‘The American Bible’: …With liberty, justice and religion for all

The biblical reference in the title of Stephen Prothero’s “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation” (HarperOne: $29.99) is purely metaphorical. Although Prothero is a professor of religion and the best-selling author of “Religious Literacy” and “God Is Not One,” his new book is an anthology of writings and other works of authorship that amount to a mostly secular American canon, ranging from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to “The Gettysburg Address” and “Civil Disobedience” to the Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.

To be sure, Prothero characterizes his collection as a spiritual enterprise.  The various entries are categorized under scriptural headings, ranging from “Genesis” and “Chronicles” to “Gospels,” “Acts” and “Epistles.”  But only a few of the writers whose texts are singled out were themselves clergy, and there are actually more songwriters — Francis Scott Key (“The Star-Spangled Banner”), Irving Berlin (“God Bless America”) and Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”) — than men of the cloth; in fact, only two clergymen, Martin Luther King Jr. (“I Have a Dream”) and Malcolm X (“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”), are listed as authors of the principal texts, although many of the commentaries originate with ministers and preachers.

Prothero insists that American culture and identity can be understood as “a religion of sorts,” but he is just as insistent that there is no such thing as an American creed. “Our republic of letters is a republic of conversation constituted, divided, reconstituted, and maintained by debate over the meaning of ‘America’ and ‘Americans,’ ” he writes. “Americans agree to a surprising degree about which symbols and ideas are central to our national life, but we disagree profoundly about what these symbols and ideas mean and how they ought to be translated into public policies.”

Indeed, Prothero explains his book as “an effort to construct an American Talmud,” that is, a core text that can only be understood through the commentaries that are built upon it. “My chief criterion,” he explains, “has been the ability of a given text to generate controversy and conversation.” The principal of selection explains why a single sentence (John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you …”) and even a single phrase (Ronald Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”) are included in the canon. 

More typically, however, Prothero gives us a generous excerpt from a core text and then provides various passages that reflect the text in one way or another. For example, he opens the book with the Exodus story as it appears in the Bible, but only as a starting point for a selection of writings that echo the biblical text — the slave spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” a note from Benjamin Franklin that was found among the papers of Thomas Jefferson and a 19th century writer who compared the Mormon leadership to Muhammad and Moses. All of the short commentaries, according to Prothero, show how the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt can be seen as “the American story — the narrative Americans tell themselves to make sense of their history, identity, and destiny.”

Some entries are eccentric but also highly imaginative. One of the core documents in the collection is “The Blue Back Speller” of Noah Webster, a famously secular reference work first published in 1783 by a man whom Prothero characterizes as one of America’s uncredited Founding Fathers. “Nothing has a greater tendency to lessen the reverence which mankind ought to have for the Supreme Being,” explained Webster, “than a careless repetition of his name upon every trifling occasion.” Significantly, both Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Booker T. Washington, a former slave, are among the writers whose praises for “The Blue Back Speller” are included in “The American Bible.”

Very few texts by women are included in the collection, a fact that Prothero readily acknowledges and explains: “For better or worse,” he writes, “dead white men have had outsized influence over the course of U.S. history.” And when he does include a work whose author was female, his choices are a bit of a stretch. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is one: “There is no more polarizing novel in American literature,” he concedes, and it’s significant that we are not offered an opportunity to read an excerpt from the book because, as Prothero points out, permission to do so was denied by the Estate of Ayn Rand — a fact that is a commentary in itself.

Another work by a woman is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the only contribution in the collection that is not, strictly speaking, a text. The excerpt, such as it is, consists of some of the names inscribed on the stone surfaces of the monument: “Dale R Buis, Chester M Ovnard, Maurice W Flournoy” and so on.  Among the commentaries is one provided by Maya Lin, the architect who designed the memorial: “[T]his memorial is not meant as a monument to the individual,” she explains, “but rather as a memorial to the men and women who died during this war, as a whole.” Only a few of the other commentators acknowledge the fact that Lin’s work is a powerful anti-war statement, but Bill Clinton is among them: “Let us continue to disagree, if we must, about the war,” he said. “But let us not let it divide us as a people any longer.”

Although “The American Bible” reaches back to the beginnings of our democracy, Prothero is mindful of the noisy media environment in which we actually live today. “[I]t is difficult to enter into the rough and tumble of contemporary American policies and exit with one’s hope (or one’s dignity) intact,” he observes. But he encourages his readers to use his collection as a book of maps that will guide readers back to the original texts: “Why allow John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi to dominate your book group,” he suggests, “when Jefferson, Lincoln and King are in the room?”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.

Rabbis Fail to Bridge Denominational Gulf

Nearly a year ago, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and a scholar of demographic trends, put a challenge to a former student.

Jews around the nation are deeply involved in interfaith initiatives, Wertheimer noted. But they avoid involvement with their own religion’s different movements, letting ideological differences get in the way of conversing with each other over issues dear to each. Do something to mend that divide before the gulf is unbridgeable, he urged Stuart Altshuler, a JTS graduate and rabbi of Mission Viejo’s Congregation Eilat.

Last month in a display of professional collegiality that is unusual for most communities, seven Orange County rabbis from across the ideological spectrum jointly collaborated in a pluralistic dialogue. Or as one panelist summarized, "How do we stack the deck differently?"

About 50 people attended "Torah & Israel: A Community Conversation" on a rainy Sunday at Chapman University. The event was sponsored by the college and the American Jewish Committee, of which Altshuler is a board member.

The only denomination without a representative was the Reconstructionist movement. Arnie Rachlis of Irvine’s University Synagogue had a previous commitment.

At the outset Altshuler, who served as moderator, said that his aim was to unite the Jewish community through knowledge about its diversity. What emerged was the nearly galactic theological distance between the Orthodox spiritual leaders and rabbis from the other movements. In all, Israel got little attention, overshadowed by generally cordial but sometimes testy interchanges over topical issues such as conversion, identity and equality.

Elie Spitz, a Conservative rabbi from Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, and Michael Mayersohn, a Reform rabbi, described Torah as a human creation whose interpretation continues to evolve through history.

David Eliezrie, an Orthodox Chabad rabbi, emphatically described Torah as God’s word manifested in the physical world.

"Torah is the goal post. We don’t believe in moving the goal posts," he said.

For some people, such differing interpretations are unacceptable, said Allen Krause of Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. "It’s never been a problem for me to have uncertainty."

"We’re all trying to blend tradition with modernity," said Stephen Einstein of the ReformCongregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley. "Today, the lines are not as clearly drawn."

Yet, the delineation was evident on other topics, such as the rabbis’ explanation for allowing or disallowing mixed seating.

"Prayer is an extremely challenging activity," said Joel Landau of the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine, where women sit behind a glass-and-wood partition, or mechitzah. The opposite sex is a distraction, he said.

Spitz agreed that praying exclusively with men creates an unself-conscious environment. "But separate is not equal," he said, noting that the all-female Radcliffe Institute never achieved the prestige of all-male Harvard University. "What trumps distraction is the greater sense of equality that honors women."

And what is a justifiable change in Jewish law?

"There is no red line; everything in Torah needs interpretation," Spitz said, noting that "an eye for an eye" is not interpreted literally. "Nothing in Torah is obvious."

And while interpretations are bound by precedent, topics on women, music and homosexuality are areas where the law tends to change, he added.

So who is a Jew?

"I would beg the non-Orthodox rabbis to go along with the Orthodox because it’s so divisive," said Lauren Klein, a member of the audience and self-described as "very, very Reconstructionist."

"We ought to have one standard where we can agree who is a Jew," said Einstein, noting that the Reform movement splits with the Conservative in accepting as Jewish a person born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.

"The Orthodox think they are the only authentic Judaism; the rest are something else, an expression of Judaism."

"If we’re going to let those on the right be gatekeepers, hundreds of thousands [of people] will be excluded," Einstein said. "The Orthodox standard isn’t prevalent."

"Where others see dangers," added Mayersohn, referring to converts and others born of non-Jewish mothers, "I see richness."

Eliezrie disagreed. "By setting different standards of identify, you have chaos."

"Today in Israel, this issue has reached the boiling point," Einstein said. "Whatever happens there will happen here."

Noting the strengths of each denomination, Altshuler concluded, saying, "We all have contributions to make."