Dear Temple Emanu-El Members and Friends,
A number of years ago the Reform movement developed a Religious School curriculum called “To See the World Through Jewish Eyes.” The title summarized the goal of the program: to imbue students with Jewish values, history, culture and philosophy so that their Jewishness was the lens through which they experienced life. I’ve often thought of that phrase, “to see the world through Jewish eyes,” as a way of thinking about how I understand important events and milestones to be sacred moments even if, like a child leaving for college or gathering with my family at the Thanksgiving table, they aren’t specifically Jewish.
The 4th of July is such an occasion for me, a time when my identity as an Ameri-can and as a Jew come together. There are several reasons for this. One is because of the extraordinary history of Jews in America. The United States was the first country to grant citizenship to Jews without qualification. In fact, discussions of whether there should be a religious test focused on Catholics and Quakers, not Jews. As a result of their full enfranchisement, America was also the first place that Jews were able to use the legal system to address injustices done to them.
Another reason why the 4th of July connects to Jewishness for me has to do with its foundational text, the Declaration of Independence. The country’s founders found inspiration in the Hebrew Bible’s call for freedom and its insistence on the fundamental equality of all human beings. The statement that “all men [sic] are created equal” is a reformulation of the text in Genesis that tells us that human beings were created in the image of God. Similarly the injunction found on the Liberty Bell to “proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” is a direct quotation from Leviticus 25:10.
Just as biblical traditions influenced America’s founders, American values have had an impact on Judaism. The Declaration’s assertion that governments [derive] “their just powers from the consent of the governed” is not a traditional Jewish belief but certainly one that has become part of contemporary Jewish values. Democratic structures existed to some extent in historical Jewish communities but were mainly limited to an elite group of men and male and female Jews had different legal rights in rabbinical courts. Few American Jews would now consider those ethical practices.
Like the Torah, the Declaration of Independence is an aspirational, not descriptive, document. At the time it was written, chattel slavery denied the equality of “all men,” women were not enfranchised and the Declaration itself refers to “Indian Savag-es.” But, like the Torah, it seeks a vision of what we hope can be and what we commit ourselves to strive for.
This 4th of July I encourage you to read this sacred American text through Jew-ish eyes. Especially in these times when there is so much disagreement about what our American values mean, it is important for each of us to reflect on why our country was founded and our responsibility is to create a society “with liberty and justice for all.”
Rabbi Drorah Setel