How Moses Built America

Books

By Jerome E. Copulsky

Published October 14, 2009, issue of October 23, 2009.
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Fans of Dan Brown’s latest novel, “The Lost Symbol,” may well profit by perusing Bruce Feiler’s new book, which argues that the true secret of American history is not Masonic, but Mosaic. “Moses helped shape the American dream,” Feiler writes toward the end of “America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story.” “He is our true founding father. His face belongs on Mount Rushmore.” Feiler’s book reads like a brief for such an addition to the famous monument.

Part history lesson, part travelogue, part family memoir, “America’s Prophet” traces the use (and abuse) of Moses and the Exodus narrative throughout American history, from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Feiler, whose previous books include “Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses” (William Morrow, 2001) and “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths” (William Morrow, 2002), wandered across America, visiting such places as Plymouth, Mass.; Independence Hall in Philadelphia; Ripley, Ohio (one of the stops along the Underground Railroad); the battlefield at Gettysburg; the Statue of Liberty; Hollywood, and his in-laws’ Seder table; conversing with historians, curators and religious leaders along the way.

Feiler even scored an Oval Office audience with then-president George W. Bush (a fan of his book on Abraham). Bush famously referred to Jesus as his favorite philosopher; one suspects that after reading Feiler’s new book, the former commander in chief would change his answer to Moses.

In clear, engaging prose, Feiler demonstrates how the figure of Moses appealed to Americans across political and religious spectrums. Puritans and freethinkers, slaves and slave owners, capitalists and communists, Mormons and Jews, gay rights activists and computer moguls have looked to Moses as a leader and to the Exodus narrative as a template for their causes.

This persistence of Moses in the American imagination, Feiler argues, is attributable to the fact that the motifs of the biblical narrative — overcoming oppression, balancing a desire for liberty (Exodus) and the need for order (Sinai), establishing a just social order — have proved so pertinent to our historical experience.

Much of the history recounted in “America’s Prophet” is well known, but Feiler is a cheerful and earnest guide. His book is most original when he travels to lesser-known corners of the American experience, such as Clark’s Island, Mass., the site of “America’s first Sabbath,” or when he recounts the troubled history of the Liberty Bell and shows how Masonic and Mosaic symbols met during George Washington’s first inaugural ceremony. Though he does not ignore the dark side of the story (such as the use of the Exodus narrative by pro-slavery forces and to underwrite imperialist projects), Feiler clearly wants his readers to appreciate the enduring appeal of Moses. For Feiler, the biblical prophet serves as the social and political conscience of America and ultimately as a unifying figure, a force for pluralism and tolerance.

Feiler could have lingered longer on some of his wanderings and pondered more deeply the tensions within, and implications of, his account. His discussion of Puritanism would have benefited from a mention of Calvin and the political Hebraism of Reformed theology. While he briefly discusses the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases about the display of the Decalogue on public property, Feiler leaves out the contemporaneous controversy over Alabama’s former chief justice Roy Moore and his Ten Commandments monument. And he might have struggled with the limits of the analogy between biblical Israel and the United States. (Consider the difference between the ending of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie “The Ten Commandments” — with Charlton Heston’s pronouncement [based on Leviticus 25:10] — “Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof” — and that of the biblical narrative, which continues on with the Book of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan.)

Feiler concludes that “Moses actually helped shape American history and values, helped define the American dream, and helped create America.” That’s not quite right, of course. It wasn’t Moses who shaped America, but Americans who saw themselves as the “newly chosen” (or, in Lincoln’s famous phrase, “almost chosen”) people and attempted to shape the country accordingly. But as Feiler has shown, Americans also shaped the Moses whom they took for a model and a teacher — a prophet fashioned and constantly refashioned in our own likenesses.

Jerome E. Copulsky is assistant professor of philosophy and religion and director of Judaic studies at Goucher College.


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