How Jewish Is July 4?

Lance Sussman (Courtesy of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel)

The summer is a downtime for Jewish holidays. As a June 21 Jewish Exponent article explained, there’s Shavuot in the late spring (May 25 this year) and then Rosh Hashanah in the very late summer or early fall (Sept. 15). In between, there are only minor observances like Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the temples of Jerusalem, and Tu B’Av, the “Jewish Valentine’s Day.”

But according to some Jewish historians, we forgot a big one: July 4.

The American Independence Day is, of course, not a Jewish holiday. But it is a celebration with major significance to the Jews.

Rabbi Lance Sussman, a Jewish historian who has taught at Princeton University, said the holiday is “literally a revolution in Jewish history.” Beginning with the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the United States of America became the first country in modern history to give Jewish men full citizenship. (Women were left out at that time as they were in the country at large.)

The Romans destroyed the Second Temple and took Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jews then adapted by adopting the rabbinic version of the religion that allowed it to go anywhere. But wherever it and its people went, they were second-class citizens, according to Sussman, the rabbi emeritus at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.

“They were subject to expulsions. They had limited legal rights. They had limited economic rights,” Sussman said.

Even during the Revolutionary War, the British Army allowed the Jews to fight as mercenaries. But the Continental Army allowed them to become officers next to George Washington. Mordecai Sheftall, a Jewish merchant from Georgia, rose to the rank of colonel during the war. As many as 20 other Jews became officers including several from Philadelphia, according to Sussman.

“They distinguished themselves as ranking officers in Washington’s army, and that helped set the stage for political rights,” the historian said.

As Sussman explained, there’s a notion that July 4, the American Revolution, the Revolutionary War, the framing of the Constitution and the development of the American nation benefited the Jews. While there is truth to that belief, it also takes the agency away from the Jews of the period. Jews were involved in forming the American nation, too.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, explained that the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to the Constitution, and later the Constitution were debated and written in Philadelphia. The city was also home to the largest Jewish community (about 2,000 people) in America at the time. The framers heard from Jews.

One, a merchant named Jonas Phillips, wrote a letter to the Constitutional Convention on religious liberty. He wanted to ban religious tests for federal officeholders.

“The only letter that the Constitutional Convention got on religious liberty was from a Jew,” said Sarna, who is also the chief historian for the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Jonathan Sarna (Screenshot)

Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

“They were part of this grand parade, this grand coalition, that was shaping the new nation,” Sarna said. “You didn’t have to conform to some religious group or standard.”

Congregation Mikveh Israel, which still stands today on North Fourth Street in Philadelphia, was around during that time. Phillips was a congregant there. Mikveh Israel Rabbi Albert Gabbai explained that many Jews of the day were corresponding with the Founding Fathers.
That’s why the Constitution resembles the Talmud in some ways, according to Gabbai. For example, the Fifth Amendment says a person cannot incriminate himself.

“That’s taken straight from the Talmud,” Gabbai said.

“We have democracy, freedom of expression. All these are basic in Judaism,” he added.

Jewish history in America has not been perfect. Later, there were discriminatory practices — like restrictive covenants in real estate — that treated Jews like second-class citizens, according to Sussman. But Jews have always been protected in this country by federal law.

When we think about July 4, we should consider that. Though it’s not a Jewish holiday, it is still a very important one.

“It showed that we could be part of the modern world as equals,” Sussman said.

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