Dear TEE Community,
This weekend many of us will be marking American Independence Day in some way, whether by going on a picnic, watching fireworks, gathering with family and friends, or just taking time off from work. Few of us will think of it as a holiday in the sense of being a holy time, like Shabbat or Rosh HaShanah. But I would like to encourage you to consider the Fourth of July as the American equivalent of Shavuot – a sacred occasion marking a covenant among diverse people, forming them into a nation. In addition to the food and fireworks, Independence Day can be an opportunity to reflect on and discuss what it means to be an American, to seek ways to deepen our connections with those who share our nationality if not our neighborhood, and consider how we might uphold and increase what we value about our country.
Coming of age during the Vietnam War, I felt deeply ambivalent about the concept of patriotism. Those who supported the war used the American flag and other national symbols as an expression of their viewpoint: “Love America or leave it.” Loving America, in this context, meant agreeing with their definition of patriotism. On the other hand, I was deeply influenced by Saul Alinsky, a founder of the community organizing movement, who argued that progressives were expressing true American values and shouldn’t let the right wing claim the mantel of the flag and patriotism.
It wasn’t until I spent several years living outside of the United States, first in Israel and later in England, that I came to terms with the idea of loving my country. In part, this was a realization that the longer I lived abroad, the less at home I felt because there were aspects of being American that were just different and that I missed. It was also an understanding that people are no better and no worse anywhere in the world. Living and traveling outside of the US I heard frequent disparagements of Americans as too loud or uneducated or boorish in some way or another. Eventually I realized that the same could be said of some subsection of any group of people and that there were also American qualities I valued, such as optimism and enthusiasm.
Most importantly, I learned that patriotism isn’t a contest. Loving my country doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t love theirs. Valuing my own culture does not have to be based on denigrating another. In that sense, I distinguish patriots from nationalists as the difference between those who think everyone can believe their country is best for them as opposed to those who think that their country or culture has to be best for everyone.
As a Jew, I believe strongly in the idea that commitment to a relationship – whether with a person, a community, or a country – involves acknowledging differences and disagreement. Like our biblical ancestors, the founders of the United States were imperfect people who were unable to create a society fully aligned with their values of equality and human dignity. Like us, they were limited by the understandings of their time.
As our American story has become more inclusive of previously marginalized voices, we have become more aware of the disparity between the vision of democracy and its reality. Part of our Independence Day observances must also be a recognition of that history. Just as contemporary Jews have gone beyond the Bible and Talmud to include the wisdom of women, LGBTQ+, Jews of Color and other excluded groups, we need to add to our American canon as well. This Independence Day, in addition to reading the Declaration of Independence, I suggest you also read a text that is a significant (if insufficiently acknowledged) part of Rochester history, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass at Corinthian Hall on July 5, 1852, or listen to James Earl Jones reading excerpts from that same speech.
During our Shabbat services this week we will be studying a part of the Declaration of Independence from a Jewish perspective and asking some of these questions about what it means to be an American. I hope you will join us.
Rabbi Drorah Setel