Tradition Today: Living up to our ideals

We should read those words of our Declaration of Independence carefully and ask ourselves honestly what we must do to achieve the lofty ideals that are described there so well.

People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in New York in May. (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in New York in May.
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
At Ambassador Dan Shapiro’s recent American Independence Day celebration, I listened to the speeches by the ambassador, President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The main message they all stressed was the close ties between our two countries and the fact that both nations share the same basic values and ideology of freedom and democracy based on biblical teachings.
One other thing that our two nations have in common was not mentioned, and that is that both were founded on wonderful idealistic statements, but in neither case were those ideals carried out until much later, if at all. In both America and Israel much work remains to be done in order to realize the high ideals that were articulated so well by the founding fathers.
The idealistic statements I am referring to can be found in the American Declaration of Independence and the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Both nations are rightly proud of these documents, but tend to ignore the fact that neither has yet been achieved in full.
“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,” states the US declaration.
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions....”
In 1776 America declared that “all men are created equal,” but at that time “all men” did not include women. That was not achieved even in part until the 20th century, and even then an amendment declaring the total equality of women failed to pass.
The declaration did not include “all” men, since those who were not property holders were not included, and it certainly did not include blacks. The founding fathers – George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among them – were slaveholders.
President Abraham Lincoln himself was appalled at Jefferson’s “repulsive” actions with a slave woman. It took a horrendous civil war to end slavery, and by no means did that end discrimination against blacks. Discrimination against blacks in the armed forces in the Second World War was notorious. The recent events in North Charleston, South Carolina, demonstrate all too clearly how far America is from realizing those brave words of 1776. That has yet to happen.
Discrimination against Jews was also common. Even great universities such as Yale and Harvard had discriminatory quotas well into the 20th century. Einstein Medical School of Yeshiva University was founded in the ’50s because Jews still had a problem getting into medical schools. Hotels openly advertised that no Jews were allowed, and whole sections of major cities had “covenants” forbidding the sale of houses to Jews. Full equality is still a work in progress 239 years later.
As for Israel, here, too, the words of 1948 represent a magnificent ideal, but one that has not been achieved. After 67 years much remains to be done. Every government of Israel, for example, has spoken about the fact that Arabs and Arab municipalities need to be brought up to the standards of Jewish municipalities, and that Arabs are not properly represented in many fields.
Neither can we say that Ethiopian Jews are fully integrated into Israeli society and treated equally. Women are still paid less than men for the same work.
And as for religious freedom, the Chief Rabbinate still has a monopoly on marriage and divorce. Non-Orthodox rabbis and congregations are not recognized here and do not receive the same government support. In such matters as conversion and rabbinical courts, the current government has recently taken steps that make things even worse than they were before, reversing measures that would have made conversion more accessible and made rabbinical courts less stringent than they are.
Ignoring the declaration’s words concerning both Jewish immigration and freedom of religion, the government has turned the clock back rather than forward. The increasing number of attacks on places of Christian and Muslim worship, including arson, perpetrated by Jews not yet apprehended by the police is a severe stain on our society which stands in stark contrast to the ideal of safeguarding “the Holy Places of all religions.”
Unfortunately, of late freedom of conscience, education and culture have also come under attack from people in high places in government. It is true that we are far more open and democratic than so many of our neighbors, but we must measure ourselves not against their standards but against the standards we have set for ourselves in the words of our own declaration. That is what counts.
This period of time, the three weeks between 17 Tamuz and Tisha Be’av, when we remember the calamity of 586 BCE when Jerusalem was destroyed and Judah went into exile, is a most appropriate time for us to consider how we can improve and come closer to those ideals articulated at the very founding of the state.
That indeed is the true purpose of remembering what happened at this time of year: to learn from past errors. The sages of the Talmud were always concerned with the question of what caused these catastrophes. They were not historians who would find the cause in the imperial designs of Babylon or Rome, or in the weakness of Judah or the Jewish rebels. Rather, they looked at what the Jews themselves had done which would warrant this calamity. Their judgment was stated concisely in the words of the Siddur, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” Then the question was, what were those sins? After the Roman victory, they puzzled over that because although they believed that in the days of the First Temple the people had been guilty of terrible sins – bloodshed and idolatry and others – in the days of the Second Temple that was not the case. What, then, could justify the Jewish defeat? The answer they gave was “causeless hatred.” Going out of your way to act hatefully to others when they have done nothing to deserve it – that is enough to destroy your society.
Be that as it may, the important thing is that the sages wanted us to concern ourselves not with blaming others but with what we did wrong. They wanted us, during these three weeks, to hold the mirror up to ourselves, to discover our flaws and to correct them so that we would not have to suffer yet another catastrophe.
That is the purpose of these periods of remembrance – to look at ourselves and see what we can do better.
We should read those words of our Declaration of Independence carefully and ask ourselves honestly what we must do to achieve the lofty ideals that are described there so well. Only then will Israel truly become a nation “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the founding director of the Schechter Institute, has written for The Jerusalem Post for over 40 years. He has served as the head of the Masorti Movement’s Rabbinic Court for Conversion and is now a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly.
A prolific author, two of his books have received the National Jewish Book Council Award as the best work of scholarship of the year. His most recent book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights), and his next volume, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS) is scheduled for publication in October.