To hear Ted Cruz, Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee, Mike Pence, and many others on the Christian right, America has lost its way.
America was founded on Christian values, they say, and it must return to its Christian roots.
The Founding Fathers were Christians, but they founded America in very large part on Jewish values, not Christian ones.
The Christianizers often use the phrase “Judeo-Christian values” to disguise what they really want, but there is no such thing and never was. Christianity for the most part believes in faith over deeds. Salvation can only be achieved through faith, not deeds. The apostle Paul makes this point several times in the Christian Bible — in Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8-9, and Philippians 3:9.
Judaism, on the other hand, emphasizes deeds over faith. Christianity, of course, advocates for righteous behavior, just as Judaism does, but it gives primacy to faith, and that precludes any claim to the existence of Judeo-Christian values.
Our Bible, the Tanach, starting with the Torah, influenced America from the moment the pilgrims arrived here. As the historian Hartley Burr Alexander noted in a 1919 lecture, it “formed their minds and dominated their characters; its conceptions were their conceptions.” (See the Menorah Journal, Vol. 6, April 1920, pages 65-66.)
The images that the Puritan leaders evoked in their letters, speeches, and proclamations were our images. Thus, William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, proclaimed the First Thanksgiving in 1621 based on Deuteronomy 16:13-14, which refers to our festival of thanksgiving, Sukkot. In proclaiming that First Thanksgiving, he paraphrased the First Fruits declaration on Shavuot found in Deuteronomy 26.
It was common for the Puritans to turn to “the Hebrew Bible” for advice and guidance. Many of them even were able to turn to it in the original Hebrew. This explains why the preface to Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation,” for example, included 25 biblical passages written in his own hand in Hebrew block letters, together with an English translation. He later provided his readers with a Hebrew-English vocabulary of several hundred words.
It is also why the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, when he wrote his history of the Puritans in America, referred to their leaders as “our chasidim rishonim” (our first righteous men) who ruled “b’ahavah v’yirah” (with love and reverence for God). He used the Hebrew, and he did not translate it. He assumed his readers knew Hebrew.
Here is how the cultural historian Gabriel Sivan explained this proclivity in his “The Bible and Civilization” (see page 236):
“No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did [these] early settlers….[They] believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the Biblical drama of the Hebrew nation. They themselves were the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs; the American Indians the Canaanites…; the pact of the Plymouth Rock was God’s holy Covenant; and the ordinances by which they lived were the Divine Law….[They] saw themselves as…a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai.”
This perception continued to grow in America for more than a century and a half.
The United States does not have an official language, but it almost did. Members of the Continental Congress considered several languages other than English for America before deciding to drop the matter. The languages they considered were French, Greek, German — and Hebrew.
At least several of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were fluent in Hebrew, including Maryland’s Samuel Chase, whose father once taught Hebrew at Eton back in merry old England.
When Virginia-born James Madison, our fourth president and the “father of the Constitution,” graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), he stayed on for an extra year just to study Hebrew and philosophy. According to the late journalist and author Herman J. Obermayer, Madison actually delivered his commencement address in 1771 in fluent Hebrew. (See Obermayer’s letter in “Hebrew in America,” Commentary, October 1993.)
Hebrew language and its use were important in early America from Plymouth Rock to Independence Hall. As Obermayer noted, “The first Hebrew book printed in America was written in 1735 … for classes taught at Harvard. Hebrew is prominently displayed in the seals of Dartmouth and Yale (Dartmouth dropped it because the word Shaddai appeared to be spelled Sharai)…. The erudite Protestant clerics who headed America’s colonial colleges … were Hebraists…. The first Hebrew grammar written especially for Dartmouth undergraduates (1802) was created ‘to facilitate the study of the Scriptures in the original….’”
Studying the Tanach in Hebrew was considered essential in early America because the Tanach itself — especially its first five books, meaning the Torah — was considered essential to creating a just and equitable society
As I have often quoted in this space, the Mormon legal scholar Dr. John Woodland Welch once wrote in the Brigham Young University Law Review that our bible “was nothing short of the underlying fabric upon which American society was founded.” He added that the “utilization of biblical law was not a passing fancy in colonial America.”
So it was that the “Capitall Lawes of New England,” adopted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641, was based almost entirely on Torah law, albeit with a talmudic spin. (Seven of its 15 laws were actually the so-called Seven laws of Noah, which is a talmudic concept, not a biblical one.)
In 1655, the New Haven colony’s legislators declared that “the judicial laws of God, as they were delivered by Moses, and as they are a fence to the moral law…[shall] generally bind all offenders, till they be branched out into particulars hereafter.” (“Fence to the law” is also a talmudic reference, not a biblical one. Clearly, studying Talmud also was deemed essential to some early lawmakers.) Nearly half of the statutes in the New Haven Code of 1655 (38 out of 79) originated in Torah law, whereas only three percent came from the Christian Bible.
Democracy is a word of Greek origin, but it is a concept that flowed downward from Mount Sinai, not Mount Olympus. The “republican democracy” that is the Jewish state the Torah envisioned is divided into three branches — or three “crowns,” as Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of the Fathers) puts it. These are priesthood, kingship, and Torah. Priesthood is locked in (Aaron’s house “owns” the priesthood) and David’s line claims the throne (although the people are supposed to decide which Davidite should be king, as we will see below), but “anyone who wishes to take on [the crown of Torah] may do so,” said our Sages.
This is separation of powers, and it is not meant to be theoretical. It allowed the Prophet Nathan, for example, literally to keep his head when he confronted King David over his affair with Bathsheba, and his complicity in the death of her husband Uriah the Hittite. (See 2 Samuel 12.) Sadly, later kings ignored this separation. The prophet Uriah ben Shemaiah was executed for his prophecies on the orders of King Jehoiakim. (See Jeremiah 26:20-23.)
“King,” however, is an aberration in Israel. God alone is our sovereign. The Torah, though, recognized that Israel might want an earthly king because everyone else had one. But that king originally was meant to be elected. (See Deuteronomy 17:15 and 1 Kings 12.)
There is no divine right of kings here. The Israelite king is subject to the same Torah laws as everyone else. He has no subjects; he rules over his peers. All are equal in the Torah’s eyes. (The king’s law is found in Deuteronomy 17.)
That is classic democracy.
There is so much in the Torah that deals with democracy. In the courtroom, for example, there must be at least two witnesses, and they must be eyewitnesses because convictions may not be based on circumstantial evidence. If two witnesses testify to different facts regarding the same event, their testimony is discounted. The rights of the defendant are to be guarded zealously. There is the right to confront witnesses, protection against self-incrimination, and a prohibition against taking social status into judicial consideration.
Before they are allowed to testify to what they saw, prosecution witnesses first must undergo harsh cross-examination about their motives — by the judges, no less. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 37a ff.)
The Torah seeks a level playing field for all, even to the point of protecting the poor from being exploited in any way.
We have much to be grateful for in America, on July 4th and on every day, and America has much to be grateful to us because our Founders saw in our sacred texts the values they wanted for America. To be sure, this country is ailing. It does need to return to its original values, as the Christianizers insist. Those values, however, are Jewish values, not Christian ones.
Enjoy the Jewish 4th.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.