Constitution Day of Awe

September 17 is US Constitution Day, a public commemoration first officially observed only in 2005, but which marks the day, in 1787, of the final meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

This year, Constitution Day falls during the Days of Awe, the period between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur when Jews the world over assess their actions in the past year and atone for their sins and thereby seek to “return” (t’shuvah) to the right path. ((It is worth noting here that “right path” does not carry the theological implications for Jews that it might for members of other religions, nor does it mean primarily seeking forgiveness from the Divine (though it means that, too). It means first and foremost repairing our own personal relationships, working to correct injustice, and committing acts of gemilut chasidim or “loving kindness.”))

The coincidence of Constitution Day and the Days of Awe is thus a perfect opportunity for Americans–Jew and Gentile alike–to assess whether our path is the right one. Has the Constitution been faithfully upheld by the party in power? By the “opposition”? By the media? By us as individuals? Are we as a nation even aware of the core precepts of limited, constitutional, government? How many of our citizens know that Madison’s original “Virginia Plan” for the constitution was radically different from what was completed as a politically feasible draft 220 years ago this day? ((The Virginia Plan, in a nutshell, called for both houses of congress to be apportioned to the states based on population and for the executive to be elected by congress, and to have no veto over legislation. The upper house members would actually have been elected by the House of Representatives (from candidates nominated by the state legislatures) and while the president would not have had a veto, he could have convened a Council of Revision, which would have included judges, to consider a law’s constitutionality. Congress would have retained the final say on which laws were constitutional–including those passed by state legislatures. Madison was a “federalist,” but his constitutional proposal was centralizing, nationalizing, and majority-empowering. These remain fundamental democratic principles worthy of reenactment in our time.))

Limited government is a radical idea of which America was one of the originators, but it seems we have strayed very far from the path set by our founders 220 years ago. What steps can we take as a nation to return to the constitutional path? What have we, individually and collectively, failed to do in the last year to reinvigorate our electoral and constitutional processes? Many of us who were fortunate enough to live in the handful of swing districts and swing states thought we were taking an act of t’shuvah by voting for the party opposed to the incumbent executive. And then what? In the fundamental sense of restraining the president’s claimed wartime powers at home as well as abroad, not much. We as a nation have a lot of “returning” and atoning yet to do.

What can we do in the coming year to set the constitutional and democratic path straight again? Work for fundamental electoral reform, so that we can be represented swing voters without regard to our address? Work for constitutional reform in the spirit of the original idea of constitutional government, if not in its precise, politically bargained, structure?

We should not fear reform, or shrink from even “radical” ideas for improvement in our democracy. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1810, and in words that are literally carved in stone in the Jefferson Memorial, said:

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions… But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Even more, Jefferson warned against what he referred to as “sanctimonious reverence” for the Constitution and its founders.

If we use Constitution Day, and other patriotic commemorations, as an opportunity for “sanctimonious reverence,” we as a nation are idolators–as any student of Jewish history and the Bible will know, one of the worst of all sins.

We Jews give honor to our Torah as a guide to life–a “constitution,” in a sense. We don’t idolize it, but we revere it as the document of our people’s quest to make sense of the world and to guide us in living ethical lives. The progressives among us read it critically and while we certainly do not propose to amend the Torah, we do regularly reform how it is understood in our era, to keep it going hand in hand with progress of the human mind.

So, just as Jews have historically read the Torah and interpreted it and shaped its application–even in early rabbinic times through Talmud–and endeavored to keep it up to date through commentaries and discussion, so we Americans should do with our Constitution. We must not idolize it, or its original authors. For we are its authors. It is our Constitution, and we are responsible for making sure that our leaders–and we ourselves–live by its precepts.

Wherever Americans gather–in public events for patriotic days, in our schools and civic clubs, and in our synagogues, churches, mosques, and other religious institutions–we should make the Constitution come alive by reading it and discussing its relevance to our times. We should embark on a national program not only to read the Constitution itself, but to read the Federalist Papers (an “American Talmud”?), and to read generations of commentaries, controversies, and reform proposals. Always to ask ourselves, is its implementation consistent with its principles? If not, how can we return to the original paradigm in our own days?

This Constitution Day, let us be in justifiable awe of our constitutional heritage, but let’s not be afraid to be critical, to be reformist, to take the difficult steps towards national t’shuvah.

0 thoughts on “Constitution Day of Awe

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  2. “… the Jews…, too, had an absolute monarchy and a hierarchy, their organised institutions were as obviously of sacerdotal origin as those of the Hindus. These did for them what was done for other Oriental [sic] races by their institutions – subdued them to industry and order, and gave them a national life. But neither their kings nor their priests ever obtained, as in those other countries, the exclusive moulding of their character. Their religion, which enabled persons of genius and a high religious tone to be regarded and to regard themselves as inspired from heaven, gave existence to an inestimably precious unorganised institution – the Order (if it may be so termed) of Prophets. Under the protection, generally though not always effectual, of their sacred character, the Prophets were a power in the nation, often more than a match for kings and priests, and kept up, in that little corner of the earth, the antagonism of influences which is the only real security for continued progress. Religion consequently was not there what it has been in so many other places – a consecration of all that was once established, and a barrier against further improvement. The remark of a distinguished Hebrew, M Salvador, that the Prophets were, in Church and State, the equivalent of the modern liberty of the press, gives a just but not an adequate conception of the part fulfilled in national and universal history by this great element of Jewish life; by means of which, the canon of inspiration never being complete, the persons most eminent in genius and moral feeling could not only denounce and reprobate, with the direct authority of the Almighty, whatever appeared to them deserving of such treatment, but could give forth better and higher interpretations of the national religion, which thenceforth became part of the religion. Accordingly, whoever can divest himself of the habit of reading the Bible as if it was one book, which until lately was equally inveterate in Christians and in unbelievers, sees with admiration the vast interval between the morality and religion of the Pentateuch, or even of the historical books (the unmistakable work of Hebrew Conservatives of the sacerdotal order), and the morality and religion of the Prophecies: a distance as wide as between these last and the Gospels. Conditions more favourable to Progress could not easily exist: accordingly, the Jews, instead of being stationary like other Asiatics, were, next to the Greeks, the most progressive people of antiquity, and, jointly with them, have been the starting point and main propelling agency of modern cultivation.” (JS Mill, Rep Govt, 1861, Chapter 2 – “The Criterion of a Good Form of Government”).

    For further parallels, may I commend also Sanford Levinson’s “On Interpretation: The Adultery Clause of the Ten Commandments,” 58(2) Southern California Law Review (January 1985) 719-25.


  3. Shanah tovah and gmar tov, Matthew.

    This planting is wonderful. Even though my religious observance has changed over the years, I’ve always tried to keep the tradition of asking others for forgiveness. But on the Yamim Noraim, individuals have always been my focus–and God in those years I’m feeling particularly theist. I’ve never thought at these times about my responsibility to my countries as well. I’m glad that I worked at the polls in this past year’s provincial election, so I could see what goes on at ground level. But there’s much more to do….

    Not that there’s anything wrong with the secular, Gregorian New Year’s–but I find myself wishing that politicians had learned to spend the beginning of each year reviewing their past decisions, instead of making overly-optimistic resolutions. How different the world might be!

    By the way, you didn’t seriously let Rosh Hashanah pass without mentioning what new fruit you used for shehechiyanu, did you? 🙂

    I just realized I used enough Hebrew to confuse most readers, translations for the uninitiated:
    Yamim Noraim: Days of Awe.
    Gmar tov: Literally, “Good seal”. Traditional greeting on the Days of Awe, wishing that one’s name is sealed in God’s “book of life”.
    Shehechiyanu: A blessing for new things. It’s tradition on Rosh Hashanah to eat new or unusual fruits so that the blessing can be said.


  4. Vasi, I am very sorry for forgetting to tell my readers what first fruits we used here at the finca for Rosh ha-Shanah!

    OK, let’s make up (atone?) for that:

    Night one: I grilled some salmon and served it with a sauce that included ‘Emerald Beaut’ plums (the first ever harvested at Ladera Frutal, aside from a “test” one the week earlier that was under-ripe), ‘Frederick’ passion fruit (the very first harvested at the finca), and other good stuff like garlic and onion and cilantro.

    Night two: My wife made a quince braise that we ate with lentils and rice. First quince since the previous autumn.

    And we did the kiddush on night one over some Port Brewing Cuvee de Tomme (which has currants in the brew) and the second night over elderberry-honey wine. (Of course, no “.. borei p’ri ha gafen” because there was no p’ri ha gafen involved.)

    Naturally, we had different types of apples (e.g. Braeburn, Cinnamon Spice, Gala) and Asian pears (Hosui and Shinseiki) each night to dip in the honey.

    Glad you asked!!

    (And, since Vasi was kind enough to provide some translation in his comment, I should note that the Hebrew above was “…who makes the fruit of the vine.”)


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