Hatikvah and The Star-Spangled Banner

RR21 no. 5758.10


Hatikvah and The Star-Spangled Banner



  1. Of Flags and Anthems. Reform responsa have not spoken to the issue of national anthems at religious services. There does exist, however, a line of decisions with respect to the placement of national flags in the synagogue sanctuary and on the bimah. Flags, to be sure, are not a perfect analogy to national anthems. A flag is an item of synagogue ornamentation, usually a permanent presence, while an anthem tends to be sung only on occasion, in connection with a particular religious observance. Still, they are similar to the extent that they raise the issue of our spiritual and emotional attachment to our own country and to the state of Israel, the way in which these attachments can take on religious significance for us, and the potential conflicts that these attachments are said to involve.

Writing in 1954, R. Israel Bettan[1] permitted the placement of the American flag in an American synagogue on the grounds that in Judaism, devotion to the welfare of ones’s country, as expressed through the prayers we recite on behalf of the government, “has long assumed the character of a religious duty.” Far from being a secular intrusion into the world of religion, “the presence of the American flag…may well serve to strengthen in us the spirit of worship… (partaking) of the sanctity of our religious symbols.” As the emblem of a foreign state, meanwhile, an Israeli flag would be “quite out of place in an American synagogue.” A congregation might display an Israeli flag only on those occasions specified by US Army regulations and civilian practice which govern “the display of any national flag other than our own”: to honor a visiting dignitary of a foreign land, or in observance of some notable anniversary (such as Yom Ha`atzma’ut) of that land.

R. Bettan’s view contrasts sharply with an Orthodox perspective dating from 1957 by R. Moshe Feinstein,[2] who regards all national flags as purely secular symbols possessing no religious value whatsoever. Indeed, he calls them “nonsense” (hevel veshetut), which by rights should not be placed in the sanctuary. This is particularly true of the flag of Israel, a state founded by nonobservant Jews (resh`aim) who in Feinstein’s view had abandoned the path of Torah. On the other hand, since the presence of the flags does not violate a ritual prohibition and does not invalidate the synagogue as a place of prayer, the congregation is not required to remove them, especially if to do so would be the cause of needless dissension (machloket) among its members.

A 1977 responsum[3] by this Committee, permitting the display of an Israeli flag in an American Reform synagogue, effectively reversed the Bettan decision. It is true, the Committee wrote, that we recite prayers in the synagogue for the welfare of the country in which we live. It is also true, however, that Jews have long prayed for the return to the land of Israel and the re-establishment there of Jewish national life. Thus, “the flags of the United States and Israel on a pulpit might be said to symbolize the prayers which have always been said in the synagogue.” The flag of Israel, moreover, is dominated by the six-pointed Star of David, which “is now commonly recognized as a symbol of Jews and Judaism throughout the world.” Since “there is no clear distinction between Jews and Judaism, between our religious and our national aspirations,” the display of this Jewish national symbol cannot be objectionable on Judaic religious grounds. This does not mean that the flag must be displayed. As the responsum noted, our synagogues have varying policies on this matter, so that “in any case, both the loyalty of our communities to the United States and our common concern for Israel are clear with or without the placement or possession of flags.”

In its most recent statement,[4] this Committee reaffirmed the 1977 decision: the national flag serves as an expression of a religiously legitimate devotion which may be expressed, should the congregation so choose, by placing the flag in the sanctuary. It also made explicit that our national flag is not a religious symbol and therefore should not be described as such. We therefore put a firm if respectful distance between ourselves and the tone of Rabbi Bettan’s responsum: “we are properly suspicious of rhetoric equating ‘God and King’ or ‘God and Country.’” Such talk, we wrote, may not meet the technical definition of “idolatry,”[5] but the historical experience of the last several decades leads us to associate the language of uncritical nationalism with such disturbing phenomena as chauvinism, racism, and ethnic intolerance. In stressing the secular–that is, religiously neutral–nature of political nationhood, the responsum adopts a view resembling that of R. Feinstein on that issue. On the other hand, “our acceptance of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship,[6] our devotion to the prophetic ideals of social justice, and our love for the state of Israel imply a more positive disposition toward national flags than that assumed by R. Feinstein. We care deeply about the welfare of our societies; their symbolic representations must not be dismissed as ‘nonsense.’”

These responsa speak not only to the specific issue of national flags but also to the more general one of patriotism, of our sense of commitment to our own countries and to the state of Israel. Our observations on this larger issue, of which the question of national flags is but a concrete manifestation, may be summarized as follows:

a. Since Jews have always “prayed for the welfare” of the government, it is appropriate for us to express our love and concern for our country in a concrete way as part of our synagogue ritual.

b. The nation, its government, and the symbols representing them are secular rather than religious matters. We are under no obligation to bring these symbols into our synagogues or insert them into our religious practice. In any event, our loyalty to and concern for our country are beyond doubt even should we choose not to incorporate its national rituals into our buildings or services.

c. The state of Israel is the political embodiment of the age-old Jewish dream of national redemption, a dream which we have expressed in our prayers for two millennia. The survival and welfare of the Jewish state are therefore matters of our utmost religious as well as political concern. It follows that the symbols of the Israeli state are not simply Israeli symbols; they reflect and convey a powerful Jewish meaning to us. Should we choose to display the Israeli flag in our synagogues, we do not thereby declare political allegiance to the Israeli state; we rather affirm that the Jewish ideas and ideals which that flag symbolizes are present in the religious life of our community.

  1. Hatikvah: The National Anthem of a “Foreign” State? Given the above, we find it entirely permissible for a Reform congregation in the Diaspora to sing Hatikvah at a worship service or other event. Like the flag of Israel, Hatikvah is not simply the national symbol of the Israeli state but the long-standing anthem of the Jewish national movement. It thus expresses, quite literally, our hope for the restoration of our people to Zion, which we have seen is a central and quite legitimate theme of Reform Jewish worship. And just as our loyalty and love for our own countries are not called into question when we display the Israeli flag, they remain open and obvious as well when we sing Hatikvah, whether or not we accompany it with our own national anthem.

The objection raised by the vice-president of this congregation, we might add, seems based upon an ideology which we categorically reject. Yes, it is technically the case that Israel is a “foreign” country and that Hatikvah is its anthem. Yet to conceive of Israel solely in this manner is to define our Judaism in a way that is surely foreign to us. Let us consider an illustration. Were our community to host the ambassador of, say, the Czech Republic, it would be proper to honor him or her with the playing of the Czech national anthem, which by common custom would be followed with our own. Such is proper behavior in the presence of a representative of a foreign state. But when we sing Hatikvah, we do not do so in order to show respect for or loyalty to a foreign political entity. We do it because Hatikvah celebrates the symbolic role of the state of Israel in defining our religious and cultural identity as Jews, not our political identity as Israelis. As Jews, we are am yisrael, the Jewish people, rather than simply Americans or Canadians of the Mosaic persuasion. Eretz yisrael, the land of Israel, is the homeland of this people. And medinat yisrael, the state of Israel, is the political structure through which this people unites to give concrete expression to its national existence. Hatikvah, like the flag of Israel, is to us a powerful representation of that nexus of meanings.

The Reform movement in North America has long recognized these facts of contemporary Jewish identity, and we have time and again expressed that recognition through our acknowledgment of the religious significance of the Zionist movement and of the state of Israel. The Columbus Platform of 1937 declared that “in the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.” The Centenary Perspective of 1976 notes that “we are bound to that land and to the newly reborn State of Israel by innumerable religious and ethnic ties… We see it providing unique opportunities for Jewish self-expression. We have both a stake and a responsibility in building the State of Israel, assuring its security and defining its Jewish character.” Our most recent and comprehensive statement is the “Platform on Reform Religious Zionism,” adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1997.[7] In that document, we proclaim that the establishment of the state of Israel “after nearly two thousand years of statelessness and powerlessness represents an historic triumph of the Jewish people.” Israel “is therefore unlike all other states… (serving) uniquely as the spiritual and cultural focal point of world Jewry.” Yom Ha`atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, has been established as “a permanent annual festival in the religious calendar of Reform Judaism,”[8] and our prayerbook contains a liturgy for Yom Ha`atzma’ut.[9] We consider it “a mitzvah for every Jew to mark Yom Ha-Atsma-ut by participation in public worship services and/or celebrations which affirm the bond between the Jews living in the Land of Israel and those living outside.”[10] Those services and celebrations have become the norm, the accepted minhag in our congregations and communities.

Israel, in other words, is emphatically not a “foreign” country to us. It may not be the sovereign entity of which we are citizens and to which we owe our political allegiance. But it is, in the most deeply Jewish sense, our own, in our devotion to its well-being and in our identification with the history and experience that its national symbols represent.

We may therefore sing Hatikvah at our religious services, whether or not we choose to accompany it with our own national anthems.


  1. American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 21, pp. 64-66.
  2. Resp. Igerot Moshe, OC I, no. 46.
  3. ARR, no. 22, pp. 66-68.
  4. Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN), no. 5753.8, 29-34.
  5. See ibid. at p. 30, citing BT Rosh Hashanah 24b.
  6. We stress “citizenship” for a reason. It is quite possible that the age-old tradition of praying for the welfare of the government originated not out of love of country and fellow-feeling with its other inhabitants, but rather out of the desire to demonstrate our loyalty to a skeptical regime and to protect ourselves against an all-too-often hostile population. As citizens of our countries, we are active and equal participants in its democratic governance. “Our” country today is truly ours, in a way that our ancestors could never claim for the nations in whose midst they resided.
  7. Published along with its Hebrew text (Hayahadut hareformit vehatziyonut) in CCAR Yearbook 106 (1997), 49-57.
  8. CCAR Yearbook 80 (1970), 39.
  9. Gates of Prayer, 590-611.
  10. Gates of the Seasons (New York: CCAR, 1983), 102.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.