Judah Benjamin update: not exactly Jewish

The Confederate Secretary of State was born a Jew and died a Jew, but during his political career he was a Roman Catholic.

Two and a half years ago, I had some unflattering things to say about U.S. Senator and Confederate cabinet officer Judah P. Benjamin. Today, out of the blue, I got a huffy response from one of his great-great nephews, denouncing the essay as “absolute dribble” (sic) on the grounds that it paid too much attention to “one minuscule aspect” (a witticism borrowed from Disraeli) “of an otherwise brilliant career.”

The original essay raised the question of how Benjamin reconciled his pro-slavery views with his religion:

How could a slaveowner and a defender of slavery preside at a Seder table and read the answer to the Four Questions, which starts Avodim hayyinu: “We were slaves”?

According to Sen. Benjamin’s descendant, the answer to that question is that Sen. Benjamin didn’t have to:

Our family history indicates that Benjamin converted to the Roman Catholic faith early in his political career, and renounced it shortly before his death, dying as a Jew, in Paris.

So Eugene Volokh’s description of Benjamin as “the first unambiguously Jewish Senator in U.S. history” turns out not to be correct. Benjamin’s apostasy (and that of David Levy Yulee) may be of some slight comfort to those who take pride in their Jewish heritage: these two defenders of the indefensible did so as practicing Christians, not as Jews.

On the other hand, Benjamin’s deathbed conversion is the opposite of the wisdom displayed by the old, pious Jew of legend who, on his deathbed, asked for a priest to convert him to Catholicism. His son, shocked, asked the old man why he would want to do such a thing, to which his father replied, “Better one of them should die.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com