Lady Liberty and the Biblical Deborah

Poem inscribed at base of the Statue of Liberty appears to reference biblical heroine

By David Lazarus | | Topics: America
Lady Liberty and the Biblical Deborah
Was Lady Liberty reimagined by American Jews as a representation of Deborah? Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

When Jewess Emma Lazarus penned “The New Colossus”— the renowned poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty — was she envisaging Deborah, the great Judge and Prophetess of Israel? 

Where did Lazarus get her inspiration to describe Lady Liberty in her sonnet as “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles?” In the Bible, Deborah is also called a “woman of torches” (Judges 4:4), she is a close companion of Barak (lightning in Hebrew), and she is designated a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).

These similarities led Alexandra Socarides, a professor at the University of Missouri, to conclude in an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that Lazarus may have seen that the United States could be an example of the Land of Israel that became home for the Jewish people in biblical and modern times.

Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883, not long after she had become more interested in her Jewish ancestry upon hearing about the antisemitism and pogroms against the Jews in Russia who were pouring into New York for safety. Lazarus fully embraced her Jewish identity becoming a vocal advocate and activist for Jewish refugees in the United States.

Lazarus also promoted the creation of a Jewish homeland in Israel even before Herzl’s dream of Zionism. She published numerous Jewish works during these years such as Songs of a Semite (1882) and An Epistle to the Hebrews (1883). 

The Statue of Liberty which was dedicated in 1886 has inspired copies around the world including three replicas in Israel. Two of these are also associated with the biblical Deborah. Both Arraba, a town in Lower Galilee, and Magha, a village in the same area, exhibit models of Lady Liberty and both are located close to the traditional burial sites of both Deborah and Barak. The third, naturally, stands in Jerusalem.

The Statue of Liberty holds her torch above her head with her right hand, and in her left hand carries a tablet inscribed in Roman numerals with the date July 4, 1776, the date of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. A broken shackle and chain lay at her feet as she strides forward, remembering the recent abolition of slavery in the US. The statue became an icon of freedom and welcome for immigrants and refugees arriving to her shores.

The title of Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, and the first two lines, refer to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that stood astride the harbor. Lazarus is contrasting the imposing Greek god with the compassionate and “mighty woman” of the God of Israel who cares for the “tired, poor and huddled masses.”

The New Colossus 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

* The “golden door” describes both the gold-plated doorway into the terminal hall on Ellis Island welcoming the refugees and a door of opportunity. 

Author’s note: Being my namesake, I took special interest in this story and in my research found that Emma Lazarus’ family eventually immigrated to the US after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, as did my own family.

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