Years ago, I would send this essay to people before Pesach; here it is again. Note that Rabbi Sacks has now published a Haggadah, available here.
The Universal Story
by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth.
Observe [these decrees] carefully, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations who will hear about all these decrees and say 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'
In his 1849 novel White-Jacket, Herman Melville made clear how much the American dream owed to the story of Israel: We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people - the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours.
The story of Pesach is intensely particularistic. It tells of how one people, long ago, experienced oppression and were led to liberty through a long and arduous journey across the desert. Yet no story has had greater impact on the political development of the West. Moses knew that the events of his time had a significance that went far beyond those days and that people; that they would eventually become a source of inspiration to other nations. So, remarkably, it came to be. When black Americans sang, 'Let my people go', when South American liberation theologians in the 1960s based their work on the book of Exodus, when Nelson Mandela entitled his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom, each was adopting Israel's story and making it their own. More than Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Politics, more than Rousseau's The Social Contract or Marx's Das Kapital, the Pesach story has been the West's most influential source-book of liberty. 'Since the Exodus,' said Heinrich Heine, 'Freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent.'
Its first major impact was on the politics of England in the seventeenth century and came about as the result of three factors. The first was the Reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible, as opposed to the Church, as a source of authority. The second was the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century by Gutenberg in Germany and Caxton in Britain (printing had in fact been invented in China several centuries earlier, but had not spread). For the first time, books were available in large numbers and at a price ordinary people could afford, and an overwhelming proportion of the first books produced were Bibles. A million of them were in circulation in Britain by 1640. The third factor was the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, which had been resisted, even forbidden by law, until then. Tyndale's pioneering translation was published in 1530 and was followed by many others until the King James Bible, one of the great influences on English language and literature, appeared in 1611.
The result was that for the first time, people other than priests came into direct contact with the Hebrew Bible, and its effect was immense. It taught that each individual had dignity as God's image and was entitled to freedom from tyranny, and to equality before the law. It told of how prophets criticized kings and that unjust rulers could he overthrown. The story of the Exodus itself taught the fundamental difference between might and right, power and justice, rule and authority. It introduced an ethical dimension into the politics of power.
The Hebrew Bible exercised a decisive influence on political thinkers in the seventeenth century. John Milton wrote that 'there are no songs comparable to the songs of Zion; no orations equal to those of the prophets; and no politics like those which the Scriptures teach' and called the Bible 'that book within whose sacred context all wisdom is enfolded'. The great political theorists of the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, cite it constantly in their works. There are 657 biblical references in Leviathan alone. The person, though, who did most to turn it into political reality was Oliver Cromwell, leader of the parliamentary party in England's civil war. The English, he never tired of saying, were the 'new Israel', and in his first parliamentary speech of the protectorship, he described the Exodus as 'the only parallel of God's dealing with us that I know'.
In a square in the centre of Philadelphia, in front of Independence Hall where America's Declaration of Independence and Constitution were drafted, stands one of the great symbols of the nation, the Liberty Bell, visited by more than a million tourists each year. Around the top of the bell are words taken from the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus: 'Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.' The presence of this biblical quotation is no coincidence. It exemplifies the close relationship between the Hebrew Bible and America's founders. More even than in the case of England under Cromwell, America was the great attempt to construct a society on biblical lines, following in the footsteps of Moses.
Already in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers, seeing themselves as a 'continuation and extension of the Jewish church', pledged themselves in a covenant to create a body politic, inspired by the example of biblical Israel, and frame 'just and equal laws'. In 1776, in Philadelphia itself, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson met to design a seal for the new United States. Franklin proposed that it should hear a picture of Moses lifting his staff to divide the Red Sea, together with the motto, 'Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.' Jefferson preferred a less aggressive design: the Israelites in the wilderness being 'led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night'. In 1799, delivering a thanksgiving sermon in Massachusetts, Abiel Abbot expressed an idea that by then was widely held: 'It has often been remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe. Hence "Our American Israel" is a term frequently used; and common consent allows it apt and proper.' England was Egypt, America the promised land, and the United States the fulfilment of the old-new journey to liberty.
No one expressed more fulsomely the debt owed to the story of Israel than Americas second president, John Adams, who in 1809 wrote to a friend:
I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.
The supreme expression of the American faith was the Declaration of Independence (1776), largely drafted by Jefferson. In one of the most famous of all political affirmations, it stated: '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 these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' The striking thing about this sentence is that 'these truths' are anything but self-evident. Most societies at most times have held as self-evidently true that men are created unequal. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled. Every ancient myth, dogma and creed with the exception of the Hebrew Bible was a justification for inequality and hierarchy, a canonization of the status quo. Plato held that society was stratified into three classes, guardians (philosopher-kings), auxiliaries (soldiers) and the rest; and that whether or not these distinctions were given by birth, people should be taught that they were. Aristotle believed that some people were born to he slaves. Gradations of class were written into the structure of reality. The strong, powerful, wealthy and high-born were meant (whether by nature or God) to exercise supremacy over others. Jefferson's 'truths' were self-evident only to a culture steeped in the Hebrew Bible, from its opening declaration that the human individual is 'the image of God', to its enactment in history in the Exodus and the covenant at Mount Sinai.
We owe to Robert Bellah the idea that America has a 'civil religion' - a set of beliefs and a shared narrative, a faith, that underlie its public and political life. One of the great differences between the United States and Europe is that political, especially presidential, discourse continues to be religious to this day. Every inaugural address, with the sole exception of Washington's second (hardly a speech at all; it contains a mere two paragraphs), contains a reference to God. There is, at it were, a public theology that has been part of America's political culture throughout.
What is fascinating is that this civil religion differs in significant respects from America's congregational life, which is overwhelmingly Christian. American presidents do not tend to speak in explicitly Christian terms. They talk instead of divine providence and the sovereignty of God. They refer to covenant and the moral bonds by which societies are sustained. The liberty of which they speak is biblical rather than libertarian: a matter less of rights than responsibilities, not the freedom to do what one likes, but the freedom to do what is correct and thus contribute to the common good. They invoke an essentially Mosaic narrative of America as the promised land to which successive generations of immigrants have come to find freedom from oppression and build, in John Winthrop's famous phrase, 'a city upon a hill'.
This uniquely American rhetoric deserves more attention than it has received. It is not merely a facon de parler, an empty convention, but the way in which successive generations of citizens have understood and rededicated themselves to the terms of their shared project. Regardless of whether individual presidents have been personally religious (Eisenhower once reportedly said, 'Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith - and I don't care what it is'), they have had to adopt this language in order to keep faith with the past. Its connection with Pesach is direct. The great American political addresses are the most sustained attempt in the modern world to place the themes of exodus, redemption and the presence of God in history at the centre of public life.
The vision was first set out by John Winthrop aboard the Arabella in 1630 as it sailed for New England. Speaking in conscious imitation of Moses at the end of his life, he invited his fellow settlers to 'enter into a covenant' with God and to 'follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.' If they failed to live up to the covenant 'the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us', but if they were true to its terms, 'The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways.' They would then find 'that the God of Israel is among us'.
American presidents did not use such explicitly biblical language. A hundred and fifty years had passed, and unlike the pilgrim fathers they were not speaking to a sect but to what had become a great and independent nation. Yet their sentiments were the same. In the first inaugural in 1789, George Washington declared, 'It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe,' and warned that 'the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.' In his second inaugural (1805), Thomas Jefferson alluded to the exodus: 'I shall need, too, the favour of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.'
It might be thought that this kind of language would have been confined to those early years of independence, when the sense was still strong that something great, even miraculous, was at work in America. Yet in 1961, John F. Kennedy was still using the same biblical cadences:
I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our al bonds forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago. The world her than is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to what one abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe - the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God... With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
Succeeding the assassinated Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson gave a particularly striking account of 'the American covenant':
They came here - the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened - to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish... Under this covenant of justice, liberty and union we have become a nation - prosperous, great and mighty. And we have kept our freedom. But we have no promise from God that our greatness will endure. We have been allowed by Him to seek greatness with the sweat of our hands and the strength of our spirit.
In 2001, the vision still drove George W. Bush. Pledging himself to work for a nation of justice and opportunity, he added:
I know this is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image... Americans arc generous and strong and decent, not because we believe in ourselves, but because we hold beliefs beyond ourselves... We are not this [nation's] story's author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet his purpose is achieved in our duty, and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another.
No other country in the West uses this intensely religious vocabulary. It is particularly striking in view of the fact that the American constitution, in the form of the First Amendment, formally separates religion and state.
It was the great French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, who in the 1830s, in the course of his classic Democracy in America, explained the paradox. There was a separation between religion and state, but not between religion and society. 'Religion in America,' he wrote, 'takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.' What he meant was that, though it had no power, it had enormous influence. It sustained families. It bound communities together. It prompted people to join voluntary organizations for the promotion of the common good. It was the basis of a shared morality which, precisely because it was upheld by faith, did not have constantly to be enforced by law. 'In France,' he noted, 'I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. In America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.'
In a strange way civil religion has the same relationship to the United States as Pesach does to the Jewish people. It is, first and foremost, not a philosophy but a story. It tells of how a persecuted group escaped from the old world and made a hazardous journey to an unknown land, there to construct a new society, in Abraham Lincoln's famous words, 'conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.' Like the Pesach story, it must be told repeatedly, as it is in every inaugural address. It defines the nation, not merely in terms of its past but also as a moral-spiritual commitment to the future. It is no accident that the founders of America turned to the Hebrew Bible, nor that successive presidents have done likewise, because there is no other text in Western literature that draws these themes - history, providence, covenant, responsibility, 'the exile and the stranger', the need to fight for freedom in every generation - together in a vision that is at once political and spiritual. Israel, ancient and modern, and the United States are the two supreme examples of societies constructed in conscious pursuit of an idea.
There have been four revolutions in the West in modern times: the British and American, and the French and Russian. In Britain and America the source of inspiration was the Hebrew Bible. In France and Russia it was the great alternative to the Bible, namely philosophy. The theorist of the French revolution was Jean-Jacques Rousseau; of the Russian, Karl Marx. The contrast between them is vivid. Britain and America succeeded in creating a free society, not without civil war, but at least without tyranny and terror. The French and Russian revolutions began with a dream of utopia and ended with a nightmare of bloodshed and the suppression of human rights. The great philosophes, Helvetius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and Marx, created not freedom but its betrayal, what J. L. Talmon called 'totalitarian democracy'.
Why did Britain and America succeed where France and Russia failed? The explanation is surely complex but much - perhaps all - turns on how a society answers the question: who is the ultimate sovereign, God or man? The British and Americans gave the first answer, the French and Russian revolutionaries the second. For the British and American architects of liberty, God was the supreme power. All authority was therefore subject to the transcendental demands of the moral law. For the French and Russian ideologists, ultimate value lay in the state or the collective. The failure of the French and Russian revolutions is the most compelling testimony to the fact that when human beings arrogate supreme power to themselves, politics loses its sole secure defence of freedom. Democracy, in and of itself, is not enough. As Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill warned, it merely replaces the tyranny of a minority with the tyranny of the majority. From ancient Athens to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, no political system that vested absolute power in its rulers, however elected, has resisted corruption. Societies that exile God lead to the eclipse of man. That is why the Exodus narrative remains the canonical text of liberty. It is only when a society acknowledges God that man is protected from his fellow man. As Lord Acton put it in his description of biblical politics:
The inspired men who rose in unfailing succession to prophesy against the usurper and the tyrant, constantly proclaimed that the laws, which were divine, were paramount over sinful rulers, and appealed from the established authorities, from the kings, the priests, and the princes of the people, to the healing forces that slept in the uncorrupted consciences of the masses. Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won - the doctrine of national tradition and the doctrine of the higher law; the principle that a constitution grows from a root, by process of development, and not of essential change; and the principle that all political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man.
The Exodus is the inexhaustible source of inspiration to all those who long for freedom. It taught that right was sovereign over might; that freedom and justice must belong to all, not some; that, under God, all human beings are equal; and that over all earthly powers is the supreme power, the King of Kings, who hears the cry of the oppressed and who intervenes in history to liberate slaves. It took many centuries for this vision to become the shared property of the liberal democracies of the West; and there is no guarantee that it will remain so. Freedom is a moral achievement, and without a constant effort of education it atrophies and must be fought for again. Nowhere more than on Pesach, though, do we see how the story of one people can become the inspiration of many; how, loyal to its faith across the centuries, the Jewish people became the guardians of a vision through which, ultimately, 'all the peoples of the earth will be blessed'.