Happy birthday, USA

Our rabbi was giving a talk about the halakhot of mesirah, discussing when — if ever — it is appropriate for a Jew to turn over a Jewish criminal to secular authorities. A basic point on which this question turns is whether the government in power is fair. Is it committed to a just society under the rule of law, or is it just a bunch of brigands calling itself a state?

It’s not hard to think of many countries, past and present, that fit neatly into the second category, but there seemed to be an unspoken consensus among those attending our rabbi’s shiur that America belonged in the first. Full disclosure: our congregation is Orthodox with a leftish slant. Politically, this means that in contrast to many American Orthodox congregations, some of our members have been heard to say neutral things about Barack Obama without being drummed out of the minyan. Our class seemed to feel that turning over miscreant co-religionists to secular authorities might at times indeed be reasonable, because America is a fair and just place.

Not everyone agrees. In the general community, many consider America’s government quite unjust, taking from citizens what is rightfully theirs. One current parade example is “Obamacare,” the law requiring all Americans to buy health insurance just surprisingly upheld by the Supreme Court. Opponents see this requirement as a threat to basic liberties, a levy by an unjust government.

Jews, too, differ in attitudes toward this country. My grandparents and parents were fierce patriots. It seemed to them that America was special — for the world in general and for Jews in particular. America had the Statue of Liberty, welcoming huddled masses from lands with anti-Semitism in their DNA to a new world which had many anti-Semites but whose ordinary man in the street was decent, welcoming, and fair. Hadn’t George Washington himself come to shul in Newport, Rhode Island and declared, “To bigotry no sanction!”?

America offered more than economic opportunity. Unlike Poland, Ukraine, or Iraq, here Jews could actually feel we belonged. Maybe the streets weren’t paved with gold, but they were our streets as much as anybody else’s.

One way we showed our patriotism was by being part of the American civil religion, whether by never missing a chance to vote or by buying mattresses on what used to be Washington’s Birthday. Our yeshiva had classes on Christmas, of course — that was someone else’s religion — but not on Election Day, Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays (as they were called then), or Memorial Day. And of course we always gathered for Thanksgiving Dinner after spending hours on the highways among our non-Jewish fellow citizens.

But times change. I visited cousins in Cleveland who went to schools like mine but now send their own kids to frummer places. Their schools (and others like them) are careful to schedule classes on every “American” holiday  —  Sundays (of course), Labor Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, and (double of course) Thanksgiving. They would hold classes on Independence Day too if it weren’t in July. They do, however, have school (triple of course, with whipped cream and a cherry) on Israeli Independence Day.

The “reasons” for this policy are usually framed in halakhic terms, because everything is always framed in halakhic terms. But even halakhic issues have other dimensions, acknowledged or not.

How you feel about the country in which you live is an attitude, a stance. You can bolster it with facts, but facts don’t settle the issue, because facts have to be interpreted. Whether America is, for Jews, something new under the sun, or just more golus under a different-colored flag (Poland, America, whatever), can be debated but not proved. In the same way (or more so), whether an Israeli considers Medinat Yisrael as reshit tzemikhat geulatneu, a secular irrelevance, or a theological abomination depends not on how things are but on which things you look at and how you look at them. If your interpretation runs a certain way, you don’t serve in the IDF, you treat Remembrance Day with ambivalence, and, like my distant relatives in Jerusalem’s Ramot Polin, you don’t bother to take out Israeli citizenship “because it’s too complicated.” In, but not of. Lublin, Jerusalem, whatever.

If someone wants to argue that America is a decadent and empty society with a dysfunctional and hack-ridden legislature, a deeply unfair judicial system, and lousy schools, I will be happy to give them plenty of ammunition. But none of this shakes my faith in the nature of the country I live in.

You may consider Bibi Netanyahu a statesman for the ages or a blithering fool. But when he declares that Israel has a deep and special relationship with America, and both houses of Congress rise to give him a sustained standing ovation, what I see is not AIPAC chicanery. I see instead a country where ordinary folks and their leaders know a fellow democracy when they meet one, who can actually tell the moral difference between Israel and Iran, and who even know which way to point the arrow of superiority. There are plenty of enlightened people in other places on the globe who can’t do any of these things.

One of my zaydes was drummer in the Czar’s army for four years. The other fled conscription from the part of Poland then under Russian control. Both were learned men who earned their living in humble ways. One made caps; the other was a melamed for 50 years to generations of annoying young men in a hard-coal mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania. Neither of my grandmothers spoke more than a few words of English.

All in all our family has done OK, professionally, materially, even spiritually.

It has been my observation that hakarat hatov, gratitude, is a noble virtue often honored in the breach. But not by me, not today.

Happy Birthday, USA.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts