The Hebrew Bible in American History
A fascinating collection of documents co-edited by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and three Yeshiva University colleagues explores the genesis of the United States as the promised land, reliant upon Hebrew sources to justify its claim. The Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Soloveichik’s illuminating commentary reveals, contributed to “the American moral language of liberty,” transforming “the Israelites’ story” into “the American story.”
Biblical (although not yet Jewish) linkage was evident as early as the 1620 journey of the Mayflower, when Pilgrim leader William Bradford described the exodus from England to the American promised land as a journey for “the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith.” Puritan settlers imagined themselves as the “New Israel,” chosen by God for their devotion to the Lord. Biblical resonance would be evident in the names of new American towns — among them “Canaan,” “Shiloh,” and ”Salem.”
With “chosenness,” “exodus,” and “Zion” embedded in the American narrative of freedom, the Hebrew Bible became “a source of rhetorical authority” in American public life. At the First Continental Congress in 1774, “The American Republic was born to the music of the Hebrew Bible.” The ancient Israelites’ freedom from bondage, Rabbi Soloveichik writes, would be replicated by American independence from British rule. For future presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the Biblical narrative was their inspirational metaphor for American freedom.
“No group in American history,” writes Rabbi Soloveichik, “interpreted their collective experience in the New World as closely along Hebraic lines as the African-Americans.” Yearning for freedom but enslaved in a foreign land, “they identified strongly with the story of Exodus.” Abraham Lincoln, recognized by Rabbi Soloveichik as “perhaps the single greatest employer of Hebraic tropes in American history,” embraced the Biblical imperative in his determination to save the Union from its looming self-destruction by secession and slavery. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln warned that the American “covenant” was on the verge of shattering.
Striking confirmation of Rabbi Soloveichik’s insights (although not included in his analysis) appeared with the post-Civil War discovery by disillusioned Easterners of southwestern Pueblo Indians. For their new admirers — anthropologists, artists, and photographers prominent among them — these native Americans restored the Biblical allure of primitive America, before cities and factories destroyed its innocence.
Smitten by the Biblical resonance of Native American culture in New Mexico, Edwin S. Curtis photographed “Taos Water Girls,” capturing a mother and daughter, balancing pots on their heads, emerging from an Edenic wilderness. With the sacred image of Biblical Rebecca amid the hovering menace of American urbanization and industrialization, Curtis expressed a yearning rooted in Biblical memory for pre-modern innocence and purity.
Nearly a century later, amid fading Biblical imagery in American public life, Rabbi Soloveichik notes that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the most biblical American leader of the twentieth century,” employed “uniquely Hebraic tropes to express something deep in the American psyche.” Indeed, no community in American life since the founding generation “has so deeply embodied the Hebrew spirit as the African-American community.”
“Throughout history,” Rabbi Soloveichik writes, “Americans saw their own lives through Hebraic stories and took moral meaning from their reenactment of biblical episodes.” The biblical narrative “has taught Americans to speak and think about chosenness, exodus, and covenant.” He believes that “the Hebraic worldview … articulates a vision of human life that is redemptive, endowed with sacred meaning, and which seeks to combine righteousness and freedom.”
Yet especially now, when attacks in Jewish synagogues, homes, and neighborhoods have become a malignant and murderous plague, President George Washington’s famous letter to “the Hebrew Congregation at Newport,” cited by Rabbi Soloveichik, still resonates. He wished: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of other inhabitants.” How appalling that 230 years later Washington’s wish still remains unfulfilled, violently shattered in the current wave of hateful and vicious rampages against Jews — because they are Jews.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016, recently recognized in Mosaic as a “Best Book of 2019.”