Originally posted on jewishvaluescenter.org
Growing up, there was always the looming question of whether or not one was an American Jew or a Jewish American. The fundamental issue was whether one places their Jewish identity before their American identity, or vice versa.
While this is a question I used to dedicate much thought to, I think that it is the wrong question to be asking. The question should not be “Do we primarily view ourselves as Jews or Americans?” because many of us live comfortably and well within both worlds – with very little conflict between the two. The real question is how do these identities enhance each other, and in the case of America – I truly feel that Judaism is a fundamental part of the great American experiment, which only adds to my identity as both a proud American and a proud Jew.
To begin, we need to start by asking what America is. What are the ideals that America strives for amidst much of the detriment that is ubiquitous in our country?
America set the standard and initial foundation for allowing for the flourishing of any individual as it promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” America is imagined as an ideal society in which anyone can make a difference, irrespective of their origins and status, and anyone can add to the conversation.
But then again, one can arguably claim the same thing about Judaism. Most schools of thought within classical Judaism place very little value on one’s origin and social status – instead valuing hard work and contribution to the general society. Like America, Judaism places an immense amount of focus on the individual and what he or she can accomplish.
In fact, the Founding Fathers were very much enchanted with the Bible and its values. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is a lengthy polemic against monarchy based on the Biblical book of Samuel, chapter 8. A proposed seal of the United States depicted Moses crossing the Red Sea with the Israelites – a common symbol of freedom throughout history. And the rights that every human is endowed with can be traced to the first chapter of Genesis in which God declares, “Let us create man in our image.”
Although many realize these roots, the Biblical foundations of America, or all of Western civilization for that matter, is an issue that is often at the center of much controversy. There are some who applaud the Judeo-Christian roots of the West and try to use democracy to spread their religious values as much as possible. The other side finds these religious roots to be nefarious and wishes to eradicate any nod to religious ideas from of our government and public policy.
Like most things in life, however, the right answer seems to be somewhere in the middle.
It is truly a shame that there are some groups in this country that try to use their freedom and the power of democracy to fulfill their own religious goals. Arguably, this has the overall effect of weakening the entire system, as religious reasons are by definition not “public reasons,” and bringing them into the public sphere only stymies reasonable debate.
However, the answer to all of this potential negativity is not the eradication of the religious roots of our country. The elusive notion of Judeo-Christian values, which among other things, affirms the fundamental rights of each and every human being, is crucial for the future of our nation. And here is the part that many people who try to do away with this idea fail to understand:
We cannot remove the pillars and foundations and expect the house to remain standing. In other words, the idea that life is valuable, that acting righteous is valuable, and that all humans are created equal are, at their core, religious ideas. Without religion there is almost no chance that we would have come to their ideas with a naturalistic or scientific worldview, as they generally contradict natural intuition. If the religious roots of our country are removed from the system, so do all of these presuppositions that allow for the freedom and greatness of the country.
Simply put, we need these religious ideas in order to create the type of idyllic society that we are all hope for. And make no mistake, any time we include any presuppositional or epistemological assumptions into our worldview, we are stepping into the realm of religion. By recognizing this, and defending these infinitely important ideas, we can continue to protect and better our country for the future. We will beat our swords into plowshares, and the same technology that is used to create weapons of destruction can be used to end pressing issues such as homelessness, disease, and hunger.
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