December 6, 2023
December 6, 2023

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The Hebrew Bible and the Birth of the US

Reviewing: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States: A Sourcebook,” by Stuart W. Halpern, Meir Soloveichik, Matthew Holbreich and Jonathan Silver. Koren Publishers Jerusalem. 2019. English. Hardcover. 376 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592644650.

Many people know that the Yale University coat of arms has the Hebrew words urim and tumim on it, above the Latin phrase Lux et Veritas, meaning “light and truth.” If Yale thought there was value in Jewish wisdom, that certainly was not manifest in their quotas. As Dan Oren wrote in “Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale,” it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Yale ended its informal admissions policy that limited enrollment to Jews to roughly 10%.

Yale University is but one example of how the Hebrew Bible was pervasive within the development of early America. The Hebrew Bible came to the United States with the Mayflower Pilgrims and has been used as a source of inspiration and encouragement since then. In “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States: A Sourcebook” editors Meir Soloveichik, Stuart Halpern, Matthew Holbreich and Jonathan Silver, have compiled a fascinating sourcebook that traces the relationship of the Hebrew Bible with American history itself.

The authors write that one can’t understand the American political tradition and its articulations through time without an understanding of America’s relationship with the Hebrew Bible. The main themes of the Bible are chosenness, exodus and covenant. The authors show how these themes were pervasive in the American political scheme, with the book covering the years from the Mayflower Compact through the Civil War.

As a sourcebook, the authors provide a significant amount of material detailing how extensive the biblical narrative was to American history. From John Winthrop’s invocation of Micah to reinforce the covenant between God and the Jews as a model of political community, to Benjamin Rush’s use of Genesis 1 as the model for developing a new nation, and much more.

Perhaps the most disturbing section of the book is in part four, detailing the debate over slavery. Plenty of southern clergy members used the biblical narrative to support their views that slavery was a biblical mandate.

While only about 5% of Southern society owned slaves, and of those who owned slaves, only 3% owned more than 20, cotton constituted about 50% of the nation’s exports, which gave rise to a continual and higher demand for slave labor. As Abraham Lincoln would say, slavery represented a powerful interest. The supposed pro-slavery sources slave-owners used to justify their way of life were many—including Genesis 9 and 14, Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 20.

The problem with using the Hebrew Bible as a source for slavery is that these sources are highly unsophisticated, and also are not in agreement with the Jewish hermeneutical tradition. While the slave-owners in the South treated their slaves like chattel, they were utterly oblivious to the myriad biblical requirements that a slave-owner must provide and the many benefits afforded to the slave. They were so significant, that the Talmud notes that “One who buys a slave has bought another master for themselves.”

In chapter after chapter, the authors do a splendid job of showing how American history and culture is so intertwined with the Hebrew Bible. The book closes with the intriguing observation that there is no group in American history who interpreted its collective experience in the New World as closely along Hebraic lines as African Americans. Their collective story of a forced enslavement in a foreign land, the yearning for liberation and freedom, hoping for a place they could call home—they identified strongly with the story of the Exodus. In fact, the African American experience is like that of the Jews: one of exile, bondage, yearning for a homeland and deliverance.

In fact, the Hebraic influence, as the book notes, is quite significant in the spiritual liturgy of the oppressed. Moses, Joshua and other prophets figure prominently in their spirituals, along with other Jewish ideals such as spiritual liberation. These Hebraic themes permeated the slave culture, and the songs and lyrics within the spirituals provided them with significant hope and a spiritual elevation. It’s debatable if contemporary Jewish music could make similar claims.

The book ends with the conclusion of the Civil War, as the authors write that the resonance of the Bible grew weaker in America since then. “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land” provides the reader with a unique view into American history and makes for a fascinating read.

By Ben Rothke

Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke 

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