"Certain Unalienable Rights": the Torah of July 4

Dear friends,

From July 4, 1974 on, in creative Jewish circles there has been a tradition of honoring the Fourth of July as a sacred festival,  and the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text.

This practice does not treat the day narrowly as a US national holiday but as a step beyond national affirmation toward a universal consciousness, and treats the Declaration  as a great step forward in the efforts of the human race as a whole to make real one strand of biblical tradition. That is the teaching that commands us to limit the power of rulers and encourage the holy work of an enlightened people making enlightened decisions.

Over these decades there evolved the custom of  --

(a) reading a  passage of Deuteronomy that may be the first explicit "constitution" limiting royal power,

(b) followed by reading parts of the Declaration of Independence - the visionary preamble and some of the specific warnings of the irresponsible use of royal power --  as the accompanying haftarah (Prophetic passage),

(c ) followed by open discussion of what we would today write into such a visionary Declaration of peace, justice, and ecological responsibility, and  -- perhaps especially poignant in many countries this year - what actions we might take to carry out such a Declaration.

For one such new vision called "Declaring Interdependence: Renewing the 4th of July," and for the texts of the Declaration of Sentiments by women in the Seneca Falls convention (1848);  Frederick Douglass' great speech, "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?" (1852), and Emma Goldman's "New Declaration of Independence" (1909), see other entries in this July 4th section of our website.

The Deuteronomy passage is below.  The Declaration of Independence is widely available in print and on-line.  Every  July 4, it is reprinted in facsimile on the last page of one or another section of the NY Times.

This reading / discussion could be done at home, among informal gatherings, and/or in religious congregations on or before or after the Fourth of July.

Shalom, salaam, peace -- Arthur

The Passage on a King:
Deuteronomy 17: 14-20
[Slightly adapted by Rabbi Arthur Waskow from the translation by Everett Fox in The Five Books of Moses (Schocken).

If, when you have entered the land
that YHWH your God is giving you,
and you possess it and settle in it,
should you say:
I will set over me a king
like all the nations that are around me--
you may set, yes, set over you a king
that YHWH [the Breath of Life] your God chooses;
from among your kinfolk you may set over you a king,
you may not place over you a foreigner
who is not kin to you.
Only: he is not to multiply horses [cavalry] for himself,
and he is not to return the people
to Mitzrayyim/ Tight and Narrow Place/ Egypt
in order to multiply  horses,
since YHWH has said to you:
You will never return that way again!
And he is not to multiply wives for himself,
that his heart not be turned-aside,
and silver or gold he is not to multiply for himself to excess.
But it shall be:
when he sits on the throne of his kingdom,
he is to write himself a copy of this Teaching in a
before the face of Levitical priests.
It is to remain beside him;
he is to read out of it all the days of his life,
in order that he may learn to have-awe-for YHWH his God,
to be-careful concerning all the words of this Teaching
and the deep-carved laws, to observe them,
that his heart not be raised above his kinfolk,
that he not turn-aside from what-is-connective,
to the right or to the left;
in order that he may prolong (his) days over his kingdom,
he and his children,
in the midst of Israel [those who wrestle God].



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