Constitution Day

Posted by on Sep 17, 2013 in Musings

Jonathan Levy, Communications Editor

Jonathan H. Levy, Communications Editor

Jewish holidays are remarkably diverse. On Yom Kippur, which we celebrated this past Saturday, we fast, don’t wear leather shoes, or have sex. During Sukkot, which begins tomorrow night, we eat, work, and live in small huts. During Passover, we refrain from all leavened foodstuffs. On Shabbat, we don’t turn on lights, carry money, or tie knots. Almost every Jewish ritual, however, revolves about one essential element: the Torah. The Torah is the foundational legal document of the Jewish people. Although it goes into remarkable detail on the rights, duties, privileges, and obligations that Jewish men, women, and children owe to one another and to G-d, it has still sparked thousands of pages of commentary. The Torah and its steadily dripping interpretations have cut deep gorges in humanity, separating Christians from Muslims from Jews. And the canyons cut between factions of Judaism are no less deep.

Americans also have a hotly contested foundational text, and on this day in 1787, representatives from all parts of a nascent country devised that “experiment in self-government.” Though it says little about individual rights, the original document meticulously describes how the branches of the federal government interact with the States, the People, and one another. Like those of the Torah, interpretations of the Constitution abound, and have deeply divided the American people. So much clarification is required that no less a legal fountainhead than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told the Egyptian people that our Constitution should not serve as a model for modern constitutions. Also like the Torah, the Constitution has endured for several generations—although admittedly, the former may be fifteen times older.

The two documents diverge in (at least) one significant respect: while the People may change the Constitution explicitly (and perhaps implicitly), as a Divinely inspired/authored document, the Torah is essentially frozen.  That is, if G-d wrote or inspired the Torah, humans may interpret it, but we have no authority to supplement, abrogate, or rewrite it. Some Jews accept this fact and adhere to as much of the law as is possible. Other Jews believe the Torah requires continuing interpretation to comport with modern realities. Still other Jews, however, simply ignore vast swaths of the Torah when it becomes inconvenient. “Even though I’m not supposed to spend money on Shabbat,” they think, “Transformers 14 is coming out today, and I have to go see it!” In my experience, those who harbor each of these beliefs generally have good and valid reasons for so doing.

In secular America, the People have fundamentally changed the way the federal government works 27 times. The process is not easy, and it is rarely quick—but such a burden makes sense when altering a foundational text. The procedure is sufficiently difficult people generally agree a change is required. In this time of intense politicization, however, a simple majority vote seems overwhelming, let alone the heightened strictures of Article V of the United States Constitution. With no clear path to Amendment, will the Constitution ossify into an unalterable law like the Torah? And if it does harden, how long before some of us begin to ignore it altogether?

September 17 is not only the 226th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, but it also marks the 151st anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history. In 1862, 100,000 soldiers met on a luscious field near Antietam Creek in Maryland, and by the end of the day, 23,000 men would lay dead or wounded. Each of those 100,000 soldiers, Union or Confederate, was willing to give his life to defend a legal document. They were prepared to make—and 4,000 of them did make—the ultimate sacrifice to prove that that document retained its meaning. On this Constitution Day, let us remember that the words of the Constitution have meaning, that that meaning deserves to be defended, and that the Framers gave us a republic—if we can keep it.