An Ideal Not Yet Whole

I love the Fourth of July. Always have and always will. Growing up in Wisconsin, it had a kind of wholesome innocence attached to its annual occurrence. The flags are out; patriotic bunting adorns homes; there are parades led by politicians of both parties, barbecues, and fireworks. As national holidays go, it’s a big one, representing the best of the American idea that our Founders hammered out in their deliberations between Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Virginia. And in a nation where there seem to be fewer and fewer public rituals or experiences that unite us, the Fourth of July is one such day to embrace our Americanness.

For Jews, that has certainly been the case. My grandfather was a First World War veteran and my father a veteran of World War Two. Each of these men instilled in me a patriotic sense of Americanness that was their reason for serving and has been the foundation of my life’s work. And while I never served our country in the military, I was a Jew raised with the keen sense of obligation, of duty, of service in the name of the ideals of our people and our country and all its inhabitants. To honor all of those inhabitants, whether they were born here or came from another land, they were now all here in the name of freedom and equality and justice for all.

Of course, as a Jew I was also taught to think critically. To deconstruct and argue with the inherited texts — whether Biblical or Constitutional. I was raised by my parents and teachers to be aware that America was an ongoing project, an ideal not yet whole that each of us is obligated to wrestle with and do our part to make better than the jewel of freedom we had inherited.

And so going in to the annual July 4th celebration I have two rituals that get practiced each year. In the first, to celebrate the founding of American independence in 1776, I read the Declaration of Independence. The Jeffersonian language is rich with meaning, the founders signatures affirming the Enlightenment values that there are “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I’ll admit my heart swells at such poetry…until the prosaic act of questioning, even arguing with these words in Talmudic fashion, demand a truer response.

Which Founders owned slaves? How could an Enlightenment document tolerate human bondage and the oppression of women? Whose truths are self-evident?

It’s hard to be a Jew. We take our texts so seriously!

And so with this spirit of loving questioning, of insistent inquiry, I’d argue that with regard to the Fourth of July and American values, perhaps no other voice in American history encapsulates this dissonance as does Frederick Douglass’ in his famous July 5, 1852 Rochester speech, “What Does the Fourth of July Mean to the Negro?” It’s the other document I read each year, alongside Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. In truth, one can’t really read one document without the other.

With slavery still the law of the land and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress, Douglass asked a Rochester audience:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parades and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

Douglass was born into slavery; he escaped to his freedom in New York. He taught himself to read and write, becoming one of the most important orators in American history. He lived through the Civil War and came to see slavery abolished but died all too aware of the ongoing stain of racism and injustice. He could not resist the telling of brutal truths but he never despaired of hope. Remarkable but true. He’d have made a great Jew.

The historian Philip Foner said this was “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.” It’s hard to argue the point. But it’s an exceedingly important passage to remember, especially this week, as our nation convulses in anger and pain over recent decisions regarding immigration, the Muslim ban, voting rights and now what will surely be an exceedingly polarizing debate over replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement this week.

While social media is a red hot flame of debate, I have taken comfort in the shade of history and reflection, of being reminded that the American idea is indeed a work in progress and that just when we have thought there was no reason for hope, humankind banded together, rose to the occasion (not without considerable struggle) and reached new heights. And we Jews, a people whose national anthem is called “The Hope,” ought to remember this. Sometimes those “new” to the American idea help those who take it for granted to understand its depths and even truer meanings.

In trying political times I often turn to Representative John Lewis. A fighter in the trenches beside Rev. Martin Luther King, a sharecropper’s son and the first in his family to attend college, Lewis became an organizer for voting rights and was infamously and savagely beaten on a bridge in Selma for the right to vote. He eventually rose to serve in Congress. He said yesterday on Twitter, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime.”

He should know. His mentor Dr. King said on the night before his assassination that “I might not make it to the Promised Land.” History redolent with the tension of risk, loss and gain. The struggle of a lifetime.

King was referencing Moses, afterall, the source-text for one who never made it into the Promised Land, to the Land of Israel. Just before he died, Moses passed the torch of leadership to Joshua and so the flame of hope has been transmitted in every generation. We keep moving forward. We are not there yet.

We might see this “not there yet-ness” as an insistent hope, a hope of resiliency, a hope that animates the universal vision of “equality and justice for all.” It speaks to the very Jewish way one might embrace July Fourth. Rabbi Tarfon said two thousand years ago, “You are not obliged to complete the work; neither are you free to evade it.” We must try to serve others, to improve our world, and hand over to the next generation a stone more polished than that which was first placed in our hands.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Moabite prophet Balaam is told by his king, Balak, to curse the Israelites encamped in Moab. He tries but cannot; and while we often remember the story for its rather hilarious speaking donkey who blocks Balaam on his path to curse, we cannot forget the conclusion that a vision for peaceful coexistence, an appreciation for our neighbor’s habitation, an embrace of “difference,” is embedded in Balaam’s famous poem. “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places O Israel!” A couplet so vital to Jewish prayer that it opens our morning service each day. A Moabite observation of a Jewish neighborhood, if you will.

One must therefore ask what does it mean to stand in the shoes of the Other and see her life as they see it? What does it mean to look into another’s home, another’s customs, another’s language, another’s faith — and to see wonder and beauty? When we see similarities in difference we cannot help but conclude that as humans, there is always “more that unites us than divides us.” And that having others’ difference held up to us as a mirror so that we can correct our own behavior is one of the most important and empathic experiences we have the potential to share with our families, our neighbors and our fellow citizens.

We have to speak our truths to each other, civilly and meaningfully, and listen with an equal degree of openness and humility.

The Hebrew prophet Micah closes this week’s Haftarah with this credo: “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Eternal doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Who among us hasn’t fallen short in pursuing the good? Who among us is perfect? Who among us has all the answers, all the time? Are we not all together walking down life’s path desiring of shelter and sustenance, justice and peace?

We may not be there yet but we are on our way. That is always our message as a people, wherever we have lived. That is our Hope.

Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.