Talk by Ambassador Richard Schifter at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Potomac, MD

August 30, 2014.

The theme of my D’var Torah stems from a conversation that I had about thirty years ago, while I was representing the United States at the UN Human Rights Commission. It was a conversation with my Japanese colleague. She had a rather unique background for a Japanese diplomat in that she was born and raised as a Christian. After World War II she had been a student at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

In the conversation to which I am referring, she made the point to me that concern for the human rights of people in far-off lands was a unique feature of Western civilization and that she believed it stemmed from the Bible. As she put it to me, going back to Genesis, the implied answer to the question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is “Yes, you are.” As she put it to me, when the Japanese join a club, they play by the rules of the club. They have joined the Western Club and play by its rules, but the concepts of Western civilization, including concern about the human rights of people in far-off lands, is not part of Japanese culture. She made it clear to me that what she had in mind was that this Western approach to human rights and principles of government was spelled out in the Bible and thus became part of Western culture.

It was this conversation that caused me to take a new look at Torah readings. It so happens that I was asked to give talk at the Bar Mitzvah service of one of my grandsons and the parsha of the week happened to be Shoftim. It is in Shoftim that we can indeed find excellent examples of the validity of the observation made by my Japanese friend. The parsha starts with the basic principles that we now call the rule of law. It calls for the appointment of judges that “shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” And it goes on to the famous pronouncement “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.”

Moving on in Shoftim, we may wish to pay very special attention to the provisions that reject the notion that the king can do no wrong. Shoftim provides that if the Jewish people want to have a king, they may have a king chosen by God. It goes on to underline most emphatically that the king shall at all times have with him a copy of the law, that he shall read therein and adhere to it without deviating from it to the left or the right, and that his heart shall not be lifted above his brethren. If he abides by these principles, the parsha states, “he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel.” You can see what this last provision suggests. What would happen if he does not adhere to the law? Does it not follow that in that case his days will not be prolonged? Rabbi Weinblatt has told me that that is exactly how the Talmud interprets that sentence.

Let us, against that background, move to 1776 and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. To quote that text: “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….” The Declaration then goes on to list twenty-seven violations by George III of the proper principles of governance and concludes: “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free People.” In its concluding paragraph the Declaration contains an appeal by the assembled Congress “to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions.”

It is thus truly striking how the concept laid out in Shoftim that the king must abide by the law if he wants to prolong his tenure as king, provides the very foundation for the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But is there any evidence that Thomas Jefferson was inspired by the Torah when he drafted the United States Declaration of Independence and that he made a careful study of the Bible, focusing particularly on Shoftim? There is no evidence of a direct connection but let me suggest that there is indeed an indirect connection.

The person that led me to that connection was a Dutch diplomat. He arranged for me to get a copy of an English translation of the Act of Abjuration, the document by which the Netherlands declared their independence from Spain. As I subsequently found out, students of the U.S. Declaration of Independence have been struck by the similarity of the basic principles laid out in the U.S. Declaration and the Dutch Act of Abjuration by which the people of the Netherlands declared their independence from Spain close to two hundred years earlier, in 1581. It is generally assumed that Jefferson had read the Dutch Act of Abjuration before he drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The thoughts and even the wording are strikingly similar.

When we compare the two documents, we need to note that profound changes in the thoughts on government espoused by intellectuals in Western civilization had taken place between 1581 and 1776. The 17th Century had brought on what became known as the Age of Enlightenment. The writings of John Locke and Voltaire were widely read. The Age of Enlightenment was the age into which Thomas Jefferson had been born. The U.S. Declaration of Independence reflected the thinking of the Age of Enlightenment.

But in 1581, when the Dutch people revolted against King Philip II of Spain, who had ruled their country, and declared their independence, neither Voltaire nor John Locke, nor any of the other thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment had been born yet. It was in that setting, a setting in which the authority of kings and emperors was unquestioned, that the Dutch declared their independence from the Spanish Empire. In doing so they offered these observations regarding the violations of the law by King Philip II of Spain:

“As it is apparent to all that a prince is constituted by God to be ruler of a people, to defend them from oppression and violence as the shepherd his sheep; and whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no prince), to govern them according to equity, to love and support them as a father his children or a shepherd his flock, and even at the hazard of life to defend and preserve them. And when he does not behave thus, but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunities to infringe their ancient customs and privileges, exacting from them slavish compliance, then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant, and the subjects are to consider him in no other view. And particularly when this is done deliberately, unauthorized by the states, they may not only disallow his authority, but legally proceed to the choice of another prince for their defense.”

When these words were written, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England. Other absolute monarchs ruled the rest of Europe. So where did the authors of the Dutch Act of Abjuration get the idea that they had a right, granted them by God, to depose their king because he infringed on their “ancient customs and privileges?”

To answer this question, let us consider the following historical background. As we all know, the Jewish Torah was incorporated into the Christian Bible and called the Old Testament. The Old Testament was for many centuries kept very much in the background. Its text had originally been translated into Greek and then into Latin, but it was most certainly not in the forefront of Christian religious teaching.

Then, in the 16th Century, came the Protestant Reformation. It was one of the leaders of the Reformation, John Calvin, who brought what to him was the Old Testament to the fore and urged that attention be paid by Christians to the principles set forth in it. As it is, there is evidence that Calvin did not like the Jews of his time, but he made it clear that he believed that the Jews of ancient times had received the word from God, as laid out in the Old Testament and that that word needed to be observed. It was this Calvinist set of beliefs that came to the Netherlands around 1560 as the Reformation advanced. The Latin copies of the bible were now translated into the vernacular, thus into Dutch in the Netherlands. Many people in the Netherlands were literate. There were printing presses and bookstores. As a result, many people became familiar with what we call our Torah. Moreover, Dutch adherence to Protestantism was an essential feature of the Dutch revolt.

As already noted, Shoftim requires the king to abide by the law and implies that he would lose his throne if he failed to do so. If we compare these lines from our Torah with the text of the Act of Abjuration, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a connection. That conclusion is underlined by the fact that we do not know of any other writings of that period, the second half of the 16th Century, that the authors of the Act would have read and that would have suggested that a monarch loses his right to the throne if he does not abide by the laws that should govern his actions. The king can do no wrong was indeed a generally accepted principle. But the leaders of the Dutch revolt had read the Bible, including what they called the Old Testament. They must have found Shoftim and saw that its words gave them a religious reason that justified their revolt against Philip II and the establishment of an independent state that was governed in keeping with the rule of law. That is indeed the point they made in the Act of Abjuration, invoking the rules of governance established by God.

Now let us move forward for another twenty-five years after the Netherlands became independent. Among those that noted the developments in the Netherlands and were attracted by them were a group of religious dissidents in England, known as Separatists, who decided to migrate to the Netherlands, with whose outlook they sympathized. After about fourteen years in the Netherlands, they set off for the New World in the famous Mayflower.

In time these new arrivals in the New World became known as the Pilgrim Fathers. What they brought with them is the cultural outlook that had come to characterize the Netherlands and a commitment to the rule of law and human rights. One of their leaders was William Bradford, who served as governor of Plymouth Colony. A descendant of William Bradford told me that the word that had been passed down in the Bradford family is that William Bradford understood Hebrew and read the Jewish bible in the original text.

Let me now go back to my conversation with my Japanese colleague. She emphasized the role of the Bible in the human-rights concepts of Western civilization. Let us note here that these concepts came to the fore only as the Age of Enlightenment evolved. And when did that age begin in Western civilization? At a time when the Torah had come to the fore and was being read in the West.


You can find Ambassador Schifter's Sentinel columns from the 1970s in our archives. He was Democratic Party Chairman in Montgomery County.

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