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Freedom in the Bible

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By Judi Siegal

Against the blackened sky, the exploding shells scintillate and blaze forth in myriad colors and patterns, awakening the summer night with echoing booms as the designs fade into wisps of sulfur vapor and evaporate into nothingness. The crowd cheers and claps for more and the act is repeated over and over until the pyrotechnical show ends and the people depart for home. But while this display captures the fascination and delight of the crowd, are the people thinking of the reason for the event and the concept it celebrates?

How many of us think about liberty and freedom on July 4, the day we declared independence from mother England? And, most interestingly of all, how has the Jewish experience influenced the American dream of liberty and freedom?

There are many similarities between the Israelite quest for a land and the American experience, and the crafters of the American documents of government were familiar with the stories in the Hebrew Bible. For instance, a tyrant ruled the Israelites; the Americans had King George. The Jews sought freedom from bondage; the Americans were heavily taxed. Both groups wanted to chart their own destinies and both parties had to fight wars to achieve this purpose.

The Israelites had Moses, Aaron and Joshua and the Americans had George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The Jews had the Ten Commandments and the Torah and the Americans crafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both peoples were essentially agricultural, farmers by trade and lived off the land. The Israelites had Pharaoh and his army to contend with, a great military power of the times, and the Americans had to battle the British, military giants of their day. Both were considered underdogs in their struggles for freedom and both won and obtained their goals.

While there were some Tories in the Jewish community, most of the 2,500 Jewish citizens of the colonies threw in their lot with the American cause. The American concept of freedom of the individual was a direct break with the Old World European idea of a monarch or king and his court with the people below all paying tribute and obeisance with the American idea of each person being able to have “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.

The concept of human dignity and worth appealed to the Jews of the Colonies because it was an idea straight out of the Hebrew Bible. According to the Torah, humans are created in the image of God, meaning people have God-like qualities of compassion, mercy and kindness and because people were created in God’s image they should be treated with respect. All humans were created equal by the One God, an idea that Thomas Jefferson so aptly put into the Declaration of Independence. It gave the Hebrews hope that they would be accepted into the newly emerging American society and that the old prejudices of Europe would not follow them into the New World. Though it was often debated, the concept of separation of church and state finally came to be and religious tolerance became more widespread. Though the Christian majority owed much to it’s Hebraic roots, not all states granted complete freedom to its Jewish citizens. Maryland (heavily Catholic), North Carolina and New Hampshire were three examples of states that did not allow non-Christians to hold public office. Many years were to pass before these rules were changed.

The first amendment to the Constitution was a great step in religious tolerance. Being able to practice Judaism in the light of day, without restrictions, was a wonderful freedom to have. Here, in America, Jews and others were protected by law and could freely exercise their religious rights. The American experiment in human rights was to prove immensely profitable as the growing population became made up of many different groups, nationalities and religions. Each of these groups, the Jews included, contributed to the society and civilization we call America, from the words and expressions that pepper our language to the styles and colors we embrace in fashion and home décor.

Written on the Liberty Bell, struck to honor American independence, are engraved the immortal lines from Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land”…  May its clarion call remind us all of the desire of people to be free, to live in peace with one’s neighbors and to worship as one sees fit. May America always light the way to liberty and equality.

Now, please pass me a kosher hot dog with dill relish. Happy Independence Day!

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil, and they enjoy RVing together.