Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What, exactly, am I pledging allegiance to?

I apologize, but this post is really more punditry than Jewish teaching.  Although, if you'd like, I can probably find some way to tie it back to Judaism, pretty easily.  Anyway…

My son’s school begins each day by assembling around the outdoor flagpole (weather permitting, of course) and saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and the national anthems of America and Israel.  Because my son goes to school on the same campus as my synagogue, I'm the one who drives him to school every day, and so I start my day off with the pledge and anthems, too. 

Lately, for some reason, I've found myself struggling with the opening lines of the pledge.  “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” Why “the flag”?  What does it mean to pledge allegiance to a flag, exactly?

Let me be clear about something: I am patriotic.  I love America.  Despite some areas in which I definitely think America could do better (after six years in Canada, I really can't see very many arguments against Universal Health Care, for example), I'd argue that, on the whole, we live in the best country in the world.  And so, I don't have any problem with pledging allegiance to America (blind allegiance would be, of course, a different story).

And, I don't have a problem with flags, per se. As a religious Jew, and a Rabbi, I'm very comfortable with the idea of symbols.  I think that they're an important part of religious (and quasi-religious) systems.

But maybe, as I'm thinking about it, the problem is not with the symbol, but rather with the elevation of the symbol to an icon.  Forgetting that the symbol is supposed to point us at something greater, and not be the focus of our attention, or adoration, itself.

I promise, I really thought this was an idle, pundit–like post.  But, I've only just now realized that, in fact, it really is about religion.  And maybe that's why I've been thinking about the Pledge so much even though, deep down, I don't really care all that much about it.  Maybe this is just one small example of a larger problem, about which I often complain (sometimes, even, on this very blog).  About the very human tendency to focus on the details of religion, over and against the larger ideals.  On the ongoing inclination to turn our symbols into idols.  To, in the words of Heschel, focus on Religion, and to forgot to focus on religion.  That is, to worry about our institutions, often at the expense of the very values to which those institutions are supposed to be dedicated.

I'm not going to make a big fuss about this.  I'm not going to begin campaigning for a change in the text of the Pledge.  I'm not going to boycott morning flagpole with Ben.  I just don't have the time, or energy, to bother.  But, I have a feeling that, from now on, when I recite those words, I'll be reminding myself that I really don't pledge allegiance to the flag.  I only pledge allegiance to the important things.


msands said...

More than idle (idol?) punditry to be sure, and actually something very much worth thinking about. Heschel's admonition to focus on "religion" (by which I assume, having never read him, he means something like higher notions of "faith") over institutional/doctrinal "Religion" should be very well taken. Take this for whatever it's worth, but in my "outsider looking in" experience -- and admittedly with "Religions" other than Judaism -- it's an admonition honored as often (if not more) in the breach than the observance. Some "r/Religions" seem to me to be entirely inseparable in this respect.

With respect to the Pledge of Allegiance itself, I suppose there might be an argument that the bit about "to the flag..." is in there for prosody or poetic meter purposes as much as anything.... And of course, my issues with the Pledge have more to do with the two words added in 1954 than anything to do with the flag.


Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Mike - you're right on about Heschel, and what he was getting at. All religions are (hopefully) trying to be useful tools by which we get at something more profound. Too often (and Judaism is as guilty as any), we let the means become the end. The institutions become more important than the principles. We can all think of a million examples - it's in the news constantly. The trick is to have people around who will call you on it, and to have leaders who, at least some of the time, will admit when they've gone wrong. Easy to say; far harder to do!