The Hebrew Bible In The United States: A Sourcebook
A Review by Michele Justic
Produced by Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought; edited by Meir Soloveichik, Matthew Holbreich, Meir Holbreich, Jonathan Silver, and Stuart Halpern; and printed by Toby Press LLC, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land” is a comprehensive sourcebook for the relationship between Jewish thought and the foundations of the American political system.
The complex debate relating to freedom of and freedom from religion has persisted since the country’s inception yet reading through these diaries and historical anecdotes, the history of the United States as a “New Jerusalem” comes into focus. The book begins with a Judeo-Christian angle, starting with the Puritans and the Mayflower Compact and New Haven Legal Code. The editors establish a premise that while the current populace may indulge in an average of four hours of television per day, the citizenry in the colonies spent the majority of their non-farming hours listening to religious sermons.
The Founding Fathers of Revolutionary America seemingly studied the Old Testament and carried over those principles for their own lifestyles and in forming the government. Benjamin Franklin advocated for a prayer at the Constitutional Convention. John Adams debated the morality of the Jewish people with Thomas Jefferson — spoiler alert: John Adams understood the moral core of Judaism while Thomas Jefferson was misled by an abridged reading of the canon.
The most heralded champion for the Jewish people at that time was George Washington. In his remarkable communication to the Touro synagogue in Newport, he notes, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” In Washington’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, he recommends, “to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
The strong adherence to religion eventually led to the birth of the homegrown Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Throughout the slavery debate, the Jewish slave experience served as both a model and goal for the African slaves while unfortunately the strict textual readings permitting servitude were misread by some as condoning modern slavery. Both instances are cited as further proof of how strong a role the Jewish belief system and culture played in American history.
Abraham Lincoln, a devoted Christian who thoroughly knew his Bible, tried to resolve the dispute with his iconic words, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Gettysburg Address (1863)
Finally, the book concludes with the Judeo-Christian influence on the Civil Rights Movement, led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and symbolized by the “I Have A Dream” speech.
While I would have preferred to skip through some of the preachers’ sermons, most of the sources shed a new light on the role of Jewish thought in our country’s establishment.