September 21, 2019

The Torah and the Founding of America

“What role should the bible play in American politics? This question remains at the center of debates over hot-button social issues—such as abortion and same-sex marriage—where traditional and progressive values continue to clash. As these debates persist, how should American Jews leverage their unique values and texts to develop their own responses to these pressing social and political challenges?

Somewhat counter-intuitively, this is the foundational question raised by a new edited sourcebook, Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States. Edited by Stuart Halpern, Matthew Holbreich, Jonathan Silver and Meir Soloveichik, the anthology collects important historical texts in which religious and political leaders incorporated the values, messages and narratives of the bible into their vision of American liberty, community and politics. That this sourcebook bears on contemporary political deliberation may seem odd given that the collected texts themselves date primarily from the 17th through the mid-19th century. Yet in highlighting how generations of prominent American historical figures placed the bible front and center when they spoke and wrote, this anthology invariably asks the reader to evaluate the role of Jewish text and values within the context of political debate and deliberation.

In terms of organization, the anthology is divided into four parts. The first collects primary sources from colonial life prior to the American revolution and the second focuses directly on the period of the American revolution itself. The third then considers texts from the early years of the American republic, with the fourth and final part turning to texts addressing slavery, abolitionism and the Civil War. As the editors note in the postscript, they chose to end the anthology after the Civil War because the bible largely fell out of political discourse by the late 19th century.

It is this marginalization of the bible in political discourse that the editors clearly seek to remedy by bringing readers back to a time when the bible had far more political valence when it came to how America imagines itself.”

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