Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Symbolism Behind Jewish Symbols

Recently I attended a short talk led by Rabbi Sarnoff (formerly of Camp Ramah Wisconsin) on Jewish symbols. He started out by mentioning Chagall's Crucifixion painting (1938) one of a series of paintings in which Chagall shows a Jesus figure on the cross, wearing a tallit. In the White Crucifixion, which hangs at the Art Institute in Chicago, the Christ figure is central, and around the sides Jewish figures mourn for the fate of the Jews, and Nazis march in the upper left. There is also a six-candle menorah at the bottom of the painting.

Chagall was using the symbol of Jesus to try to create empathy in Christian audiences towards the fate of the Jews, by connecting the fate of Jesus, once a Jew, with the plight of the Jews.

Rabbi Sarnoff handed out an excerpt explaining the conflicted background of various Jewish symbols, which one would think have simple provenances. The Magen David is now seen as the universal symbol of Judaism; it's on the Israeli flag, it marks a Jewish grave, a synagogue. But it only became a Jewish national symbol on the 19th century "when Jews of Western Europe were struggling to fend off assimilation into Christianity, that the Magen David was adopted as an answer to the Christian symbol of the cross."

We see that there was much thought put into selecting what would be the symbol of the new State of Israel, a symbol which at the time, was used by nonJews and Jews, and was empty of religious meaning for Jews. In fact, in 14th century Spain the Magen David was expressed as a seven-branched menorah not as a star. In fact, Gershom Scholem wrote an essay attributing the success of the Magen David as a Jewish symbol (rather than the seven-branched menorah) to the Nazis: "Far more than the Zionists have done to provide the Shield of David with the sanctity of a genuine symbol has been done by those who made it for millions into a mark of shame and degradation. The yellow Jewish star, as a sign of exclusion and ultimately of annihilation, has accompanied the Jews on their path of humiliation and horror, of battle and heroic resistance. Under this sign they were murdered; under this sign they came to Israel. . .Some have been of the opinion that the sign, which marked the way to annihilation and to the gas chambers, should be replaced by a sign of life. But it is possible to think quite the opposite: the sign which in our own days has been sanctified by suffering and dread has become worthy of illuminating the path to life and reconstruction." So it is the Nazis who invested the Magen David with power as a symbol of Zionism and Judaism.

Maybe it's the summer weather, and time spent hanging out at the swimming pool, but I've been noticing more religious symbols on people's necks, crosses big and small, lots of hamsas rather than Magen Davids, and I'm wondering why we wear these symbols at all? Are we trying to signal fellowship or solidarity with our fellows of the same faith? Or are we trying to signal something central to our identity to the public at large, ie I am a Jew or a Christian and proud of it? Is it a combination of both? If religion is something we do internally, when we pray to God, or in our homes, when we celebrate holidays and Shabbats with our families, or in our temples or churches, why do we feel the need to externally profess our religion to others at all?

And why does it seem that the hamsa is now a more popular symbol to wear around the Jewish neck than a Magen David?