Changing words of an anthem – a Jewish angle

There’s a Jewish angle to everything! Including changing the words of a National Anthem!

For the benefit of non-Australians: as of January 1, 2021 an alteration was made in the first couplet of Advance Australia Fair, our Australian National Anthem. The old version read: Australians all let us rejoice / For we are young and free.  This second line now reads For we are one and free . It was felt that the characterisation of Australia as “young” excludes those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island descent who have inhabited the continent for millennia.

The Jewish view on changing words in a National Anthem  is, quite simply, that it’s allowed!  There is nothing sacrosanct about a national anthem (especially the Australian one – more on that later!). Only the Torah cannot be changed!  (Even within change-resistant Orthodox Jewish society, cultural shifts  impinging on minhag and tradition have been evident in the last few generations. For example, when I was growing up, it would have been unheard of to intone parts of the Shabbat service such as the Shacharit and Musaph kedusha in anything other than the traditional freygish and Mixolydian modalities respectively, and certainly not to a Shlomo Carlebach niggun, whereas now even the melodies of secular cult figures like Leonard Cohen have intruded into these most sacred parts of the service. But I digress!)

As to the specific change to the anthem that the Governor-General of Australia (on the recommendation of the government) has approved, I believe it is to be applauded – as is any change that will be seen as more inclusive and considerate of all segments of society.

However, on that very point – and bearing in mind the Judaeo-Christian heritage on which modern Australia is founded – while change is in the air, how about altering one more word in the anthem so as to be inclusive of an oft-forgotten Operations Director – the global one to be precise!  (G.O.D. for short!)

After all, Great Britain, the USA (despite its avowed separation of church and state), Canada, New Zealand (whose anthem begins with the G-word) and even arch-secular France – countries with a similar heritage – all feature G-D within their national anthems. Why not Australia?   

 The change actually would be very easy to make.  The second couplet of the anthem currently reads: We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil / Our home is girt by sea. While it is true that we have some iconic red soil in the Northern Territory, notably in Urulu – hence the nickname “the Red Centre” – I have not seen gold-coloured earth anywhere yet in my adopted country!  What could be wrong with changing this fanciful phrase to: We’ve G-D-giv’n soil ….?  It would bring us into line with countries similar to ours and, more importantly, be considerate of the main faith communities of Australia.

And while I am on the subject, what of our real homeland?

Of course, Israel has HaTikva, a shmaltzy nineteenth-century poem which expresses the yearning for a return to Zion and which, truth to tell, has really outlived its usefulness as we are, thank G-D, now “a free nation in our land”. But, given the emotional attachment everyone has to the anthem, I am not venturing to advocate its replacement. Rather I always have, as long as I can recall, instead of singing lihyot am chofshi, substituted lihyot am kodshi “to be a holy nation in our land”. This indeed still remains the dream of all Jewish men and women of faith. It also infuses the HaTikva with renewed pertinence. And seeing as a majority of Jewish Israelis are religious or traditional, an official modification of the lyric recognising our role as am kadosh is long overdue.  It is sad that Israel shares with Australia the dubious distinction of having a Godless national anthem.

On the other hand, our two respective anthems do share a very positive attribute not encountered in most other anthems. In the lyric of both Advance Australia Fair and HaTikva there is a very pleasing absence of militarism and chauvinist jingoism, presaging the day – may it be very soon – when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).

So in summary: as long as the words one substitutes are dignified and respectable, there is nothing wrong with making alterations to the lyric of a national anthem. I shall lustily sing, from now on, “for we are one and free” At the same time, I would invite fellow-Australians to consider joining me in giving thanks not for our “golden soil” but our “G-D-giv’n soil”  And Jews everywhere to proclaim the hope lihyot am kodshi.  If there are enough of us out there who care, these changes too could happen!

https://rabbi-ingram.com/  

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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