There is something decidedly Jewish about the United States of America and it is a something worth reminding ourselves of every Fourth of July: Jewish law and Jewish values helped shape this country from Plymouth Rock until today.
It was the Torah and its laws that guided the Pilgrims once they arrived on these shores. In a 1923 essay, “The Hebrew Contribution to the Americanism of the Future,” the historian Hartley Burr Alexander wrote: “This book [he refers to it as “the Hebrew bible”] formed their minds and dominated their characters; its conceptions were their conceptions.”
Indeed, it was a common practice among the Pilgrims to turn to the Bible whenever there were problems that needed solving or events that needed celebrating.
Many of the early law codes in Puritan New England were based on the Torah, not on the Christian bible or English common law. For example, in “The Jews Come to America,” the historians Paul Masserman and Maxwell Baker note that half of the statutes in the New Haven colony Code of 1655 had their origins in Mosaic legislation; by contrast, only three percent traced back to the Christian bible.
Long before Plato ever dreamed of a “Republic,” Moses legislated for one. It is in the Torah of Moses, not the Republic of Plato, that a person is first granted the right to confront his or her accusers. It is there that the prohibition against self-incrimination is first set down (and is made absolute; the Torah does not allow confessions to be used as evidence). It is there that social status is excluded from the courtroom; all are equal before the bar of justice as the Torah defines it.
It is there, too, that the “king” is made the first among equals, and subjected to the same laws as everyone else.
Quite possibly, that king originally was to be elected. That is one way to interpret Deuteronomy 17:15. The verse begins with, “You shall set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose,” which makes it seem that God does the choosing. The verse, however, adds: “One from among your brothers shall you set king over you; you may not set a stranger over you, who is not your brother.” It would seem, then, that the people choose their king and God confirms the choice.
The Torah knows not of a “divine right of kings” either. The Israelite king is as tied to the law as everyone else.
“And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book from that which is before the priests the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to do them; that his heart not be lifted up above his fellows, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel” (See Deuteronomy 17:18-20.)
In other words, the king is king only as long as he obeys the law. And “his heart [may] not be lifted up above his fellows,” meaning that he governs a nation of equals in the eyes of the law.
The king does not rule exclusively. As we learn in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of the Fathers), there are “three crowns” over Israel – those of priesthood, kingship, and Torah. (Torah, in this context, means the prophets and the judges.)
Democracy shows its head in the Torah in other ways as well. There is something very democracy-creating in a law code that insists that a creditor must return a debtor’s pledge to him every night, and that while he may retake possession of the pledge each morning, he may never enter the debtor’s house to do so.
Wage earners must be paid immediately for their work. Women have power over their own bodies.
Today, it could be argued that the very fact that the Torah sanctions slavery militates against its being seen as a document attempting to create a democracy.
Actually, in accepting slavery, the Torah also accepts its own limitations. Slavery was an institution it could not eliminate with an outright ban, but it could do so over time by creating laws that granted slaves rights and made it difficult to own slaves.
For example, runaway slaves may never be returned to their now-former masters. (contrast this to Chief Justice Roger Taney’s Dred Scott decision.) Israelite slaves must be adequately enough compensated at the end of their service that they never again will need to fall back on slavery. To permanently injure a slave is to free him or her. To kill a slave is to commit murder.
Even before the Jews came to America 350 years ago, it was the Torah the Jews accepted at Sinai 3,500 years ago that already was helping to shape this land.
Truly, we have much to celebrate on July 4.