Parshat Behar and the Jewish Influence on Early America

Parshat Behar and the Jewish Influence on Early America

For anyone who visited Philadelphia before 9/11, it is painful to see the Liberty Bell under such tight security. Before 9/11 one could just matter of factly view the Liberty Bell through an open window. Since 9/11 unfortunately, the Bell is hidden from sight. The tragic impact of 9/11 however, cannot negate the more positive and lasting connection between the Bell and Jewish history. The inscription on the Bell reads
Proclaim liberty throughout all the land
unto all the inhabitants thereof.

That quotation is taken directly from this week’s Leviticus Torah portion of Behar. I have always taken pride in this eternal link between one of America’s most cherished symbols and the Hebrew Bible.

Upon careful examination however, you will discover that the Proclaim Liberty inscription on the Bell has a meaning distinct from the original text in Behar. On the Bell, the text celebrates the liberation of America-and Americans- from England
(although that liberty did not apply to all Americans…). The text in Behar actually translates as proclaim release throughout the land. The verse’s original intent has nothing to do with liberation from a foreign power. Rather, the Leviticus text describes the release of Jewish servants from their Jewish bosses. Every fiftieth year, a Jubilee was declared; Jewish servants were released from their servitude and land reverted to the original owners. The Bell’s inscription refers to American independence from an enemy nation. The original text refers to an economic liberty of Jews from other Jews.

Even if we argue that the Liberty Bell designers misunderstood the intention of Leviticus, they nevertheless borrowed a Hebrew phrase to make a declaration about American freedom. To whatever degree anti-Semitism existed in the United States even back then, our ancestors found great meaning in a phrase so closely identified with Jewish culture and society. Even if one might argue that Leviticus belongs to Christianity as much as to Judaism, there can be no denying that a phrase originally written in Hebrew served as an inspiration for a young America.

Regarding people in our country who still looks askance at Jews today; we should remind them about the Hebrew phrase which forever links America and the Jewish people. Whatever the intent of Leviticus, I am still proud to celebrate an American symbol which bears the text I will chant this coming Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Klayman