Friday, October 22, 2010


14 Heshvan, 5771
October 22nd, 2010

Two scenarios.

Scenario the first: a non-Jewish man is engaged to a Jewish woman, and has been flirting with conversion but cannot seem to pull the trigger. During the wedding itself, said man wears a tallit during the ceremony because it is personally meaningful.*
Second scenario: a group in Israel, known as Women of the Wall, regularly meets at the back of the Western Wall plaza. These women, as a sign of their deep commitment to Torah and God, wear tallit and tefillin, and read from the Torah. Their presence often incites the Ultra Orthodox Jews around them to throw both animal and human feces at the Women of the Wall, and occasionally to attempt physical violence.

These two scenarios are not alike - the second defaces human dignity - but they are linked by a central symbol and they ask the same question: to whom do powerful symbols belong?

There are two truths about symbols that we should recognize. The first is that every symbol that means anything at all is honored by a community, not just by an individual. Symbols take on profound meaning precisely because they are shared between people. To publicly claim a symbol in a way that grates against its common understanding can be quite painful for the community which loves it.

But it is also true that communities do not own their own symbols - they live in the public domain. Almost every creative, inspiring advance in Torah or religion at all has come through the reinterpretation and re-expression of central symbols. The dictation of their expression by force or by degradation is an anathema.

There is always another person on the other end of a symbol that we find meaningful, another set of eyes, another heart. They join us together, join us to God. These are the things we have to remember to use them well.

*Tallit, in Torah, is specifically a sign of the acceptance of all the commandments laid upon Jews.

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