“The story of the West,” explains Meir Soloveichik, rabbi of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, “is as much indebted to Jerusalem as it is to Athens.” In his newest online course, a series of lectures on Jewish Ideas and the American Founding produced by the Tikvah Fund, Soloveichik effectively and energetically elaborates America’s unique and exceptional relationship with the Jews.
Having taken this course online as well as in person, I can report that the online iteration is crisper, more organized, and more accessible for non-Jews. Anyone interested in the American vision of religious liberty and the impact of Hebrew scripture on the founders will find much to learn and admire.
The Tikvah Fund divided this lecture series into eight one-hour videos. In each, Soloveichik’s lecture is interspersed with one-on-one conversations with the Tikvah Fund’s Jonathan Silver, whose questions bring out Soloveichik’s edifying best. The lectures are untraditional, and better for it. Each one tells a story more than it covers a topic. Soloveichik begins by introducing us to Jonas Phillips, “the most important American Jew you’ve never heard of.” In 1787, Phillips complained to George Washington that the Pennsylvania state legislature’s mandatory Christian oath precluded Jews from serving. A patriot himself, Phillips argued that “The Jews have been true and faithful whigs…have bravely faught and bleed for liberty which they can not enjoy.” Phillips captured the essence of American exceptionalism on religious liberty: unless the Jews could participate in public life without foreswearing their faith, they had neither religious liberty nor the full privileges of American citizenship. Instead of having to check their Judaism at the door, Jews would contribute their unique ideas and practices for the benefit of their fellow Americans.
Jews were tolerated in some of Europe’s more enlightened nations, where religious minorities were allowed “freedom of worship.” They could not, however, bring their faith into the public square. America, Soloveichik explains, walked a different path. Since the Constitution banned religious tests for national officeholders, religious minorities were recognized and accepted as part of the national fabric. Writing to Newport, Rhode Island’s Jewish community in 1790, George Washington noted that “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
America established religious freedom not as a compromise to keep the peace, or a sop to minority groups, but as a requirement of a just society. Backed by the Constitution, Washington promised Jews such as Jonas Phillips that they would find in America the freedom to be both full citizens and fully Jewish. America kept that promise, but only in part because of the Constitutional guarantees. The American people, whose basic affection for the Biblical Israelites, Hebrew scripture, and the Jews themselves has been unparalleled, did much of the heavy lifting.
Above all, the American message to the Jews has been, “Your story is our story and your God is our God.” Soloveichik’s lecture on the proposed official seals of the United States hammers this point home: Benjamin Franklin suggested a picture of Moses extending his hand as the Red Sea overwhelms Pharaoh and his army. Underneath lies his caption: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Franklin’s seal performs a sort of “transference,” whereby a Jewish story is universalized into a teaching about the rights of man, secured under God in emancipation from tyranny.
Thomas Paine carried this further, borrowing from one stream of the Jewish rabbinic tradition to argue that serving an earthly king is idolatrous. “But where says some is the King of America?” writes Paine in Common Sense, “I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above.” For such a short course, the lecture on Paine lingered too long on the rabbinic intricacies. But the larger point emerged all the same: we are only free when God is our king, and when He guarantees our universal rights above the dictates of human governments, as He did for the Jews in Egypt.
Jefferson’s recommendation for a seal, however, offers a different teaching. His seal pictures the Israelites trekking through the wilderness, after they have defeated Pharaoh. Rather than focusing on the emancipation, this emphasizes the journey that followed: to Sinai for the Law, and to the Holy Land for self-governance. The message, Soloveichik explains, is that we need freedom not for its own sake, but to achieve a destiny. By looking to Hebrew Scripture, two eminent American Founders teach us that our freedom, established and safeguarded by placing God over man, implores us to embark upon the difficult, disciplining journey to a higher end. “Taken together,” we are told, “they give us a political theology of freedom.”
It would be interesting to have heard more here from Harvard’s Eric Nelson, whose book The Hebrew Republic is often cited in lectures but rarely explored. Viewers who wish to continue their education on this topic―and many will―may consider turning there or to the publications of the Herzl Institute, the latest of which revives John Selden, England’s great Christian Hebraist, to explore the effect of Jewish ideas on Western political thought.
More than anything, Soloveichik’s eight-hour course left me with a deep appreciation for America and what it has done for the Jews―not as a favor, but out of a conviction that gets to the heart of what America was founded to be. A different viewer might well come away with the same appreciation, but for what the Jews have done for America. Anyone who thinks the unique U.S. support for Israel can be traced to mere lobbying will be made to reconsider. After all, we learn that in 1819, over 75 years before Herzl published The Jewish State, John Adams wrote to a Jewish correspondent, “I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites indeed as well discipin’d as a French Army & marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the domination of it―For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.”
As George W. Bush told the Israeli Knesset upon the Jewish State’s 60th anniversary, “The source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty. It is grounded in the shared spirit of our people: the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul.” For an immersion into these ties and the exceptional relationship they have produced, turn to Meir Soloveichik and his new course for the Tikvah Fund.