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Reflections on July 4th, 5781
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
and have not kept his decrees,
because they have been led astray by false gods,
the gods their ancestors followed,
I will send fire on Judah
that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.
My favorite public building is the post office in Anacortes, a small port town perched on the northern tip of Fidalgo Island, WA. Inside, underneath a WPA-style mural picturing local fishermen slinging crab traps off a boat, is an illuminated display-case triptych titled CHARTERS OF FREEDOM. There, encased like saintly remains inside a Catholic reliquary, or (more aptly) like the torah scrolls in a synagogue’s ark, lay facsimile copies of the Declaration of Independence and the first two pages of the Constitution. Post office patrons are free to do their own patriotic simchat torah as they wait to buy stamps.
For those unfamiliar with that unique celebration, the Jewish year is marked by the reading of an advancing set of Torah portions every sabbath, going from the start to the end of the Torah scroll, from Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy. Simchat torah (lit. ‘the joy of the torah’) is the Jewish holiday celebrating the conclusion of that annual cycle, when the scroll is at its end. The occasion is marked by wild celebration and dancing, and a joyous passing of the torah scroll from one congregant to another1. The scroll is immediately rewound and read from the beginning again, restarting the cycle that Jews have followed, in one form or another, for thousands of years. Between the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersion of the Jews in 70 AD to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, that scroll and associated commentary, rather than a piece of land, were what defined the Jewish people. As rabbi Arthur Green put it: “Judaism is a civilization built around a text.”
Likewise, the United States of America is a nation-state built around one.
A creedal nation revering sacred documents handed down by prophetic founders, interpreted via exegetical responsa by a rabbinical court, is the biggest secular reboot of Judeo-Christian thought ever. Our political strife resembles religious wars because they effectively are, as the nation defines itself anew with every passing generation. The citizenry seethes in constant discord, finding some breathing room in far-flung federalism, until one side exploits some instrument of the Federal government—the Supreme Court, or the Army if necessary—to impose its interpretation of the sacred document on the other. It’s not too much of a stretch, and seems less so with every passing day, to compare the current Red/Blue split as something on the order of Sunni versus Shia or Catholic versus Protestant: the bitter contest to define a difference often blurry to outsiders.
Therein lies the problem with the covenantal approach to nation-building: ‘chartering’ freedom as secular scripture means the other bastard gets it too. Cornerstone freedoms such as those of speech and religion counter every human tribal reflex. Deep down, nobody actually wants freedom of speech, religion and assembly. They say they do, but bring up the appropriate bogeyman and that bogeyman’s public marches and Facebook pages and whatnot, and it all goes out the window. Suddenly my inviolable freedom of speech is that guy’s ‘misinformation’; my tweets must be duly amplified via algorithmic feeds, that other bastard’s tweet must be suppressed to save the republic.
The only way to create a truly liberal state is to erect a (meta) religion out of tolerating all religions, an uber-tribe tolerating all tribes. Which is why the United States, the country that granted its citizens the wildest and most uncontrolled set of freedoms--Guns! Say what you want! Organize what you want!--had to create a cult of freedom that venerated the Bill of Rights almost the way the Jews do the Ten Commandments. We have to love our founding documents, and the sacramental freedoms they represent, more than we hate our our political enemies for the American Experiment to function.
From the viewpoint of this civic religion, wokeness and its maniacal push to divide a syncretic nation into fanciful constituent parts can only be considered a bizarre heretical paganism that somehow crept into the political temple. Only a country whose amnesiac memory is unsullied by existential ethnic violence thinks it wise to solve issues of racism by feverishly heightening feelings of either unforgivable blame or angry victimhood. The drastic remedy often proves far worse than the affliction; better to push our fellow citizens to fuller and better realizations of our founding principles, as the biblical prophets did the Israelites, than tear up our national covenant in favor of false idols.
In times such as ours, when so many things about the country seem seriously awry, a day like the Fourth of July can be as much a holiday of grim reflection as one of unadulterated celebration. The Jewish holiday of grim reflection, Yom Kippur, is capped by a recitation of Judaism’s foundational prayer, the Shema. It’s traditionally recited with one’s hand covering one’s eyes, to focus the mind on the profundity of the monotheistic statement: Hear O Israel! The Lord is God, the Lord is One…
Jews are enjoined to repeat the prayer twice a day, and many recite the prayer in their dying moments2. The repetition of credos and mantras, in a sacralized space and time, is how we engrave lapidary ideals onto our brains. Repeat those credos later, and we recreate the sacred ideal in a moment of need—at a moment when that ideal seems far from being realized. On this Independence Day, consider shielding your gaze for a moment, and reciting the foundational belief of this covenantal nation, the profound statement that started it all: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…
The United States’ founding documents, from the Declaration to the Federalist Papers and beyond, are available in easily readable and cross-linked format on Sefaria’s American Democracy Library.
Sefaria’s technology was built to organize the bewilderingly complex and interrelated texts of Judaism, spanning thousands of years of writing and thinking, into one navigable system. The sea of text starts here.
As Samuel Pepys, that grumpy pants, described a visit to a London synagogue during Simchat Torah in his diary entry for October 14th, 1663:
”But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them.”