Commentary Magazine

America’s Founding: Marriage or Divorce?

To the Editor:

Meir Soloveichik has written a beautiful account of Benjamin Rush’s witnessing of a Jewish marriage that took place in 1787 [“Blessed Unions,” March]. It is interesting that the details he described are so similar to those of today’s traditional ceremony.

A covenant, says Mr. Soloveichik, is the uniting of a husband and wife, “two I’s becoming a we through the recitation of seven blessings under the huppah, representing the newlyweds’ home.” The contract, however, is made concrete by the ketubah. Soloveichik analogizes the union of a man and a woman to the founding of our great nation, describing the Declaration of Independence as the covenant and the Constitution as the contract.

But if one looks at the Declaration carefully, it seems that rather than a covenant between consenting parties coming together, it resembles a get, a bill of divorce tearing them asunder. It reads in part: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” The Declaration then goes on to list no less than 27 grievances that sound like an indictment in a court of law. “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of trial by Jury.” And so on.

Mr. Soloveichik notes that at the debates over the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin suggested reciting a prayer and was ignored. This is reflected in the secular nature of not only the gathering but the final document as well. Contrast this with what happened at the Continental Congress in 1774, which eventually produced the “covenantal” Declaration two years later. There, a pious individual was invited to read a specific prayer even though there was an attempt to keep the tone of the convocation free from religious sentiments.

The piece chosen was Psalm 35, the words of which refute any deep similarities between the wedding that Rush attended and the union of the colonies. It is a prayer for the rescue from one’s enemies. “Fight against them that fight me, Take hold of shield and buckler and stand up for mine help. Draw out also the spear and stop the way against them that persecute me….For they speak not peace but they devise deceitful matters against them that are quiet in the land.”

Not exactly a paean to a blessed union, not exactly a covenant. What Benjamin Rush witnessed on that lovely day in June 1787, when Rachel Phillips was married to Michael Levy, was in sharp contrast to the contentious activities that took place in Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall 13 years earlier at the birth of our nation.

Fred Ehrman
New York City

To the Editor:

Meir Soloveichik has written a fine and inspiring essay. The notion that the Constitution represents a social contract in which peoples’ interests must be joined such that diverse parties are satisfied, as in a marriage contract, while the Declaration of Independence is a covenant linked by the inspiration of divinity to create a new country, or Union, deserves further exploration.

The Constitution begins with “We, the people,” rather than “We, the 13 colonies,” emphasizing that the new Union had to begin with the recognition of a collective identity. A marriage also does this, creating a we from two diverse individuals. The Declaration of Independence professes, as does the Hebrew Bible, the unity of man. Soloveichik notes that “the sharp denominational divisions among colonial Americans were precisely what made the text of the Hebrew Bible into the central language of the American [view of America’s destiny].” In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine declared that national independence was like the liberation of the Jews from slavery under a hateful Pharaoh and that an inherited dynasty was contrary to God’s dominion as explained in chapter 8 of l Samuel. Paine’s publication had a significant influence in persuading the colonists to seek independence.

In likening the construction of the huppah to the building of a home, Soloveichik reveals again the close relationship between America’s unique, lasting democracy and the Hebrew Bible. For a nation to emerge, it is necessary “to build something together,” recounts the biblical story of the construction of the Tabernacle at the end of the Book of Exodus. All the people voluntarily and willingly helped. No tax was imposed on building the Sanctuary, as marriage itself is a voluntary act. To supervise the construction, God “called” Bezalel, which is interpreted by the sages to mean that the community should ratify God’s nomination of Bezalel for this important task, as no leader may be set over a congregation without its approval.

Bertrand Horwitz
Asheville, North Carolina

Meir Soloveichik writes:

I thank both Fred Ehrman and Bertrand Horwitz for their very kind words. I do not agree, however, with Mr. Ehrman’s suggestion that the Continental Congress lacked covenantal character because its religious devotion was focused on “the rescue from one’s enemies.” In fact, the colonists believed that it was their very battle against tyranny that united them and made them so akin to covenantal Israel of old. Thus Franklin’s proposal for the seal of the United States: “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.” Franklin further suggested the following motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

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