America is a country like no other. It is the land of freedom, the land of opportunity, and, interestingly, also the most religious wealthy country in the world – by far.
Americans sometimes forget how unique their country is in the annals of history and to what extent they owe their liberty to religious ideas.
To explore this topic, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Rocklin. A chaplain in the Army National Guard and president of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, Rabbi Rocklin received his PhD in history from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is currently heading a project to bring classical education back to Jewish schools.
His writings have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, National Review Online, and Mosaic.
The Jewish Press: It’s been said that America’s founding fathers were inspired by biblical values. How so?
Rocklin: The separation of powers, the importance of liberty, the preciousness of each individual, and many other principles were built over time in a Western civilization that was inspired by biblical Jewish understandings.
Trial by jury, for example, was originally a Greco-Roman institution, but because of Judaism and Christianity, it took on a new meaning. The understanding became that only G-d can really judge you, so if we’re going to judge people at all, the ones doing the judging have to put themselves in the shoes of the accused and figure out if he did something wrong in the context of his situation, as opposed to, “Did he do something wrong in the eyes of ‘the law’?” – since human law alone can’t judge a person.
In what sense, though, is trial by jury Jewish if it was a Greco-Roman institution?
Because in Greek and Roman times, it was a privilege [given to aristocrats]. Only under the influence of Jewish and then Christian thinking did it become something that every man was entitled to because of his humanity, as opposed to his membership in the aristocracy….
It’s a complicated topic. When Thomas Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence that we’re endowed by our creator with inalienable rights, his understanding of a creator is not the same as the Bible’s. So I don’t want to say that someone like Jefferson thought about G-d the way Jews do. He didn’t.
But the very notion that we have inherent rights because we’re in a covenantal relationship with G-d certainly strengthens the tradition of individual rights in the West.
What do you mean by covenantal relationship?
Every bris starting with Noach and even implicitly with Adam. It’s the notion that G-d cares deeply about every human being and that He made the entire world for people. That’s a notion that was absent in the pagan world. The Greeks and Romans didn’t have it. According to them, the gods did what they wished.
We believe, though, that G-d is faithful to us, that He made the world for us, and that He cares deeply about us – and therefore we all have inherent worth that derives from Him.
What other examples can you give of the influence of Judaism on America’s founding?
Well, the general populace of the United States was very much inspired by the Bible, and the development of liberty was translated for most of the public through the language of the Bible.
If you read someone like Thomas Paine – who himself was not a religious man by any means – you’ll see, for instance, that in Common Sense he makes his most effective arguments by using the Bible because his audience was deeply religious and deeply knowledgeable when it came to biblical stories that pertain to liberty.
From its very beginnings, American Christianity has been very different than European Christianity in its attitude toward Jews. In the entire 365 years that Jews have been in America, never once, for example, have they been the victims of a religiously-inspired pogrom. How do you account for that?
There’s a spirit that animates America going back to early New England of establishing a “city upon a hill” – a “New Israel,” as some of them put it. They saw the story of the Jews as the basis of their own story.
American Christians remain very cognizant of the original story of Abraham’s departure from his land and the Jews’ journey to the Promised Land, and they identify with these stories very, very closely.
And whereas many [non-American] Christians placed an emphasis on the Jews being replaced by Christians, many American Christians developed the desire to help the Jews achieve redemption. As a chaplain in the army, I have met countless Christians who quote the verse from Lech Lecha to me, “And I [G-d] will bless those who bless you and those who curse you I will curse.”
They want to do right with the Jews because they see the Jews as G-d’s chosen people.
Some claim America can’t survive long term unmoored from its biblical roots. Do you agree?
Yes. Not everyone in America agrees about religion, obviously. But biblical views have held people together in America in many important ways – from Thomas Paine at the very beginning to Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement. They’ve helped people think about America as an exceptional project dedicated to the pursuit of liberty for all.
So I think the biblical tradition has clearly been a common ground for Americans despite their many disagreements, and I’m concerned that without it, not only are we going to lose many of its positive elements, but a lot of the social unrest and lack of civility that we’ve been seeing recently may get worse.
Some people claim secular societies cannot long endure, and obviously the moral state of American society has declined since the secular revolution of the 1960s.
Clearly something’s wrong. You can see that in something as simple as the birthrate, which is currently 1.8 in America. If people are not motivated to have children, we won’t grow as a society. We’ll shrink.
Look at Israel as a contrast. It’s becoming more religious and has a birthrate that is solid – 3.1. So there’s a correlation between the abandonment of biblical tradition and a rapidly declining birthrate. In modern secular life, people are just not motivated to ensure their own continuity.
What’s the connection between religiosity and a country’s birthrate? Why would you have more children if you’re religious?
Because you believe that bringing life to the world is inherently important and you believe that sacrificing for that life is inherently good. You also believe that you’re part of building a better future that is redemptive.
You’ve argued in the past that it’s important for Jewish children to learn about the contributions Judaism has made to Western civilization when they’re studying history. Why is that important?
Because we as Jews are not outsiders to the Western tradition. We’re originators – just as much the Greeks and Romans were. In fact, our contributions are actually more important in a sense since the West was built by reexamining the Greco-Roman tradition through a Jewish lens.
Our religion, therefore, is responsible for Western culture. We helped create the greatness of the West, and we have a responsibility to upkeep it. We can also understand the importance of Judaism partly by understanding the greatness it created.
If we don’t understand that, then we don’t understand the greatness of our own religion and we also don’t understand why we ought to be dedicated to help saving the civilization we helped give birth to.
So you’re saying Western civilization can also be a good vehicle of instilling Jewish pride in children if you teach them Jewish ideas are partially responsible for its existence?
Yes. Many people talk about “Judaism and the West.” But that’s not an accurate way of speaking. It’s like saying “Greek philosophy and the West.” Greek philosophy is not foreign to the West. It’s part of the West. The same thing is true of Judaism.
The history of the West is only possible because of Judaism, and if we want to understand either this history or Judaism as fully as possible, we need to understand both.
You’ve spoken publicly on the importance of giving Jewish children a classical education. What is a classical education and why do you think it’s important for Jewish children to have one?
A classical education is the kind of education that was cherished by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Ezriel Hildesheimer, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and so many other Jewish greats. It was an education that emphasized grammar, logic, and rhetoric and involved reading the greatest works of our civilization – from early to modern – and attaining a command of those great works and basing thought and expression on them.
Classical education used to be the standard. It’s only in the last century to century and a half that progressive education has displaced classical education in most schools.
Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook very much wanted to establish classical schools in America and the land of Israel because without a classical education we are untethered from the greatness of our civilization and we’re susceptible to the self-destructive fads that have been harming Western intellectual and spiritual life for many decades.
There are many other reasons for giving children a classical education. For one, without it, we’re left with the education we see today, where students don’t know very much compared to what students used to know. They also can’t articulate themselves well – either in speech or in writing – and they lack logical reasoning.
We’ve seen this in the pandemic, I think, very clearly. People have a great deal of difficulty analyzing data and taking all necessary variables into account when making decisions as opposed to just focusing on one point.
Is more education really the answer to that? Don’t complete ignoramuses have more sense in relation to responding to this pandemic than some of our elected officials who went to Ivy League schools?
You can’t compare today’s education to classical education. The education that’s dominated the Western world in the past century to century and a half is progressive education….
We have a lot of expertise in our society. But we don’t have a lot of education in the classical sense, so you can be an expert on infectious diseases, for example, but have very poor reasoning skills when it comes to what to do about the economy.