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A Question of Allegiance

Rabbi Howard A. Berman
Winter 2002

This sermon was delivered at Chicago Sinai Congregation during the High Holy Day Services in 1999)  

Last month, during the hazy, lazy days of August ― when I and most of my rabbinic colleagues were engaged in our annual struggle of choosing topics for our Holy Day sermons, a chance encounter here at the Temple inspired a clear resolution to my dilemma.  

It was following our Sabbath Eve Service, and I was greeting the line of worshippers leaving the sanctuary. A group of young people whom I had noticed during the Service, and pegged as visiting students, introduced themselves as members of the newly arrived, first year class, at the McCormick Theological Seminary one of the many major Protestant divinity schools located in Hyde Park. For most of them, it was their first visit to a Synagogue ― and they were very excited and impressed and bubbling over with questions. We returned to the sanctuary for a conversation, so I could answer some of their inquiries. We had a lively discussion of the parallels and contrasts between Judaism and Christianity, and touched on a variety of theological issues. The focus then shifted to the Temple itself ― its design and symbolism. And one of the students asked a question that has often been posed by visitors to Sinai through the years both at the old Temple in Hyde Park and here in our new home. It is a question that has distinct variations depending on whether it is being asked by a Christian visitor or by another Jew ... and indeed it is a seemingly simple inquiry that, nevertheless raises issues of profound importance and complexity.  

American Flag  

As that student from McCormick Seminary posed it ... “Why do we have an American flag displayed so prominently here in the Sanctuary?”  

Now the particular context of the question was, that in many churches, particularly in the more liberal Protestant denominations, there is a widespread trend toward not having an American flag at the altar ... a symbolic effort to de-emphasize the “rendering unto Caesar” as it were, and focusing rather on “what is God’s.” After so many centuries of entanglement with temporal and political power, and the spiritual corruption that inevitably resulted, there is a distinct movement in contemporary mainline Christianity, toward distancing the Church from any form of nationalism,  

In part, this also represents a consciously dissenting response to the militant “God and Country” mixture of piety and patriotism, so prevalent among the more conservative and fundamentalist churches. Consequently, these liberal Protestant seminarians, aware of Sinai’s reputation as a bastion of progressive Judaism, were curious as to why the flag occupied such a prominent position here in our Temple.  

Different Twist  

Now we often get the same question from fellow Jews as well ― albeit with a somewhat different twist ― and often with a decided edge and challenging tone to it ... “Why do we have the American flag on the bimah ― and not ― as most other synagogues do ― the Israeli flag as well?”  

Reflecting on these questions as raised by our visitors and probably, I would guess, even by some of our own Sinai members, consequently inspired the theme for this year’s High Holy Day message ...  

The issue is indeed a very central one for us ― as American Jews, and especially as members of this particular Congregation ― which historically, has a perspective on this question, rather different from most other temples. And, as many of you know, this is a question that is very critical and compelling for me personally ...  

Why do we have the flag here ...?  

Why not the flag of Israel?  

And, ultimately, in a broader context ... what is the nature and meaning of our identities and commitments as American Jews?  

Fundamental Issue  

The issue has long been a fundamental one in the historical development of Reform Judaism in the United States. From its earliest beginnings in this country, the Reform Movement perceived a virtually cosmic significance to the meaning of America for the Jewish people. A dynamic, liberal expression of our Tradition was inspired and shaped by the uniquely free, open, pluralistic, and democratic society of the United States ― which represented the rejection of the prejudices and tyrannies of traditional authority in European culture. Every religious expression brought to America by successive generations of immigrants, was profoundly influenced and eventually transformed by the free and democratic spirit of the New World. From the very first new arrivals on these shores, the Pilgrims, who settled in New England to escape religious persecution, there emerged a spirit of freedom of conscience and liberty from the shackles of entrenched authority ― whether of Church or Crown. Very significantly, in Colonial America ― this spirit was consciously rooted in the ideals of the Hebrew Bible: the models of civil legislation in the Torah, and the principles of justice and human rights championed by the Prophets.  

This influence culminated in 1776 ― with the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of the American Revolution, with their ringing affirmation of the inherent natural rights of every individual ... and later, with the Constitu-tion’s guarantees of religious freedom and civil liberties for all. And while those noble ideals were not fully realized at first ― and to a great extent remain unfulfilled for too many Americans even today, nevertheless they heralded a new age of freedom and opportunity for the oppressed and downtrodden of the world ― for none more so than for the Jews.  

First Settlers  

With the arrival of the first Jewish settlers on American soil, in New Amsterdam in 1654, a revolutionary new chapter opened in the history of our People. In every other nation on the face of the earth, Jews had been considered aliens ― outsiders ― in the midst of a dominant homogeneous culture. But, here, from virtually the very beginning, Jews were part of the founding and building of America; its earliest settlement, its colonial development ― the struggles of the Revolution and the building of the new democracy. And in turn, America was the first ― and for a long time ― the only place in the world ― where Jews were able to exercise the rights and freedom of full Citizens. For the first time in almost 2000 years, there was a place where Jews could be fully at home ... with the same human and civil rights of others ... in a nation made up not of one dominant native ethnic or cultural majority, in which we were the conspicuous outsiders; but rather, composed of a complex tapestry of different religions, races, and cultures. And there has also been a deep awareness among American Jews, that the ideals of human dignity and liberty that shaped this nation and its values, were ― again from the very beginning, consciously rooted in the teachings of our own Jewish Scriptures. The echoes, often literal and explicit, of the Torah and our Hebrew prophets, resonated through the great ideas and documents of the American democratic tradition.  

And so, when the first Reform Synagogue was dedicated in America ― Beth Elohim, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1841 ― its rabbi was able to make the startling claim that “America is our Promised Land and this is our Jerusalem!” As the Reform Movement grew and flourished in the free and open American environment, it remained deeply grounded in this emphasis on the central, indeed Providential role that the American experience has played; both in the development of Judaism itself, and in nurturing our distinctive contributions to American life and culture. And American Reform Judaism, in turn, was itself a response to the unfolding miracle before our eyes ... that on these shores was emerging, the greatest, freest, most influential Jewish community the world had ever known.  

American Ideals  

Now it must be emphasized that this commitment has always been to the very best and noblest of American ideals. It is not a blind “love it or leave it” nationalism. Rather, it is a “love it and change it ... love it and redeem it” recognition that there are yet many unfulfilled dreams and mandates in the continuing unfolding of our nation’s destiny. Even after two centuries, there remains great injustice and inequality ― and there are dark forces of extremism, bigotry and violence, that are a total desecration and perversion of all that America authentically stands for. But our love for and devotion to this country is not undermined by these daunting realities rather, they must challenge us to labor tirelessly as loyal and responsible citizens, to make the true American dream a reality for all the people of this nation.  

This then, is essentially how I answered the question our visitors posed on that Sabbath Eve last month. And when I am confronted with the other version of the question ― as I often am ― “why don’t we have the Israeli flag on the bimah as well,” I add an additional perspective ...  

As I said before the most dramatic uniqueness of the American Jewish experience is that from the very earliest beginnings of this nation, we have been at home here ... not because we were granted “tolerance” or allowed to remain by the indulgence of some benevolent king or nobleman ― but because we were part of the creation of this country. We fought for and won our rights to claim our rightful place here in the very formation of this nation’s laws and institutions. The unprecedented affirmation declared at that dedication of the temple in Charleston in 1841, remains true for us ... this is our Promised Land! This is our homeland! Now let us make no mistake ... like all of our fellow Jews, we revere the birthplace of our People ... we cherish the sacred historical memories enshrined in the land of Israel ... we rejoice in the promise and the redemption that the reborn State of Israel represents ― even as we join with and support our Israeli brothers and sisters, in yearning and calling for the fulfillment of the still unrealized ideals and the vast potential of a truly “Jewish” state.  

Americans, Not Israelis  

But we are American Jews ― not Israelis! We are Israel in the timeless spiritual sense of that word ― but we are not Israeli citizens. Our love for the Land of Israel is a familial and spiritual tie ― not a political one. Our support for the State of Israel ― as well as our forthright dissent and critique of many of its political and social policies is expressed as deeply concerned and loving friends and relatives ― but not as citizens or patriots. A flag ― any flag ― is, ultimately, a symbol of patriotic, political allegiance and it is totally inappropriate for the official ensign of any other sovereign state to be regarded or displayed as their own, by American citizens ... and this includes the banners of Poland ... and Ireland ... and Mexico ... and Greece ... and Italy ... and every other sovereign state. By the same token, it is totally inappropriate for the National Anthem of any other country to be sung by any of us as our own ...  

Whether we consider ourselves to be Zionists ― or non-Zionists ― and both are valid philosophical stances for American Jews ― there are, nevertheless, many effective and meaningful ways that we can express our support for the State of Israel as American Jews: financial support for its humanitarian and cultural institutions ― personal visits ― and yes ― a vigorously informed, balanced and constructive dissent when called for ... are all appropriate demonstrations of our special relationship to the Jewish State ...  

But displaying its flag ― singing its anthem ― or indiscriminate, knee-jerk support or justification of all of its actions and policies ― are not appropriate for us ― nor for that matter, in the end, particularly helpful for the Israelis themselves?  

Torah as Symbol  

Friends ... at the very front and center of this Sanctuary ― and indeed of our Faith ­is the eternal, universal banner and symbol of the Jewish People ... the Torah ... the Word and Law of God: the “King of Kings” ― which transcends every other allegiance ― and which has inspired the ideals and principles that command our political allegiance to this country ... It is this symbol, the sacred banner and eternal standard of Judaism, that we cherish and share and proudly hold aloft along with our Israeli brothers and sisters ― and with all our fellow Jews throughout the world ...  

But the only national flag we claim and honor ― is that of our own country ... the United States of America!  

Friends ― all of these issues, perhaps initially brought to the forefront of my consciousness by our visitors a few weeks ago, have been very deeply and personally renewed in my own experience, over the past month. As some of you are aware, I recently moved from Boston to Washington, D.C., to continue my unfolding adventure in expanding my cultural and personal horizons. My choice of both Boston and Washington has been motivated, of course, by my deep and life-long love of American history. Having been surrounded over the past few years, by the scenes of America’s birth and founding in New England, it is very exciting to find myself, now, in the very epicenter of our national life today. There is such a thrill to be living just a few blocks from the great symbols and monuments of the American spirit ― to casually stroll past the White House during a morning’s walk ... to turn a corner and feel the inspiring impact of the Capitol dome rising before me ... to be able to take a five minute midnight drive and stand quietly before the solemn majesty of the Lincoln Memorial ― which for me, has always been one of the most sacred and moving places on the face of the earth.  

Washington Visit  

Just two weeks ago, my parents were visiting my new home for the first time, and we had a wonderful weekend together exploring the city ― virtually emptied out of the crowd of summer tourists, who departed right before Labor Day. And in the course of our exploration, we experienced the two places that perhaps, more than any other, stand symbolically as the most powerful answers to that question that our temple visitors posed a few weeks back. We spent the morning at the Holocaust Memorial Museum ― encountering all of the horror and tragedy, all the courage and faith, that incredible place so powerfully conveys. Emotionally drained, as everyone who visits there inevitably is, we then walked the few blocks to the other museums lining the Mall. After the Holocaust Museum we were not quite in the mood for the National Gallery of Art or the Smithsonian ... but we did decide to go to the National Archives ... and with the city virtually deserted, on this late summer weekend, we had the rare opportunity to linger unrushed ― in front of its central exhibits: the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution ...  

As we stood there ― in quiet awe of these sacred primary relics of this Nation’s past, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the counterpoint, the stark contrast between this and what we had just seen at the Holocaust Museum.  

There, we encountered the story of history’s worst desecration of the human spirit ... and here, was the living testimony of the noblest heights to which the human mind and heart can aspire ...  

July 4 in Jewish History  

I read those familiar words ― here in their original manuscript form.,. “that we as human beings are all created equal and are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life ... liberty ... and the pursuit of happiness ...” and I was so struck as perhaps never before ― by why July 4, 1776 was one of the most sacred dates in Jewish history as well.  

At that moment, having just come from the Holocaust Museum, I realized something I have often intellectually pondered, but perhaps never so emotionally experienced before ... that had that faded piece of parchment before me, never been written ... had my great-grandparents not left their small villages in Central and Eastern Europe over a century ago, to come to this place of liberty and hope ― created by that very document, I would ... by definition ... be dead ... Indeed, I never would have been born ...  

This must be the inescapable realization for every American Jew, after the Holocaust ...  

Had not our parents ― or grandparents or great grandparents ― left all of their hundreds of towns ― and villages ― and shtetls in Europe ― where they had known so many centuries of oppression ― and found new life and hope in this land of freedom,  


American Flag  

Standing there ― before the Declaration of Independence, and realizing this truth with such force ― was a moment of deep and humble gratitude ― to the loving and merciful God who guided my family in making that journey to a new world so long ago ... the Providence ... that of all the long ages and far places of human history ― and of Jewish suffering ― that I was granted the blessing ― and privilege ― of having been born in this time ... and this place ...  

And so dear friends, this is why ― for me at least ― this flag ... and this flag alone ... stands here ... in this sacred place ... And why it is so linked in our minds and hearts with the most sacred and central symbol of all ― our Torah ― and all of the ideals it first proclaimed to the world, thousands of years ago.  

Both legacies and traditions are our most precious heritage as American Jews ... and they are also our most pressing mandates and challenges as well ... “TO PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT THE LAND TO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF ...” “TO PURSUE JUSTICE” ... in our nation ― and in the world ...  

And to continue, with love and devotion, to do our part ... as Americans ... and as Jews ... to build a nation true to its noblest and most sacred ideals:  



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