The Great Seal of the United State of America

Resolved, That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.

– Journals of Continental Congress, July 4th, 1776

Rabbi Meir de Soloveitchik (as the rabbi of the Spanish Portugese Synagogue jokingly calls himself) recently mentioned this committee and the resulting seal when introducing a discussion at Yeshiva University featuring Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and himself. (Video on YouTube, here, and audio from Soundcloud, here.)

What made this committee relevant is that the suggestions for design were examples of how much the Exodus from Egypt played a role in American self-definition.

Thomas Jefferson wanted the front to depict the Children of Israel in the wilderness, following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of cloud at night.

Benjamin Franklin kept his reference to the Exodus to the reverse side (quoting a handwritten note from here):

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.

Motto: Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.

At some point the two compromised with Jefferson’s picture with Franklin’s motto for the reverse side:
Lossing realization (1856) of Du Simitiere's sketch
and for the front, something more reflecting Adams’ proposal, which is of less interest to us:

Lossing realization (1856) of Du Simitiere's sketch

The United States itself never ends up getting its own seal, although you might recognize the eye-and-pyramid design from the front of this proposal on the reverse side of the seal of the president of the US (check the back of a $1 bill):

Reverse side of Great Seal on the exterior of a U.S. post office

There is a religious subtext to all this.

Jefferson called upon the citizens of the new nation to follow G-d through the desert. G-d provides direction and protection for his people.

Franklin expects more autonomy. While he shows G-d drowning the Egyptians, he adds a motto to tell us this an example for us to follow “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”. Man is expected to redeem himself.

But the design that actually emerged from all this is neither the G-d saving man image of Jefferson nor the man partnering with G-d to redeem himself image of Franklin. The God of the final design is that of a Deist. It depicts well-designed but incomplete world, represented by the pyramid. God is depicted as an eye, watching from above, but not acting. It is man’s job to complete the pyramid on his own.

The evolution of the seal is emblematic of a basic value conflict between Judaism and the message of the book of Shemos and the values of American culture. Americans value the person who stand up for what’s theirs. The gemara:

אמר רבא: כל המעביר על מדותיו מעבירין לו על כל פשעיו

Rava said: Whomever is “maavir al midosav“ [forgives others when he is slighted –Yuma 23a], they [the heavenly court] passes [ma’avirin] over all his sins for him.

Shabbos 17b

America places human autonomy as the primary value, to the extent that it grapples with the entire concept of a moral code that goes beyond being able to do what one wants that doesn’t encroach on others’ opportunity to do the same. This is the battle between the Christian notion of needing God to save you, as per Jefferson’s original proposal, and the Enlightenment value of the self-made man.

As I wrote at more length in the past, American law is based on a social contract that guarantees rights in contrast to halakhah which is based on a covenant.

A successful contract is one where the outcome is a win-win. Each party takes away what they need from the deal, in exchange for giving up something that didn’t matter as much to them.

A covenant, however, creates a new community. A marriage is not a contract, an exchange of favors. It creates a new unit, the married couple, and each enters the marriage covenant with the commitment to contribute to the wellfare of that community of two.

Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus, is thus not just a historical prelude to the Beris Sinai, the covenant forged at Sinai. It gave the Jewish People, who until then were slaves who were not given room to contribute, a taste of what it means to be a partner — to only merit the splitting of the sea or leadership and protection through the desert by being willing to follow Hashem’s moral lead as well. Hashem did not split the sea until we showed the faith to enter the water. (There are two opinions as to who went in first — either Nachshon, the leader of Yehudah, or that there was a fight over which tribe would go first, which Benjamin won.) Moshe promised that Hashem would save us: “ה’ יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן — Hashem will fight for you, and you will remain silent.” (Moshe, as quoted in Shemos 14:14) But He asked us to take initiative, to show some ownership of our own need for redemption, and only then He stepped in.

Without taking responsibility, we would not have been ready for participation in a covenantal community.

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