The Story of Cyrus the Great, Invoked by Harry Truman, Is a Cautionary as Well as a Hopeful Tale

October 2, 2019 | Meir Soloveichik
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

Speaking to a Jewish group after the end of his presidency, Harry Truman famously declared “I am Cyrus!”—referring to the Persian emperor who in the 6th century BCE permitted Jewish exiles to return to the Land of Israel to rebuild the Temple. Meir Soloveichik examines this invocation of “the most celebrated non-Jew in the Hebrew Bible” by a president himself deeply familiar with Scripture, and its lesson for the future of U.S.-Israel relations:

Cyrus’s story hints at an extraordinary occurrence unparalleled in Jewish history: the existence of millions of Gentiles who are Zionists, Americans whose attachment to Hebraic texts is the foundation of their love for the Jewish state. . . . The American founders, and many of their successors, were dramatically affected by the Tanakh, but there is no guarantee that America will remain this way. Here Cyrus’s story offers a cautionary example.

The book of Ezra reports that although Cyrus proclaimed the Jewish return, the rebuilding of the Temple was then halted by those who bribed members of Cyrus’s court and lied about the Jews’ motivations. This was the first movement against the Jewish right to Jerusalem, and it existed in Cyrus’s empire 2,500 years ago. The message is clear for our time: a world power that is moved by the story of biblical Israel can also become unmoored from the values of biblical Israel. The [story of Cyrus] is, perhaps, a hint to a future where millions of Gentiles would revere the Hebrew Bible and the land of Israel; but it can also be seen as a reminder that countries whose leaders were once inspired by the word of God can cease to be so.

The question we face is whether the Hebrew Bible will continue to speak to America, or whether, as in suddenly secular Europe, America will amputate this aspect of its identity entirely from itself.

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