I was at the Anchorage Museum looking at an exhibit displaying the backgrounds of the various native American groups that have and are inhabiting Alaska. Here is the quote from one that made me pause for a minute, “Our name for ourselves is Inupiaq (the real people).” Instantly I thought of the movie “Dances with Wolves,” where we hear that the Lakota refer to themselves as the “human beings.” I then noticed another Alaskan tribe’s description in the museum and they referred to themselves the same way – as the “human beings.” As I walked the display, it turns out that a number of tribes referred to themselves as “real people” or “human beings.”
It should be no surprise that we Jews are not the only folks with a tradition of being unique, chosen. I am not going to critique the feeling of uniqueness in Jews or any group. It is a common part of ethnicity. What is unique about the Jewish tradition of being chosen is how much debate and discussion has occurred through the centuries over what that really means. Is it a quality of being select? Does it imply greater responsibility? Perhaps, it means adopting a set of ideals and religious approach to life that is different from other groups?
That is the overarching theme I glean from parashat Shoftim. “When you come to the land that Adonai your God is giving you, you shall not learn to do the abhorrant things of those nations.” (Deuteronomy 18:9) The immediate context of this verse specifies certain practices, not putting your children through a trial by fire, no magicians, diviners or other practices that lead from basic morality and truth. Moses is trying to teach that the society the Israelites are supposed to form is one that operates on a different standard than those of other nations.
This instruction becomes elevated when one considers the opening verses of Shoftim. These command the Israelites to create a just court system, highlighted by the phrase, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, usually translated as “justice, justice you shall pursue.” Thanks to the uniqueness of the Hebrew language, this command takes us to a more complex and deeper level. Simply pursuing justice would not make the command to the Israelites unique. All cultures claim to pursue justice. Justice, however, is a relative term. It is too unqualified, open to abuse by authoritarian figures. Hebrew, however, allows us to read the word tzedek in other ways. We can translate the word also as righteousness. The system of justice we are commanded to create is to be guided by righteousness and moderated by mercy. But that is not all. The same Hebrew letters, tzadik, daled, kuf, also form the root for tzodek, which means factually correct. The justice system, indeed society, is to be informed by facts, not by falsehood. Why else would the rabbinic amplification of this system emphasize the need for witnesses who can testify to facts.
A society based on these three translations of the word tzedek: justice, righteousness and factual truth, would be a unique society indeed. It would create a nation unlike all other nations. These values are relevant not just to Jews. These are core values that Americans believe make our nation an exceptional nation. Each one is present in our founding documents. As our country has grown and aged, we have adapted the initial precepts to changing times. For example, the phrase “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence meant white property owning males in 1776. Today we operate (at least ostensibly) under the assumption this phrase really means “all humans are created equal, no matter what race or gender.” The precepts of justice are outlined in numerous amendments to the constitution. The guarantee of a free press, is a recognition not only of the right to diversity of opinion, but the necessity for a media independent enough to report facts without repercussions from the government.
These are the essential ideals of our country. Rather than exceptionalism based on tribe (our country is an amalgam of tribes), American exceptionalism is based on our founding principles. The Israelites were commanded to create a nation that did not do as the Canaanites did. Our founding fathers tried to create a system for our country no nation had ever attempted. The American experiment was a model and inspiration for many around the world. The potential for people to live in freedom with the opportunity for prosperity has attracted generations of immigrants who have contributed to the building of this country.
But now times are changing. We can legitimately ask if we are adhering to the ideals that made America exceptional. Because too many in our country see our exceptionalism expressed not by our principles, but by our power. Freedom and opportunity are not for all, but for those deemed as acceptable. That is the problem with those who state they want to “make America great again.” They do not mean a return to our founding ideals of justice, righteousness and facts. They mean a reinforcement of a system that returns favor and power to a select few. They see change and diversity as threats to be defeated, as opposed to assets to be harnessed.
Look at reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement as an example. Yes, there are elements in that movement that we can question. Yes we must be careful not to demonize those police forces who are doing a great job in their communities. But to deny the existence and persistence of racism and its impact on African Americans is just covering truth with excuses. And it is not only racism against blacks that exists. The rise of Islamophobia, of anti immigrant rhetoric and more blatant anti-Semitism are all embarrassments that too many in our country refuse to acknowledge.
Why? Because we have turned away from the value of facts. Our media is not a free press that presents facts and then offers diversity of opinion on those facts. It is a series of silos which attract like minded people and offer them spin to confirm and inflame their latent feelings. When a self described news site like Breitbart states that Huma Abedin is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not interested in facts but in stirring the prejudiced emotions of its readership. We value those who bully and feed our worst instincts rather than those committed to righteousness. We see strength as making loud, assertive statements and not in hard policy decisions. We are allowing the definition of justice to be driven by what benefits a select few instead of what best serves the majority of our population. We are too open to a system of justice driven by fear of people of color, of immigrants, of those who do not practice the majority religion.
Is America an exceptional nation? We like to think we are. It will be for you to determine.