There are American Jews who believe, with regard to some extremely controversial political issues, that all Jews ought to embrace one particular side of those issues, because a correct understanding of Judaism permits no other result. A very large percentage of such Jews can, I believe, be found on the “woke” or progressive side of the political spectrum. In support of that proposition, I offer into evidence as Exhibit A the recent featured post written by Rabbi Barry H. Block, entitled “Social justice should not be controversial”.
The rabbi says that he is concerned about a “crisis” in our public schools, which (he asserts) amounts to an “assault” on social justice. The crisis, we are told, is created by politicians who are proposing laws that would restrict teachers from teaching “hard truths,” including (a) the extent to which America “was built by Black people,” and (b) that America’s “white founders did not really mean it when they said, ‘all men are created equal.’” (The uppercase “Black” and lowercase “white” are, of course, in the rabbi’s blog.)
The rabbi does not provide a single citation or link to any proposed state or federal law that would restrict the teaching of those hard truths. One would think that, if such proposed laws amount to a “crisis” and an “assault” on social justice, he’d want to provide specific references, but there are none.
Nevertheless, I want to focus on the rabbi’s assertion that the founders did not truly mean or believe that “all men are created equal.” Of course, a slightly larger context from the Declaration of Independence would recite:
“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.”
The explicit reference to “their Creator” makes absolutely clear what the rabbi obviously overlooked: the Declaration asserts that, in the sight of their Creator, all men are equal. It does not assert that, in the course of their lives, all men have always been and always will be treated as equals. Nor does it assert that, from the very beginning of the independent “united States of America” that the founders hoped to establish, all men would be treated equally.
The Declaration says that, in the sight of their Creator, all men are equal. I assume the rabbi would agree. But is there any reason to think that the founders only pretended to agree? Is there any reason to think that, when, “in support of [the] Declaration,” the founders pledged to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, they were dissimulating? Let’s consider some relevant evidence.
Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner, was the primary drafter of the Declaration. He famously wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” He also wrote: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” Slavery, said Jefferson, is despotism. That implies, I submit, that Jefferson very sincerely believed that, in the eye and mind of their Creator, all men are equal. That is what the Declaration asserts, and not anything else.
Another signer of the Declaration was George Washington, who acquired many slaves upon his marriage to his wife Martha. When he died, he left a will that freed all his slaves upon the death of his wife. Is that the act of a man who dissembles when he affirms that “all men are created equal”? I think only a person who thoughtlessly fails to note the distinction I’ve emphasized above—the distinction between how men are viewed by their Creator and how they are treated by other men—would answer the question affirmatively.
It should also be noted that other signers of the Declaration–including John Adams and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania–were avowed, explicit abolitionists when they signed. Are they also among the founders who, according to Rabbi Block, did not really mean it when they affirmed that all men are created equal?
Rabbi Block believes that social justice is assaulted if students are not taught that the founders were dissimulating—concealing their true beliefs—when they declared “all men are created equal.” I believe we can know for a fact that the abolitionists who signed the Declaration were not dissimulating, and I believe that many slave-owners among them also believed that, in the eyes of their Creator, all men are created equal. The truth is much more complicated than the rabbi appreciates; one could even say that it is not a matter of “Black” or “white”.
We’re all human, and all of us entertain, from time to time, careless, sloppy thoughts. But I would suggest that any person who occupies a position that involves teaching other persons about important issues has a special obligation to be very careful and very thoughtful about the teachings he or she imparts. The rabbinate is such a position. And that’s the hard truth.