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Loyalty 

 

Dear Friends,

 

I remember as a teenager, in Religious School and in youth group, we used to debate whether you were a Jewish American or an American Jew. We were challenged to think about the primacy of our loyalty; Are you first and foremost a Jew who happens to live in the United States, or are you an American, who happens to be Jewish? Theoretical debates in the context of a youth group event is one thing; having your loyalty publicly questioned by the President of the United States is another.

 

The word “loyalty” carries with it tremendous implications and historical gravity for Jews. For centuries, we Jews have been accused of a lack of loyalty to the nation in which we live. No matter how long we lived in a country, or the extent of our military participation, or the role we played in government and the wider society, there were those who questioned our loyalty. Anti-Semitic tropes have claimed that Jews have greater loyalty to the Jewish people and, since 1948, to the state of Israel than the nations in which we lived. This claim of disloyalty or secondary loyalty has led to persecution against Jews for centuries.

So, when President Trump used these words earlier this week, he was using language which resonates deeply within our hearts and minds as Jews. While it was not immediately clear what disloyalty the President was alluding to, he later clarified that he was suggesting that Jews who vote for Democratic candidates are “being disloyal to the Jewish people and … very disloyal to Israel.”

I am secure in my loyalty to the United States as a public school educated, tax-paying, voting citizen who participates in the wider community.

I am also secure in my loyalty to the State of Israel. Having lived there twice for a year each, and visited over a dozen times, sent my children there multiple times, supported it financially, spoken about it publicly, studied its history, language, culture - I think that I am good.

Finally, as a rabbi, I think I can feel reasonably good about my loyalty to the Jewish people.

To call into question my loyalties because we differ in opinion is an insult; but not one that I am losing any sleep over. My concern is a broader one.

As I have said before, I do not believe that President Trump is an anti-Semite, but, as David Harris of the American Jewish Committee said, he is wandering in places where anti-Semites can think that he is and that gives them leeway. The vagueness of his remark allows others who do not listen with a critical ear to thinkthat Jews are disloyal. In situations like this, leaders need to ask if we are contributing to or are we tamping down on the divisive rhetoric.

 

In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, we are reminded, once again, "If you obey these rules and observe them carefully, Adonai your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors:" (Deuteronomy 7:12) For a few thousand years, the Jewish people have had a covenant with God, and for the next several weeks of Torah readings, we will be reminded of the importance of staying loyal to that covenant. As Reform Jews, our understanding of that covenant is not so black and white. While we may not fulfill the letter of the laws, we stay loyal to the spirit of those laws.

However, today it’s actually not onlyabout loyalty. As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Josh Weinberg (whom I also quoted last Shabbat) wrote: “It’s about taking our fate and destiny into our own hands, using our strength, affluence, and intellect to right society’s wrongs and do what we can to make the world a better place. Any individual who bothers us with questions of loyalty to them or a specific party is just a distraction from our mission. Nearly a half-century ago the famed Rav Joseph Soloveitchik summed this up quite succinctly:

A Jew who participates in the suffering of his nation and its fate, but does not join in its destiny, which is expressed in a life of Torah and mitzvot, destroys the essence of Judaism and injures his own uniqueness. By the same token, a Jew who is observant but does not feel the hurt of the nation, and who attempts to distance himself from Jewish fate, desecrates his Jewishness.”

(Kol Dodi Dofek, based on Rambam's Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:11)

 

  1. and faithfulness have their place. We as Jews can and should be proud of who we are, of our tradition and our age-old civilization. But pride does not equal blind faith and loyalty today is earned through ideas and inspiration, not through demands or threats. We’ve had our loyalty to rulers tested time and again from Pharaoh to Ahasuerus, to medieval kings and lords, to Napoleon’sGreat Sanhedrin, through 1950s McCarthyism... In today’s world, it is about loyalty to one another and to our mission of building the Jewish people and the Jewish State; to use our strength and our will to make the world a better place.”

 

But, if you really want to know to what I am loyal, let me tell you:

I am loyal to God, who guides my morality through the Torah as read through Jewish tradition.

I am loyal to my family with unconditional love.

I am loyal to America even when and particularly when I criticize America for not upholding God's values.

I am loyal to the Jewish people as my people, even when and particularly when I criticize the Jewish people when they stray from God's values.

I am loyal to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and a refuge for the downtrodden, even when and particularly when I criticize Israel when she strays from God's values.

My loyalty is to God. Anything else is idolatry. So, it seems fitting to end with a prayer to God:

 

  1. v'Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, our God and God of our ancestors. Bless and guide our nation. May it always be a stalwart of justice, freedom, and compassion. Implant within the leaders who serve our communities, our states and at the highest levels of power, intentions and actions that fulfill Your greatest ideals for our nation. With intent, we pray that all our citizens be brought together to live the values embodied in the words of your Torah and the instructions of the many generations of our teachers. We ask that speedily and in our day we see a time when all the residents of our country are free from any form of discrimination, bigotry or baseless isolation. We yearn for the time we will all meet the highest of our noble national intentions. Help us also to be the instruments of your goodness and creators of peace in this land and across the world. Let us say Amen.
  2.  

- Rabbi Alan Litwak 

 

 

Sat, August 20 2022 23 Av 5782