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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Jews Have a Profound Stake in America

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Words are simply not adequate to define or contain the emotions following the assault on January 6 on the U.S. Capitol and American democracy.

We Jews have a profound stake in this nation. We were here from the very beginnings of this experiment in democracy. Washington’s extraordinary letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in August 1790 affirms this unique connection:

Everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid…For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Over the course of our nation’s history, we have helped to frame a political contract that defines our relationship to the American story, celebrating its liberties and experiencing its freedoms while being present to serve and defend our fellow citizens. We had come to understand this relationship as a political experiment, representing something so different from any previous experience in the history of governance.

A number of factors contribute to the uniqueness of the American enterprise, which I detailed in my book, “The Quest for Power,” published in 2014. The country’s commitment to cultural diversity and religious pluralism, for example, enhanced the development of Jewish political activism. The Constitution provides a legal framework that promotes free religious expression as framed in the First Amendment and ensures that no religious tests are imposed on those seeking public office (Article VI).

The legal system of the United States was not constructed around a distinctive set of ideological beliefs but rather evolved organically out of a political tradition comprised of federalism, representative democracy and communitarian values.  Further, this society focused on the dreams and possibilities of constructing an aspirational future, which in many ways aligned with the ideals of the Jewish prophetic tradition.

Drawing upon our religious tradition, historically Jews adhered to the supremacy of the “Law.”  If the Torah was the center of gravity for Judaism’s legal orientation, then for Jewish Americans, the U.S. Constitution and our system of laws would serve as a natural bridge, affirming our community’s commitment in celebrating the values and ideals of Americanism.

The Jewish values of Kehillah (Community), Kedoshim (Sacred), Tzedakah (Justice) and Shalom (Pursuit of Peace/Happiness) were social values seen as being in alignment with the American concepts of nation-building, loyalty, sacred duty and civil liberties. More directly, the notion of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were joined together with the traditional Hebrew principles.

Some of the Founders applied the Jewish messianic notions of “Zion” and the idea of returning to Jerusalem when describing the uniqueness of the American experience. The introduction of biblical names for American cities gave tangible evidence that America was seen by those fleeing persecution as the “new Zion.”

But with the assault on the Capitol so at odds with Jewish values and democratic values, many might ask: Did our contract with America come to end on January 6? What did this moment mean for Jewish Americans?

Did our contract with America come to end on January 6?

These events represented an assault on that sacred space that we, along with our fellow citizens, had helped to create and protect. Now, we, the inheritors of this American legacy, must be present to reclaim this democracy bestowed upon us and the generations that will follow.

This extraordinary American story is aligned with our sense of who we are as Jews. In this society, we would recalibrate our Judaism to conform to our Americanism.These civic principles and others, inspired by our religious tradition and drawn from our American experience, would serve to define our collective vision for this nation: 

  • We affirm the dignity of the individual.
  • We acknowledge American diversity. 
  • We defend and protect civil liberties for all. 
  • We repudiate racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. 
  • We embrace the idea of “truth.” 
  • We identify “communalism” as a strong asset of democracy. 
  • We affirm the importance of transparency in government.
  • We are committed to hearing and understanding those who differ with our vision of America. 
  • We celebrate the principle of compromise. 
  • We are invested in the public square and civic engagement.

No, the events on January 6, as threatening and unnerving as they appeared before us, did not — will not — deter our abiding connection and commitment to this republic. As we push back against this nightmare, we affirm our contract with America!


Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.  His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com

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