by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2005-12-16
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
So the International Red Cross has voted to accept Israel as a member so long as Israel uses a diamond (with a Star inside) as its symbol.
Proper religions like Christianity and Islam will use their Crosses and Crescents but all the rest have to make do with the diamond. Why am I not ecstatic? Obviously because the only honest decision would have been to make everyone do the same thing and use the diamond, and everyone then puts inside it whatever symbol they want. But in a world where international agencies tend to make conflicts worse, I guess I shouldnt be surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.
Symbols are trivial but very dangerous things. For millions of people the cross is a source of comfort and reassurance. But if it has been held over you or your relatives while they were being burnt, raped or slaughtered, then the Cross is a hated symbol of pain and oppression. The same can be said of the Crescent, the Star and Sickle and, of course on a far less comparable level, (except for Iranian Presidential half-wits) the Star of David, the Magen David.
If you are wearing the wrong football shirt in Istanbul there is a serious chance of getting stabbed, and in parts of England having a broken beer bottle shoved in your face. And if you wear a kippa or a hijab in parts of France you run the risk of violence (and sometimes from the same source). Religion, Politics or Sport are all often the excuse for mindless thugs to use violence. In America there is an ongoing debate fuelled by the Christian Right over what symbols for Xmas can or cannot be used and whether religious symbols altogether conflict with Americas separation of State and Religion. In New York the Menorah is almost as ubiquitous as Father Xmas.
If it were just a matter of symbols, frankly I wouldnt be bothered. After all, the Star of David, from a historical Jewish point of view is a totally unimportant and a relatively recent import. It is not mentioned or to be seen in Biblical Judaism. In the Talmud the term is used once only, and then it used not of a shield, but to refer to one the blessings in the daily prayers (Pesachim 107b) and the same goes for later halachic sources.
Im reluctant to say it never appears anywhere in early Jewish decorative motifs (though the swastika does!) because Im not an archaeologist. But I have never seen it on reproductions of decorations of early Jewish buildings and it is not until medieval Prague that it appears in synagogues.
My own view is that as a variation of the magical symbol, the Pentangle, it was forced on medieval Jews as a symbol when they were made to identify themselves with some external sign. As they were accused of being league with witches and devils, this was foisted upon them and, in turn, they transformed it into a badge of honour. Others argue it found its way into Judaism as a kabbalistic symbol. Given that much of medieval Kabbalah was imported from astrology and alchemy, its not farfetched.
But then why associate it with King David? Just as oppressed Jews invented the Super Hero myth of the Golem, who would rampage and destroy the enemies of the Jews, so they yearned for a Super Hero, a King David and his legions of fighting men to come to their rescue. And in time secular Zionism, in need of a symbol, preferred this less obviously religious symbol to the more traditional Menorah.
Historically, the real Jewish symbol was the Seven Branched Menorah (not to be confused with the Eight Branches we use on Chanuka). The Menorah was a symbol of peace, of Heavenly presence. In the Tabernacle and in the two Temples the eternal light was the western light on the Menorah that was kept burning perpetually. And in Zechariahs famous imagery it is a symbol not of human physical force but of spiritual strength.
Interestingly the Menorah was and is also the official symbol of the Jewish State. So whats all this about the Magen David? It is in effect the symbol of Jewish physical strength! But is that really a Jewish value? It is true, once upon a time we took on the worlds toughest armies. In Roman times Jews were known as the best mercenaries. In the Arabian Peninsula once, Jewish tribes were the fiercest and, of course, nowadays we can take care of ourselves! But what is our natural state?
Jacob is described as A Simple Man. But he was hardly simple and neither was he a wimp! After all he single-handed rolled a huge boulder off the mouth of a well, he faced off Laban and his sons, battled with an aggressive angel and stood up to Esav. He was certainly capable of defending himself. But he was a complete man, not one sided. He could be as peaceful and as sensitive as he could fight if necessary.
The sort of strength I admire is the strength that knows when to be soft. And that is the real strength of Israel and the symbolism of the Menorah, not the reliance on magic or total physicality. Which is, of course, why the Talmud does not glorify Judah Macabees military victories, but instead the spirit that kept a religious flame alive.
The Star of David means nothing to me religiously 'though it does have a special place in my affections precisely because of its association with Jews and a modern Jewish homeland. My ideal would be for Israel to put a Menorah inside that diamond. And then I might feel less angry at the hypocrisies or those, like Esau, who can only fight using dishonest tactics and deviousness.
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