What’s Jewish about July 4th?

The quick answer is that Independence Day may be the most Jewish US Civic Holiday we celebrate.

For a longer answer, check out the four principles below.

Principle 1: How Jews and Americans Live with Canon

We basically do it the same way. We debate and interpret the meaning of the canon for our current lives.  The debate matters because canon is the set of documents and ideas that affirm our purpose. The conversation continues across the centuries. Sometimes our conclusions become communal law.

Read more or skip to Principle 2

 You know how terse the Declaration of Independence is—except for the very long list of grievances against King George (also somewhat Jewish—think about all that complaining in the desert)? The Declaration is the first of our three foundational documents (Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights). Together they constitute a significant portion of our nation’s canon. All of them are fairly straightforward if you choose to take them literally and believe that is the way to be faithful to them.  Torah is like that too. Rigid and fixed if you choose to see it that way, or a canon that begs us to fill in the blanks so that it can be a “living” Torah—responsive to history and our continuing evolution. What exactly, for instance, does “Love your neighbor as yourself” mean? For thousands of years, Jews have been interpreting and reinterpreting the meaning of this central ethical commandment so that we might follow it.

For nearly 450 years, we have lived as a nation with “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.” Inspirational and aspirational. We are still, after all this time, working to reach that high bar where all citizens are guaranteed these rights (cue to interpret “all men” and debate who is a citizen and whether certain citizenship rights also apply to the “ger,” the stranger who dwells among us). For centuries, we have interpreted, argued over and created laws around the meanings of “all men,” “life,” “liberty,” and “the pursuit of happiness” so that we might be our best version of ourselves. The on-going debate shapes our conduct around our core conviction that these “self-evident truths” define us. The continuing conversation grounds our nation’s identity and mission much as the conversation around the Jewish canon has grounded and sustained the Jewish people.

Principle 2: Human Revolutionaries are Really… Human  

We know that our forefathers and foremothers were flawed. We know it and kind of revel in their imperfections and we still honor them for the great gifts they gave to us.

Read more or skip to Principle 3

We find the stories in the first book of Torah (Bereishit or Genesis) especially compelling because the characters are so… well, human. They lie, cheat, boast, murder, and lust (to name just a few of their deadly sins) and yet, we don’t toss these men and women aside because of their imperfections. We study their shortcomings and love them enough to give our children their names. Perhaps we love them because imperfect as they are, these men and women are the original founders of our story. We love them because in spite of their flaws, we are grateful for the great gift they bestowed upon us and the world. So we preserve them and read their stories repeatedly because we can learn from their complexity and understand them differently as we grow and change ourselves. And we hold them close because they earned that honor when they took “the road less traveled.”  They dared to forge a different path in a world where the majority elevated idolatry and framed their conduct around the random whims of the gods.

So yes, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and others who contributed to and signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, were wealthier than the average American of the time, had the opportunities to become better educated than most, and were all men. To put it bluntly, they were almost all privileged white guys. And yet, this was their moment in history. Did they rise to the occasion or turn away from it? Instead of self, they put fledgling country first. They pledged their “fortunes, lives and sacred honor” when they signed this revolutionary document (signing the Declaration was an act of treason punishable by death). They were united in the shared conviction that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We must continue to explore and learn from their flawed complexity as we have learned from our Jewish forefathers and foremothers. And we must also honor their courageous action to pursue the better future they imagined and felt compelled to embrace.

Principle 3: Let the Celebration Begin

We assign symbolic meaning to objects and then use them to help celebrate the important moments in our lives.

Read more or skip to Principle 4.

John Adams believed that in “succeeding generations” July 4 would be recognized as “the great anniversary Festival.” Fireworks (he called them “illuminations”) would cover the night skies of our nation “from one end of this Continent to the other” to commemorate this day in American history. Adams would likely be stunned by the sheer number and awesomeness of displays from sea to shining sea. He certainly understood the value of an unforgettable marker for a momentous occasion. We have seder plates, shabbat candles, yarhzeit candles, eight candled menorahs and much more for our special occasions, All serve as visual anchors for the events we celebrate. We have honed this practice to a fine art to show how an important celebration benefits from association with a symbolic object to embed its story and purpose in our minds and hearts.

So, this July 4th,  consider how your eyes travel up and out to the horizon and you feel giddy with possibility as you watch fireworks. But please don’t try them in your backyard! The noise can be an affliction for some and the flares can start fires. (I speak from personal experience here).  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Principle 4: Teach Your Children

We are responsible for teaching our nationhood stories to our children. We
draw upon the canon to fulfill that obligation.

Read more or skip to the end.

We are exhorted in multiple places in Torah to teach our children the story of the Exodus. It is the story that defines our meaning and purpose as a people. The rabbis created the seder in part to fulfill the obligation to teach our children—they for sure constructed the seder plate and the four questions as teaching devices so that we might effectively transmit the story from one generation to the next. Stories are the best vehicle we humans have for teaching. Stories tell us who we are, where we come from and what we dream of becoming. In our tradition, we revisit the story of the Five Books of Moses every year. Through public readings over the course of a year (ironically, often in a language most present do not understand), we cycle through the story and celebrate its ending and beginning all over again on the holiday of Simchat Torah. The text is the same but a year later, as we begin again, we bring our year older selves to the task. And so we understand the story differently through our continually changing life experience.

This past year, racial injustice and class inequities skyrocketed to the top of American consciousness. In the midst of a pandemic, we scrutinized our founders and their deficits along with the merits of our nationhood story. This July 4th, consider beginning a family tradition of reading all or part of the Declaration of Independence.  Some of its language may sound as foreign as the Hebrew we chant in our Torah readings.  But read it anyway because the story that unwinds from it belongs to all of us. Then have a brief conversation with your guests (no matter how young) about its meaning and our ability as a nation to fulfill its promise. It’s an American thing to do and…turns out, it’s Jewish too. 

Enjoy your holiday!

Be safe. Be curious. Be civil. Be kind.

Lee M. Hendler is co-founder of Freedom’s Feast, an online initiative to raise our next generation of citizens through holiday celebrations www.freedomsfeast.us Visit the site for some great resources to celebrate July 4th. She is also co-founder of the Jewish Grandparents Network.

All illustrations by Christine Marie Larsen for Freedom’s Feast