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Symbols can illuminate the path to life


Written by Rabbi Josh Levy

In his 1971 collection of essays, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem explores the history of the Star of David, and how it came to be a symbol of Jewish identity.

The essay begins, “Symbols arise and grow out of the fruitful soil of human emotion”.

For many of us, the symbols of our Jewish identity have come to carry a new human emotion over the last few weeks: fear.

For the first time in many of our living memories, wearing outward symbols of our Jewish identity such as a Star of David or kippah now brings anxiety.

To wear them is to be publicly Jewish at a time when this feels strangely vulnerable. We worry for our children on the way to or at school, for students at university, and for ourselves on public transport or in the workplace.

Many of us have experienced, for the first time in our lives, the feeling that we need to hide these markers of who we are for fear of what this will bring upon us.

It is clear in Jewish law that it is not just permitted but in some circumstances obligatory, to remove the outward symbols of our Jewishness if the danger they might bring is real. The value of pikuach nefesh – the saving of a life – supersedes almost all other considerations in our tradition.

A parallel can be found in the laws of Chanukah. The mitzvah of publicising the miracle is fulfilled by placing our chanukiah where it can be seen by others. But the Talmud stresses that this does not apply in a ‘time of danger’.

So, we are permitted to hide the symbols of our Jewishness. It is a Jewish act, rather than an act of betrayal to be careful for the sake of our welfare.

Yet there are also many reasons to overcome our anxiety if we can, when if it is safe to do so: to express our pride in our identity, to communicate our sense of peoplehood, to make connections with others who are also feeling vulnerable.

We have a responsibility to engage with the outside world as Jews wherever we can. We cannot be a ‘light unto nations’ if we are unable to show our light.

Over the last few weeks I have been in a situation where I have felt compelled to remove my kippah, after unexpectedly finding myself in the middle of a demonstration. At the same time, I have also been delighted by the encounters that wearing a kippah has brought: the person who stopped to say hello in the street; the Muslim who struck up a conversation on the train.

Symbols express something deeply powerful about who we are.

In his essay, Scholem concludes that the Star of David is a symbol “worthy of illuminating the path to life and reconstruction”. Through this difficult period, let us remember this symbolic power – and know that the path to life and reconstruction is ahead of us.

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