This coming Shabbat is also the Fourth of July.
For Americans, that day embodies the deepest of our internal confusions. That day we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, affirming the equality of all "men" and the responsibility of government to meet the needs of the people – especially for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we affirm the right of the people to alter or abolish any government that does not meet those needs and to substitute new government that does.
That Declaration was written mostly by Thomas Jefferson. Yet he owned hundreds of human beings, and enslaved them. When he wrote about slavery in his native state of Virginia, he wrote “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Yet he owned hundreds of human beings, and enslaved them.
The contradiction between his words and his actions has been repeated through all American history. When slavery was abolished at the cost of many lives, after a brief period when freedom flourished and racism staggered, slavery was replaced by KKK terrorism, lynchings, and Jim Crow. When protests gathered and people risked and lost their lives to make equality real, the Black community created new power bases and racism staggered. But Jim Crow was replaced by a system of “criminal injustice” that began at the point of a policeman’s gun and culminated in unjust bail, unjust courts, and mass incarceration. It was replaced by the massive wipeout of Black ownership and personal capital in the Great Recession of 2008 and the Coronavirus Depression of 2020.
What was the use of the Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence in all that history? As Frederick Douglass said in an extraordinary speech on July 5, 1852, what was the Fourth of July to a slave? Yet Douglass worked his way through a long speech to say:
… Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.
While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference.
Notice that the Fourth of July still bears witness for him, IF. If it is connected to the “obvious tendencies” of the present. That is a lesson to us. What can we draw on from the past, how do we make that vision take on bodies and action in the present – in ourselves, not elsewhere in the world?
Not only is Shabbat this year the Fourth of July, the Fourth of July is also Shabbat. How can we honor this confluence in a Shabbosdik way?
We can lift up for ourselves as Jews the commitment that goes back about 2500 years. There is an ancient ancestor of the Declaration of Independence. We should add it to the public Torah readings for this Shabbat:
When you enter the land that YHWH / Yahhhh / Interbreathing Spirit of life your God is giving you, and you possess it and settle in it, should you say: I will set over me a king like all the nations that are around me-
You may set, yes, set over you a king that YHWH / Yahhhh / Interbreathing Spirit of life your God chooses; from among your brothers you may set over you a king, you may not place over you a foreign man who is not a brother-person to you.
Only: he is not to multiply horses for himself, and he is not to return the people to Mitzrayyim/ Narrowland [Egypt} in order to multiply horses, since YHWH the Breath of Life has said to you: You will never return that way again!
And he is not to multiply wives for himself, that his heart not be turned-aside, and silver or gold he is not to multiply for himself to excess.
But it shall be: when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he is to write himself a copy of this Instruction in a document, before the presence of Levitical priests.
It is to remain beside him, he is to read out of it all the days of his life, in order that he may learn to have-awe-for YHWH the Breath-of-Life his God, to be-careful concerning all the words of this Instruction and these laws, to observe them,
That his heart not be raised above his brothers, that he not turn-aside from what-is-commanded, to the right or to the left; in order that he may prolong (his) days over his kingdom, he and his sons, in the midst of Israel.
(Deuteronomy 17:14-20, in the Everett Fox translation of the Five Books of Moses [Schocken])
What does that warning mean --- your leader, your ruler, shall not return you to Narrowland to buy horses?
Horse-chariots were the great and expensive weapon of the Imperial Army. (Its jet bombers carrying H-Bombs.) To build and equip that army meant turning the citizenry into slaves in order to pay the bill. But the Breath of Life had freed the Israelites, even when the horse-chariot Army pursued them to the edge of the Red Sea, and the Breath of Life forbade an Israelite king from returning the people to slavery to equip his quasi-Imperial Army. The passage was a more vivid version of what Martin Luther King said when he called militarism one of the deadly triplets afflicting American society.
We American Jews are not only heirs of the Torah. We are heirs of the Declaration, too. And facing society-wide racism, we must also face our own. We are not only “white.” Among us are Jews as Black as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, as swarthy as Anwar Sadat, as colorful as Gandhi and Liu Xiaobo. We could treat the Declaration of Independence as a prophetic commentary, a Haftarah, on the Torah portion we have just read.
Hazan Jack Kessler has done the work of making the heart of the Declaration into a Haftarah. You can watch the exquisite way in which he brings his physical presence, his emotional and spiritual as well as intellectual focus into giving the Declaration new life in a very old form.
And then we urge that in the discussion we raise questions and create activist midrash about the meaning of the Torah and Haftarah today. Within the Jewish community and beyond it. Is “community” one of the “inalienable rights"? Is there a right to a livable income, livable time to pause and learn, a livable planet? Are we obligated to risk “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” if we face a government that defaces the Declaration and the Torah?
For further thought toward action on these approaches see --
Jack Kessler’s article about his work in Kerem Magazine: Creative Explorations in Judaism Final Issue: #1 “English Leyning: Bringing New Meaning to the Torah Service”
And for a collection of speeches like Douglass’ about the original Declaration and new imagining of what a Declaration for our own day might be like, see