In his online course “Jewish Ideas and the American Founding,” offered by the Tikvah Fund, Meir Soloveichik explores the role of both actual Jews and biblical and even talmudic ideas in the shaping of the United States during its formative years. Elliot Kaufman writes in his review:
The lectures are untraditional, and better for it. Each one tells a story more than it covers a topic. Soloveichik begins by introducing us to Jonas Phillips, “the most important American Jew you’ve never heard of.” In 1787, Phillips complained to George Washington that the Pennsylvania state legislature’s mandatory Christian oath precluded Jews from serving. A patriot himself, Phillips argued that “The Jews have been true and faithful Whigs, . . . have bravely fought, and bleed for liberty which they cannot enjoy.”
Phillips captured the essence of American exceptionalism on religious liberty: unless the Jews could participate in public life without forswearing their faith, they had neither religious liberty nor the full privileges of American citizenship. Instead of having to check their Judaism at the door, Jews would contribute their unique ideas and practices for the benefit of their fellow Americans. . . .
America established religious freedom not as a compromise to keep the peace, or a sop to minority groups, but as a requirement of a just society. Backed by the Constitution, Washington promised Jews such as Jonas Phillips that they would find in America the freedom to be both full citizens and fully Jewish. America kept that promise, but only in part because of the Constitutional guarantees. The American people, whose basic affection for the biblical Israelites, Hebrew scripture, and the Jews themselves has been unparalleled, did much of the heavy lifting. Above all, the American message to the Jews has been, “Your story is our story and your God is our God.” . . .
More than anything, Soloveichik’s eight-hour course left me with a deep appreciation for America and what it has done for the Jews―not as a favor, but out of a conviction that gets to the heart of what America was founded to be. A different viewer might well come away with the same appreciation, but for what the Jews have done for America.
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