>(This article was originally published in the Jewish News on the 11th November 2010)
At this time of year, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, poppies can be seen everywhere. It becomes a part of the uniform for everyone involved in public life and appearing on the media. And across the country many people will not leave the house without first affixing a poppy to their lapel. There is something very compelling about the way in which this campaign unites British society as we remember those people who gave their lives to protect this country and the values Britain upholds.
On the 11th November 1918, The Great War, as it was then known, came to an end as the armistice between Germany and the Allies came into effect. This moment marked the end of a war which had raged for over four years and claimed millions of lives on battlefields across Europe. In the fields of Northern France and Flanders after the guns had fallen silent there was a barren wasteland, on which the poppy was one of the only plants growing.
The wearing of a poppy is usually traced back to two poems. The Canadian military doctor, John McCrae wrote the famous poem In Flanders Field, which contained the moving line: ‘We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields’. In response to that poem the American Moira Michael wrote We Shall Keep the Faith, in which she committed: ‘And now the torch and poppy red we wear in honor of our dead’.
As Jews we are well aware of the importance of remembering. In the Tanach, the verb for remember, zachor, appears 169 times. We are constantly being commanded by God to remember. We are told to ‘remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt’, ‘remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’, and ‘remember the days of old’. We know the importance of memory, and when we participate in the ceremony and symbols of Remembrance Day we participate in the national memory, we remember together with all other members of British society.
In the Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 367, we are told that we should bury the non-Jewish dead, and comfort their mourners, so that we follow the ways of peace. Even then the responsa literature recognised that we did not live in an exclusively Jewish society, and that within this context we have an obligation to all members of society. In this situation, we mourn together with the members of the society in which we live. On Remembrance Day all of British society is united in mourning regardless of religion, and the poppy is an outward symbol of this.
If one were looking for reasons to be concerned about wearing the poppy, one might want to consider it in the context of the laws of hukkat ha-goi (laws or customs of the gentiles). The interpretation of Vayikra 20:23 ‘And you shall not walk in the manners of the nation’ means that we are forbidden from following customs which are associated with idolatrous practices or form a part of non-Jewish religious ritual. However, the poppy is a symbol which has no religious context, it is a national symbol, and as such it is not prohibited by this law.
During this time of year I am proud to wear my poppy as a member of British society and as a member of the British Jewish community. When I wear the poppy I think about the millions of men and women who gave their lives defending Britain and the values which Britain represents. I think about the fact that I am privileged to be a Jew in a society where I am free to practice my religion, and I remember that this is a privilege which has been defended and fought for by others who came before me, the vast majority of whom were not Jewish, but their sacrifice has given me, and others, religious freedom. And I am proud of the Jewish servicemen and women who stood shoulder to shoulder with all other members of British society answering the call to defend Britain and making the ultimate sacrifice.