By Simon Greer and Shuli Passow
Jewish Funds for Justice
In 1775, Marine troops preparing to intercept British warships carried yellow drums painted with what would become an iconic image of the American Revolutionary period: a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike; underneath, the motto “Don’t tread on me.” Capturing the anti-government political sentiment of the moment, this image was soon immortalized on what became known as the Gadsden flag.
A year later, as America declared independence from Britain, a second image took its place in our national history. The Great Seal, bearing the motto “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) — bore witness to a second political vision for this nascent country, that of collective identity and mutual obligation.
America, the great political experiment, has attempted since her birth to balance these two founding ideals of individualism and collectivism. Today, the rhetoric of the tea party movement tugs us dangerously out of balance, reimagining this country’s creation as rooted solely in the values of individual rights and freedoms.
One small indication of the movement’s allegiance to this strand of our founding narrative, to the exclusion of the other: Sales of the Gadsden flag increased 400% over a two-month period this past fall. We should all care about this perversion of the founding narrative of this country; it misrepresents what America stands. For Jewish Americans, it marks a rampant individualism that runs contrary to the mutual obligation that Judaism holds out as a political and social ideal.
(Read more about Judaism’s vision for society and community at Patheos.com.)
With Passover on the horizon, Americans can look to the Jewish founding narrative — the Exodus story — for perspectives on freedom and nation building. Interestingly, the Exodus from Egypt is framed not in terms of the individual’s right to freedom from oppression (though that is certainly implicit) but rather in terms of the freedom to work together to build a society of equity, of justice, and of collective social responsibility.
The story itself opens with an image of collective identification. Moses, born to Israelite parents but raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, forgoes the privileges and luxuries of the royal palace to identify with his Israelite brethren. His first action as an adult reveals his sense of fealty and responsibility to the larger Israelite collective: he risks his life to come to the aid of an Israelite slave being beaten by an Egyptian, whom Moses ultimately kills in the struggle.
The climax of the story similarly emphasizes identification with the communal entity. In the moments before redemption, as the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt, they are instructed to mark their doorposts with blood in order to be spared the final plague and to be freed. Only by identifying as members of the larger community can any individual household take the steps out of Egypt. National freedom, the story tells us, is a collective, not an individual, enterprise.
Passover focuses on the Exodus from Egypt, the beginning — not the end — of the Jewish national formation. Exodus is followed by Sinai. The Sinaitic covenant is the blueprint for building a society in the promised land. The Jewish model of redemption and freedom is not simply the freedom from oppression to do as one wants, but is also a freedom to actively participate in a covenantal community. This is a highly communal articulation of what freedom is and what it is meant to be.
The founders of this country knew the Exodus story well. Many wrote of America as the new Israel, Britain as the new Egypt. The freedom they sought was modeled after the Exodus; yet, departing from the Hebrew Bible — which strikingly does not use the language of individual rights — our founders created explicit space for the individual in this country’s laws and cultural narrative. In this way, America was indeed a great political experiment, striving to negotiate the tension between individualism and a greater collective good. The Declaration of Independence itself articulates this tension, with its opening call for the “inalienable rights” of the individual juxtaposed against its authors’ closing commitment to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
The rising popularity of the tea party movement signals a dangerous and unfortunate departure from the balance sought by the founding ideals of this country. More concerning than any one policy position is the movement’s rhetorical power, drawing us further away from the society envisioned by our founders, and creating a culture of individualism. Using the lens of Exodus to analyze the tea party phenomenon steers us toward reframing the debate and re-infusing the discourse with the narrative of mutual responsibility and the common good. This Passover, I hope Americans of all religious stripes will draw from these values and ideals to envision a new future for this country, one of justice, equality, and collective destiny.
Simon Greer is the president and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ). Shuli Passow is the director of community initiatives at JFSJ.