Sunday, November 8, 2009

Of Rabbis and Poppies and Remembrance Day

I’ve noticed more than a few people walking around with felt poppies attached to their lapels over the past week, in honor of Remembrance Day (November 11). I don’t recall ever seeing this in the US, but upon investigation I have found it to be the standard way to mark Remembrance Day/Veterans Day/Armistice Day in Canada, as well as several other countries.

The question, of course: Will I wear a poppy?

I’m torn on this issue. (No, this is not another semi-serious post about being an American in Canada. This one is serious.)

Why wear it?

1. I believe patriotism to a secular government is an important value for the Jewish community, on levels both moral and pragmatic.

2. Further, as a friend has pointed out, lack of overt patriotism in our institutions may contribute to the delinquency of those few but notorious Jews who violate the laws of the land.

3. I also feel personally patriotic, as I wrote here.

4. And how could one not feel and display gratitude to people who knowingly risked their lives – and lost that gamble – for the sake of fighting Nazism and other scourges? It would seem to me that the Jewish community should produce poppies en masse, and make them mandatory garb.

Further, this is clearly not “chukot akum (the ways of the nations - the Torah prohibits us from emulating the nations around us),” for two reasons:

A. As the Sifri (Devarim 81) points out, the major concern of the prohibition against emulating non-Jewish ways is about being drawn into acting like them, and I would be hard-pressed to apply that to the poppies. (Rashi also introduces the similarly inapplicable concept of superstition in Shabbat 67a.)

B. The halachah is fairly clear that we would not apply the rules of chukot akum to an ornament that is not, in its nature and definition, an irrational חוק. See Rama Yoreh Deah 178:1: This is all prohibited only as far as conduct they practice for the sake of immorality, such as the red clothes their aristocracy wears, and practices they have inaugurated and made into rules for themselves, without reason; there is cause to be concerned for Emorite superstition or idolatry behind these practices. If they have a beneficial practice, though, such as that expert doctors wear a certain garment which signifies their expertise, then one may wear such a garment. Similarly, one may wear garments which are worn for honor or for some other reason.

And yet, and yet…

Overt patriotism is still somewhat “un-cool” in the observant community, perhaps a product of centuries of harm wreaked by a range of governments upon our people, as well as our externally and internally imposed sense of being “other.” Although I have seen many observant Jews around Toronto wearing these decorations, my sense is that they are the minority. (This may change on November 11 itself; we’ll see.)

And then there is the added factor of my role as Rabbi, even sans synagogue. For those who do see the poppies as a sign of assimilation, I would be written off as left-wing, and that would make teaching in those parts of the communities impossible. (And, let’s not deny it – I don’t particularly cherish the possibility of personal unpopularity. I imagine teenagers go through the same thing re: poppies. Peer pressure lives.)

But I do think it's the right thing to do.

So I don’t know what I will do. I'm inclined to wear it... but I'm still mulling.

[Update: In the end, I did wear a poppy on my coat.]


  1. An additional factor that might affect your thinking: I don't know about Canada, but in the UK, poppies are a form of tzedaka - the money given to 'buy' them goes to support soldiers who have been injured in the line of duty and to support the families of soldiers who have been killed.

  2. Kach mkublani mbeit avi abba -Whenever faced with this kind of decision - do the right thing (as you described)

    R'YBS has a piece on why we are makir tov to bnaai adam if all good comes from HKB"H- if we don't show it here eventually we won't show it there.

    Joel Rich

  3. Rav Nevenzahl also has a siha (on seder Sh'mot) based on the Hazal that a lack of gratitude to man leads to eventual lack of recognition to Hashem.

    And I was going to say what Joel Rich's father said; but you already heard it from a better source.

    The Torah requires that we do the Tov and the Yashar. Kohelet tells us that Hashem created us Yashar; then we complicate things.

    I think if you find it unwise to wear the poppy, and you still think it is correct nonetheless, you may want to find some way to encourage hakarat hatov on that day.

  4. The selling and wearing of those poppies has long been observed here in the US also as a way of remembering those who died in service to our country, so that they aren't forgotten. If you wish to see the referent from which it stems, see Dr. John McCrae's ( a Canadian) poem "In Flanders Fields."

    In my opinion, anyone who judges your "frumkeit level" on the basis of whether you are wearing that poppy or not is the one with the problem, not you. It's one way of giving hakoras hatov to those who served, to those who died so that we all may live here with a freedom unprecedented elsewhere in the world.

    Yes, I'm frum, and yes, I'm the wife of a Vietnam vet who served two terms of duty there and b"h came home. For those who did not come home, in Vietnam and elsewhere, I'll wear the poppy and say thank you for what you did for me and mine.

  5. You wrote:
    "For those who do see the poppies as a sign of assimilation, I would be written off as left-wing, and that would make teaching in those parts of the communities impossible."

    In that case, you've already decided, and -- as an admirer from afar -- I lament "aych naphlu gibborim". There will assuredly be other instances of possible right-wing censure, and these will determine your actions more and more.

    As for the poppies, ProfK said it all.

  6. Daniel-
    Good point; thanks.

    Joel, R' Mordechai-
    Thanks; and an interesting suggestion, R' Mordechai.

    Thank you very much for sharing that.

    ProfK, LI Reader-
    With a great deal of respect, I'm not sure I agree with you.
    This really deserves its own post, but let me start the thought here.
    When I deal with people who are to my religious left, I take great care not to offend them. For example: I don't bring up topics that I know will make them uncomfortable. I disagree with them, but I recognize their right to their own point of view, and I try not to build walls between us on those points.
    Why would I not take the same care when dealing with people to my religious right?

  7. Rabbi,
    It's not necessary that you agree with me. But that same statement you made to me that you are not sure you agree with me is not a statement you seem willing to make to those who may be described as falling more to the right of you.

    If I carry your example of the left and right out to its logical conclusion, you can't/won't say anything in disagreement with those to the left, because you wish no machlokes, and they are entitled to their opinions. You can't/won't say anything in disagreement with those to the right, because you wish no machlokes, and they are entitled to their opinions. What happens, however, is that your opinions and views and beliefs get lost in the shuffle between left and right. If left and right are entitled to their opinions, should not "middle" also be entitled to an opinion, without someone pointing fingers? Should not the same courtesy you offer to left and right, of not saying they are wrong-minded, be accorded to you?

  8. Why would I not take the same care when dealing with people to my religious right?
    One should take care, but there comes a point when you have to make a statement

    Joel Rich

  9. ProfK, Joel-
    I understand what you are saying, and it makes sense, but I'm not sure where to draw those lines.
    To a certain extent, as a גר ותושב, I feel like I am really living in someone else's land. This is exacerbated by living in one part of town and 'working' in the beit midrash in a completely different part of town, and spending much of my time giving shiurim all over the place, in other people's institutions.

  10. This iiuc was exactly the point E’ JB Soloveitchik zt”l makes – ger vtoshav anochi imachem – we (as temporary residents and citizens ) have a unique destiny as Jews but are still part and have common cause with the rest of humanity.

    we can't forget the latter, even if many of our bretheren don't value it as they should.
    Joel Rich

  11. I missed the main point, i think. Why is wearing poppies rational and therefore not a violation?

  12. You'll see that it's much the same all the way to and including November 11. The modern Orthodox tend to wear the poppy, while the more Chareidi "Lawrence Ave" crowd won't.

  13. Inquiring Mind, see

    "In late 1914, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were once again ripped open as World War One raged through Europe's heart. Once the conflict was over the poppy was one of the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields.

    "The significance of the poppy as a lasting memorial symbol to the fallen was realised by the Canadian surgeon John McCrae in his poem In Flanders Fields. The poppy came to represent the immeasurable sacrifice made by his comrades and quickly became a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts. It was adopted by The Royal British Legion as the symbol for their Poppy Appeal, in aid of those serving in the British Armed Forces, after its formation in 1921."

  14. Anonymous 2:59 PM-
    Thanks for saving me the trouble of cutting and pasting that.

    Toronto Yid-
    I'm not into the stereotype... especially because it's not accurate. I've seen them south of Lawrence.