“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” (Preamble to the US Constitution.)
In a few days it will be American Independence Day and we will celebrate with barbecues, concerts and legal fireworks to celebrate what America stands for. It has been 241 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia in 1776, calling for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness as Inalienable rights given to all by our Creator, and that Government is by consent of the People. This was the start of the Jewish our people’s trek to Freedom in America. It has been a glorious adventure through wars and peace and peaceful protest and Civil war.
Therefore, as we remember what has made us independent thinkers, patriots of all political stripe and strife, we need to celebrate another date of note in American History. It is December 15, 1791, the day the First Ten Amendments to the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, were adopted. Because of what the laws spell out, regarding Freedom of Religion, Speech, the Press and Peaceful Assembly, more than just life, liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, our people have been active members of the American Community and the World Jewish Community.
This uniqueness of being part of this community and not outside of it, brings two items in the Jewish Experience in Russia to mind. The first one is from only 7 years after the First Amendment became Law. HaRav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of HaTanya and founder of the Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty, was imprisoned in the notorious – Trubetskoy Bastion, of the Peter-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia for 52 days on charges that his teachings threatened the imperial authority of the Czar.
The second is found in a Siddur from 1903 printed in Zhitomir, Russia that has in its frontispiece a large paragraph in Russian which states, “There is nothing here against the Czar.”
Some of us might disagree with Chabad Hasidism and how it views women, no one would argue that what it has done here in America for those in need and that Hasidism sees a good Jew not by how much they know but by how open is their heart to our people and our neighbors, for example: HaRav Shneur Zalman is quoted in his most famous work, The Tanya ( The Lesson) as saying, “[For] those who are far from G-d’s Torah and His service . . . one must draw them close with strong cords of love—perhaps one might succeed in bringing them closer to Torah and the service of G-d. And even if one fails, one has still merited the rewards of the fulfillment of the mitzvah, ‘Love your fellow.”
What could Rav Zalman have said that would be so against the Czar as to spend 2 months in an evil prison? Further, what could a Siddur prayer book have said against the Czar, either? Evidentially, the crimes the Siddur and Rav Zalman committed was that they were part of the ‘other’ religion.
In America, after 1791, there was no ‘other’ religion according to the Constitution and, for that matter, no other speech, or press release. The only limitation for speech and press was the truth. The US Constitution does not appreciate “bearing false witness against your neighbor.”
It also seeks peace for its citizens and their guests. That is why, the same First Amendment speaks of “Peaceful” Assembly as being a right of the first order. We may speak freely, write freely and worship freely. If we believe in those pillars of Democracy and those in power also believe in them, we will always be able to assemble peacefully.
Alas, as I write this column, violence has once again taken the life of an American. However, this time it is home grown. An American citizen, has taken the law into his own hands and killed people. I don’t know where he worshipped or what newspapers he read or details of his political views. But I do know because he and others have abandoned one of the four pillars of that most perfect of “American Commandments” the First Amendment, it has become like a chair with only 3 legs, and has toppled, because men and women would not support this most weighty of convictions. Freedom grows more completely and fully when it is demonstrated peacefully.
We as a people have so benefitted from the First Amendment where our houses of worship have been watched over. (There are almost 4,000 Jewish houses of Worship in the United States), The Presses that sing of Judaism are still ringing out. (There are Jewish Newspapers from Los Angeles to Brooklyn, from Minneapolis to Ft. Lauderdale and at the height of Yiddishkeit there were 5 Yiddish dailies in New York alone.) Jews still go out to talk and hear themselves speak. (The number of Jewish organizations are uncountable. The Young Jewish Republicans, The Young Jewish Democrats and the Bund are just a few examples).
If we are to preserve these three aspects of our freedom we must celebrate on December 15th the 228th anniversary of Independence for all not just us. BUT, we must do it peacefully. We must assemble at our Houses of Worship, speak our minds and/or write our feelings and march in song together.
All this must be done without violence. It is important that we, who have been so enabled and, in turn, given so much to America must show the country that violence in not the answer but, as our opening prayer on that Friday night, as on all Friday nights, says, Havainu Shalom Aleichem ( We Bring You Peace).
Let the Rededication to America, our People and Peace begin with us!