Every week I write a brief “Rabbi’s Corner” for my synagogue’s weekly e-mail. With the 4th of July this weekend I decided to examine the ideas of and meaning of “Freedom” and “Patriotism”. After a little searching I found a fascinating irony – these two terms holy contested in our perniciously partisan society both have linguistic histories conveying ideas of love and brotherhood.
First, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary the origins of word “Free” are rooted in a context of “love”:
O.E. freo “free, exempt from, not in bondage,” also “noble, joyful,” from P.Gmc. *frijaz (cf. M.H.G. vri, Ger. frei, Du. vrij, Goth. freis “free”), from PIE *prijos “dear, beloved” (cf. Skt. priyah “own, dear, beloved,” priyate “loves;” O.C.S. prijati “to help,” prijatelji “friend;” Welsh rhydd “free”). The adv. is from O.E. freon, freogan “to free, love.” The primary sense seems to have been “beloved, friend, to love;” which in some languages (notably Gmc. and Celtic) developed also a sense of “free,” perhaps from the terms “beloved” or “friend” being applied to the free members of one’s clan (as opposed to slaves, cf. L. liberi, meaning both “free” and “children”). Cf. Goth. frijon “to love;” O.E. freod “affection, friendship,” friga “love,” fri?u “peace;” O.N. fri?r, Ger. Friede “peace;” O.E. freo “wife;” O.N. Frigg “wife of Odin,” lit. “beloved” or “loving;” M.L.G. vrien “to take to wife, Du. vrijen, Ger. freien “to woo.”
The term “Patriot” finds its origins in the word patriote or “fellow countrymen”, though in political terms it evolved into somewhat of an insult:
Meaning “loyal and disinterested supporter of one’s country” is attested from 1605, but became an ironic term of ridicule or abuse from mid-18c. in England, so that Johnson, who at first defined it as “one whose ruling passion is the love of his country,” in his fourth edition added, “It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government.”
“The name of patriot had become [c.1744] a by-word of derision. Horace Walpole scarcely exaggerated when he said that … the most popular declaration which a candidate could make on the hustings was that he had never been and never would be a patriot.” [Macaulay, “Horace Walpole,” 1833]
But the term Patriotism was not always an insult, nor was always used as a political sledgehammer to sell flag pins. According to Harvey Chisick’s Historical Dictionary of the Enlightenment, “patriotism” could be defined as something akin social egalitarianism and justice:
Unlike the situation in the 19th century, when nationalism tended to be exclusive and confrontational, during the 18th century patriotism belonged with such inclusive and cohesive values as humanity and beneficence. In the course of the second half of the 18th century, a person who provided relief for the poor, or objected to excessively harsh penal laws, or who criticized institutions such as serfdom or slavery, was likely to be described as a good patriot.” (p. 314) [emphasis original]
My hope for this 4th of July our nation can look back to the history of these important words not be lost amongst the ever-spiteful partisan rhetoric which continues to divide our country. I hope that we can spread freedom – in all senses – to our fellow citizens of the world and that we remember the message of what it once meant to be a true patriot.
While I’m not optimistic, I am proud to live in a country where I have the freedom to dream.