Is There a Jewish Gettysburg Address?

Which great speeches from Jewish history compare with Abraham Lincoln’s powerful words?

Rabbi Micah Peltz
Rabbi Micah Peltz
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Rabbi Micah Peltz
Rabbi Micah Peltz

Last week marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This speech, delivered at the site of one of the most devastating battles of the American Civil War, at just over two minutes long, has become one of the sacred documents of American history. Lincoln’s succinct words reaffirmed the principles of equality and democracy expressed in the founding documents of the United States, and continue to remind a nation of its core principles.

To celebrate its anniversary, many people more qualified than I have analyzed and argued about the impact of this efficient and effective speech. A colleague of mine raised an interesting question: What concise speeches or texts in the Jewish tradition can be compared to the Gettysburg Address? Who in Jewish history has been able to briefly articulate basic Jewish values, to define and capture a historical moment in a way that still resonates today?

After contemplating various speeches throughout Jewish history, I came up with three addresses that could be hailed a concise speech whose message is timeless.

The first comes from the prophet Isaiah, and is part of the Haftarah that is read in synagogue on Yom Kippur. It is from the beginning of Isaiah chapter 58, which most scholars believe dates from around 515 B.C.E., after the exiles returned to Israel from Babylonian captivity. Here the prophet is exhorting the people to look beyond ritual acts to see the deeper meaning of religious observance. He famously declares:

Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.”

Isaiah’s call for justice and compassion at this moment of return in ancient Israel still rings out to us 2,500 years later. As we still struggle to understand the meaning behind our rituals, and to live out those most basic of Jewish values.

The second text that comes to mind is from 66 C.E., and is from Eleazar ben Yair, the zealot leader of Masada. The text of his speech is found in the works of the Roman historian Josephus. In it, Eleazar ben Yair lays out a stark choice for his small but determined community as they live on the top of this desert mountain, looking down at the Romans preparing to overtake them. It is here that Eleazar ben Yair argues for mass suicide instead of being killed by the Romans. He declares:

“But certainly our hands are still at liberty, and have a sword in them; let them then be subservient to us in our glorious design; let us die before we become slaves under our enemies, and let us go out of the world, together with our children and our wives, in a state of freedom.”

It is no wonder that tour groups still read these words on the top of Masada today. This controversial decision followed a forceful speech that asserts the values of freedom and liberty in the face of a conquering army.

My final suggestion is not really a speech, but a transmission, yet it is so concise and powerful that it deserves mention here. It is the recording of the transmissions from the Paratrooper brigade that liberated the Western Wall in the 1967 Six Day War. It begins with Colonel Motta Gur’s charge to his soldiers from the top of a ridge overlooking the Old City, to remember that this moment is what generations of Jews have dreamed about. It continues on, describing the entrance into the Old City, and it climaxes with Gur exclaiming, “The Temple Mount is in our hands! The Temple Mount is in our hands!” This transmission captures the euphoria of that moment in 1967, when Israel had beaten the odds and reclaimed this holy site for the Jewish people.

“Four score and seven years ago.” With these simple words, Abraham Lincoln began a speech that continues to inspire people to work for freedom, equality and democracy. Is there an equivalent from Jewish history? What do you think? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Abraham Lincoln re-enactor Howard Wright recites the Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19, 2013.Credit: AP

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