July 4, 2019: Honor the Vision

Image: Voting for Independence (Photo courtesy of nps.org)

In 1776, a group of mostly young men got together and signed a document one of them had written, declaring their independence from a colonial power, largely because they were frustrated with taxes. They knew that the document might well be their death warrant, because it was going to bring the wrath of a mighty empire down upon their heads. They were imperfect men, God knows, and some of the ideals they articulated were not ideals they actually lived, but the ideals themselves have continued to inspire people ever since.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Declaration of Independence, 1776

“All men” in that document meant “white property-owning men.” Over 233 years of debate, disagreement, and once, outright war, we have managed to broaden “white property-owning men” to include (ideally, and incompletely) all races of men and women. We still have far to go if our true goal is to reach a state in which all human beings are treated equally under our laws.

The mid-twentieth century saw great strides in that direction, and in the years since, white property-owning men and their supporters have done their best to roll back that progress. Today we have a Supreme Court with a majority of judges who seem devoted to the idea that the 1776 ideals were sufficiently embodied in 1776. The Congress is deadlocked between a Senate dedicated to the notion that the 1776 state of affairs was the ideal, and a House that hungers for the rights of all human beings, women, races, and orientations. Our Executive Branch is headed by a man who embodies the worst of the 1776 situation: he is an aging white man who inherited his wealth, who has no respect for women, minorities, or the poor, and whose great concern is maintaining his and his family’s advantage over others.

I am not celebrating until this country recovers its soul. That soul drove us through debate, disagreement, and war to broaden “white property-owning men” towards an ideal in which all human beings were treated equally under the law. That soul led us to include, not exclude; to give an ear to the voices of the oppressed; to open our gates, if not our hearts, to the refugee.

I persist in believing that we are capable of this better, expanded vision. I persist in doing what I can to make a better day come. I pray that with God’s help, we will find our way out of this darkness.

In 1776, a group of mostly young men got together and signed a document one of them had written, declaring their independence from a colonial power. They signed a document that they did not realize dripped with irony, and thereby set in motion a process and a nation that would lift that document from its small purposes into a greater destiny.

In 1790, one of those men, much older, much wiser, wrote words that still inspire me, the vision I hold for my nation. George Washington was writing to the congregation of a synagogue, a house of Jews, when he wrote:

For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

George Washington, Letter to Touro Synagogue, August 1790

Again, he, the owner of enslaved people, failed to see the irony in his words, but he was well aware that in no other nation of the world at that time did Jews enjoy the rights that the Jews of the fledgling United States already enjoyed. I like to think that he felt the expansion – he felt the need to open his arms, our arms, to a more complete vision of humanity.

May we all feel that expansion in the days to come, and conquer the contraction upon our hearts!

Thoughts on Presidents Day

Image: Presidents Day Sale announcement. Art by vectorshots.

Today is President’s Day in the United States. The holiday came into being in 1968, when President Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 into being. Before that, we celebrated President Lincoln’s  birthday on February 12 and President Washington’s birthday on February 22.

According to President Johnson:

This will mean a great deal to our families and our children. It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities.– Statement by the President Upon Signing the Uniform Holiday Bill, June 28, 1968.

Moving holidays to Monday meant that instead of holidays that broke up the work week, we had long weekends for President’s Day, for Veteran’s Day, and for Memorial Day.

I was once engaged as a High Holy Day leader by a congregation that wanted to move Rosh Hashanah to a Friday night, to make it less disruptive of their work week. They were upset with me when I refused to accommodate their wishes. The principle is firm: we don’t move the High Holy Days for our convenience, because they are more important than our convenience. Even when the 9/11 attacks fell during the Days of Awe, we did not put off Yom Kippur until an easier time. In fact for many of us, the Yom Kippur services marked a key step in mourning the attacks and coming to terms with the fact that our world had changed forever.

Sometimes things in the Jewish calendar do move, but usually that has to do with a conflict with other calendar items. For instance, this year we have two months of Adar. We do that so that Passover and next Rosh Hashanah will stay in their proper seasons. If we did not adjust, then our lunar calendar would send the spring and fall holy days spiraling around the year.

For very small congregations served by student rabbis or rabbis on a once-a-month schedule, it can be very difficult to keep holy days in their proper place. Still, most small congregations I know keep the major holidays faithfully and do the best they can with the minor ones.

I don’t know how Presidents Washington and Lincoln would have felt about us combining their birthdays into one holiday. Likely they would have agreed with President Johnson that it would be better for business. However,  I notice that it has taken the emphasis off of the men themselves and made it more of a “holiday weekend” for vacations and sales. The same is true, maybe more so, for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, both of which originally marked solemn days in our country’s history. Those days have largely lost their significance as days of solemnity and gratitude unless your family has members who have been in the military.

With that in mind, I don’t see myself accepting any requests to celebrate Jewish holy days at more convenient times. The holy days’ very inconvenience is part of our experience, reminding us that yes, indeed, some things are more important than work, or even play.


Washington and the Jews

George WashingtonOn August 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island on a goodwill tour celebrating the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. While he was there, he was given a letter from the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport,” written by the warden of the congregation, Moses Seixas. The letter expressed the hopes and dreams of the Jews of Newport for a true home in which they need not fear religious persecution.

President Washington answered the letter with a gracious letter of his own which marked a milestone in the American separation of church and state. In Europe, Jews had been outsiders, unwelcome and at best tolerated, and they did not hold citizenship.

Washington wrote:

…The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. 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, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid…

There would be severe challenges ahead to this liberal doctrine. (if you are wondering about that, Google “General Order No. 11” or watch the film Gentlemen’s Agreement.) But it set a tone and an expectation quite different from that in other western nations. Jews were to be part of America, not a separate and despised class of foreigners.