One place where Jews have worked for freedom with a great measure of success is the United States. The Jewish community in the colonies and in the United States of America paved the way for freedom of people of many faiths. Jonas Phillips, a leader of the Philadelphia congregation Mikveh Israel, wrote to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to ask that the end-product of their deliberations not require citizens to swear a Christian oath in order to hold public office. His request may have been a factor in the inclusion of the “no religious test” clause in the Constitution. Moses Seixas of the Newport, Rhode Island Congregation YeshuatIsrael spoke with gratitude to President George Washington in 1790, proclaiming that Jews lived in a nation which gave “to bigotry, no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” President Washington echoed that sentiment in his reply, noting that people living in this country need only show themselves to be good citizens, regardless of their faith, a theme that he expressed to a variety of religious groups at the time. All of the right sentiments were there for Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson about equal rights and citizenship for people of all faiths,. However, in a letter to American Jewish leader Mordecai Manuel Noah in 1818, Thomas Jefferson lamented that saying all of the right words didn’t necessarily dispel bigotry or grant equality in practice. His statement still applies today: “Your sect by its sufferings has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practiced by all when in power. Our laws have applied the only antidote to this vice, protecting our religious, as they do our civil rights, by putting all on an equal footing. But more remains to be done, for although we are free by the law, we are not so in practice….The prejudice still scowling on your section of our religion altho' the elder one, cannot be unfelt by ourselves. It is to be hoped that individual dispositions will at length mould themselves to the model of the law, and consider the moral basis, on which all our religions rest, as the rallying point which unites them in a common interest.” For Jefferson, the underlying principle of American life was that members of all faith groups look hard for the values that could bring them together. He was calling on adherents of different religions to draw circles of inclusion and bridges that could foster dialogue and common action. That is what it meant to this founder of our nation to be an American. It is fortunate that such rights and equality were eventually accorded to former slaves as well.
As we conclude our observance of Passover, our festival of freedom, it is fascinating to hear echoes of our celebration in the words of our nation’s founders. George Washington wrote in 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah, Georgia: “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven.” That was Washington’s wish and blessing not only for the Jews of Savannah, but for all citizens in that young United States.
The Torah reading for the 8th day of Pesach comes from Deuteronomy Chapter 16, which was likely set in writing six hundred years after the time of the Exodus. Already distanced from the events described in other passages, this section referred to the Passover sacrifice and the eating of Matzah as essential to the observance of the festival of freedom. It established one central place for worship, a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem, as the solitary site for all to gather to mark Passover together as one people. Today, I believe we need to see that phrase that referred to the Temple in a different light. “At the place where the Eternal One, your God, will choose to establish the divine name” could mean anywhere where we allow God in or any place where we feel God’s presence. At every moment, in every pursuit of our lives, a sense of God’s Oneness that unites us all can lead us to work for the promise of freedom embodied in our celebration of Passover.
Thomas Jefferson’s words, unfortunately, ring true about the persistence of prejudice, bigotry and hatred experienced by people because of their faith identity. Some may call the attacks against Jewish stores, community centers, and synagogues in Europe political, but there is also a component of anti-Judaism that is inherent in those acts, the latest of those being yesterday’s vandalism at a Kosher delicatessen in Copenhagen. Heschel’s call to seek freedom for all people seemed to escape the Iowa state legislators who refused to hear the invocation of the leader of a neo-Pagan group this week because she was not Christian. Some turned their backs to her as she spoke. Biblical statements about sorcery and magic do not and should not apply to modern Wiccan groups that see all creation as a unity as do believers in other religions. The recent attack by the Al Shahab extremist group that left over 140 people dead at Garissa University College in Kenya demonstrates the persistence of hatred based only on outside identity. The terrorists allowed Muslims to leave the premises, while Christians became their only victims. The Islamic State continues its rampage throughout the Middle East with no respect for fellow Muslims or Christians and no regard for revered holy sites and ancient treasures. For them, faith gives license to destroy rather than providing a reason to engage in conversation and live side by side.
“The place where God will choose for the divine name to dwell” needs to be in our hearts, which should not be hardened like the heart of Pharaoh. The image of ninth plague of darkness is one that can characterize our attitudes towards our fellow human beings. Only the Israelite homes had light during the plague of darkness. The people who had experienced oppression, persecution and cruelty were the ones whose hearts were open and who saw and valued the light of freedom enough to hope to receive it as a gift that would not be taken for granted.
The rabbis assigned the Song of Songs as the scroll to be read on Passover because of its expressions related to the renewal that comes in spring. I believe that there is one more reason. The rabbis saw that book as a “love song” between God and the people of Israel. As we recite poetry from this ancient biblical text, we can extend that love to encompass all of humanity. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often referred to the power of love to root out hatred and bigotry. He said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." King also declared: "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." Love is powerful when people of all faiths fulfill Thomas Jefferson’s charge to look for what can unite them in common cause.
So may we support efforts at productive dialogue that can turn difference into a reason to learn rather than a cause for hatred. May we offer our assistance to causes and organizations that enable people all over the world and in our own country to enjoy the freedom that has been granted to them as citizens and community members. And may the spirit of Passover persist throughout the year, guiding us to remember from whence we came so that we can take humanity to new heights of liberty, mutual understanding and respect.