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On Being a Patriotic Jewish American – Mattot / Mas’ei 5782

Judy and I were at the Jersey Shore for a few days this week. The kids are safely ensconced at Camp Ramah in Canada, so we have had some time to ourselves, which is nice, but of course it reminds us of how much we love and appreciate and miss our children! 

One evening, we had a very patriotic experience. I find that as I get older, these things are much more moving than they were when I was younger. Nowadays, I tear up when veterans are honored for their service to our country, or at any ceremony for those who “paid the ultimate price” to defend our freedom. I have performed many funerals, but generally the only moment I lose control of my own emotions is when, at the funeral of a veteran of the armed forces, the honor guard removes the flag from the casket, folds it, and presents it to a member of the family. 

So we had taken a bike ride late in the afternoon to Sunset Beach, a lovely point with a nice view to the west of Delaware Bay. Unbeknownst to us, the tradition at Sunset Beach in the summer months is that, every day, they fly a different American flag, which had been draped on the casket of an armed-forces veteran during his/her funeral. As the day draws to a close, they lower the flag. So we stuck around for the ceremony.

Lowering the flag at Sunset Beach, NJ

When the time came, we sang “God Bless America,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then as “Taps” was played, the flag was lowered and folded, and returned to the family of the deceased veteran.

And, sure enough, the tears came. 

This does not happen to me on Independence Day, or on Memorial Day, or when we sing the National Anthem before a ball game, although a room full of Jews singing Hatikvah always gets me right here. But I think that ceremonies that are deeply personal, that tell one person’s story of dedication and service, are in some ways much more powerful than the general, national stories and commemorations.

And yet, the idea of peoplehood is extraordinarily important to me. I am proud, as I know you are as well, to be a member of the Jewish people; I am strongly connected to our history and traditions, and of course to other Jews, even those with whom I disagree deeply about how we interpret our text and our rituals. 

And of course, the vast majority of Jews throughout history have lived under non-Jewish rule. We have been mobile people, often against our will, often fleeing persecution, for thousands of years. A week from tonight we will observe Tish’ah BeAv, on which we commemorate oppression and destruction at the hands of ancient, medieval, and modern empires. And the Torah foreshadows this mobile history in Parashat Mas’ei, from which we read this morning. “Elleh mas’ei benei Yisrael,” it begins. “These are journeys of the Israelites, who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 33:1). In fact, the book of Bemidbar begins by counting the people, and concludes with recounting the journey; the suggestion is that our peoplehood and our journeys are deeply intertwined. Our ability to journey is predicated upon our peoplehood.

And our ability to live among and subject to others who are not Jews is also made possible by our connection to one another. How did we survive 2,000 years of dispersion and exile? By sticking together. By reading and re-reading and re-interpreting our holy, ancient texts. By maintaining our traditions, distinct from the majority culture around us.

And yet, I am also a proud American, in many ways fully integrated into our society, celebrating American values and lamenting American woes. I am grateful to this nation, which provided a haven to my great-grandparents, which does not restrict our ability to practice freely our customs and traditions, which guarantees me many rights which my ancestors did not have.

The challenges of living as a distinct people and in the context of a wider, non-Jewish nation were well-known to the rabbis of the Talmud. They were, after all, living under Roman rule in ancient Palestine as the Mishnah was written and compiled (1st c. CE), and the Babylonian Gemara was completed under Persian rule in the yeshivot of Babylon (modern-day Iraq). Talmudic statements about the relationship between the Jews and the non-Jewish leadership of their jurisdiction are mixed. Consider, for example, conflicting statements in Pirqei Avot:

Avot 3:2

רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בְּלָעוֹ

Rabbi Ḥanina, the vice-high priest said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.

Avot 2:3

הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ

Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress.

Not exactly a comforting vision of government, right? There is a strong sense of suspicion of the non-Jewish authorities in rabbinic literature, perhaps largely because the Romans had destroyed the Temple and forbidden Jews from living in Jerusalem, but also because the rabbis of this period knew that in order to keep Judaism alive, they would have to prevent the Jews from pursuing the practices of the non-Jews around them. And so the rabbis inveighed against idolatry, of course, but also the bathhouses and the circuses and the other aspects of Greco-Roman culture. They forbid the consumption of foods and wine produced by non-Jews, because sharing these things would lead to fraternization, which would lead to intermarriage.

Perhaps the best-known and most essential statement of the relationship of Judaism and Jewish law to the non-Jewish authorities is the principle, cited four times in the Talmud, of dina demalkuta dina, or “the law of the land is the law.” The idea is that, even though Jews are subject to Jewish law, the non-Jewish law of the land applies in some cases as an extension of halakhah. So if the government requires you to pay taxes, for example, that would be effectively sanctioned by Jewish law as well.

And it makes a certain amount of sense. Had our ancestors not observed the laws of the lands in which they lived, they would surely not have been welcomed (not that they were honestly welcome in many places in which they had lived, of course, but all the more so). We have always had to see ourselves, at least minimally, and often uncomfortably, as subject to the laws and customs around us, even as we practice our own set of laws and customs. And that implies not only the innocuous things like getting a marriage license, for example, but also the more serious things, like serving your country in the armed forces and potentially giving your life in doing so.

One of the people at the flag ceremony in New Jersey was wearing a hat with a political statement on it with which I find myself severely at odds. He was standing with the family of the deceased veteran whose flag was being lowered, so I presume he was a relative. I found myself singing the National Anthem along with him, hands on our hearts, and respectfully observing together as the flag was folded. I am grateful that this man and I each have the ability to believe freely, to express our opinions freely, to practice our religion freely, and to vote freely, even though I am fairly certain that we do not see eye-to-eye on too many things. And I am, of course, deeply concerned that our tendency today to revile one another across the political aisle might eventually lead to curtailing those freedoms.

Which of course brings me to the final Jewish principle which we should consider in our context as Jewish Americans, and that is derekh eretz.

Derekh eretz, which has often been translated as, “respect,” is actually a wide-ranging term in rabbinic literature that might be better defined as, “the way things are done,” although literally, of course, it means, “the way of the land.” That is, derekh eretz is a set of societal norms that are connected to the land which we all share, and not limited to a specific sub-culture or ethnicity or religion. We are connected to the others around us, who may not share our Torah or our language or holidays or rituals, with some basic elements of human decency. 

“This land is your land / this land is my land,” sang Woody Guthrie*. We share the land through derekh eretz, and the way that we keep the land for us, for all Americans, is that we treat each other with respect and dignity and equality. We learn that from our tradition, and I hope that we can continue to spread that word, so that all might hear it.

Woody Guthrie

Although our journeys as a Jewish people will likely never be complete, we continue to, in some sense, be a part of the land wherever we reside. I hope that we all remember that during those moving, patriotic moments, whether personal or national.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/30/22.)

* I read online (FWIW) that Guthrie wrote this song, arguably his best-known, in reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

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