Editor’s Note: An edited version of these remarks were delivered at the dedication of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia on Nov. 14.
Four millennia ago, our forefathers and mothers brought forth on this earth a new religion, proclaiming the presence of a universal loving Creator. We held these truths to be self-evident that all human beings are created in the image of God, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain fundamental dignities, that among these are infinite value, equality and uniqueness. Our tradition taught that the Creation would be filled with life and improved to a state of perfection. Our faith called on all of humanity to join in a covenant with God and a partnership between the generations for tikkun olam (the repair of the world) so that all forms of life would be sustained in their fullest their dignities.
In faithfulness to this covenant, we sought to teach these principles to humankind, to serve as role model for a community striving to live by them and to work alongside all faiths and peoples to redeem the world. In the course of living this covenant, our people journeyed from the Bronze Age through ancient, medieval and modern civilization and from the Middle East to six continents of the world.
In the course of upholding the partnership, we survived discrimination, exclusion, persecution, and even attempts at genocide. We remained faithful to the message of hope, partnership and redemption. In no other country in diaspora and exile have we been granted the equal rights, unlimited opportunity and the dignity of choice as in these blessed United States — although we enjoy similar rights in our restored homeland in Israel.
Now we are engaged in a great cultural struggle, testing whether any distinct religion or particular people can endure in the presence of full acceptance, freedom and total choice. We have come here to dedicate the National Museum of American Jewish History.
This Museum is at once a statement of “mir zeinen doh”/we are here – as well as a celebration of the freedom of religion and dignity of existence, as well as the achievements of our people in the land of the free. Symbolically this Museum is part of Independence Mall, where all Americans come to celebrate the birthplace of our national existence, the initiation of a government of the people, by the people, for the people that would extend liberty and justice to all. It is altogether proper and fitting that we establish it here. Given America’s openhearted blessing, Jews became a blessing for all the families of the land. Our people joined in every facet of national life; we opened new frontiers everywhere. Fulfilling the prophet Jeremiah’s call (29:7) we sought the welfare of this land and in its prosperity, we prospered. All this, this building shows.
In a larger sense, however, we are not here just to dedicate a completed museum. Rather, it is for this living generation of covenantal Jewry to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished task of renewing our faith and deepening our community and culture – which those who built this edifice have so remarkably advanced. It is for us to be inspired by the memories and experiences enshrined here and to increase our devotion to the cause of transmitting the covenant and applying it to our lives and times.
Together with our fellow citizens, we must pledge anew to work to realize the full promise, the Messianic possibilities of this land. We together must resolve that our faith, under God, shall have a new birth in freedom, that our people and the religion of Creation- moving-to-Redemption-through-Covenant shall flourish on this earth.
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg is a prominent rabbi and theologian.