America—called the "Golden Medina" by a prior generation of Jewish immigrants—is the country that gave Jews freedom of religion when Europe offered pogroms and antisemitism. The Fourth of July, the holy day of American freedom, can be seen as the secular Passover. Barbecues and parades take the place of gefilte fish and seders for American Jews who remember the escape from persecution and entrance into a new promised land.
American Jews often talk about how the values of American democracy parallel the ideals of Judaism. Respect for the integrity of the individual, concern for the welfare of the downtrodden, and belief in people's ability to choose their own destiny are all values common to American and Jewish aspirations. Yet, it is worth remembering that the belief systems of American freedom are not always consonant with those of Torah.
The building blocks of American freedom are rights. American freedom is equated with the right to free speech, the right to practice ones religion, the right to bear arms, the right to privacy, the right to a fair trial, among all the rights guaranteed in the Constitution's Bill of Rights. We are so steeped in the language of rights that it sometimes comes as a surprise to realize that "rights" are completely absent from the Torah.
The language of freedom in the Torah is expressed as obligations, not as rights. Where the U.S. Constitution protects the rights to life, liberty and property, the Torah speaks of the obligations not to kill, not to oppress the stranger, and not to steal. The distinction may seem like a mere matter of rhetoric. If everyone is required to pursue justice, for example, then the right to justice is guaranteed, isn't it? But notice how the language of rights is intrinsically different from the language of obligation.
A right is something that affirms what others owe to you. An obligations affirms what you owe to others. The Constitution protects the individual from the abuses of the many. The Torah requires the individual to serve the needs of the many. The Constitution promotes a focus on the self. The Torah promotes a focus on others.
This does not mean that we should say that the Constitution is morally inferior to the Torah. In truth, they serve different purposes. The Constitution defines the relationships between the people and the government. The Torah defines the relationship between the people and God. Both are needed.
On this Independence Day, take some time to be grateful for the blessings of liberty that we enjoy as Americans. No other government in history has stood so strongly for the rights of human beings to speak what they wish to say, or to worship as they choose. But, we should also remember that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are not an end in themselves. They are merely the foundation that makes it possible for us to choose to serve others and, by so doing, to serve God.