Jefferson’s Moses

In the eyes of the founding fathers, the American Moses is not Moshe Rabbeinu.

In the eyes of the founding fathers, the American Moses is not Moshe Rabbeinu (photo credit: REUTERS)
In the eyes of the founding fathers, the American Moses is not Moshe Rabbeinu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Bruce Feiler is a talented and prolific journalist.
Born in my mother’s hometown of Savannah, Georgia, Feiler has opened up the world of the Hebrew Bible in popular studies that incorporate much of the academic focus on the Holy Scriptures of the past 200 years. With Passover upon us, I would recommend that the reader of this essay delve into America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, Feiler’s 2009 work that reveals the extent to which the Israelite Exodus from Egypt impacted American politics, thought, religion and culture. The author’s case is convincing and interesting.
Yet, I would warn the reader of America’s Prophet that there is an omission in Feiler’s study that needs to be addressed that concerns the attitude of the Founding Fathers to Moses and Judaism. I addressed this issue in The Jerusalem Post in 2010 in an essay titled “The American Founding Fathers and Judaism.” I want to revisit this issue because I posit that Feiler, as an American Jew, misunderstands the role of the Hebrew Bible in the eyes of our country’s founders and underestimates the importance of Christianity in the roots of America.
While it is true that the Exodus was a major source of inspiration for Americans in 1776, we tend to exaggerate the Jewish contribution to the United States, especially in its early years. There is a need for a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the relationship between America and Jewish faith and texts.
Feiler’s discussion of the creation of the seal that would represent America is troubling. The journalist describes how Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson proposed a seal for the United States that portrayed the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds led by a pillar of fire and a cloud while escaping from the pursuing Pharaoh’s army. While this design was not adopted, the story of the Israelite Exodus was obviously inspiring to the Protestant Christians who founded America.
However, if we rely on this report alone, we are assigning to Jews and Judaism an exaggerated role in the creation of the United States of America. Christianity was the faith of our Founders, and their understanding of their religion and its relationship to politics often collides with Jewish faith and identity. I will give you the example of Thomas Jefferson, in no way an antisemite and in every way an outstanding thinker who wanted freedom of religion to be a foundation of American life and law. Yet, if Jefferson was so fond of the ancient Israelites why would he attack Judaism and Jews – and Moses – in his private correspondence?
In a letter written from retirement after his presidency, Jefferson gives us an evaluation of Moses that does not fit conveniently into Feiler’s narrative of the Founding Fathers and Israel’s greatest prophet. In Monticello on August 4, 1820, Jefferson wrote a letter to fellow patriot William Short, in which he describes the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, focusing on the contrast between Moses and Jesus. For the Founding Father and third President, Jesus’s “object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of the adoration. Moses had either not believed in a future state of existence, or had not thought it essential to be explicitly taught to his people. Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision.”
This is not a very flattering portrait of Moses and Judaism.
Jefferson’s censure of Moses, Judaism and the God of Israel in the letter to Short continues: “Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue: Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance.
The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit towards other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence. The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous. Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion: and a step to the right or left might place him within the gripe of the priests of the superstition, a bloodthirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel. They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law.”
While Feiler is shocked that the Exodus from Egypt played so central a role in American life and thought, I am shocked that any study of Moses’s influence on our nation can simply omit attitudes toward Judaism espoused by Jefferson or John Adams. Adams, while praising Judaism as a civilizing force in his later years, advocated a Jewish home in the Land of Israel so Jews would “wear away some of their asperities and peculiarities” and become “good Liberal Unitarian Christians.”
The American Moses is not Moshe Rabbeinu. He and the Hebrew Bible he inhabits is simply an “Old Testament.”
The Exodus in American history is seen through Christian eyes. Both Adams and Jefferson are sons of the Enlightenment, which was especially hostile to Judaism because it was seen as the epitome of an organized Religion of Revelation. For Enlightenment thinkers, Jewish ritual was an inferior superstition to a Christianity that represented the Religion of Reason. Thus, Jefferson can accept Moses as a prophet and liberator but as a lawgiver outside of the universal ethics of the Ten Commandments, Moses fails – especially when it comes to the “empty mummeries” of ritual that represent a cruel and tribal God.
America, no matter what it stands for today, was not founded as a secular nation. Freedom of religion and the abolishing of state religion in no way negated the profound Christianity of the Founders. I would be the first to admit that Moses, King David and the judge Deborah were central to American Christianity at the time of the Revolution. However, the most cited biblical text during the war, the most popular sermon delivered by pastors and ministers during the struggle against England, was not from the Hebrew Bible. The most cited text was from the New Testament’s Revelation to John and depicted Christ as a heroic warrior against demonic forces.
The Revolutionary War was, in many ways, a Christian war. Throughout American history, Jews have wanted to hear a narrative that they were essential to the birth of the world’s oldest democracy and that they were essential to the Republic from its earliest years. In the great wave of Jews from Eastern Europe to the US a century ago, the Polish Jew Haym Salomon was raised from the status of an important currency broker and supporter of the rebellion against England into the “Financier of the Revolution” without whom America would have been soundly defeated. That Jews had to whitewash history in order to “feel at home” in the Golden Land is an embarrassment.
That Jefferson and Adams were inspired by the ancient Israelites of the Hebrew Bible did not mean that they respected the “Talmud Jew.” The notion that the Law is an impediment to salvation and that Christianity followed in the legacy of prophets and not priests carried over from the medieval Church into the European Enlightenment.
The Exodus is the story of how the Chosen Nation of God, a slave people, came into being. While Jews find it flattering that their story has influenced the birth and flowering of the American Nation, the reality is that the Jewish Exodus is not the American Exodus.
While some celebrate the universalism of Moses, I do not want to see our greatest prophet – and lawgiver – transformed into a figure valued as a liberator but excoriated for being the representative of a tribal cult believing in a cruel God with empty ritual.
Jefferson’s understanding of Moses was a Protestant understanding of Moses. His support of freedom of religion and the abolishing of state religion was the core of his political philosophy. However, let us not forget that in Jefferson’s Virginia the Anglican Church – the state church – was openly hostile to dissenting Baptists and Presbyterians, who were hesitant to fight the British because of this discrimination. Yes, Jefferson was an idealist, but he was also a pragmatist. Jews were the beneficiaries, in part, of an internal Protestant struggle. There is no shame in that.
That Cecil B. DeMille filmed his version of the Exodus twice concerns me less than my experience as a bar- and bat-mitzva instructor in which 40% of the students could not read their haftara in Hebrew and needed an English transliteration. That a ragtag band of liberated slaves would leave a legacy that is at the core of Western civilization is a source of pride for me as a Jew. The fact that Jews and Judaism have been “culturally appropriated” in the West is a testament to the enduring relevance of the texts and histories of a small nation with humble beginnings.
Feiler in American Prophet reminds us of how powerful the ideas of Exodus and Redemption have been in America. American Jews like my father fought as an American to destroy evil during World War II. The ideals for which he fought are, in part, rooted in an American thought, religion and politics influenced by the Hebrew Bible. However, the emphasis on Jewish universalism overshadows a crisis in America that Jews have abandoned the details of living a Jewish life and that integration into life here has been one not of acculturation, but assimilation.
Our story is a story of a particular and chosen people.
Pride in our impact on the world can only take us so far and even encourages our disappearance. The gap between Jefferson’s Moses and Moshe Rabbeinu is a chasm that is a key to understanding our current crisis.
Eli Kavon is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.