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David E. Weisberg
David E. Weisberg

Woke Judaism (Part 2)

A few weeks ago, I published a post entitled “Woke Judaism,” which criticized an earlier post written by Rabbi Barry Block.

Rabbi Block asserted that there is a “crisis” in our public schools, which is nothing less than an “assault” on social justice. The crisis has allegedly been created by proposed laws that would restrict teachers from teaching certain “hard truths,” including this one: America’s “white founders did not really mean it when they said, ‘all men are created equal’” in the Declaration of Independence.

My post, in response, presented facts and arguments intended to show that the founders truly did “mean it” when they said “all men are created equal.” In sum, I argued that the rabbi’s mistake stemmed from misunderstanding the meaning of “all men are created equal.” He thought it must mean that all men would be treated equally in the new nation to be created in America—if that is what the phrase meant, it obviously was false. But the founders understood it to mean that, in the eyes of God, all men are equal. That, I argued, is a very different proposition, and it is one the founders truly accepted.

After my post was published, a reader posted a negative comment, which read, in relevant part:

“I don’t know how this restrictive parsing of this clause in the [Declaration of Independence] undermines the clear normative implication that if we are created equal by God, then in our governance we must strive to treat people as equal. It seems that the quote from Jefferson on slavery emphasizes this. It certainly does not restrict this to a descriptive observation that distinguishes ‘the eye of God’ from the obligations of a human political project understood as dependent on His authority. There are ‘sloppy thoughts’ no doubt. There are also sloppy apologetics.”

This is a perfect, classic example of a “straw man” argument. One form of a straw man argument is this: Speaker A asserts that X is false, and provides substantial support for that assertion. Speaker B asserts that Y, which is obviously true but nevertheless significantly different from X, is true.  Having established the truth of Y, Speaker B proceeds as if he has established that X is also true.

What I said in my original post is that the rabbi falsely asserted that “America’s white founders did not really mean it when they said ‘all men are created equal.’”  The quote from the rabbi is the “X” that is false in the foregoing argument form.

Then along comes my discontented reader, and he says that nothing in my post “undermines the clear normative implication that if we are created equal by God, then in our governance we must strive to treat people as equal.” It is true that nothing in my post undermines that truism (which is the obviously true “Y” in the argument form), because the rabbi never asserted that truism and I would never even attempt to undermine it.

If men are created equal by God, it is certainly true that government should treat people equally. But that doesn’t in any way demonstrate that the founders dissembled when they said all men are created equal. What it demonstrates is that the founders were either not ready, or not willing, or not able to put into practice the implications of their belief that all men are created equal.

In this connection, it’s interesting to note that Abraham Lincoln, who certainly was aware that slavery had continually existed in America from a time before the country’s founding, insisted that the founders “meant” it when they said all men are created equal. In a speech in Springfield, Illinois, on June 26, 1857, this is what Lincoln said about the Declaration:

“I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal with “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” (Bold added; italics in original.)

Those who are “woke” naturally think of themselves as occupying the moral high ground. If the signers of the Declaration of Independence did not immediately create a nation in which everyone, black and white, enjoyed equal rights, then (according to their “woke” betters) they must have not “meant” what they said.  That is, they must have been liars. Lincoln disagreed.

The rabbi and, I would guess, my dissatisfied reader both would insist that schoolchildren be taught that the Declaration of Independence was, in crucial part, a prevaricating document drafted and signed by liars. I think that’s a falsehood that should never be taught in America’s schools. Of course, I’m not “woke,” so I’m not on an exalted moral plane. But I’m comfortable standing figuratively alongside Mr. Lincoln, even if he wasn’t an ordained rabbi.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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