4 February 1683 Birth of Rabbi Judah Monis, First Instructor and Hebrew Grammarian at Harvard

monis book

Judah Monis (1683-1764), a Jewish scholar and educator, was an instructor of Hebrew at Harvard College between 1722 and 1760. Monis was instrumental in importing Hebrew type to the colonies, and in 1735, he published the first Hebrew textbook in America.

1735_Grammar_of_Hebrew_by_Judah_Monis

Monis was born on February 4, 1683, likely in Italy or the Barbary States. He was educated at Jewish academies in Leghorn, Italy and Amsterdam, Holland. Monis immigrated to New York City in the early 1700s, and later moved to Massachusetts where he petitioned the Harvard Corporation in 1720 to appoint him an instructor of Hebrew.

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On March 27, 1722, Monis converted to Christianity and was baptized in a public ceremony at Harvard.

A month later, on April 30, 1722, the Corporation appointed Monis an “instructor of the Hebrew Language.” In 1723, Monis received an AM from Harvard, becoming the first Jewish person to receive an advanced degree in the colonies. Beginning in the mid 1720s, Monis worked to secure funding to print a Hebrew grammar book he had compiled. Finally, in 1735, with the financial support of the Corporation, Monis published the first Hebrew textbook in America: Dickdook leshon gnebreet, A Grammar of the Hebrew tongue.

While administrators considered Hebrew an important part of the Harvard curriculum, the subject was unpopular among students and Monis struggled with his reputation as an ineffective teacher and disciplinarian. Monis taught at Harvard for almost forty years, but his teaching responsibilities waned over time. Monis had married Abigail Marret (d. 1760) in 1724, and in 1760, Monis retired from Harvard and went to live with his brother-in-law John Martyn, minister of the second parish in Westboro, Mass. Monis died on April 25, 1764.

judah monis grave

Inscription:
Here lies buried the remains of RABBI
JUDAH MONIS, MA, late HEBREW
instructor at HARVARD College in
Cambridge in which office he continued 40
years. He was by Birth and Religion a Jew but
embraced the Christian faith and was publicly
baptized at Cambridge, AD 1722 and
departed this life April 25, 1764 Aged
81 years 2 months and 21 days.

Monis is buried in a churchyard in Northboro, Massachusetts. Using the Christian image of a grafted tree for conversion, the inscription reads in part:

“A native branch of Jacob see. 
Which once from off its olive brook
Regrafted, from the living tree.”

So on March 27, 1722, Judah Monis (1683-1764) awoke as a Jew. That evening, he fell asleep as a Christian. Witnesses to his conversion in Cambridge, Massachusetts were swept up in the occasion, as it was touted by Puritan leaders as an incredible affair. After all, it was not often that a Jew was willing to convert to Puritanism, a religion whose very deinition included strict and disciplined observance of Christian law. A lesser known, but equally important, characteristic of this group was an intense yearning to create a land founded on the principles of the Old Testament, where Puritans sought salvation by living as New Israelites. yet this embrace of ancient biblical law proved problematic for these insular, religious leaders of Puritan society who struggled to create a closer connection with God through the Old Testament, but without the proper knowledge to do so. When he moved to Cambridge in 1720 to assume a position at Harvard as the instructor of Hebrew, Monis seemed to be the perfect answer to this conundrum. Monis, a Jewish immigrant with scholarly knowledge of the Old Testament and the Hebrew language, provided a vital opportunity for the Puritans to learn Hebrew and the Bible from an authentic source and his subsequent conversion to Christianity solved the Puritan hesitance and distrust of outsiders. The embrace and acceptance of Monis in the Puritan community highlights their profound desire to achieve a more pure, divine state in the Massachusetts colony. As a former Jew, Monis became the primary link between the original language of the Holy Scripture, along with the laws and customs of the Israelites, and the Puritans of New England. Understanding God through the Old Testament in its original state was such an important task that Puritans celebrated Monis’s Jewish background, rather than demeaning it. The Puritan desire to become closer to God created the opportunity for Monis to acculturate into an otherwise extremely isolated society. Although this acculturation was dependent on his conversion, Monis entered the Puritan community of Massachusetts at an optimal time; because of the obsession of Puritan elites to transform themselves into New Israelites, particularly through the study of the Old Testament in Hebrew and applying those laws and practices to their daily lives, there was a distinct need for a authentic Hebrew teacher who would be able to ensure that future generations could continue to embrace the principles and practices of Puritan Hebraism.

Benjamin Colman

Benjamin Colman

Judah Monis’s conversion, as highlighted through the discourse of Benjamin Colman, brought to light the values and priorities of, and the problems facing the Christian comunity of Cambridge. The role of Colman’s discourse was to not only deliver an oration on the necessity of the salvation of the Jews (meaning their conversion to Christianity), but also to attest to Monis’s morals and his willingness to act as a true Christian. On only the second page of his address, Colman put forth his hope that Monis “may minister unto the conversion of his Brethren; who were once the peculiar people of God and still beloved for the Father’s sake.”11 It is evident that Colman and other spiritual leaders hoped that Monis would be the catalyst in a more signiicant Jewish conversion, perhaps not unlike the mass conversion of Jewish children in Berlin, an event about which Cotton Mather wrote and spoke of often, and one that proved miraculous and wondrous in his eyes.12 Towards the end of his discourse, Colman again highlighted conversion of Jews as a necessary step on the path towards salvation.

On March 27, 1722 Monis was publicly baptized in the College Hall at Cambridge, at which time the Reverend Benjamin Colman delivered A Discourse… Before the Baptism of R. Judah Monis, to which were added Three Discourses, Written by Mr. Monis himself, The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nothing but the Truth. One of which was deliver’d by him at his Baptism (Boston, 1722). Monis’ essays are an apology and defense of his new faith, and in support of the doctrine of the Trinity drawn from “the Old Testament, and with the Authority of the Cabalistical Rabbies, Ancient and Modern.” Monis argues here for the divinity of Messiah, not only with the authority of the sacred oracles, but even by the opinion of the Jewish authors of old; and answers all the objections that the discourse brings forth out of Isai. 9. 6,7; concluding with a word of exhortation. These may be found on the web at

Monis’ Christian peers seem to have been sceptical of the sincerity of his faith, according to Hannah Adams; well they may have, as it certainly suited his career at the time to be a Christian. The fact that he also continued to observe the Shabbat (the seventh day) rather than the Sunday, rendered him suspect in their eyes.

However, Monis had been corresponding with leading Puritan ministers since his arrival in New York, on such subjects as the kabbalah, the trinity and Christian doctrine.  He studied the Bible with Cambridge ministers.  So his so-called “conversion of convenience” seems to have been the climax of years of study and thought.  De le Roi, the historian of Jewish missions in the 18th century, describes him as a thoroughly sincere and thoughtful man, and believed himself that Monis was a true believer. The Jewish community in Europe was outraged and dismayed at his acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and what they saw to be a foreign religion; but Monis insisted that he had become a Christian out of true conviction, and not for opportunism.

When Judah Monis entered the Church on the morning of his conversion in 1722, it is doubtful that he anticipated the long, fulfilling, and at times, tumultuous and challenging career that lay ahead of him at Harvard. Marked by oscillating interest and support from the university, Monis’s tenure at Harvard was not an easy one; however, he was able to leave a lasting impact in the form of his Grammar, the teaching of his students, and a tenacity and passion for the Hebrew language that has remained his legacy. The study of Judah Monis and his contributions to scholarship of the Hebrew language and Christian Hebraism highlights the role of Hebraic influence in colonial North America and traces the development of Hebrew as a cornerstone for classicism in higher education in New England and beyond. Monis is by no means a household name; however his trajectory is not uncommon among immigrants to this country – coming to the colonies to gain religious and professional freedoms, and making personal choices about his religion and his lifestyle that he believed would further his professional ambitions and allowed him to more easily assimilate into the majority culture of Puritan New England.

While he remains to this day an inherently Jewish figure, Monis blurred the lines between Christianity and Judaism and believed that Hebrew scholarship was beneficial to both groups. His passion lay in the study of Hebrew and he was determined to teach and codify the language to the best of his ability in order to ensure the passing of knowledge to future generations. Hebrew was an integral part of the system of higher education in the colonies that was ensured and enhanced by Monis’s works and his ability to promote them. While his impact might not be tangibly felt in the literature and scholarship of Hebrew today, he helped to sculpt Hebraic scholarship in the colonies, whose legacy continues to this day.

Prayer and Reflection: Such were the times that Monis lived in, the inequalities that prevented our people from entering into the fields of higher education, university life, academic teaching, and wider society, that it is little wonder that his ‘conversion from Jew to Christian’ was misunderstood, held suspect, and his motives impugned. Who are we to judge? You alone, O Lord, know the secrets of our hearts. Perhaps the blindness and error is more on the side of those who thought it incongruous for Jewish people to know their Messiah and remain Jews, as Monis appeared to do, keeping the Sabbath and other aspects of Jewish life and identity. Lord, please help us to walk in the integrity of character and faith that you desire in your Word, and help us to walk in the ways of Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah and Saviour of all nations. In his name we pray. Amen.

Sources:

Doria Charlson, Judah Monis and Puritan Hebraism

https://www.academia.edu/4027441/Judah_Monis_and_Puritan_Hebraism

http://www.ha-gefen.org.il/len/aalphabetic%20presentation/c13764/131781.php

http://archive.org/stream/jstor-527966/527966_djvu.txt

THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SEMITIC LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES Volume XIV. JULY 1898 Number 4 JUDAH MONIS, M.A., THE FIEST INSTRUCTOR IN HEBEEW AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY (168»-n64). By George Alexander Kohdt, Rabbi in Dallas, Texas.

Goldman, Shalom. God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew & the American Imaginations. UNC Press, 2004.

Karp, Abraham J., From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).

Monis, Judah, The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. Boston : Printed for Daniel Henchman, and sold at his shop, 1722.

Monis, Judah. Grammar of the holy tongue. [microform] : Proposals for printing by subscription, a Hebrew grammar … by … Judah Monis, M.A[.] teacher of the Hebrew tongue at Harvard College in Cambridge, New England. …

Colman, Benjamin A discourse had in the College-Hall at Cambridge, March 27. 1722. Before the baptism of R. Judah Monis. [microform] / By Benj. Colman, V.D.M. ; To which are added three discourses written by Mr. Monis himself, The truth, The whole truth, and, Nothing but the truth. One of which was deliver’d by him at his baptism. Boston : Printed [by Samuel Kneeland] for Daniel Henchman, and sold at his shop over against the Old Brick Church in Cornhill, 1722.

Kohut, George Alexander. Judah Monis, M.A., the First Instructor in Hebrew at Harvard University (1683-1764) in The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Jul., 1898) pp. 217-226. Published by: The University of Chicago Press; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/527966

Reiss, Oscar. The Jews in Colonial America. McFarland & Company, 2004.

Sarna, Jonathan D.; Smith, Ellen; Kosofsky, Scott-Martin. The Jews of Boston. Yale University Press, 2005.

Wilson, Marvin R. Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989.

http://www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44525182.pdf

The whole truth being a short essay, wherein the author discovers what may be the true reason why the Jewish nation are not as yet converted to Christianity, besides what others have said before him. And likewise, he proves the divinity of Christ, not only with the authority of the sacred oracles, but even by the opinion of the Jewish authors of old; and answers all the objections that the discourse brings forth out of Isai. 9. 6,7. Concluding with a word of exhortation. By R. Judah Monis

Inscription:
Here lies buried the remains of RABBI
JUDAH MONIS, MA, late HEBREW
instructor at HARVARD College in
Cambridge in which office he continued 40
years. He was by Birth and Religion a Jew but
embraced the Christian faith and was publicly
baptized at Cambridge, AD 1722 and
departed this life April 25, 1764 Aged
81 years 2 months and 21 days.

About richardsh

Messianic Jewish teacher in UK
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