By choosing to display the Israeli and American flags, is my synagogue allowing something foreign and dangerous into my place of worship? Alex Kane, writing in these pages, says yes. I prefer to see these flags as an invitation, not an intrusion.
Accepting the presence of these national symbols doesn’t have to mean a blind surrender or naïve embrace of all they represent. Instead, it can be an opportunity to reflect on how we might transform them into objects worthy of sharing space in the synagogue. Reaffirming that the political has a place in the synagogue — by, among other things, displaying flags — means that I can take ownership of politics, shape it and even exalt it within the religious space.
Jews have a long and fraught history of mixing politics with worship. For millennia, we have prayed for the governments that have ruled over us. The tensions in this practice are hinted at in a Mishnah, written in the first few centuries of the Common Era: “Rabbi Chaninah the deputy High Priest said: Pray for the welfare of the kingdom, for were it not for the fear it creates, people would swallow each other alive.”
At times, these prayers were probably a preemptive defense against accusations that the Jews were a fifth column. At other times and in other places, they have been heartfelt expressions of religious gratitude for a country that has allowed Jews to thrive and worship freely. And there have certainly been occasions when these prayers have been critical and aspirational: a hope that the government of the day might begin to cleave closer to Jewish values of mercy and tolerance.
So the political wellbeing of the state has a well-established place in the synagogue. Prayers for Israel date back even longer, and these prayers have formed a central part of the liturgy since liturgy was created. After all, when Jews bow in the synagogue, we are not traditionally bowing toward the Torah, the ark, or the national flags that may or may not flank it; we are bowing toward Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
Flags, then, are not the first intrusions of nation-state or Israel politics into the sanctuary. To me, they are a manifestation of those prayers that have been heard for centuries. They are encrusted with the diverse meanings given to this liturgy over the history of Diaspora Jewry.
Nevertheless, the introduction of flags into the synagogue has been, and continues to be, controversial. Kane refers to the debates around this practice within the Reform community, but it’s also worth noting how the debate has played out within Orthodoxy. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, possibly the preeminent legal authority for Orthodox Americans in the last century, grappled with the issue of flags in the synagogue and devoted a responsum to it in 1956.
Interestingly enough, Feinstein engages with the same points that Kane says worry Rabbi Brant Rosen, the leader of the non-Zionist congregation in Chicago. Both are concerned about the flags being somehow idolatrous, and they’re critical of the idea that nationalist symbols can or should be given religious weight. Feinstein, unlike Rosen, dismisses the suggestion that the flag will be worshipped. For him, a flag is devoid of spiritual content or importance. It cannot taint the synagogue because it is simply dwarfed by the holiness of the space.
But it is the flags’ secular nature that leads Feinstein to conclude that while they are not forbidden, their presence in the synagogue is inappropriate. Strikingly, he refers to the flags — American and Israeli — as “vapid nonsense.” From his standpoint, a synagogue might as well hang the jersey of their favorite hockey team next to the Torah. Jersey or flag, these are wholly secular symbols that have no place, and no meaning, in the sanctuary. Ultimately, he ruled that while inappropriate, the flags should not be removed on religious grounds if doing so would cause problems within the community.
Feinstein’s words, written over half a century ago, resonate with me today. First of all, they remind me that the presence of the flags in the sanctuary should not be taken for granted or go unquestioned. Debates about nationalism in the synagogue have gotten more polarized, and too often the bimah becomes a bully pulpit. We would all do well to remember that a major American Jewish leader whose teachings the Orthodox community continues to obey was not only opposed to, but also outwardly disdainful of, the American and Israeli flags. It is even possible that Feinstein would have changed his ruling if the flag itself, and not its removal, were dividing the community.
At the same time, I question whether those opposing the flags today would agree with Feinstein’s belief in strictly separating politics from the sanctuary. Personally, I have never understood the desirability, nor the possibility, of such a distinction. To me, there is no better place than a synagogue for the Jewish community to debate and manifest our political ideals. Some of these ideals, like civil rights, feminism and pluralism, have been successfully interwoven into many synagogues. This is how I understand the meaning of a “living Torah” whose timeless lessons can interpenetrate any issue, political or otherwise.
And if politics do belong in the sanctuary, then I would ask those who oppose the placing of flags by the bimah one final question. Feinstein was certain that no flag could ever have the power to diminish the sanctity of the synagogue; why are you so convinced that the opposite is true?
Worrying that the flag will poison the Torah suggests a profound insecurity in the power of Jewish values to adequately respond to the challenges posed by the world around us. In my practice, I find that Jewish tradition is more than up to this task.
Menachem Freedman is a former yeshiva student, sharpshooter and director of the Ghetto Shul. He currently works in human rights law in Toronto. All opinions expressed are strictly his own.