Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jews and Monarchy: the Hebrew Influence on the American Revolution

The American Revolution was a period of religious awakening, in the colonies a rejection of Catholicism, the splintering off of Protestant factions. Belief in God was the core of freedom: according to the John Locke and other philosophers of the period, the right of natural liberty was endowed by God himself.

But perhaps no religion was more crucial than Judaism itself, knowledge of Hebrew quite prevalent at the time even among non-Jews. The Old Testament chronicles the Israelite's failed attempts at monarchy, God's constant admonitions that Jews should elevate no man to the throne.

Here's an excerpt from my novel that plays on this theme:

Rebecca said, “In fact, I’ve almost memorized the Declaration of Independence—at least up until that long list of grievances against the King.” She paused, wondering whether to share her revelations of the morning. “You were parnas of the synagogue in Montreal, were you not?”

David smiled, but it was a painful smile, disguising a deeper hurt. “I was,” he said, “but I left, of course, when called to fight. I honor my religion as best I can, though of course, when fighting I cannot observe the Sabbath.”

Rebecca inched closer, as though to exchange a romantic endearment. “May I ask you a religious question?”

“Of course.”

Rebecca lowered her voice. “In my reading of the Declaration today something struck me for the first time: that we actually have a duty to throw off the shackles of tyranny.”

“Indeed,” said David, rather flippantly, apparently missing the emphasis of the word.

“I mean not just the ‘right’, but, according to the document, an outright ‘duty,” she said. “Reading this, I began to wonder to whom it is that we owe that duty? To ourselves? To our fellows? “

David laughed, his eyes flitting about the ballroom, likely for the spot of red that was Peggy Shippen. “This is hardly the sort of talk one years in ballrooms,” he joked.

“I’m serious,” Rebecca said, seeking to anchor his gaze. She could feel herself reddening with annoyance and he seemed to notice this. “I thought about this a great while and finally decided that we owe a duty to God Himself to throw off the shackles of British rule,” she said, her tone firm, eyes insistent.

When David looked back at her again, his gaze was steadfast; he even resisted yet another cycle of Peggy Shippen’s swirl around the ballroom with yet another man. It seemed to Rebecca that the blonde beauty was going out of her way to lure his attentions. Surely Peggy knew that the tall handsome stranger was Becky’s cousin and viewed him as she did all men: a territory yet to be conquered. But now was not the time, and David Salisbury Franks was not the man.

“Actually, Common Sense speaks of this at some length,” Rebecca said. He did not dare look away from her. “It’s one thing to read something, quite another to be hit on the head by it. If, as Locke and others presume, God is the author of our natural liberty, then it must follow, or at least it seems to me, that the very soul itself is imperiled if it submits to monarchy.”

David shook his head thoughtfully. She knew he understood, even as his confused eyes ran once again along her frilly appearance, so at odds, he must be thinking, with her knowledge. Was it impossible that a beautiful woman not also be intellectual? How unfair to have to make a choice.

“Actually,” he said, slowly nodding, “when you think of the history of the Israelites, their attempts at monarchy, what you say makes a great deal of sense.”

Rebecca, happy to have won back his attentions, nodded furiously, loosening some of the hair from the top of her head. “I was thinking of the prophet Gideon,” she said. “After he beat back the Midianites, the Israelites wanted to make him and his son the hereditary monarchs.”

“’I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you, the Lord shall rule over you,’” David quoted, his eyes ignited.

Rebecca nodded excitedly, strands spilling from the top of her head, the bones of her bodice pressed against her flesh, her waist cinched so tightly she could barely breathe.

“And the prophet Samuel,” David continued, smiling, her enthusiasm evidently contagious. “When his people pleaded for a king, he himself said---“

“’I will call unto the Lord, and he shall send thunder and rain, that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great.” Rebecca interrupted. “So Samuel called unto the Lord, and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day…”

“’We have added to our sins this evil, the people said, “to ask for a King,” David said, nodding vigorously.

“If it’s a sin to even ask for a king,” Rebecca concluded, “then it is also a sin, at least for us Jews, to submit to one.”

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