Joseph H. Prouser
Joseph H. Prouser

Old Glory and ancient glory

Chapter 1 of Title 4 of the United States Code is a set of rules and guidelines, etiquette and protocols for the display and care of the American flag.

The “Flag Code of the United States” — sufficiently detailed to make a talmudist blush — is unenforceable: penalties for its violation long since have been deemed unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. Nevertheless, it is a time-honored set of patriotic prescriptions and a fascinating insight into the American psyche and national sense of self.

The Flag Code addresses a number of predictable issues. How, where, and in what position is the flag to be displayed? How is the American flag displayed together with those of individual states or other countries? How is the flag raised and lowered? May the flag be flown in inclement weather or at night? How do we dispose of a worn or tattered flag?

Section 6 of the Flag Code discusses on what occasions it is appropriate to display the American flag. Subsection D (!!) explains that “the flag should be displayed on all days” but “especially” on a variety of holidays and historic anniversaries. Not surprisingly, these special occasions include Veterans Day (November 11), Flag Day (June 14), Lincoln’s birthday (February 12), Washington’s birthday (February 22), etc. Growing up in Northampton, Massachusetts, I was taught that the American flag also was to be flown on the birthday of former Northampton Mayor (and, incidentally, U.S. President) Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was born on the Fourth of July, so, indeed, the flag is customarily (if coincidentally) flown on his birthday as well. Naturally, the flag also is properly to be flown on Thanksgiving Day. The list of such “patriotic” occasions is extensive.

It may come as a surprise to some that the Flag Code of the United States prescribes that the flag also be flown on Christmas Day. The reasoning behind this practice is open to debate. Is the Christmas Day display of Old Glory an implicit assertion that ours is a Christian country? Or, conversely, is it a corrective measure in response to such inclinations. Is it a reminder on a day sacred to the Christian faithful that there are Americans of many religious “stripes,” with diverse beliefs and modes of worship, all equally American? Perhaps the Christmas Day display of the American flag simply is a humble expression of gratitude for the freedom of religion and expression that the nation it represents guarantees as a sacred trust. While I find the Flag Code’s Christmas codicil constitutionally curious, I welcome such patriotic expression by my Christian neighbors, on Christmas or any other day of the year.

As for my fellow Jews, I invite you to consider that there may be no more appropriate time to display the American flag than during the holiday of Chanukah. Our approaching Festival of Lights celebrates the heroic victory of a citizen army against the forces of tyranny and religious exclusivism. Chanukah, by all accounts an historically minor holiday, has taken on far greater significance in the 20th century because it so directly speaks to the experience of the State of Israel, and to the Jewish people’s continuing quest for national and cultural self-determination, sovereignty, and peace. But the history recalled on Chanukah also has spoken with compelling clarity to the American experience, and has inspired American leaders and luminaries since the very founding of the republic.

Consider the case of Benjamin Rush, born on Christmas Eve 1754. Rush was a physician; in fact, he served as surgeon general in the Continental Army. He was a civic leader in Philadelphia, attended the Continental Congress, and signed the Declaration of Independence. He opposed slavery and advocated for educational opportunities for women. He is considered one of the founding fathers not only of the nation, but also of American psychiatry. It is Dr. Rush who helped to reconcile John Adams and Thomas Jefferson after the former presidents’ estrangement.

In a 1773 letter addressed “To His Fellow Countrymen,” Rush wrote:

“Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families. The Amor Patriae is both a moral and a religious duty. It comprehends not only the love of our neighbors but of millions of our fellow creatures…. This virtue we find constitutes a part of the finest characters in history. The holy men of old, in proportion as they possessed a religious were endowed with a public spirit. What did Moses forsake and suffer for his countrymen! What shining examples of Patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabeus, and all the illustrious princes, captains, and prophets among the Jews!”

Even before the establishment of the United States on July 4, 1776, Dr. Rush saw in “Maccabeus” — that is, in Judah Maccabee and the Hasmonean campaign he led against Seleucid Greek oppressors — an inspiring model for American patriotism and our own struggle for freedom and independence.

Chanukah 2015 marks not only the anniversary of the Hasmonean victory, but also an important (if much neglected) centennial anniversary in American Jewish history. It was precisely 100 years ago, on Chanukah 1915, just six months before he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, that the renowned jurist and American Zionist leader Louis B. Brandeis distributed this message:

“As part of the eternal world-wide struggle for democracy, the struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal world-wide interest. It is a struggle of the Jews today, as well as in which all Americans, non-Jews as well as Jews, should be vitally interested because they are vitally affected.”

Brandeis was the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court, and many consider him to be one of the Court’s greatest champions of free speech and the right to privacy. Like Benjamin Rush before him, Brandeis understood that the Maccabean revolt and its celebration on Chanukah (which he called “the Feast of the Maccabees”) has profound significance for all Americans: “not a military victory only; but a victory also of the spirit over things material … a victory of democracy over aristocracy.”

The Flag Code of the United States does not recognize Chanukah as an American holiday, nor should it. The First Amendment, which has rendered the entire “Code” of customary significance only, would seem to preclude it. However, historically attentive and spiritually sensitive American Jews — after the worthy example of Benjamin Rush, M.D., and Justice Louis Brandeis — should recognize an instructive nexus between the observance of Chanukah and the expression of amor patriae — love of country.

The treatment of Chanukah in the Flag Code notwithstanding, there could be no more American a holiday. This Chanukah we will celebrate the ancient glory of the Maccabees, as we do every year, by lighting the Chanukah menorah. Each night it burns with greater intensity. The prominent display of Chanukah lights fulfills the religious mandate of pirsumei nisa — publicizing the miracle the holiday commemorates. The full impact of Chanukah — and of “Maccabeus” — is even more effectively communicated by the additional, prominent display of the American flag at Jewish homes and institutions each day of the Festival of Lights. Old Glory meets much, much older glory. May our appreciation of this relationship — and of its miraculous nature — also increase with each passing day.


About the Author
Joseph Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.
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