Over two years, Feiler traveled to some of the landmarks of American history — Independence Hall, a way station on the Underground Railroad, the Statue of Liberty, among others— to explore the way the Bible and, more specifically, the Exodus and Moses himself, have informed America’s history. In every generation, from William Bradford through Barack Obama, Americans have seen Moses as their prophet, the leader who gives them direction. Based on wide-ranging research, America’s Prophet is an informative and accessible, if selective, view of American history as a reënactment of the Exodus.
The notes for each chapter indicate Feiler’s sources, in addition to extensive personal interviews, but the reader might have benefited from specific references for his statistical studies. With Feiler as a guide, the people he interviews at each stop on his journey show how Moses influenced American history. This leads to a certain degree of repetition and, perhaps, contrivance, and does not always allow for fuller development of some of the intriguing questions Feiler raises: Why is Moses, not Jesus, America’s prophet? How did 19th century American Protestants, who saw themselves as the successors to the children of Israel, respond to real Jews — and Catholics and now Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus — in their effort to reach the promised land? But Feiler’s instinct for a compelling story and his promising message — that the story of America, like that of Moses, is an ongoing “narrative of hope” — keep the reader engaged in the unfinished story that every American helps to write.
By Maron Waxman
Maron Waxman: Your books cover a great variety of subjects— Japan, English academia, the circus, country music, the Bible. Is there a common thread that runs through them?
Bruce Feiler: If you look at all my books, what they have in common is that they’re all about being Jewish in the South. There are two Southern traditions — the South is a place of families sticking together, and it’s a story-telling place. Jews are outsiders in the South, but they’re also storytellers. In my books I enter a different world. I’m part of it, but I’m observing it. There’s the tension of belonging to a place and being apart from it.
MW: What world did you enter in writing America’s Prophet?
BF: Writing and researching this book led to a whole new way to see the United States. When I first went back to the Bible as part of the research for Walking the Bible, I had only my childhood construction of it — simple black and white stories with no gray. Reading it many years later, I saw lots of gray, and it was exciting because that invited me in as an adult. Something similar happened with my experience of America. Looking at American history through the prism of the Bible opened a whole new way to look at it. It was like going through a new door into an old house.
The Bible is not a book on a shelf; it’s living and breathing. It’s the same with American history. It’s not just Plimoth Plantation or Civil War reenactments or descriptions of slavery; American history is still alive and churning.
MW: How does the Moses story influence American history?
BF: The Moses story has been used by almost every great American leader in almost every defining time, from the Colonies through today. It’s a universal story that transcends time. Republicans use it, Democrats use it, Communists and capitalists use it, Jews and Christians use it. It’s often said that America is a Christian country, but that misses the point. It was Christians who made Moses a founding father. Jews were welcomed here because the Exodus story was so intertwined with the American dream. The Pilgrims knew the Bible; they had a copy of the Geneva Bible, whose title page shows a picture of Moses and the Israelites camped at the Red Sea.
We have to remember that the Protestants were the first people in eighteen centuries to read the Moses story, to read the Bible, for themselves. Roman Catholics could be put to death for reading the Bible. Only the priests could read it, in Latin, and also, before the printing press, there were very few books. So it took a certain set of circumstances — from technology to geography — to make the Exodus story the story of America.
First was the Protestant Reformation and with it the translation of the Bible into secular languages so that everyone could read it. Then came the printing press, making the Bible widely available. The Pilgrims recognized themselves in the Exodus story; in England they were an oppressed minority, and so they undertook their own Exodus. Their physical journey has incredible parallels with Exodus — they took a perilous sea journey to a wilderness to build a new land. The Pilgrims read the prophecy of the Old Testament as truth, and they believed it. They were fulfilling the future [the prophets predicted/foresaw].
And we see this in the thinking of the founding fathers, too, and of the slaves. The Exodus story is their story.
We as Jews are not taught the Moses story this way. Moses is not the dominant figure of the Torah and is mentioned only once in the haggadah. The Torah and Talmud steer us away from the worship of Moses to keep us focused on God. And so the Moses story means more to American history than to Jewish history. White Protestants made Moses central to the American story, and who benefited? Blacks and Jews.
MW: When Jewish immigration to the United States began in earnest, in the late nineteenth century, you mention that Protestants were ambivalent about them. Do you think they felt a little usurped by real Israelites, that the Jews’ presence in some way undermined the message of the New Testament as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy?
BF: The Protestants didn’t especially like Jews, but they liked the Exodus story, and that helped the integration of the Jews. The Exodus story wasn’t a call to open their arms, but because the Protestants had used the story so powerfully, they couldn’t stop the Jews from using it. They were uncomfortable with Jews, but Jews knew the importance of the Exodus story to the American story, so it became our story, too. In 1889, the hundredth anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration, you got a free picture of George Washington with every ten pounds of matzoh. Moses was already living in America, so that made it easier for us to live here.
MW: I’m particularly taken by your statement “If outsiders want to legitimize their place in America, they have to make their cause fit the most American of templates— the Exodus” (p. 277). How does that work for today’s diverse immigrants, some from non-Christian backgrounds?
BF: There are still oppressed minorities — gays, women — and Hispanics are conversant with the Exodus story. For Asians there’s still the general sense that America welcomes everybody, that we’re a pluralistic nation of “Give me your tired, your poor”— lines written by a Jew. And Americans are still touched by political oppression, by who are “moaning under oppression” and who want to be free. America is still the “land of milk and honey.”
MW: Why did Moses, not Jesus, become the country’s prophet?
BF: Jesus’ story is a personal story — individual salvation, good works, helping the poor. Moses’ story is a story of building a nation, and the geography is part of it — leaving a narrow place (mitzraim, Hebrew for Egypt, means “narrow place”), crossing water, coming to a new land. No one had used the Exodus story this way before. No one could because before the Reformation because no lay people were allowed to read the Bible.
MW: In the course of researching and writing your books, you meet a lot of tremendously interesting people and go to a lot of tremendously interesting places. Is this one of the pleasures of undertaking a new project?
BF: It’s a privilege to do this and a wonderful way to live life. I enjoy all the parts — the research year, the travel year, the writing year. There’s the physical side of travel plus it’s also exciting intellectually, meeting someone in his or her own place. Travel builds bridges. It takes you out of your comfort zone. Jews, a minority, can offer a great lesson: It’s possible to live in a world where we’re a minority.
MW: What is the final point you’d like to leave with your readers?
BF: The final point I’d like to leave with my readers and my twin daughters is that the Moses tradition is still alive. Just look at white presidents using the Moses story, at a black president using the story in his campaign. Women, blacks, minorities, anyone coming from a place of restriction to a new place, to a better place, is using the Moses story. Some Americans today, says Rabbi Harold Kushner, can’t be better off economically than their parents, so a “better” place for them may mean being better fathers, making more time for their families, having more balance in their lives.
Ultimately, the Moses story is the story of making dreams come true, of taking risks. Sometimes dreams don’t come true, and that’s okay, too. This year we’re slaves; next year we’ll be free. The Moses story is the story of keeping hope alive.
Reader’s Guide for America’s Prophetfrom http://brucefeiler.com
1. After having read the book, do you agree with Buce Feiler that Moses is America’s true founding father?
2. What does the phrase “ the Promised Land” mean? Would you call American the Promised Land? Why? What makes it so? If you could create you own ideal promised land, what would it look like?
3. America’s Prophet takes us from the Pilgrims to the Revolution, the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. Where you surprised to discover Moses’ influence on some of the most decisive events in our nation’s history? What amzed you most?
4. Do you have a favorite Exodus Story from our history? Explain. When Bruce Feiler met President Bush, he asked him if there were any moments when Moses inspired him. Have there been any moments when Moses inspired you?
5. Can you think of some other examples — not just limited to America — of where Moses and the Exodus story has been an influence, whether historically or in popular culture?
6. Often when we hear religion and politics being discussed it is in a negative light. How can politics and religion be a positive force for each other? How does Feiler make this argument? Use examples from the book. Can you think of other examples to support your point?
7. At the end of America’s Prophet, the author asks if Moses is still relevant today. What do you think? Do you agree with his conclusions? How might the Exodus story help us even now?
8. Take any example from the book. Describe how Moses inspired George Washington and Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama.
9. Think about the Emma Lazarus poem, The New Colossus. When you read her words, what do they mean to you? What do you think they might mean to today’s immigrants? Is their “promised land” different from the promised land of those who came before?
10. Who in your life or your community would you liken to Moses? How have they embodied the Moses ideal?
11. At the end of the book, Feiler asks his relative to define freedom. What does freedom mean to you?
12. If you have read Bruce Feiler’s other books — Where God Was Born, Abraham, Walking the Bible — how does America’s Prophet fit in with those other works? Would you call it a continuation of the author’s journey?
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.