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Judaism & Jewish Issues

Jewish Roots of American Constitution:
The War Against International Terrorism

Professor Paul Eidelberg


Although many of the framers of the American Constitution were not devout, their political mentality was shaped in universities whose curriculum was based very much on Jewish ideas.Accordingly, this essay will be divided into three parts. The first part will show how Judaism, in particular the Five Books of Moses, influenced higher education in 17th and 18th century America. The second part will examine the institutions prescribed in the American Constitution and show their roots in Jewish laws and principles. The third part will consider how America needs to return to its Jewish roots in the war against international terrorism.

A. Historical Background.[1]

1. No nation has been more profoundly influenced by the “Old Testament” than America. Many of America’s early statesmen and educators were schooled in Hebraic civilization. The second president of the United States, John Adams, a Harvard graduate, had this to say of the Jewish people:

The Jews have done more to civilize men than any other nation…. They are the most glorious Nation that ever inhabited the earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a bauble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily than any other Nation, ancient or modern.[2]

2. The curriculum at Harvard, like those of other early American colleges and universities, was designed by learned and liberal men of “Old Testament” persuasion. Harvard president Increase Mather (1685-1701) was an ardent Hebraist (as were his predecessors, Henry Dunster and Charles Chauncey). Mather’s writings contain numerous quotations from the Talmud as well as from the works of Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Maimonides and other classic Jewish commentators.

3. Yale University president Ezra Stiles readily discoursed with visiting rabbinical authorities on the Mishna and Talmud. At his first public commencement at Yale (1781), Stiles delivered an oration on Hebrew literature written originally in Hebrew. Hebrew and the study of Hebraic laws and institutions were an integral part of Yale’s as well as of Harvard’s curriculum.

4. Much the same may be said of King’s College (later Columbia University), William and Mary, Rutgers, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown University. Hebrew learning was then deemed a basic element of liberal education. Samuel Johnson, first president of King’s College (1754-1763), expressed the intellectual attitude of his age when he referred to Hebrew as “essential to a gentleman’s education.”

5. This attitude was not merely academic. On May 31, 1775, almost on the eve of the American Revolution, Harvard president Samuel Langdon, addressing the Congress of Massachusetts Bay, declared: “Every nation, when able and agreed, has a right to set up over itself any form of government which to it may appear most conducive to its common welfare. The civil polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model” (emphasis added).

6. The Higher Law doctrine of the Declaration of Independence is rooted in the Torah, which proclaims “The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” and appeals to the “Supreme Judge” and “Providence.” Even though Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, was no admirer of the Hebrew Bible, he nonetheless framed the Declaration with a view to galvanizing a bible-reading public in support of the American Revolution

7. During the colonial and constitution-making period, the Americans, especially the Puritans, adopted and adapted various Hebraic laws for their own governance. The legislation of New Haven, for example, was based on the premise that “the judicial laws of God, as they were delivered by Moses, and as they are a fence to the moral law, being neither … ceremonial, nor ha[ving] any reference to Canaan, shall … generally bind all offenders, till they be branched out into particulars hereafter.” Thirty-eight of seventy-nine statutes in the New Haven Code of 1665 derived their authority from the Hebrew Bible. The laws of Massachusetts were based on the same premise.

8. The fifteen Capital Laws of New England included the “Seven Noahide Laws” of the Torah, or what may be termed the seven universal laws of morality. Six prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, robbery, adultery, and cruelty to animals, while the seventh requires the establishment of courts of justice. Such courts are obviously essential to any society based on the primacy of reason or persuasion rather than passion or intimidation.

9. The seven universal laws of morality (together with their particular branches) comprised a “genial orthodoxy. This genial orthodoxy transcends whatever social or economic distinctions exist among men: it holds all men equal before the law. By so doing it places constraints on governors and governors alike and thereby habituated Americans to the rule of law. As a further consequence, this ancient Hebraic orthodoxy dissolved or subordinated many ethnic differences among immigrants in the new world. It moderated the demands of various groups, helped coordinate their diverse interests and talents, and thereby contributed to America’s growth and prosperity.

10. Now, without minimizing the influence of such philosophers as Locke and Montesquieu on the framers of the American Constitution, I believe America may rightly be deemed the first and only nation that was explicitly founded on the Seven Noahide Laws of the Torah. Indeed, the legislation of the several states comprising the Federal Union embodied these laws—including the prohibitions against blasphemy and adultery—well into the nineteenth century. It should also be noted that the constitutions of eleven of the original thirteen states made provision for religious education. Some even had religious qualifications for office.

B. The Institutions Prescribed by the American Constitution
1. The House of Representatives represents 435 districts of the United States, where the people of each district elect one person to represent their views and interests. The idea of district elections is implicit in the Torah. “Select for yourselves men who are wise, understanding, and known to your tribes and I will appoint them as your leaders” (Deut. 1:13). The word “election” obviously comes from the word “elect,” and the “elect” means men of high intellectual and moral character.

a. Exodus 18:19 states: “… seek out from among all the people men with leadership ability, God-fearing men–men of truth who hate injustice.” Similar qualifications are prescribed in the original constitutions Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. This is what the word “election” means. It is not a democratic but an aristocratic term!

b. So, each tribe must select the best men to be their representatives. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that “each tribe (shevet) is to choose out of its own midst men whose character can only be known by their lives [hence whose character] is known only to those who have associated with them.” This is the biblical source of residential requirements for Representatives and Senators in the United States. Also, what is here called a shevet was called a district (pelech) after the Second Temple.[3]

c. Moreover, the idea of district elections conforms to the Jewish law of “agency” (Kiddushin 59a). This law synthesizes the “delegate” and “trustee” concept of representation prevalent in the non-Jewish democratic world. Whereas the delegate concept binds a representative to the instructions of his constituents, the trustee concept allows him to judge whether adherence to these instructions, when additional knowledge or new circumstances intervene, will harm his constituents’ immediate and/or long-term interests. TOP OF PAGE

d. Finally, it is a principle of Jewish law that “No legislation should be imposed on the public unless the majority can conform to it” (Avoda Zara 36a). This obviously requires legislators to consider or consult the opinions of their constituents. Hence representative democracy can be readily assimilated to Judaism simply by adding that representatives must be “men who are wise, and understanding.” This would make for a “high-toned” or aristocratic democracy, or a universal aristocracy. (Bear in mind that Israel is supposed to be a “Nation of Kohanim,” meaning a nation of noblemen.)

2. The Senate. The Senate represents the 50 states of the Federal Union; it therefore represents the Federal principle. But the idea of federalism goes back to the Torah and the twelve tribes. Each tribe had its own distinct identity, its own governor and its own judicial system.

3. The Presidency. Unlike Israel, which has a Plural Executive or Cabinet consisting of a prime minister and other ministers representing different political parties in the Knesset, the United States has a Unitary Executive, namely, the President. Of course the President has a Cabinet, but its members cannot hold any other office and they are wholly responsible to the President, not to any political party.

a. Now it so happens that a Unitary Executive is a Torah principle! Thus, when Moses told Joshua to consult theelders when he was about to lead the Jews across the Jordan, God countermanded Moses: there can only be one leader in a generation. And if you look at tractate Sanhedrin 8a, you will see that Jewish law opposes collective leadership. Nor is this all.

b. Just as a President of the United States must be a native-born American and not a naturalized citizen, so a king of Israel must be born of a Jewish mother and not a ger or convert.

4. The Supreme Court. Just as the American Supreme Court is the final interpreter of the American Constitution, so the Great Sanhedrin is the final interpreter of the Jewish Constitution, the Torah.

So we see that the American Constitution was very much rooted in Jewish principles. Now let us consider the importance of these principles in America’s war against international terrorism.

C. The War Against International Terrorism

1. Since 9/11, an “Axis of Evil” threatens mankind. It has been given various names: “Islamic fundamentalism,” “Islamism,” “militant Islam,” “Wahhabism,” etc. Each of these appellations is said to be an extreme form of Islam. The issue is of strategic significance. It is one thing to confront what may only be a fringe element of Islam; it is quite another if this element lurks in the heart of Muslims and can everywhere explode into fanatical fury. Moreover, it is one thing to win a war against a supposedly a marginal aspect of Islam. But whether America possesses the wisdom and perseverance to win a war against Islam per se and then transform a welter of Islamic regimes into democracies is problematic.

2. In any event, no war can be wisely conducted and won unless the enemy is clearly defined. We need to know whether “Islamic fundamentalism” is authentic Islam.

a. No less than Winston Churchill referred to Mein Kampf as “the new Qur’an of faith and war …”[4] Apologists nonetheless select passages from the Qur’an that prescribe Islam’s “pleasant and peaceful ways,” while ignoring those that inspire Islam’s hate-filled and murderous fanaticism (22:39-41; 2:190).

b. In a mosque sermon in Qatar on June 7, 2002, the imam prayed to Allah “to humiliate the infidels… destroy the Jews, the Christians, and their supporters…make their wives widows, make their children orphans, and make them a prey for Muslims.”

c. A 1998 fatwa proclaimed, “one billion Muslims are capable of turning their bodies into bombs which are equal in force to all the weapons of … mass destruction possessed by the Americans.”[5]

3. We need to face the awesome truth that Islam’s most distinguishing and historically dynamic principle is jihad (holy war), and all four schools of Islamic law (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i, Maliki) refer to jihad as a commandment to wage offensive war against infidels for the sake of Allah. Consistent therewith, Muslims have plundered, butchered, subjugated, and degraded countless Christian and Jewish communities from the time of Muhammad to the present day.[6] That they exult in this history of savagery in the name of Allah — we saw them rejoice throughout Islamdom in the destruction of the Twin Towers — is all the more reason why certain Arab and Islamic regimes must be conquered, just as Nazi Germany had to be conquered before it was democratized.

4. The question is whether America has the moral resources to honestly define and confront mankind’s greatest enemy. Various Jews in Israel fear that because of its economic interests in the Middle East, America may sacrifice Israel on the altar of Islam.

5. Obviously, the U.S. cannot wage war simultaneously against some fifty Islamic regimes. Accordingly, some commentators like Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute would have America proceed incrementally, beginning with the elimination of Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. Baghdad would be first, followed by Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.[7] From the demise of these Islamic tyrannies a chain reaction will supposedly follow and transform Islamdom. These commentators urge an American crusade to democratize the Islamic world. Predictably, they conceive of this crusade in purely secular terms. They ignore not only the fanatical devotion of the Muslim masses to Islam, but the unappealing aspects of the secular democratic world which, as eminent western scholars admit, is steeped in moral decay. Democratizing dozens of Islamic states might not be an unmixed blessing for the billion Muslims that inhabit this planet.

6. If the war against Islam is to be won, the partisans of contemporary democracy will require a deeper understanding of what makes democracies preferable to Islamic (and other) tyrannies. These partisans invariably emphasize the freedom and equality enjoyed in democracies but absent in Islam. They overlook the fact that, unlike in former times, democratic freedom and equality lack ethical and rational constraints. Moral relativism infects the democratic mind and saps the will to overcome the absolutism of the Islamic mind. Lovers of democracy need to ask: What is there about democratic freedom that would prompt a person to restrain his passions, to be kind, honest, just? What is there about democratic equality that would prompt him to defer to wisdom or to show respect for teachers or parents?

7. The partisans of democracy need to recognize that the freedom and equality they exalt are morally neutral. In the war against Islamic barbarism democrats need to see that the sanctity of human life and the decency and civility still visible in contemporary democracy have nothing to do with democracy itself. They are rooted in the Bible of Israel and in Greek political philosophy. Waving the flag of freedom and equality American style will not purge Islam whose believers are willing to die for Allah. If, however, freedom and equality are derived from the Jewish conception of man’s creation in the image of God — which alone can provide democracy with an ethical and rational foundation — and if democracy, so conceived and so proclaimed, rallies Christian America, it may then be possible to transform the Islamic world.

8. Merely to eliminate Muslim despots and institute democratic elections will accomplish very little. America must return to its Jewish roots. Remarkably, in 1991, Congress explicitly incorporated the Seven Noahide Laws of Universal Morality in Public Law 102-14, which established March 26 as “Education Day”! The Seven Noahide Laws can provide the moral content for America’s “Operation: Enduring Tradition” against international terrorism. President George W. Bush, a devout Christian, is qualified to make the Seven Noahide Laws the ultimate justification of America’s war against Islamic civilization.

9. The Noahide Laws, though violated by all Islamic regimes that breed or harbor terrorists, are nonetheless laws which Muslim countries profess and should be required to abide by. If all nations complied with these laws, then war, instead of being the norm of international relations, would be a thing of the past.

10. Muslim youth need to be taught that the Noahide Laws come from the Torah, that they unite Jews and Christians, that Islam would never have come into existence had not Muhammad learned from Jewish and Christian teachers. Qur’anic verses that degrade Jews and Christians must be neutralized by juxtaposing contradictory verses and by commentaries that render such degradation obsolete. Youth should be taught that it is sinful for Muslims to wage jihad against Jews and Christians (as well as Hindus). They must be taught that Muslims who murder women, men, and children in the name of Allah desecrate God’s name. They should also learn that the concept of jihad contradicts the UN Charter as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which prescribes “tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial, or religious groups.” The word jihad should be stricken from Islamic law. Public renunciation of jihad should be the litmus test of whether a Muslim regime is sincerely committed to peace. Jihad should mean nothing more than striving for self-perfection.

11. President’s Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech brands as wicked any Muslim state that provides a haven for terrorists. This definition applies to almost all Islamic regimes and thus calls for regime change. Regime change involves not only WHO rules and HOW they rule (hence political institutions), but also the ENDS for which they rule, which ends must have ethical-religious content. From these three basic factors of regime change, a civic ethos must develop, reinforced by appropriate educational and social institutions.[8]

12. A crucial aspect of Islam’s democratization is the introduction of a market economy. Such an economy would decentralize the corporate power of Arab regimes, raise the living standards of their poverty-stricken people, and hasten the development of civic and private institutions to counterbalance the power of government.

13. The effectiveness of democracy in any country very much depends on the structure of the legislature. Because many countries in the Middle East contain large ethnic and religious minorities, the United States should promote “bicameralism” in these countries. Given a bicameral legislature, the lower branch can be designed in such a way as to protect these minorities. In the 21 Arab-defined countries — this excludes Iran — there are approximately 250 million people, some 40 million of whom are non-Arabs ethnically or nationally, or non-Muslims religiously. These 40 million inhabitants of Arab countries are not nationally or religiously affiliated with them. This substantial minority includes about 10 million Christians, particularly the Copts in Egypt, and large ethnic groups such as the Kurds and Berbers.[9]

14. The democratization of Islam must be attentive to its minorities, especially those which, like the Christians, have been degraded as dhimmies. “Dhimmitude” must be eliminated from Islam, and of course the status of women must be elevated without encouraging the West’s family-destructive feminism. Constitutional democracy in the Middle East is a necessary precondition of peace in this region. And the roots of Constitutional democracy may be found in the Bible of Israel.

[1] This section of this essay is based on Abraham Katsh, The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy (New York: KTAV, 1977).

[2] Cited in Pathways to the Torah (Jerusalem: Aish HaTorah Publications, 1988), p. A6.2.

[3] Unlike Israel, 74 nations have district elections for the lower or only branch of the legislature. In Israel the entire country constitutes a single district, in which parties compete on the basis of proportional representation. For a detailed analysis of Israel’s political system, see Paul Eidelberg, Jewish Statesmanship: Lest Israel Fall (Jerusalem: Foundation for Constitutional Democracy, 2000).

[4] The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p. 55.

[5] Ibid., pp. 297-297.

[6] Bat Ye’or, Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (Fairleigh Dickenson University Press 2002).

[7] “The War on Terror Won’t End in Baghdad,”Wall Street Journal, in Jerusalem Post, September 5, 2002, p. 15. Also Mark Steyn, “First We Take Baghdad,” Jerusalem Post, August 25, 2002, p. 9.

[8] Here I am indebted to Professor Will Morrisey for reminding me of what we both learned from Aristotle.

[9] See Mordechai Nisan, Minorities in the Middle East (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991), p. 2.

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