I remember the day Jen and I first expanded our family. Just a few months before our wedding we decided to get a dog. We went to the Memphis Humane Society and selected this beautiful Chow mix with a red mane and glassy eyes who just stole our hearts. We imagined taking her home, her sitting at our feet, obeying our every command, and never barking except to warn us about an intruder. She was going to be the perfect dog, loyal and obedient in every way. Well, the next day, I went by myself to sign the adoption papers. They gave me a simple rope leash, and as soon as I took it in my hand, she started to pull in every direction but forward. My shoulder rotated at angles it wasn’t designed for, and then I switched hands and she ran through my legs wrapping me up like a lassoed steer. I finally got her to the car, pushed her in, and she jumped out the window on the other side and led me on a chase all over midtown Memphis. After I finally wrangled her back to the car, covered in sweat and out of breath, I took her home. Soon it was time to name her. That night, Jen and I sat across the room from our new dog. She lay down against the wall, as far from us as she could be. She gave us a skeptical look. One name was instantly ruled out. Fido. It was too cliché anyway. Fido, as you know, means loyal, and that is a trait we associate with dogs. However, this dog had disabused me of that myth. She was anything but Fido. She did look like a lion, so we named her Nala.
Thinking back on Nala, and our first days with her, I have learned some important lessons about loyalty.
I expected loyalty because Nala should have been grateful for being released from the humane society. However, she had not had the best experience with people in the past, and so her trust would have to be earned.
I expected loyalty because we gave her food. But she had some food aggression early on. It would take time before she would learn to trust that we were not going to take it away from her
I expected loyalty because that is just what dogs do, but if we did not exercise our duty of care, to protect her, to bathe her, to walk her, and look after her health, then she would never give her loyalty to us.
Now Nala was a particularly stubborn dog, a typical trait of the Chow breed. I always say, she was not a dog that we trained, but rather a dog with which we reached an agreement. Over time she became a loyal, faithful member of the family. But that trust was earned over time.
With people, of course, it is different, but there are similarities. Loyalty should never be taken for granted. Loyalty is earned over repeated, positive interactions which build trust, and which make us feel safe. This is especially true in situations where there is a power differential. The person with power might expect blind loyalty by virtue of their position, but if they are abusive towards others, trample on their values, or continually degrade the people whom they lead, then loyalty is at best, a charade. At worst that loyalty is coerced through fear. True loyalty is earned through mutual respect.
This past week, the President of the United States questioned the loyalty of American Jews, specifically the nearly 80% who vote Democrat. This is nothing new, for Jews to be accused of disloyalty. It is an age-old anti-Semitic trope that we are mysterious others, with exotic practices, who cannot be trusted. Feeding into this idea, the President simultaneously questioned our loyalty to our country, our loyalty to each other, and our loyalty to the State of Israel. Presumably, he believes that anyone who does not agree with his policy stances is disloyal because he sees himself as the ultimate representation of America and as the greatest Defender of Israel in history. The President expects loyalty by virtue of his position, like we all should be grateful dogs looking for a treat. He expects that we should all just fall in line even though his opinions are debatable, and his policies, in the eyes of many, do not represent the best of American values or of Israeli values. Of course there are many who are happy with his decisions and his support for Prime Minister Netanyahu. But to disagree with them, or to believe there is a better way, is not disloyal. To voice our disagreement is an expression of loyalty– loyalty to something bigger than men who happen to be in seats of power
To understand the expectations of loyalty in America, we can look to the the oath of allegiance taken by immigrants who become naturalized citizens. While few of us have taken this oath, it is very much worth knowing the words, and hearing what is included in it. It is likewise important to hear what is not included. It says:.
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
To whom does one swear allegiance in America? Notice the absence of any elected office, especially the absence of the word President. So to whom do we owe our loyalty. It’s actually not to a “whom.” Our loyalty goes to a “what.” That what is the Constitution. The Constitution is the Law of the Land, and by swearing allegiance to it, a citizen pledges to be governed by the rule of law. If you look into the sample questions on the United States naturalization and immigration website, it will say that implicit in the rule of law is that nobody is above the law. That means, under no circumstance does anyone, at any time, for any reason, have to pledge loyalty to a person, not even to the President. Expecting such loyalty would be absurd, especially with our two party system. No one has to pledge allegiance to the person they did not vote for. They merely accept that another person or party will be the appointed stewards of the Constitution. Even if they voted for the winner, the duty of allegiance never changes. Allegiance is owed to the higher ideals of law. In fact, to expect our loyalty to elected leaders is to invert the order of things. As caretakers of the law, they should be working to please us, to seek our approval, and not the other way around.
As to whom we owe our loyalty as Jews, as far back as biblical times, loyalty was reserved for God. That loyalty was represented through observance of the laws as laid out in the Torah. Even during the time when there was a king in Israel, that king never ruled as anything more than a designated governor tasked with administering the law. And the kings were fallible. From the outset, the very notion of having a king was suspect. In fact, in the Book of First Samuel, when the Saul is rising to the position of king, the people cry out that they sinned just by asking to have a king. They seemed to know the potential pitfalls that came with placing a human in a position of such high command. The Prophet Samuel warned them about the threats of corruption:
[A king] will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen… they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons… He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. 14 He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers… 18 The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen;
Still the people persisted, for they desired political leadership and were willing to take the risk. Nevertheless, ingrained in this story is healthy skepticism of kings and their motives. The king was to be, an administrator of the law, and, at the same level same as his subjects, the king was to be answerable to the source of law and life. No one was to be above the law. As far as loyalty was concerned, the king had a solemn responsibility to God and to the people he served. The Book of Samuel even refers to some men who doubted Saul’s worthiness, and in response, Saul made no accusations. No. Instead, he remained silent, knowing he had to earn their trust.
Now, when Saul was anointed as Israel’s King, he did not take a formal oath. He did however receive some warning. This instruction was given by Samuel to the king and to all of Israel:
“If you will revere the LORD, worship Him, and obey Him, and will not flout the LORD’s command, if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, well and good.
And it goes on, “Above all, you must revere the LORD and serve Him faithfully with all your heart; and consider how grandly He has dealt with you. For if you persist in your wrongdoing, both you and your king shall be swept away.”
The people and the king are equally commanded and warned. The only loyalty is to God and law. To make that abundantly clear, the law of the monarchy is established by the Prophet Samuel who acts only at the behest of God. This forever cements the role of the Prophet. The Prophet is the check and balance against government corruption. The Prophet Nathan famously called out King David for killing Uriah and stealing his wife. The Prophet Jeremiah called out King Jeohiakim’s abuses of power to build his palace. The Prophet is the voice of the people who can never be rendered powerless as long as their faith remains. The prophet is the guarantor that loyalty is not pledged to people, but to the highest ideals of justice, equality, and peace as taught in the Torah.
About Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
The prophet was an individual who said no to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions … His fundamental objective was to reconcile man and God… due to man’s false sense of sovereignty, to his abuse of freedom, to his aggressive, sprawling pride…
So, a Jew owes no loyalty to anyone but God. That loyalty is manifest, even for the agnostics and atheists among us, in the way we uphold the highest values of Torah. And an American owes no allegiance to any person who may hold a false sense of sovereignty. Our allegiance is only to the Constitution and for the values of liberty and the pursuit of happiness for which it stands. Furthermore, we owe no loyalty to a leader of the State of Israel, or any foreign prince, potentate, or State. We can hold Israel’s security as a high value, and we can celebrate the wonders of a modern Jewish state, while at the same time acknowledging its flaws and areas for improvement. We can believe that our government and the government of Israel must work harder at upholding the ideals of their founding documents. That does not mean we are abandoning them or being treasonous to either. We are loyal to the ideals, and not to the people currently charged with governance. We have long known that all men are fallible, and no one is above doubt or reproach.
As American Jews, our allegiances to Torah and to the Constitution meld together perfectly, for the Constitution demands nothing antithetical to the practice of Judaism. In fact, the Constitution guarantees every citizen’s right to practice their religion. And the Torah demands of us to comport ourselves in ways that love our neighbors and lead us on paths to peace. They go together. And if ever, the two laws should come into conflict, we have a standing principle called Dina d’malchuta. It is an Aramaic term stating that the law of our country supersedes ritual laws of Judaism. For this reason do state marriage licenses get signed before Ketubahs, the Jewish marriage licenses. For this reason do we first have to report deaths to state organizations and abide by their rules before performing our burial rituals. They do not prevent our Jewish practice. Likewise, Jewish practice does not impede the following of the law in our land.
This is something that has been lost by some in recent conversations. American Jews, or Jewish Americans, have the right to participate in the governing process, each according to their own conscience. Holding on to high ideals, loyalty is not questioned. We may disagree about their application, but that is nothing new among the Jewish people. We have volumes upon volumes of books detailing our disagreements over thousands of years. But at the end of the day, our loyalty cannot be questioned. Kol Yisrael aravin zeh v’zeh. All or Israel is responsible for one another, and we point our loyalty in the same direction, to no man or king, but to the source of life. Likewise, Jewish Americans feel a deep bond with our fellow Americans and in the struggle to create a more perfect union. We have spilled our blood for this country, we have worked for this country, we have served in all branches of government for this country. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist. Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green Party, Northerner, Southerner, Midwesterner, West Coast, East Coast, we are all very much proud and loyal to Judaism and to American, and no one, no man of flesh and blood can question that or take it away.