Marc Brettler on American Values, Religious Voices

Marc Brettler on American Values, Religious Voices

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February 2, 2017

Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, Members of the Trump Administration and 115th Congress,

The story about Abraham bargaining with God to save the people of Sodom is well known; but the underpinning of this story is rarely recognized. After admonishing God, “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25), Abraham does not suggest that God save only the righteous members of the city and destroy only its wicked inhabitants. Instead, Abraham tries to convince God to save the entire city due to the upright people within it. Abraham only gives up when God says that not even ten righteous individuals can be found there.

This text reflects a communitarian rather than an individualistic perspective. It embeds two complementary notions: that a small number of individuals can make change and thereby save an entire community, and that if decent individuals do not succeed in transforming their community, they are culpable.

In many ways this is a most un-American idea. After all, rugged individualism and self-reliance are core American values. But this biblical passage should make us more aware that as individuals—whether private citizens or public officials—we are each responsible for the members of the larger community and polity. Standing idly by, or arguing that someone else should step up, is not an option. We are each accountable if we do not work to improve our communities.

The prophet Ezekiel later refers to the story of Sodom when he lists the Sodomites’ sins: “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease.” Then he adds that they “did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Prosperity itself is not criticized. Instead, like the passage in Genesis, Ezekiel takes a communitarian perspective. The prophet insists that economic success requires obligations to the less fortunate: to the hungry, the poor, and the needy; other biblical texts add foreigners to that list. This is the role that each of us as private citizens must foster, and a role that each and every government official must advance.


Marc Z. Brettler

Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies
Duke University

American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters. is a campaign that brings together scholars from a diverse range of religious traditions to articulate core American values that have grounded our nation in the past and should guide us forward at this time of transition.