America & Jewish Values

The United States was the first country to be created, from its inception, as a democracy. And the Bible played a major role in the process.

The creation of the United States of America represented a unique event in world history. Unlike other countries where democracy evolved over a period of hundreds of years, the United States was the first country to be created, from its inception, as a democracy. And the Bible—and Jewish values—played a major role in this process.

Many of the earliest “pilgrims” who settled the “New England” of America in early 17th century were Puritan refugees escaping religious persecutions in Europe.

Over the next century, America continued to be not only the land of opportunity for many people seeking a better life but also the land of religious tolerance. By the middle 1700’s, the east coast of America was settled by a virtual “Who’s Who” of Christian splinter sects from all over Europe. Among them were:

  • the Puritans, whom we already know so well
  • the Quakers, an extremist Puritan sect who did not believe in ministers and for whom a Society of Friends meeting together was good enough to bring down the Holy Spirit
  • Calvinists, who early on had challenged the Catholic belief that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus in the celebration of the mass
  • the Huguenots, or French Calvinists
  • the Moravians, followers of John Hus, the protestant martyr from Bohemia
  • the Mennonites, a Swiss sect of Anabaptists who rejected infant baptism
  • the Amish, the most stringent of the Mennonites

These were just some of the numerous groups who arrived in America in search of religious freedom.

The majority of the earliest settlers were, of course, Puritans. Beginning with the Mayflower, over the next twenty years, 16,000 Puritans migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and many more settled in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Like their cousins back in England, these American Puritans strongly identified with both the historical traditions and customs of the ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament. They viewed their emigration from England as a virtual re-enactment of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. To them, England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea, America was the Land of Israel, and the Indians were the ancient Canaanites. They were the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land. Thanksgiving—first celebrated in 1621, a year after the Mayflower landed—was initially conceived as day parallel to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur; it was to be a day of fasting, introspection and prayer.

Gabriel Sivan, in The Bible and Civilization, (p. 236) observes:

No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the Biblical drama of the Hebrew nation. They themselves were the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs; the American Indians the Canaanites (or the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel); the pact of the Plymouth Rock was God’s holy Covenant; and the ordinances by which they lived were the Divine Law. Like the Huguenots and other Protestant victims of Old World oppression, these émigré Puritans dramatized their own situation as the righteous remnant of the Church corrupted by the “Babylonian woe,” and saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai.

In England, the Puritan identification with the Bible was so strong that some Puritan extremists sought to replace English common law with Biblical laws of the Old Testament, but were prevented from doing so. In America, however, there was far more freedom to experiment with the use of Biblical law in the legal codes of the colonies, and this was exactly what these early colonist set out to do.

The earliest legislation of the colonies of New England was all determined by Scripture. At the first assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport clearly stated the primacy of the Bible as the legal and moral foundation of the colony:

Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men as well as in the government of families and commonwealth as in matters of the Church ... the Word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation. (See Abraham I Katsch, The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy, p. 97)

Subsequently, the New Haven legislators adopted a legal code—the Code of 1655—which contained some 79 statutes, half of which contained Biblical references, virtually all from the Hebrew Bible. The Plymouth Colony had a similar law code as did the Massachusetts assembly, which, in 1641—after an exhortation by Reverend John Cotton who presented the legislators with a copy of Moses, His Judicials—adopted the so-called “Capitall Lawes of New England” based almost entirely on Mosaic law. A very significant political evolution was taking place in the New World. Unlike the Puritans in England who, of necessity, lived under English common law and were ruled by a King and Parliament, the Puritans of America had no central authority or national governing body. Yet, they did not lapse into anarchy. Instead, they created communities governed by elected councils of elders similar to the “presbyters” of England. Their communities were both stable and prosperous, with mandatory school systems modeled after the Jewish ones.

This unique political evolution goes a long way toward explaining the strong sense of independence shared by the colonies and the early success of democracy in America. The Puritans felt that God was watching them, and fear of heaven was a thousand times stronger than fear of the crown.

It almost seems as if these early settlers had recreated the Biblical period of the “Judges,” when, following the conquest of Jericho and settlement of Canaan, Israel had no king or central authority and “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

What was right in Puritan eyes, of course, was what the Bible said. But what did it say exactly? So much of it could be subject to interpretation of the reader.

Without the Jewish Oral Law, which helped the Jews understand the Bible, the Puritans were left to their own devices and tended toward a literal interpretation. This sometimes led to a stricter, more fundamentalist observance than Judaism had ever seen. For example, the Jewish Sabbath is a day of refraining from work as the Bible mandates. However, “work”—in Hebrew melacha—is defined by Jewish Oral Law as cessation of all creative activity that was in progress when the Tabernacle was being built and which, the Bible states, ceased on the Sabbath. But the Puritans took the commandment to cease work as unconditional. And their prohibitions were actually more restrictive than what the Jews had themselves practiced. Even household chores such as sweeping floors, making beds, or feeding animals were not allowed for the twenty-four hours of the day of rest. Adherence was enforced by fines and public floggings.

While we stress the importance of the Hebrew Bible to the early American settlers, it is important to note that, of course, the “New Testament” was revered as well. However, the Hebrew Bible was seen as the original and pure source of Christian values, and also as a legalistic and ritualistic guide, something which the New Testament was not.

In addition, there was a political agenda involved in this special focus in the Old over the New Testament. Many New Englanders viewed the New Testament as an instrument of justification, used by powers-that-be in Europe, to preserve the existing order. Had not Paul written in his letter to the Romans (13:1-2):

Every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him. It follows that anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they receive.

That sure smacked of the divine right of kings and condemnation of the rebels of the Puritan revolution. No wonder that the Hebrew Bible, with its message of obedience to God alone, of personal responsibility, and of freedom from tyranny, was far more in tune with the mindset of these Protestant splinter sects of America.

Focusing even further on the issue of individual responsibility, the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted legislation requiring parents to teach their children to read and understand the basic principles of religion and capital laws. All towns in New England with a minimum of 50 households were required by law to establish schools and appoint teachers.

In 1670, British commissioners making a survey of conditions in the American colonies reported that in Connecticut fully one-quarter of the annual revenues were set aside for free public education. Universities were established (the first being Harvard University founded in 1636 as training school for Puritan ministers), and many printing presses were imported for the printing and dissemination of books.

In insisting on education for all, the Puritans were following Jewish law. (Had not the 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides admonished: “Appoint teachers for the children in every country, province and city. In any city that does not have a school excommunicate the people of the city until they get teachers for the children.”)

Education for all thus became a hallmark of early America and not just New England. In addition to Harvard, many other colleges and universities were established under the auspices of various Protestant sects: Yale, William and Mary, Rutgers, Princeton, Brown, Kings College (later to be known as Columbia), Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth etc. The Bible played a central role in the curriculum of all of these institutions of higher learning with both Hebrew and Bible studies offered as required courses. (See Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience 1697-1783, p. 16.)

Many of these colleges even adopted some Hebrew word or phrase as part of their official emblem or seal. Beneath the banner containing the Latin Lux et Veritas, the Yale seal shows an open book with the Hebrew Urim Vtumim, which was a part of the ceremonial breastplate of the High Priest in the days of the Temple. The Columbia seal has the Hebrew name for God at the top center, with the Hebrew name for one of the angels on a banner toward the middle. Dartmouth uses the Hebrew words meaning “God Almighty” in a triangle in the upper center of its seal.

So popular was the Hebrew Language in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that several students at Yale delivered their commencement orations in Hebrew. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania taught courses in Hebrew—all the more remarkable because no university in England at the time offered it.

Many of the population, including a significant number of the Founding Fathers of America, were products of these American universities—for example, Thomas Jefferson attended William and Mary, James Madison Princeton, Alexander Hamilton King’s College (i.e. Columbia). Thus, we can be sure that a majority of these political leaders were not only well acquainted with the contents of both the New and Old Testaments but also had some working knowledge of Hebrew. Notes Abraham Katsh in The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy (p. 70):

At the time of the American Revolution, the interest in the knowledge of Hebrew was so widespread as to allow the circulation of the story that “certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it.”

Their Biblical education colored the American founders’ attitude toward not only religion and ethics, but most significantly, politics. We see them adopting the biblical motifs of the Puritans for political reasons. For example, the struggle of the ancient Hebrews against the wicked Pharaoh came to embody the struggle of the colonists against English tyranny.

Numerous examples can be found which clearly illustrate to what a significant extent the political struggles of the colonies were identified with the ancient Hebrews. The first design for the official seal of the United States recommended by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas in 1776 depicts the Jews crossing the Red Sea. The motto around the seal read: “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” The inscription on the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia is a direct quote from Leviticus (25:10): “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Patriotic speeches and publications during the period of the struggle for independence were often infused with Biblical motifs and quotations. For example, Benjamin Rush, in his editorials denouncing the Tea Act, drew on inspiration from the Hebrew Bible:

What did not Moses forsake and suffer for his countrymen! What shining examples of patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabees and all the illustrious princes, captains and prophets among the Jews.

Likewise, Thomas Paine’s anti-monarchial pamphlet Common Sense cited the Hebrew Bible and words of the Prophet Samuel concluding:

These portions of the Scriptures ... admit no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchial government is true, or the Scriptures are false.

Even the basic framework of America clearly reflects the influence of the Bible and power of Jewish ideas in shaping the political development of America. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Whereas, these words echo the Enlightenment’s—specifically John Locke’s—idea of “the inalienable rights of man,” without a doubt, the concept that these rights come from God is of Biblical origin.

This and the other documents of early America make it clear that the concept of an God-given standard of morality is a central pillar of American democracy. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his The State acknowledges the obvious: would be a mistake…to ascribe to Roman legal conceptions an undivided sway over the development of law and institutions during the Middle Ages… The Laws of Moses as well as the laws of Rome contributed suggestions and impulse to the men and institutions which were to prepare the modern world; and if we could have but eyes to see… we should readily discover how very much besides religion we owe to the Jew.

Thus we see that it is with the birth of American democracy that we have the next milestone in the process of the spread of Jewish ideas in civilization. For the first time in history, Jewish ethical ideas were legally enshrined into the laws of a non-Jewish nation. That country, the United States, would, in turn, become a powerful model to be emulated by numerous countries around the world.

An excerpt from WorldPerfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilization


by  Ken Spiro
Posted in: Jewish History