Psalm 19 states that “the precepts of the Lord are just, bringing joy to the heart; . . . the laws of the Lord are true, righteous altogether, more desirable than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb.” To the Christian writer C.S. Lewis, the notion that laws and rules—necessary as they may be—could be a source of joy and sweetness was instead a source of puzzlement. Jews, by contrast, take this view of the law for granted. Torah is celebrated with not one but two festivals: the holiday of Shavuot (which concluded last night) as well as the raucous Simḥat Torah in the fall. To explain the meaning of Shavuot, Meir Soloveichik draws on rabbinic texts, the Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz, and Christian thinkers who struggled to understand this peculiar Jewish attitude. (Video, 35 minutes.)
Understanding the Jewish Romance with the Law
On Thanksgiving, Remember the Exodus from Egypt
When asked to design a Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed a depiction of Moses at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness after departing Egypt. These proposals, writes Ed Simon, tapped into a venerable American tradition:
The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World with the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture with their own narratives and experiences. . . .
For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. . . . American Puritans and pilgrims like John Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, . . . and many others placed the Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. . . . [Thus the] Exodus . . . has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories. . . .
We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Sea of Reeds. . . . We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogroms and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?