Rabbi Micah Citrin
July 4, 2014

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   238 years ago these simple, eloquent words radiated across the Atlantic, and entered the consciousness of the world from that time forth.  These immortal words are seared into the hearts and minds of all Americans and remain the foundational value upon which our society rests.  The notion that each human being has inherent rights connected to one’s life, one’s dignity through freedom, and the ability to shape a life of fulfillment truly connects to the Transcendent.  It is a holy idea, religious in spirit, yet devoid of religious coercion whose roots can be found in the first chapter of our Torah as Genesis 1:27 declares, “So God created Adam in God’s image, in the image of God, the Holy One created Adam, male and female, God created them.”  That Divine spark in each of us is the basis for our Declaration of Independence. 

Ever since those words were penned and our nation came into being we have been trying to measure ourselves against this ideal; our history has been a struggle to make this value a reality.  Beyond the fireworks and hotdogs, ice cream and parades, our celebration should also be about taking stock of how well our society is living up to its creed; that in this nation every person can express her unalienable rights.

This 4th of July marks the 50th anniversary since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and adds extra significance to the celebration of our nation’s birth.  When President Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2, 1964, it represented another moment when this nation affirmed the legacy of the Declaration.  The Civil Rights act put an end to denying voting rights to African Americans in the south through poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation.  The law also made it illegal to discriminate in private businesses and government settings.  No longer could states, particularly in the south, allow restaurant owners to deny service to African Americans, public pools to be segregated, and restrooms to be designated as “white only”.  While African Americans were the most immediate beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960’s, the law made discrimination illegal based on race, gender, and religion.  It benefited and continues to improve the lives of all Americans.

Some of my favorite photographs from this time period include black and white pictures of rabbis holding Torahs and marching with Civil Rights leaders.  In my mind it represents the ultimate marriage between our Jewish and American values, standing up for the cause of justice.  50 years ago our people did its part to advance the cause of freedom, tikkun olam, and our nation’s highest ideal.  Rabbis sat in jail with Martin Luther King Jr.  During the freedom rides of 1961, 2/3rd of those who went south were Jews, and in 1964 during the Mississippi voter registration campaign, over 1/3 were Jews (Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America p. 173).  None represented this sacrifice more than Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jews who were murdered alongside James Cheney an African American all working to register the disenfranchised. 

I often pause to consider the type of courage and conviction it must have taken to join the cause of Civil Rights and to fight for the Civil Rights Act when its enforcement and rootedness in American society was far from secure.  It is easy to have the benefit of history and to say, “I would have been there, I would have been on the front lines.”  There were many Jews who lived in the south during this period for whom this great issue of the time was not so clear-cut.  Professor Marc Dollinger, in his book Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America, writes, “The overriding security concerns of southern Jews prevented even those who considered themselves liberals, especially rabbis, from acting publically.”  His research found southern Jewish communities that felt the tenuous balance between security and having largely been accepted as southern whites, versus risking antagonism for the sake of Jewish values.  Dollinger goes on to say, “Rabbis occupied a precarious position…Their self understanding as guardians of ethics and morality demanded understanding for black inequality, while the congregants they were hired to serve insisted on keeping politics off the pulpit.  Rabbinic attitudes about the civil rights movement tested the relative strength of traditional Jewish values against the realities of southern living (Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America p. 168).”  We can take pride in Jewish participation in this quintessential American struggle for equality and application of Jewish values, even as we critique the past with humility, and recognize the limitations that some members of our people felt at the time.

Our reflection on this Independence Day, on this 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and on this Shabbat ought to compel us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our society.  What are the civil rights issues of our time?  Where is our country in need of the ethical sensitivities and imperatives of the Jewish tradition?  The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center has been at the fore of addressing this question for over 50 years.  In its conference room key changes were made to President Johnson’s draft of the Civil Rights act.  Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the RAC challenges us to find the unfinished work of civil rights in our day.  

How do you answer the question?  What injustices to you care about?  Is it protecting our earth and our climate?  Is it economic justice?  In the aftermath of the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision, is it affirming the right of women to determine their own lives and reproductive choices?  Is it fighting discrimination against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities?  Who in our society is marginalized and in need of support?   How will you make your voice heard?  What courage and vision do we all need to fight injustice and complacency in this moment rather than through the clarity of history’s lens when the moment has passed?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These are words we can bind ourselves to as Americans and as Jews; words that resonate with our undying Jewish hope and faith in a world in which ideals can be realized.  Our birthday wish as America enters its 239th year, is to merit the legacy of these words, of the Civil Rights Act, and the blessing of prosperity for all.