Happy 4th of July!
Rabbi Michael Barclay – July 4th, 2022
As we celebrate this wonderful holiday and the beauty of the summer here in the Conejo Valley, we need to remember how the values of our founding fathers are based on classic Jewish values, and how we can promote living these values today.
From the Beginning
When we speak of the founding of America, we have to remember Christopher Columbus. But what most people don’t know is that all evidence points to Columbus as being a Jew. On his private documents, Columbus wrote a triangular signature of dots and letters that were found on Jewish gravestones in Spain, that equate to a hidden form of the Kaddish prayer. In his will he made provisions for one tenth of his income to be an anonymous donation as a dowry for poor girls, a distinctly Jewish custom; and he specifically left an inheritance for a Jew living in Lisbon. Simon Wiesenthal contended that Columbus’ entire journey was motivated by a desire to find a safe home for Jews, and according to a linguistics professor from Georgetown, Columbus’ spoken language was Ladino, the “yiddish” of Spanish Jews. More clearly, on all but one of the 13 letters he wrote to his son Diego, he wrote the hebrew letters that stand for “b’ezrat HaShem” (“with the help of God”, a practice of observant Jews to put at the top corner of every document). These were private documents so it was safe to show evidence of his Jewishness, and the one letter that did not bear the mark was a letter bound for King Ferdinand. And despite the common myth that Queen Isabella financed Columbus’ expedition, it was in fact funded by two Jewish conversos (Louis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez) and another prominent Rabbi, Don Isaac Abrabanel. Ok…so America was “founded” by a Jew, backed by Jewish financiers. But what about the formation of the United States as a nation?
Most of the early leaders of our nation were not only conversant in Biblical knowledge, but many of them were knowledgeable and even fluent in written Hebrew. There is even the argument made by scholars that Alexander Hamilton, who was educated in a Jewish school in the Caribbean, was actually himself Jewish (sorry, Lin Manuel Miranda). His mother is buried in a Jewish cemetery, and he went to a yeshiva, which is where the funds were gathered for him to come to the US in the first place as a young man. Our framers based much of our country’s structure around Torah teachings. The three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial are specifically modeled after the governing structure of ancient Israel: The Monarchy (descended from King David); Cohanim (descendants of Aaron the Priest and brother of Moses); and the Sanhedrin (the Great Assembly composed of the wise Sages of the generations who sat as judges of the law). The values of pursuing justice, cherishing freedom, and so much more are found both in Judaic teachings as well as the documents of our early leaders. Many people do not realize how important Jewish history actually was to the members of the Continental Congress. Of the five men who wrote the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, three were additionally selected to create a seal for the United States. On July 4, 1776, the day that independence was declared; John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were asked to design a seal for the nation. Here, as much as anywhere else, we see the Jewish influence on our country. Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted the Seal to include imagery of Moses leading the Exodus from Egypt, crossing the Sea, and G-d being present with them in their journey through the wilderness. Preserved in a note from August of 1776 in his own handwriting, Ben Franklin wrote: “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.” Jefferson’s ideal seal included not only this image, but an image of “the children of Israel being led in the wilderness by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night”. The two were combined into the original proposed Seal below: Although these images were not incorporated into the Seal that was ultimately chosen by Congress in 1782; it is clear how the imagery and teachings of our text directly influenced these architects of our nation.
These are only a few of the examples that demonstrate our Founding Fathers’ knowledge and commitment to Judaism. We will be discussing more in the class on this topic on July 7, and really learning about the deep Jewish roots that are integral in understanding American history.