Quick! Name the single most popular cultural hero in American history. Is it (a) George Washington? (b) Superman? (c) Martin Luther King, Jr.? (d) Moshe Rabeinu? No, according to the latest book by a bright young author, it is (e) all of the above.
Bruce Feiler has written a new book, “America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story,” on a subject dear to my heart.
When I pontificated at my daughter Alisa Moriya’s bat mitzvah in January 2005 about the character for whom we named her (introduced in that week’s Torah reading) I thought the Moses metaphor was merely the brainchild of Martin Luther King, or perhaps Harriet Tubman.
Feiler has demonstrated exhaustively and cogently that Moses is enshrined more deeply in the American consciousness as a standard prototype.
American leaders have continued to evoke him, and their followers have compared their heroes to him, from Columbus to William Bradford to George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower to the stuttering George Bush to Barack Obama. Feiler even draws parallels between Moses and Clark Kent.
Of course Feiler points to the obvious parallels. Harriet Tubman was widely known by the code name Moses, and her followers used the song “Go Down Moses” to signal her operations.
In his last speech, the night before he died, Martin Luther King evoked Moses’s final discourse before a cheering Memphis crowd: “I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I have seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
Feiler reports that, in 1969, Robert Hay of Marquette University surveyed the surviving eulogies of George Washington and found a preponderance of references (two out of three) to Moses.
From the road
Feiler not only used traditional research techniques in writing his book, but he traveled around the country and interviewed scholars, enthusiasts, and interested celebrities, including historians, museum curators, and the descendants of famous figures, such as Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Martin Luther King’s mentor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Cecile B. DeMille’s granddaughter.
He climbed the belfry of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to touch the Liberty Bell, climbed the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, and hiked the path of the Underground Railroad. Much of his book transcribes his conversations along the way.
Feiler examines how the development of the printing press and the coinciding emergence of Protestantism led to the popularity of Moses in the early modern (1500-1700) period.
As non-Jews began to buy and read their own Bibles, they first gazed upon illustrations of the “Old Testament” lawgiver. At the same time the science of statecraft was developing, and people began to see a paradigm of political leadership in Moses.
Although he has represented a number of different things to different people, Americans of all races and partisan perspectives have consistently viewed him as a liberator from kings and tyrants.
Feiler argues that the life stories of countless heroes parallel Moses, as they stand up for justice and leading people to freedom. Whether they were real historical figures or the creation of a couple of Jewish comic book writers, whether they came from the privileged class or were strangers in a strange land, whether they crossed the ocean or escaped the explosion of a far away planet when their father Jor-El built a tiny little spaceship and were adopted by people who were not their own, Feiler draws a connection.
Aside from the Charlton Heston Moses in DeMille’s nuanced anti-Communist 1956 film, “The Ten Commandments,” Feiler’s Moses facsimile usually leans vaguely to the left, championing the underdog, the 18th century Whig, the runaway slave, or the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Yet although Americans have always seen him as representing freedom, they also see him as a law giver, demanding his followers exercise self-discipline and adhere to a legal system to regulate the new society he helps them create: a Mayflower Compact, a U.S. Constitution, or a new code of responsible conduct. Freedom with a Moses is never license to do whatever one wishes, but a social contract.
I was delighted that Feiler shed so much light on the Holiness Code. I suspect that most people who never had a good Jewish education aren’t aware of the important ethical messages in Leviticus.
But there were aspects of Feiler’s book that annoyed me. He often chooses to imbed his most important points in dialogue. For example,
Rabbi Harold [“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”] Kushner … said, “I think Moses is the one who shows the way.”
This detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Nor did I care to read what the historian here or the curator there was wearing or what the author expected him or her to be wearing when they met, or how tall either of them was. Such cutesy chattiness is more appropriate in the self-help genre than in a serious scholarly work.
Having read this book, I now understand why so many writing instructors discourage the use of the first person. I also wish Feiler had avoided using “impactful” as a word and had included footnotes and an index. Perhaps, though, such casualness sells more books.
I would recommend “America’s Prophet” to anyone who has a limited understanding of American intellectual history or the Bible and would like to learn more.
Susan Ellman, MLS, taught history before she became the librarian at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun.