'Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land' - The Hebrew Bible in the US

Will the Hebrew Bible's timeless words continue to speak to America as they did from the day the Pilgrims landed on rocky New England shores? A unique project shows how much influence the Hebrew Bible has had on American history.

Rochel Sylvetsky

OpEds Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

The Sukkot holiday is a particularly appropriate time to review a unique project that has resulted in a most enlightening and informative new book.

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land, The Hebrew Bible in the United States, a Sourcebook (edited by Meir Y. Soloveitchik, Matthew Holbreich, Jonathan Silver and Stuart W. Halpern. Toby Press, The Zehava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, Yeshiva University) is an eminently readable but thoroughly scholarly addition to any library, a combination of Judaica and Americana.

The sourcebook meticulously traces and analyzes the way the Hebrew Bible (the term is used in the book for what is called the Old Testament in Christian terminology) functioned as a foundational text of America's tradition – whether in building a collective identity, deducing political ideas, adopting the concept of an intergenerational covenant or simply in the plethora of parallels, quotes, vocabulary and verses employed in multiple writings and at significant occasions to strengthen resolve and impart messages.

Why review it on Sukkot? Not just because the Simchat Torah holiday ends the festivities, but because the Hebrew Bible's influence in the New World was the impetus for the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving holiday in 1621, emulating the joyous biblical harvest holiday of Tabernacles - called Sukkot in Hebrew. And every American child is taught to connect Thanksgiving with the beginnings of American history.

The book informs us that the Pilgrims adopted the Mayflower Compact in 1620, after a journey they described as analogous to the Exodus, gaining inspiration to create a new society from the special destiny of the Israelites. The Exodus from slavery to freedom is a recurrent theme used to describe the efforts to define a country based on liberty, democracy and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, Thomas Jefferson's suggestion for the Seal of the United States was a depiction of the Israelites in the desert complete with Clouds of Glory and Benjamin Franklin's was the Splitting of the Red Sea.

When the West was won, the idea of Manifest Destiny was an extension of that theme of chosenness. Herman Melville was to write that "we Americans are the peculiar chosen people – the Israel of our time- we bear the ark of the liberties of the world."

The book's title, dramatically depicted on its cover, is taken from Leviticus and engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. It is perhaps the most famous example of the way the Hebrew Bible's Judaeo-Christian values, ideas and moral guidance formed a natural part of a young America's mainstream.

The editors have chosen to elucidate this historical fact in clearly delineated chapters where the writings and oratory of each period are juxtaposed with their biblical sources in both original Hebrew and English translation They begin with the formative years preceding the establishment of the United States, up to and including the Civil War, and ending with an epilogue on the civil rights movement although the Bible became less of a source after that war. Except for a few connections which seem somewhat contrived, the writings are unquestionably based on the various scriptural sources brought by the editors. The readers' understanding of the historical documents is sure to be greatly enhanced by perusing the biblical sources on which each was based, as will be his empathy and identification with those who wrote them. The introductions to each chapter are an integral part of the sourcebook, providing an interesting perspective and overview of each period.

On a personal note, reading of the central place of the Hebrew Bible in the history of the United States was something of a bittersweet experience for me, an observant American-born religious Zionist who decided to live her adult life in Israel. The book struck a painful chord for me, a student of the legendary Professor Nechama Leibowitz whose analyses of biblical passages always included the relevant moral lessons, because the Bible's message seems to play such a minor part in today's Israeli weltanschauung.   

In the still young State of Israel, established in the land of the Bible, quoting the Book of Books is often associated with coercion instead of vision, guidance and ethics. The secular population's familiarity with its language and admiration for its timeless wisdom is far more limited than that of the Founding Fathers, who spoke Hebrew and knew much of the Bible by heart.

Brigade Commander Ofer Winter, for example, a rising star in the IDF, commanded the Givati brigade during 2014's Gaza Operation Protective Edge. Like all brigade commanders, he penned a "Commander's pre battle message" to his troops. In addition to reminding them of their role in defending their homeland and the need to succeed in their mission, he added the following words of encouragement, paraphrased from the Biblical words of David as he went out to battle Goliath and hauntingly similar to the examples in the Sourcebook:

"History has chosen us to be at the cutting edge of the war against a terrorist Gazan enemy…I lift my eyes to the heavens and cry along with you 'Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.' God of Israel, make our path a successful one, for we are about to fight for your people Israel against those who would 'profane Your Name'."

In Hebrew, these words, with their biblical allusions, including the most well-known biblical verse to be found in the Jewish prayer book, were meant to connect Israel's soldiers with Israelites of ancient times, granting their mission a historic dimension of continuity, and strengthening belief in the justice of their cause.

But soon after the message was delivered to his men, slingshots were aimed at Winter in lieu of Goliath. He was accused by the left of trying to "religionize" the IDF rather than simply using historic words to enhance a contemporary message–and the media storm was so violent that then Chief of Staff Eizenkot caved in and added a critical remark to Winter's sterling record , blocking his advancement. The appointment of a new CoS put an end to the witchhunt and the unusually capable and dedicated observant officer is once again in charge of a combat unit.

In fact, most secular Israelis identify with the historical justification for returning to the land of Israel, ignoring the spiritual resonance of its being the land promised to the Israelites who agreed to accept the Torah's commandments at Sinai.

America, in contrast, was founded during a period when being religious was the normal state of affairs. It is enlightening to read how alive and meaningful the Hebrew Bible was to American society, how America”s founders adopted the story of the Exodus while believing that their successes showed them to be the chosen people in the newly-settled promised land of America.

And there is another unexpected reward to be gained from reading this book. It is a unique way to understand American history from a hitherto unexplored viewpoint, one which was central to the lives of those who built the country. It introduces readers, including this one, to well-known figures but also to leaders and ideologues whose names are familiar but whose works many of us have never read – and to some we may never have heard of before- although they are outstanding persona who influenced American history and whose words are well worth reading. These men of character were so deeply dedicated to the causes they championed that the sincerity and idealism that characterized them, enriched by their use of biblical phrases and motifs, shines through their writings.

A few of the striking examples include Revolutionary War fighter Jonas Phillips, a Jew who wrote a letter to the Constitutional Convention asking it to protect religious freedoms; Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, who corresponded with his friend, rabbi of the Newport, R.I. synagogue, in Hebrew; John Witherspoon, member of the Continental Congress, whose most famous sermon is based on Psalm 76 and the miracle of Jerusalem's salvation from Sennacherib's forces;  Harvard president Samuel Langdon, who, along with others, saw the biblical form of government, "the republic of the Israelites, an example to the American states" as a precursor to American democracy – since the Jewish king did not have absolute power and in effect, there was a balance of power and a judicial system which developed from Jethro's advice to Moses. (This attitude to the Bible's civil law is also a far cry from the prevalent Israeli attitude, mostly due to lack of knowledge, and one need only look at the recent elections to realize that.)The book contains many more personalities whose lives, biblical erudition and writings elicit interest, respect and admiration. 

Decades later, African-American slaves were to see the North as Canaan, an analogy present in many spirituals, expressing their yearning for freedom in biblical terms. The editors devoted a chapter to the sources of these evocative songs which are an integral part of American history. 

The Bible's influence was so pervasive that both sides in the slavery conflict used it to attempt to prove the correctness of their views – the editors claim convincingly that this was because of the Bible's exalted status, as using it would provide credence to the writer or orator. Their analysis of the debate, however, puts paid to the use of the Bible to justify slavery as it existed in much of the South – because while slavery was a way of life everywhere in biblical times, the point of its appearance in the Bible was to carefully regulate the practice, forbidding the breakup of families as well as the other forms of cruelty it led to in the South.

Henry Ward Beecher used the model of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, emancipated and taught to be men by Moses, to the necessity – and possibility - of doing the same for America's slaves.  Frederick Douglass, born a slave,  paraphrased the mournful psalm  "By the rivers of Babylon"  to declare that slaves cannot feel joy at the July 4th celebrations of the founding of the United States:  "…if I do not remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, may my right hand lose its cunning." Abraham Lincoln used the same chapter to allude  to bringing that slavery to an end, saying "may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I ever prove false to those teachings" – referring to those of the Declaration of Independence.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

And while I have tried to give a small taste of the enjoyment – and enlightenment - experienced while reading this book, it is important to state that it does not whitewash the unpleasant truths in America's eventful history nor the fact that America has become much less devout in the last century. Nevertheless, it is a beacon for what America can be.

Will the Hebrew Bible continue to speak to America, in its timeless words or at least in its eternal moral truths and values? Will appreciation of the people who gave the world the Book of Books ovrecome resurgent antisemitism? Will left progressive intersectionality and post-modern relative morality trump the ideals and ideas upon which the society of the United States was constructed, or will they continue to guide its people? Reading this book makes one wish very much that they will.