A few days have passed since the Fourth of July celebration of 244 years of America’s independence. None of us obviously will live that long to celebrate the 1948 birth of our country’s independence.
Thinking about it, I remembered a book I have in my library of some four thousand volumes, written in the 1950’s by my professor, Avraham Katsh, son of the Chief Rabbi of Petach Tikvah.
The title of his small book was “Hebraic Foundations of American Democracy”. It tells a fascinating story.
Many of America’s Founding Fathers were educated in Bible studies and several of them read Hebrew.
It is rumored that two signers of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, wrote letters to one another in Hebrew in order to evade the prying eyes of the British masters in the colonies.
If that rumor is true, and many scholars believe it to be, some of that correspondence may be preserved in the vaults of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (District of Colombia).
In addition, two very prominent official American symbols are directly taken from the Hebrew bible.
Those who are familiar with American history know that the emblem of the United States of America is a bald eagle. But in 1776 the first emblem of America was a picture of the Israelites crossing the Red (Reed) Sea.
Next, the motto of America, engraved on its currency, is E Pluribus Unum. Latin for “Of Many… One”, referring to the original 16 states bound in unity as one nation in 1776.
But America’s first original motto was taken from the Book of Maccabees, suggested by Benjamin Franklin. “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”. The British could not have approved of it !
Nevertheless, the American Congress preferred “In God We Trust”, while Thomas Jefferson chose the Maccabean phrase as his own personal seal.
In a previous article I had written that the two earliest and greatest of American universities, Yale in New Haven, Connecticut and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, required all first-year students to take classes in biblical Hebrew to prepare them for reading the Bible in its original language.
There were less than two thousand Jews living in the American colonies at the time but their influence on the new nation’s birth and growth was considerable.
The first synagogue in the new American colonies, Yeshuat Israel, was dedicated in Newport, Rhode Island in December 1763, and its first spiritual leader was Rabbi Isaac Touro, for whom the synagogue was later named.
A small Jewish community existed in Newport since 1620, mainly by Spanish and Portugese Jews who arrived from Barbados.
In 1790 the first American President, George Washington, paid a visit to the Touro synagogue in Newport and was very visibly impressed.
On August 21, 1790 he wrote a now famous letter to the congregants of the Touro synagogue which hangs on a wall for all to see, a major tourist attraction for visitors to Newport .
In his famous letter, President George Washington wrote:
“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. To Bigotry No Sanction. To Persecution No Assistance”.
And the George Washington letter ended with a direct quote from the Hebrew bible:
“Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid”. (the prophet Micah, chapter 4 verse 4)
257 years ago the Founding Father of America’s independence gave his praise and his blessing to the first Jewish synagogue on American soil.
244 years later, America’s Jews are still reaping George Washington’s blessing.
It is a fulfillment of the Hebraic foundations of American Democracy. And the millions of American Jews sing with pride: “God bless America, land that I love; stand beside her and guide her with a light in the night from above……..”
It is a song written by a famous American Jew, Irving Berlin, adding a spiritual anthem to American democracy.
In 1776 there were fewer than 2,000 Jews living in the United States.
In 2020 the Jewish population in the 50 American states is 5. 7 million. May they grow in numbers and in good health,