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.]