If anyone else has pointed out what a Jewish piece of oratory the recent State of the Union address was, I’m not aware of it. The ethos, the whole moral outlook, was Jewish, and this observation raises a question: How did America come to be the most Judaic country on earth, a country where one could plausibly say such a thing about the principal yearly address given by an American president?
Before getting to the State of the Union, let’s try to arrive at an understanding of what it means for a non-Jewish country to be, in some sense, Jewish. Two features of the Jewish way of contemplating the world are the emphases on a detailed attention to ethics and the faith in a messianic future.
Ironically, perhaps the first thinker to point out the Jewishness of America was the sainted Reform rabbi Leo Baeck (1873-1956). A survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Baeck attributed what’s special, and especially Jewish, about America to its Christian heritage. This is ironic because Baeck’s modern-day followers, for example the Reform movement’s left-wing Commission on Social Action, have tended to find America admirable despite, not because of, her deep commitment to Christianity.
An amazingly observant and prescient writer, Baeck understood Judaism’s daughter religion as being in a constant state of war with her own Jewish soul. In certain periods of Christian history, he explained, the Judaic heritage — what he called “classical” religion — was dominant: an emphasis on ethics, on commandments. In other periods, this Jewish side of Christianity was submerged under a “romantic” tendency that revered not ethical action but emotional experience, that gauzy, swooning sensation of feeling and glorying in being personally “saved.”
This essentially aesthetic, passive version of religion loves sacred music and wafting incense, but can look with indifference on injustice and tyranny. By contrast, the Jewish “classical” counter-tendency thinks less about the self and more about the wrongs done by human beings and directs a focused passion to setting things right on earth. This leads to a messianic longing for a final redemption of all people, as well as to a certain missionary instinct to share your ethical vision with others.
In Baeck’s retelling of Christian history, the romantic and classical tendencies were balanced in the medieval church. But with Luther’s Reformation, the pendulum swung decisively to the romantic side — which would explain why German Lutheranism could be so indifferent to Nazi violence.
But another branch of Protestantism, that of Calvinism, embraced the Judaic-classical paradigm. Here is where America — her Puritan and Baptist roots — comes in. As Baeck wrote in his 1925 essay “Judaism and the Church”: “This idea did not become an ecclesiastical movement until the time of so-called Baptism, this religious movement from which, together with Calvinism, there was derived… almost everything which transformed and reorganized religion and religious thought in England and the United States…. The Baptist movement represents a real revolution of that which was Jewish within the Church. It strove and gained its world-historical successes at the time of Cromwell in England, and in the states of the Pilgrim fathers.”
Back to the State of the Union. One is struck by the heartfelt piety, entirely compatible with the Hebrew Bible, accompanied by the moral impulse and the will to defeat systematized injustice: in Baeck’s terms, by the ethical and the messianic.
The president advocates “confidence and faith” because “The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable — and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that His purposes are just and true.”
In the same address, when Bush spoke in defense of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, the ethical vision was straight out of our own Torah (Leviticus 18:22, in case you want to look it up). When he recalled how “we dealt with Saddam Hussein’s evil regime,” this was the messianic impulse being expressed.
Sometimes, as in the State of the Union, the Jewish streak in American public life is lofty and subtle. Other times it’s comically obvious. How about this for obviousness? As Bush spoke, the Democratic presidential contenders were campaigning in New Hampshire. Four of them either have Jewish ancestry (Kerry, Clark), a Jewish spouse (Dean), or are Jewish (Lieberman).
Nothing like this is to be found in Europe — where sexual decadence is smiled upon, where it was thought that leaving Iraqis to suffer under their horrendous dictator was the most reasonable course of action. Lofty or comical, it’s something for which we Jews should not forget to thank our Maker. Which reminds me: Thank you, God, for making me an American.
David Klinghoffer’s forthcoming book is “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).