of religious tolerance to his listeners.
Below is the version of Franklin’s parable offered at Founders Online, a National Archives website providing fully annotated documents from the Founding Fathers Papers projects:
1. And it came to pass after these Things, that Abraham sat in the Door of his Tent, about the going down of the Sun.
2. And behold a Man, bowed with Age, came from the Way of the Wilderness, leaning on a Staff.
3. And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, Turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy Feet, and tarry all Night, and thou shalt arise early on the Morrow, and go on thy Way.
4. And the Man said, Nay, for I will abide under this Tree.
5. But Abraham pressed him greatly; so he turned, and they went into the Tent; and Abraham baked unleavend Bread, and they did eat.
6. And when Abraham saw that the Man blessed not God, he said unto him, Wherefore dost thou not worship the most high God, Creator of Heaven and Earth?
7. And the Man answered and said, I do not worship the God thou speakest of; neither do I call upon his Name; for I have made to myself a God, which abideth alway in mine House, and provideth me with all Things.
8. And Abraham’s Zeal was kindled against the Man; and he arose, and fell upon him, and drove him forth with Blows into the Wilderness.
9. And at Midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, Abraham, where is the Stranger?
10. And Abraham answered and said, Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy Name; therefore have I driven him out from before my Face into the Wilderness.
11. And God said, Have I born with him these hundred ninety and eight Years, and nourished him, and cloathed him, notwithstanding his Rebellion against me, and couldst not thou, that art thyself a Sinner, bear with him one Night?
12. And Abraham said, Let not the Anger of my Lord wax hot against his Servant. Lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray Thee:
13. And Abraham arose and went forth into the Wilderness, and sought diligently for the Man, and found him, and returned with him to his Tent; and when he had entreated him kindly, he sent him away on the Morrow with Gifts.
14. And God spake again unto Abraham, saying, For this thy Sin shall thy Seed be afflicted four Hundred Years in a strange Land:
15. But for thy Repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with Power, and with Gladness of Heart, and with much Substance.
Not only is the Parable against Persecution not found in Genesis, it may not actually be based on “an ancient Jewish tradition” either, for the parable as a whole has no known rabbinic source.
Rather, researchers have concluded that the story reached Franklin by way of the writings of Jeremy Taylor (1657); Taylor, in turn, copied it from George Gentius (1651); Gentius, for his part, attributed it to the “illustrious author Sadus”, the medieval Muslim Persian poet Sa’di (1257); Sa’di began his version with: “I have heard that once…”; and so the trail ends with Sa’di.
Though Franklin’s parable does have biblical and rabbinic elements (Rabbi Arthur Chiel, in a 1976 article, has documented some of the Jewish aspects of Franklin’s text) – such as Abraham’s tremendous concern with hospitality in both biblical and rabbinic writings; Abraham’s insistence, in rabbinic texts, that his guests bless God after eating; Abraham’s violent opposition, in rabbinic texts, to idolatry; and the element of God’s instruction on forbearance to a prophet vexed by human infidelity, as is found in the Book of Jonah – no Jewish source has yet been discovered containing the key section of the parable in which Abraham learns the lesson of religious tolerance.
The late Franklin scholar Leo Lemay averred that Franklin knew that the source of his parable was the poet Sa’di and that this was Franklin’s underlying ironic joke: his Christian audience “generally assumed it was a Christian document” with a good Christian moral, and was unaware that the parable derived from a semi-sacred Muslim text.
However, it is not apparent that Franklin was conscious of the story’s Persian derivation, and Lemay offered no support for his position.
Although there is no identifiable Jewish foundation for the part of the parable dealing specifically with religious tolerance, there is no reason to suppose that Franklin (following Taylor, who had inaccurately described it as “a Story which I find in the Jews Books”) did not believe the parable was based on an ancient Jewish tradition.
When it was found that less-ancient writers had also told this parable, Franklin was accused of plagiarism. Defending himself in the postscript of a letter, dated 2 November 1789, to Benjamin Vaughan, Franklin wrote: “The truth is, as I think you observe, that I never published that Chapter, and never claimed more credit from it, than what related to the style, and the addition of the concluding threatening and promise.”
He also insisted that “on account of the importance of its moral”, the parable was “well worth being made known to all mankind”.
Franklin’s use of the parable exemplifies much more than just his penchant for hoaxes. He saw a positive societal role for faith and worship, and in his autobiography, he professed an interest in projects “serviceable to People in all Religions”. In both word and deed, he was generally an advocate for religious tolerance and inclusiveness.
In 1788, when the members of Congregation Mikveh Israel – the oldest formal Jewish congregation in Philadelphia – were overburdened with debt incurred from constructing their synagogue, they turned to their neighbours, “worthy fellow Citizens of every religious Denomination”, for assistance. Among those stepping forward to help was Franklin, who, in a move very much in line with his attitude toward religion, assisted in alleviating the synagogue’s debt and ensuring a continued Jewish presence in Philadelphia with a donation of five pounds. Edwin Wolf and Maxwell Whiteman, in their The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson (1957), note that the amount of money contributed by Franklin and other non-Jews “was not – it is true – very large, but it heartened the Jews of Philadelphia”.
Fittingly, when Franklin passed away two years later, at age eighty-four, his funeral procession in Philadelphia, as reported in the newspapers, was led by “All the Clergy of the city, including the Ministers of the Hebrew congregation”.
An adaptation of Franklin’s Parable against Persecution entered Jewish literature in 1844, with the posthumous publication of a Hebrew translation done by Rabbi Nachman Hacohen Krochmal (which George Alexander Kohut republished in 1902). Krochmal’s “Moral Parable” lacked any reference to Franklin, and he modified Franklin’s final two verses, omitting mention of affliction in “a strange Land” (Egypt) as well as the triumphant exodus that would follow.
Yosef Klausner, in a 1929 Hebrew essay, reasoned that Krochmal modified the parable because he “apparently did not want to mention the Egyptian exile so as not to also mention the exodus from Egypt ‘with Power’ (by means of ‘ten plagues’), and particularly – ‘with much Substance’…”
Klausner ended this explanation elliptically, without a suggestion for why Krochmal would have wanted to obscure the violent and plunderous manner in which the Israelites finally obtained their long-withheld freedom, as described by the Hebrew Bible and echoed in Franklin’s parable. Was Klausner implying that the way the Israelites’ Egyptian oppressors were dealt with runs counter to the parable’s moral message of religious tolerance or appears avaricious?
Perhaps a simpler explanation for Krochmal’s alteration is that those two verses added by Franklin to the parable (they are not found in Sa’di’s story) overtly contradict Jewish beliefs about why the Israelites were enslaved and about why they later departed Egypt with great wealth.
The verses are unsupported by Jewish tradition, and so, instead, Krochmal’s Hebrew translation concludes with God promising Abraham that due to his devotion, the covenant with his future descendants will be remembered: “But I will not breach my covenant with them, and will return them to their land; they will be my nation and I will be their God for eternity.”
Article by: Shai Afsai
Shai Afsai lives in Providence, USA. In 2018, he was awarded a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities to further his research on Benjamin Franklin’s religious legacy. His “Benjamin Franklin and Judaism” appears in Journal of the American Revolution, Annual Volume 2018. His “Benjamin Franklin’s Influence on Mussar Thought and Practice: A Chronicle of Misapprehension” appears in Review of Rabbinic Judaism 22 (2019).
Feature Image Credit: Portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Ebook: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm
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