When I was almost 14, I first saw Washington D.C. as part of a trip that I won for an essay about what America meant to me. This past weekend, I returned to D.C., this time with Brandon. We were tourists to the nth degree, guided by Miles. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the National Archives, the memorials along the Potomac River, the National Zoo, and – the highlight – the White House were all on our itinerary.
Two parts of this trip stood out for me: seeing the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights at the National Archives; and reading the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. As we pray together tonight, during the festival of Sukkot, I cannot help but be grateful to live in America. Our history is one of which I am proud – let me tell you why.
First, a bit of Jewish background. Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals described in Torah. In the liturgy, it is referred to as “zman simchateinu – the season of our joy.” However, its origin has connections to Passover – the sukkah is a replication of the temporary shelter our ancestors needed as they travelled from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Book of Leviticus (23:42–43) portrays God as commanding: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days…that your generations may know that I made the Children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” Freedom from Egyptian slavery is the master story of our people.
Torah is, of course, our master text. While Reform Jews may not observe all of the mitzvot therein – or those which were developed by subsequent generations – still we acknowledge that Torah is the source of the values which are fundamental to the Jewish people. Reading Torah, we are consistently reminded that we are God’s partners in the world. Studying Torah, we realize that our lives in 2016 are not so different from those of our ancestors. While we have many more conveniences, the basic needs of human beings – food, shelter, safety – have not changed since the beginning of time.
The Founding Fathers may not have been Jews, but they did know our Torah – though they called it “The Five Books of Moses.” They drew inspiration from it as they created the fundamental documents of our society: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The preamble to the Declaration reads:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Constitution, while not invoking a divine presence does suggest the existence of one:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The phrase, “Blessings of Liberty” reflects belief in a deity – from whom else would blessings come, if not God. And, of course, the Bill of Rights, guarantees that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .
These documents are evidence that we do not live in a godless country. But neither do we live in a Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Wiccan, Hindu – well, you get the idea – country.
For Jews, the Torah is our fundamental text. For the American people, it is the Constitution and its amendments AND the laws which have developed from that document. As I listened to the debate between Mr. Drumpf and Secretary Clinton on Wednesday, it was clear that our American society has more connection to Jewish tradition than most people might care to admit. Chris Wallace’s first question puts that into evidence, he said:
First of all, where do you want to see the court take the country? And secondly, what’s your view on how the constitution should be interpreted? Do the founders’ words mean what they say or is it a living document to be applied flexibly, according to changing circumstances?
For us as Jews, the same question can be asked: “Do the Torah’s words mean what they say or is it a living document to be applied flexibly, according to changing circumstances.”
The rabbis of old took the latter stance when they identified two streams of Torah: Torah shebictav v’Torah sheb’al peh – written Torah and oral Torah. Millennia ago, they realized – though they may not have articulated it in this way – that written Torah reflected the situation of the people at the time it was written down. When the concept of oral Torah was created, the teachers and judges of the time were in the midst of the occupation of their land by Roman rulers. While the Jewish people had survived exile in Babylonia and governance by Syrian Greek rulers, they realized that the Roman civilization might be the end of Judaism as they knew it.
These non-priestly leaders were correct. With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Judaism needed to be reshaped in order for it to survive. Thus the moving away from a sacrificial system of worship to a totally verbal liturgy; thus the adaptation of mitzvot to enable Jews to be Jews in their new circumstances. Torah became a living document to be applied flexibly according to changing circumstances.
When I was learning about the Constitution as a teen, the terminology was “strict constructionist” vs. “loose constructionist.” There is no doubt in my mind that those terms parallel what we see today in Judaism: the fundamentalist branches of Judaism are the “strict constructionists” while the liberal branches are “loose constructionists.” Though oral Torah started out as a way to reflect changing circumstances, it became stuck in time so that more recent interpretations are firmly rooted in the concept of “putting a fence” around Torah – ensuring that there would be no possible violation of the law.
In 1947, a lyricist by the name of Hy Zaret wrote what he called “A Little Song on Americanism.” This was almost a decade before his most famous lyrics – Unchained Melody – were penned. The text of “What Makes a Good American” reads:
What makes a good American – what do you have to be?
Am I a good American? Let’s take a look and see.
I like Democracy. I’m for Equality. I say, “be neighborly.”
Do I practice what I preach?
I don’t care where you’re from. I go by what you are.
I stand up for my rights. But do I stand up for yours?
What makes a good American – what do you have to do?
Am I a good American? And, by the way, are you?
This song is one of a collection that was in my office when I first arrived at IHC. The collection was distributed by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith. It is one of many songs which kids learned during the late 40s through the early 60s that helped us develop pride in what it means to be an American and live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Hy Zaret was Jewish. As a member of the tribe, he knew how important the concept of freedom was and how fortunate he was to live in America. I believe he also knew our master story – the Exodus from Egypt. The story of America and the story of the Jewish people are inextricably interwoven in many ways. Not the least of these are the values we cherish as set forth in both the Constitution and the Torah.
As we move closer to the election, each of us has a responsibility to evaluate the candidates based on how we have learned they will continue to work for our rights and protect our freedoms. This is not easy in a campaign where the basic strategy has been to smear one’s opponent. Whatever happened to the party platform and to affirming how, as leaders, a candidate will strive to promote and legislate its planks?
It is my sincere hope that each of us will take our right to vote as a serious responsibility – as an extension of our Jewish values. It is also my sincere hope that our country will soon be able to fulfill the words which Mr. Lincoln spoke in his Second Inaugural Address, for they apply today as much as they did in 1864:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (Psalm 19:9)
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Truer words have never been spoken.