Why Americans Love Moses
When Jews around the world observe Passover beginning this week, the holiday that commemorates freedom and liberty will come at a time when anti-Semitism across Europe is at its highest point since the Holocaust.
While the conflict between Israel and Palestinians serves as kindling for anti-Semitism in European cities, the continent needs little cajoling. Millenia before the founding of modern Israel, from the Roman scorched earth policy against the ancient Jews onwards, state- and church-sanctioned anti-Semitism were woven as tightly into the European fabric as the aristocracy and feudal system.
But despite the European antecedents of the United States, our nation has taken a different approach to its Jewish community.
Episodic in its intensity though never reaching the zenith achieved by Europeans, anti-Semitism in America has been tempered by the ties that bind Jews to the people who founded the nation and the principles of liberty and justice that underpin the republic.
And one of the strongest ties is the protagonist at the center of the Passover story: Moses.
The most important and certainly most influential of all ancient Jewish prophets, Moses is a towering figure in American public life, deeply influencing our founding fathers and institutions.
Moses's image, story, and influence proliferate in the United States. Legislators and the judiciary recognize his outsized influence on the law and concepts of justice, if our iconography is any measure.
The Ten Commandments, the signature achievement of the Moses story, adorn many U.S. courtrooms, while on the eastern pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building Moses is the central figure, seated on a throne and flanked by other ancient lawgivers.
Moses quite literally is a central actor in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol, 23 marble relief portraits hang over the gallery doors. They depict historical figures selected "for their work in establishing the principles that underlie American law," the Architect of the U.S. Capitol explains.
The 11 profiles in the eastern half of the House chamber face left and the 11 in the western half face right. They include portraits of Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Napoleon, Justinian, Solon, and Maimonides. All are looking towards the central marble portrait of Moses, who is the only one in full-face relief gazing out into the House chamber.
Bruce Feiler, author of America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story, says the American affinity for the Hebrew prophet began at the beginning -- with the Pilgrims, who heard echoes of their own story in the trials and tribulations of a desert people from thousands of years earlier searching for a Promised Land. So much so, in fact, that Pilgrims on the Mayflower carried with them Bibles prominently featuring images of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom.
Our Founding Fathers had Moses in mind when they designed the first Seal of the United States in 1776. The initial recommendation of a committee comprised of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams was a nod to the prophet and the early Hebrews.
From Franklin's notes, the seal depicted Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot and passing through the parted Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites. The seal shows "rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Cloud, expressive of the divine Presence and Command, beaming on Moses who stands on the shore and extending his hand over the Sea causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh."
From U.S. presidents to abolitionists and civil rights leaders, Moses has been invoked as a steadfast ally and an exemplar. More than any other ancient figure, Feiler says, "Moses embodies the American story. He is the champion of oppressed people; he transforms disparate tribes in a forbidding wilderness into a nation of laws; he is the original proponent of freedom and justice for all."
In a period of human history when life expectancy was short, when anarchy, violence and starvation were as close as the next village or a poor harvest, the Ten Commandments and other legal codes Moses receives and enacts in the Torah story are almost a curiosity for their focus on fairness and the Bronze Age equivalent of egalitarianism.
One rule in particular stands out for its call for humanity and dignity in what surely must have been a world where life was cheap. "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt," God tells Moses in the book of Exodus.
The admonition has been largely ignored by Europe, as Jewish history can attest. But however imperfectly enacted in the United States, it is the essence of a nation of immigrants and another tie that closely binds Americans to Moses.