Summary: Four and a half months after the Union defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg, at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery on the site of the battle, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his short but impactful 271-word speech. He questioned whether the United States, “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” could survive the succession of a number of Southern states. He concluded that the legacy of the soldiers who died in battle demanded “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Why this is The Best: More than being just a historic relic, the Gettysburg Address bears a message for modern day society, and for religious Jews in particular. In 1863, President Lincoln faced a country divided against itself, the Northern states advocated for the abolishment of slavery and the Southern states were willing to secede from the union to maintain slavery (among other grievances). In his 2020 book, Morality, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained the moral framework of Lincoln’s dilemma as he composed the Gettysburg Address, “Covenant can bring an underlying sense of moral community that holds a society together at times of stress, which is why Lincoln seems to have thought about it so deeply during the crisis years of the Civil War.” (320). By pointing out that Americans on both sides share a common covenant, beginning “four score and seven years ago” with the Declaration of Independence, and extending to the future of the nation, Lincoln was able to maintain the possibility of preserving the union despite physical and moral divisions created by the battlefield. President Lincoln reminded the country that “our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This was the clarion call of morality which requires all Americans to unite around a shared covenant. In Lincoln’s vision, the entire nation, North and South, should be dedicated to a single uniting principle.
Beyond this basic commitment to the values of equality and liberty as the foundation of American society, Lincoln drew on the sacrifice of soldiers “living and dead, who struggled here” as a source of obligation. He said “from these honored dead we take increased devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” He then explains that the fulfillment of the American value of freedom is how we redeem our debt to those who died in battle. Interestingly, Lincoln does not mention that some died for exactly the opposite values, defending slavery and the South.
Just two years later, in his second inaugural address, a speech replete with descriptions of the suffering caused by war despite its necessity, President Lincoln refers to this dilemma. People on both sides of the Civil War justify their cause with the same source text. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other.” As he entered his second term as president, towards the end of the war, Lincoln contemplated the fact that founding values are sometimes manifest in different and conflicting ways. This is a conflict inherent in a diverse society and a challenge to unifying around values. Perhaps the solution to losing sight of the values that guide our society lies in constantly remembering those who came before us, and the values that they defined and lived, as the Gettysburg Address says, those “who struggled here.”
As religious Jews, dedicated to religious piety and knowledge, the Gettysburg Address can serve as a reminder of values which we share with others—a basic unifying morality and the need to refer to our history as a source for these values. For Lincoln, society was shaped by the legacy of the founding fathers and we share this story as Americans; as Jews, we have an additional story that shapes our values. The Exodus from Egypt and the journey through the desert demand of us to care for the stranger and the orphan, and the rest of our Jewish narrative inculcates values that uniquely bind us together as a community.
The Gettysburg Address calls us to discover connection through a covenant of mutual concern for those around us despite the challenges. If we have shared values, we can find the good in others and appreciate our shared destiny “turning self-interested individuals into a community in pursuit of the common good” (Morality, 322). By framing our role in society through a shared moral mission, such as the one that the Gettysburg Address called on Americans to find, and anchoring these values in the history of those who came before us, the Gettysburg Address calls on us to seek out the unflinching unifying values which we inherited and are crucial for making society better today.
Avi Narrow-Tilonsky is a Jerusalem-based rabbi working to connect philanthropy with global Jewish needs. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.