Independence Day 2019

Some scholars maintain that “The modern world was formed through four revolutions:  the British (1640), the American (1776), the French (1789) and the Russian (1917).  Two -the British and the American-led to a slow but genuine transformation towards democracy, universal franchise, and respect for human dignity.  The French and Russian revolutions, however, led to regimes that were even worse than those they replaced:  the “Terror” in France, and Stalinist communism in Russia.” [1]

As we celebrate our “Independence Day” this July 4 we should remember its broader implications and what it means to be truly independent in substance as well as form.  Too often we simply celebrate our “independence” as being in sum a military victory after which a collection of colonies was dramatically transformed overnight into a unified country with a society which respects all men and women and provides justice and freedom for all.  We fail to realize that the notion of a “free nation” or a nation “under God” with a unique mission is much older than the battles fought at Lexington or Concord in 1776.  It harks back thousands of years to a people who having been enslaved hundreds of years by what at that time was the world’s most powerful nation broke free and had to face the worst enemy of all.  That enemy was not the Egyptian army rather it was the challenges of becoming a free and independent nation with a special relationship with the Deity which has brought about their freedom.  They had to face the challenge of becoming independent and free with all the implications of that state of being.  In the final analysis they overcame their fear, with the help of their belief in God, and rose to the challenge of fulfilling a unique role among the nations of the world in being God’s “chosen people”.  The lessons learned by those people and the deity which they encountered while learning them remain as relevant for us today as they were for them thousands of years ago.

          The uniqueness of the British and American Revolutions, say some, is that they were “led by the Puritans… (and) …inspired by the Hebrew Bible. [2] [3] And, given that they were blessed or imbued with a special purpose they were to lead to a slow but genuine transformation towards democracy, universal franchise, and respect for human dignity.[4] France and Russia, on the other hand, after their revolutions moved toward a particular philosophy rather than scriptural principles.  France moved toward the philosophy of Rousseau and Russian toward that of Marx.

          The Hebrew Scriptures, argues Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, recognizes the role of time in human affairs.  Change, he says, is slow and evolutionary.  Philosophy, on the other hand, lacks that understanding of time and tends to promote revolution.  He further points out that while political change can be rapid changing human nature takes time and is very slow indeed.

          The great Rabbi Moses Maimonides expressed a similar notion in his famous treatise The Guide for the Perplexed [5] written in medieval times.  His fundamental assertion is that there is no such thing as sudden, drastic, revolutionary change in the world we inhabit. Trees take time to grow.  The seasons shade imperceptibly into one another, Day fades into night. Processes take time, and there are no shortcuts.

          If one reviews American history the truth of this assertion becomes abundantly clear. At the time of the revolution slavery was a common practice and it was to be another one hundred years and a war before it was legally abolished throughout the United States.   The vestiges of the practice remained in the form of segregation nigh unto today taking the form of violence against young Americans of African descent by those charged to serve and protect all citizens namely the civilian police.  Women were not allowed to vote, nor own property at the founding of the nation and did not become enfranchised until the nineteen hundreds.[6]

          Today we witness a harsh and inhumane immigration policy based on the view that immigrants of color need to be foreclosed from entering our country even when they seek refuge from oppression. As a result we see the brutalization of adults and  innocent children being separated from their parents at a tender age and denied the basic necessities of hygiene. 

Our history reveals a country far from fulfilling the vision as expressed in the Declaration of Independence that:

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….”

          Change therefore takes time. As Sacks puts it “God himself does not force the pace. That is why he led the Israelites on a circuitous route, knowing that they could not face the full challenge of liberty immediately.  There are no shortcuts on the long walk to freedom.  

          One of the most challenging aspects of the road to real freedom and independence is “letting go of hate”.  It is easy to kill your enemies, to burn their cities and destroy their civilizations but learning to love them is hard.  As Rabbi Sacks puts it  “A people driven by hate are not-cannot be-free”.  As the ancient Israelites were leaving Egypt the Egyptians urged them on because they were so afraid, after suffering through numerous plagues, of what God would do to them (the Egyptians) next.  In the process the Israelites were instructed to ask for articles of silver and gold from the Egyptians.  Why silver and gold? It was a command which only begins to make sense in the examination of later biblical passages. Ironically it was this silver and gold which was used by the Israelites to make the famous golden calf leading Moses to charge God that had he not instructed them to ask for the silver and gold they would have not committed such a sin.  But God’s purpose was working itself out as he ingrained in the Israelites the notion of love of others especially enemies.  

          Why silver and gold? [7] There are two passages which illuminate the answer.  The first has to do with the liberation of slaves:   

If a fellow Hebrew, . . . , sells himself to you and serves you six years in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed.  Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and you winepress.  Give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. [8]  (emphasis supplied)

          And the second has to do with “letting go” of hate and resentment:

Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother.  Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land. [9]

This command is to have one of the most profound insights into the nature of a free society.  These scriptural admonitions were meant to suggest that the Exodus is to be remembered annually, even daily.  What was suffered is not to be inflicted.  We remember the wrongs of the past for the future not to repeat them or bear grudges but to change them and leave ill will in the past.  The giving of gifts to those who were wronged by us is a way of parting with goodwill.  To be free, you have to let go of hate.

As they were about to gain their freedom the Israelites were told they had to become a nation of educators. “To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools.” Freedom needs three institutions:  parenthood, education and memory.  Our children should be reminded of the toll taken by oppression be it physical oppression as in the form of slavery, or economic slavery taking the form of commercial exploitation.  They should be reminded of these things so that they will know to oppose them whenever they rear their ugly heads.

The Israelites remembering the bitter bondage of slavery became the people whose passion was education and “whose citadels were schools, and whose heroes were teachers.” [10]  By the time that the Second Temple had been destroyed they had established the world’s first system of universal compulsory education paid for by public funds. By contrast England did not institute universal compulsory education until 1870.  In the United States it took from 1852 (Massachusetts) until 1918 (Mississippi). [11]

Freedom cannot be created by legislation, nor can it be sustained by political structures alone.  As we have seen our political structures can easily be corrupted and manipulated by special interest groups who exert their will to the detriment of democratic government.  Judge Learned Hand summed up this principle in a speech delivered in Central Park on May 21, 1944:

Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, co court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. and what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women?  It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes.  That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to is overthrow.  A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.  

          There are two aspects to be considered here with regard to the prevention of tyranny and the maintenance of freedom.  First, the populace must be educated and impassioned to protect the principles underlying freedom.  Second, the principles of freedom and liberty must be engraved in the hearts of the people so that they will always know when tyranny is approaching through corruption of the system.  

          Once again the Israelites were pioneers in this regard.  The sages re interpreted a Hebrew word “harut” meaning engraved to “herut” meaning freedom in order to say that there is none so free as one who occupies himself with the study of Torah.[12]  One could extend this further and say that Torah was to become “engraved” on the heart in addition to being engraved on the tablets.

          In the words of Rabbi Sacks:

What they meant was that if the law is engraved of the hearts of the people, it does not need to be enforced by the police.  True freedom-cherut-is the ability to control oneself without having to be controlled by others.  Without accepting voluntarily a code of moral and ethical restraints, liberty becomes license and society itself a battleground of warring instincts and desires.

          In the preface to his book America’s Constitution, A Biography [13] Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar describes our constitution as a “New World Acropolis open to all.”   He describes the document as running less than eight thousand words … in strikingly clean prose (as law goes) and with notable brevity.” The document’s style, he says, “invites us to explore its substance, to visit and regularly revisit America’s legal city on a hill.”  But sadly most citizens have declined the invitation.  Professor Amar points out that ‘Many could probably recite at length some favorite poem, song, speech, or scripture, yet few could quote by heart even a single paragraph of the supreme law of our land, one of the most important texts in world history.”[14]  

          The Hebrew sages knew, as we should, that engraving the principles of freedom on our hearts should be our first order of business lest freedom  be stripped from us.  Let us pray this Independence Day that this will not happen. There are none so blind as those who will not see, nor those who cannot or will not pray for themselves. So let us fulfill the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “…Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace…”[15]

[1] J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1952)

[2] Sacks, Exodus The Book of Redemption (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2010),citing : On the English Revolution: Walzer, Revolution of Saints (New York: Atheneum , 1968); Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution(London: Allen Lane, 1993); On the American Revolution : Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press, 1963) and more generally Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985).  

[3] In the author’s mind it is debatable as how much of our revolution and nation building is attributable to those of the Puritan persuasion or how many of them were intimately familiar with the Hebrew Bible, the law and the prophets.  While it has been suggested to me that the founding fathers were not particularly religious men with the possible exception of John Adams, a New England Congregationalist, there is evidence to suggest otherwise.  Chernow in his biography of Alexander Hamilton recounts the last hours of Hamilton’s life after being fatally wounded in a duel by describing Hamilton’s request for the lasts rites of the Episcopal Church.  The Episcopal Bishop of New York, Benjamin Moore denied Hamilton’s request and refused to administer Holy Communion because he did not wish to sanction dueling and he knew that Hamilton had not been a regular churchgoer.  So Hamilton turned to a close friend the Reverend John Mason of the Scotch Presbyterian Church and implored him to administer Holy Communion to him.  Mason, with great discomfort, felt obliged to refuse on the basis of Presbyterian doctrine that Holy Communion was never to be administered privately under any circumstances. After an assurance of pardon for his sins Hamilton rolled his eyes and exclaimed that “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  In the face of Hamilton’s sincere confession, expression of hope in the resurrection along with extreme public pressure Bishop Moore reversed his decision and administered the Holy Communion to Hamilton.  See Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group, 2004 ) pp 705-709.

[4] Sacks, supra. page 100.

[5] Two good English Translations are: Friedlander, The Guide for the Perplexed (London: Kegan Paul, 2006) and Pines, The Gide for the Perplexed, 2 vols. (University of Chicago Press, 1963)

[6] It is interesting to note that the ancient Israelites granted the right to own property to women early on as evidenced by the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:1-11. Verse 8 sums it up:  And you shall say to the people of Israel, If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter.”

[7] This explanation is drawn directly and paraphrased from Sacks, Exodus: The Book of Redemption, pages 92-94.

[8] Deuteronomy 15:12-15.

[9] Deuteronomy 23:7

[10] Sacks, p 79.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. p.81

[13] Amar, America’s Constitution, A Biography (New York:  Random House, 2005) p. xi

[14] Id.

[15] The Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Independence Day at page 242 (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1986)