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Founding Fathers Influenced by Jewish God

July 13, 2006 By:
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Independence Hall
Every year on the eve of Shavuot -- the spring festival holiday that marks God's giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai -- Jews traditionally gather to study, discuss and analyze a chosen set of religious texts.

So in that vein, organizers of a July 3 event at Congregation Mikveh Israel wondered: Why not apply that same model to America's Independence Day -- and the Declaration of Independence?

The "American Torah" -- which is how Center City Kehillah president Michael Carasik referred to America's founding document -- was drafted and signed just a block or so from the synagogue at the Pennsylvania State House building (otherwise known as Independence Hall) exactly 230 years ago.

More than 70 people took the opportunity to ask University of Pennsylvania history professor Michael Zuckerman everything they ever wanted to know -- or hadn't learned since the seventh grade -- about the words crafted by Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founding fathers.

Zuckerman, featured recently in the WHYY documentary "About Benjamin," said he found the term "American Torah" intriguing, but stated that the concept of divinity articulated by the authors of the declaration was far different from the God depicted in the five books of Moses.

" 'Nature's God' is not like George W. Bush's God," stated Zuckerman, referring to the first paragraph of the declaration, which mentions both "nature's God" and "the laws of nature."

" 'Nature's God' is actually the God of secular humanism. It is an abstracted being," explained Zuckerman, adding that Jefferson, for one, believed that God set the universe in motion, but then no longer played any meaningful role in human affairs.

Philadelphia's favorite citizen wouldn't even go that far.

"[Benjamin] Franklin didn't have a spiritual bone in his body," proclaimed Zuckerman, adding that Franklin believed that living a moral life improved personal happiness, but it wasn't divinely commanded.

Jefferson's deistic conception of God bares scant resemblance to the highly personal God that anchors the faith of evangelical Christians, said Zuckerman.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai -- taking Zuckerman up on his offer to audience members to interrupt him with questions or comments whenever they wished -- added that the God of the founding fathers sounded more like the God of ancient Greek philosophy than the Jewish God.

The professor replied that the Jewish conception of God just wasn't on the founder's intellectual radar.

One gentleman wanted to know how the Americans actually managed to win the revolution, specifically how such a ragtag army could defeat the greatest military power in the world.

"The deists were wrong," replied Zuckerman. "You've got to believe in miracles."

He explained that the biggest -- and most unlikely -- factor turned out to be France's siding with the young nation, providing resources, troops and diplomatic legitimacy. He added that in the end, these measures nearly bankrupted the French treasury, and even helped precipitate the French Revolution.

"One of the biggest mysteries of all human history is why the French would do this," he said. He noted that it would have made far more sense for France to have opposed American independence. America's break with England had raised fears among European nation's that their colonies would do the same, not to mention the idea that the concept "all men are created equal" threatened to upend the privilege of the continent's aristocracy.

He also explained that the most probable theory was that the French king was still angry about losing the Seven-Year's War (1756 to 1763), as a result of which France lost nearly all its influence in the New World.

Perhaps France wanted to get back at the British any way it could, he suggested.

Ultimately, Zuckerman said, what the founders set forth with the declaration, the war that followed, and finally, with the drafting of the Constitution is an ongoing debate about the nature of power, government and the perilous tight rope that democracy must walk in order to avoid descending into tyranny or anarchy.

"That's the big question -- how to reconcile individual rights with collective rights," he said, and "we've been fighting about it ever since."

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