Balak: Why Do Americans Celebrate July 4th?

Why do Americans celebrate the Fourth of July?  

The simplest answer is, of course, that this date is America’s consensus “birthday,” since the Declaration of Independence was signed on that day in 1776.[1] 

A more philosophical explanation might mention that Americans designate this day to contemplate, venerate, and celebrate our nation’s foundational principles of liberty, equality, and democracy. An even deeper explanation for the festivities might express some version of what political theorists call “American exceptionalism.”  This is the idea that our nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,”[2]has a unique mission “as a citty upon a hill. [T]he eies of all people are uppon us.[3]     

Hearing stirring and patriotic music, watching parades, rereading the Declaration of Independence, enjoying beautiful fireworks, and comparing American society to much of an oppressed and starving world can certainly instill pride and gratitude in being American. After all, we know that millions would give all to become Americans.  How can we not feel that America has a unique mission to serve as an example to the world?    

I don’t think that American Jews are different in such thinking than any other group of Americans.  But if most American Jews accept the premise of American exceptionalism – not that Americans are better, but that America has a special mission – why do many American Jews feel uneasy or even hostile to the parallel idea of Jewish exceptionalism?  This discomfort orrejection is highly regrettable, and even dangerous to the future of the Jewish people, in America and as a whole.    

Might it be “un-American” to believe that Jews have a special mission?  Not unless we consider “un-American”what John Adams, one of our most intelligent, worldly, and philosophical Presidents and a member of the Declaration of Independence drafting committee, wrote:

In spite of Bolingbroke and Voltaire, I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe, or pretend to believe, that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty Sovereign ofthe universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.[4] 

Perhaps one of the reasons that many American Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of “Jewish exceptionalism” is the “post-modernist” notion of cultural relativism.  That is, there are no universal truths or values; everything depends on interpretation; no people are better than any other; and no cultural or belief system is better than any other.  Clearly, John Adams did not believe that, and I contend that morality is not completely “relative.”  Tyranny and oppression are not just as “good”or “valid” as liberty and equality, even if those who practice the former sincerely believe so.  Nations, cultures, and religions that preach and practice violence and intolerance are not as “good” or “valid” as those that espouse the opposite.   

I would argue that it’s neither immoral nor “un-American” for we Jews to believe, as Adams did, that we have an exceptional mission in the world.  Indeed, it is essential that we both believe this -- and act accordingly.    

Although, as Americans, we rightly extol American liberty (including religious freedom), we must nevertheless, as Jews responsible for “our mission,” recognize that American life presents great challenges to our mission’s success. American emphasis upon liberty and cultural relativity diverts focus from our Jewish mission and saps our motivation to further it.  Although American society leaves each Jew free to choose how much Judaism to incorporate into his or her life, American society is not responsible for ensuring that the special Jewish mission continues.  We Jews alone are responsible for this.    

In this week's Torah portion of Balak, Balaam, a non-Jewish prophet, blessed the Jewish people as “a people who dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations."  He even proclaimed, “May I die the death of the upright, May my fate be like theirs!”  (Numbers 23:9-10)  Adams – who died on the Fourth of July -- might have agreed with both of these sentiments. 

Abraham Lincoln urged Americans to rededicate themselves to giving the nation a “new birth of freedom [so] that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”  It’s time that we American Jews similarly rededicate ourselves to the Jewish people’s mission. 

G-d bless America and Shabbat Shalom.



[1] A good argument can be made that “Independence Day” is actually July 2nd, when the Second Continental Congress adopted the resolution for independence.   Other possibilities for an appropriate “birthday” include April 19, 1775, when, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase, “here [at Concord, MA] the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world,” thus commencing the actual War for Independence; October 19, 1781, when the British surrendered at Yorktown; September3, 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris formally ending the War; and June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution,thus bringing into being the new entity “United States of America.”    

[2] Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

[3] John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity (1630),in Settlements to Society: 1584-1763, at 66, 68 (Jack P. Greene ed.,1966).

[4] John Adams to F.A. Vanderkemp, 16 February, 1809, The Works of John Adams, ed, C.F.Adams, vol.9, pp.609-10.


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