In Search of Liberty: An Important Interaction of Hazal’s Values and Mankind’s Unalienable Rights

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2 Responses

  1. According to Samuel Adams, the American Revolution was instrumental in returning G-d to His throne, and in fact, the British referred to the American Revolution as the “Presbyterian Rebellion.”

    The Declaration of Independence repeatedly notes that G-d is the source of all rights, and that a reliance on Divine Providence was essential. Justice Joseph Story approvingly quotes the Constitution of Massachusetts that no civil polity can safely exist without the morality enshrined by religion, and Justice Story also cites Locke as agreeing with this.

    Alexander Hamilton considered “the French Revolution to be no more akin to the American Revolution than the faithless wife in a French novel is like the Puritan matron in New England.”

    The American Revolution ought to be seen as entirely unlike the French Revolution – which was fought against G-d – and instead as being more akin to the Dutch rebellion against Spain, and the English Civil War and Glorious Rebellion, all of which were Puritanistic rebellions fought in defense of Reformed Christianity against improper usurpation of religious prerogatives by the civil government.

    For the colonial American, liberty primarily meant the freedom to worship G-d properly, and the separation of church and state was in fact invented by Martin Luther, as a protection of religion from interference by the state. In fact, James Madison cited Luther as the source for the separation of church and state. Liberty, for the colonial American, and the pursuit of happiness, both meant the freedom to worship G-d and avoid immoral vice.

    Benjamin Franklin proposed, for America's seal, a depiction of the Egyptians drowning in the sea, with the motto, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Jefferson objected that this was too violent, and he preferred a depiction of the Jews walking in the desert, with the pillars of cloud and fire. But Jefferson still enjoyed Franklin's motto, and used it on his own stationary.

    We might also note that one of the primary sources of agitation for rebellion against Britain was fear that Anglican episcopacy would be enforced on America. And even regarding purely civil rights, such as protests against overtaxation, were viewed in a religious light, as indicated by the Declaration of Independence.

    In short, I see no contradiction whatsoever between the American and Jewish conceptions. The American one was fundamentally a religious Christian one, one which I believe has much in common with a traditional Jewish one.

  2. Chesky Kopel says:

    Michael- Thank you for responding. There is no question that the American concept of personal liberty was born out of religious conviction, and it was designed to protect every person's freedom to worship God. I appreciate that you raised our attention to just how deeply-rooted that connection was. Nonetheless, I feel that this doesn't say much about the distinction I tried to raise between this notion of liberty and Hazal's value of חרות.
    What makes חרות unique is not that it stems from religious values, nor that it provides freedom to serve God. In reality, חרות is not a guarantee of freedom at all. It refers to the utilization of personal liberty for the purpose of commitment to a higher ideal.

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