Religious Life

The State of American Democracy on this 4th of July – A Weekly Letter from Rabbi Davis – July 6, 2018

Shalom Chaverim,

I was recently reminded by a colleague of an interesting confluence of the American and Jewish calendars.

This week, we marked America’s independence on the 4th of July with feasting. Earlier in the week, we marked the Jewish people’s loss of independence with fasting. Last Sunday, we observed the 17th of Tammuz. On this day in the year 70 CE, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem. Three weeks later, on the 9th of Av, they burned the Temple and sent the people into exile for 2000 years.

The 4th of July and the period of mourning known as The Three Weeks often coincide. What is striking is the fact that July 4, 1776 was the 17th of Tammuz. Imagine those first few hundred colonial Jews in America.  Just as they were facing joy and uncertainty in America’s new-found independence, they were recalling their people’s loss of sovereignty of their state.

Then and now, as Jews and as Americans we recognize that our liberty is fragile. We must guard our institutions and our ideals of democracy. For we know too well that we are not immune from forces that corrode and undermine our nation. This was the very message of the Bible’s prophets. And it is an alarm being sounded today.

In their recent book, How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists, Levitsky and Ziblatt, argue that American democracy is stable. Surveys on democracy indicate that the United States within the norm in terms of the rejection of political violence and the protection of civil liberties. And given the strong economy, high literacy rate, age of the democracy, etc. the chance of a full breakdown of America’s democracy or a constitutional crisis is slim to none. But there is cause for concern. It is the steady erosion of democratic norms and practices. Such erosion began before the current administration but is growing. We see it, for example, in a deepening polarization in which political opponents treat each other like enemies rather than as fellow citizens who love this country but who disagree over policies.

Where does this leave us and where are we headed? Levitsky and Ziblatt envision one scenario as a democratic revitalization with a recommitment to democratic norms. The alternative is further erosion making our very democracy vulnerable.

At the conclusion of a wedding, we break a glass and shout out “mazal tov!” in exhilaration. But its intent is to be a sober moment amidst the rejoicing. Beginning in the 14th Century, this custom became associated with the ancient destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. We were to remember our nation’s tragedy even during moments of personal joy.

As we listen to the crash of fire works on the 4th, amidst our jubilation, we would do well to pause for our own sober reflection on the meaning of our independence and our commitment to the freedoms we celebrate.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameiach,

Rabbi Alexander Davis