Monday, October 2, 2017

Kol Nidre: The Power and Danger of Symbols

Statue of General Sam Houston by artist David Adickes
Outside Huntsville, TX
As many of you know, I grew up in Texas. I also learned to drive there. Once you get outside of the major metropolitan areas, one quickly discovers just how vast the state is. There are areas so wide and barren it can confound the senses. This is only further illustrated by the ‘recommended’ speed limit of 85. Though if you are not doing at least 95, you are a road hazard.
Admittedly, people have been striving for years to figure out how to fill up this vast space. One such person is the artist David Adickes, who in 1994, completed a sixty-seven-foot tall statue of General Sam Houston just outside of Huntsville, Texas. I know this statue well because I would pass it on my drive to graduate school at Sam Houston State University, also located in Huntsville.
This part of Texas is filled with 100-foot-tall pine trees. It is a very dense wooded area, and the statue would surprise me almost every time I rounded a small curve on I-45 headed north. As an aside, David Adickes is also known for making large “heroic scale sculptures of historic figures. His series of President heads became the core of two theme parks -- in South Dakota and Virgina (sp). Both have since closed, but travelers can see an array of leaders' heads inside a fenced-in yard.”[1] It is a little kookie to say the least.
However, Adickes is not the only maverick out there seeking to fill in the empty landscape. There are others working to fill in this vast space, not with statues, but with crosses. You can see them for miles residing in little towns like Groom, Texas which has a cross that is 190 feet tall and 110 feet wide. It is currently the largest cross in the state, but there are already plans to build an even larger one.
According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, “If all goes to plan, one day Corpus Christi will be the home of the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere.
Yes, the south Texas city that gave the world Eva Longoria, Selena, and Whataburger might have another tourist attraction on its hands….
Eventually there will be a 210-foot tall (about 19 stories) cross on (a) plot of land for all to see. It will be visible to planes flying into Corpus Christi International Airport and be able to (be) seen five miles away by land and double that by air.
According to Pastor Rick Milby of Abundant Life Fellowship the idea for (the) Corpus' cross came to him after seeing the sizable cross near Houston's own Sagemont Church near I-45 and the south side of the Beltway. That cross, erected in Feb. 2009, is 170 feet tall. (It is clearly a case of cross envy, if you will).
Milby has said the price tag for the cross should be $1 million, of which over $142,000 has already been collected…. (However), It won’t be the tallest cross in the world, though, as that cross is located in Madrid, Spain and is 495 feet tall. ”[2]
So why all this interest, dare I say reverence for the cross. According to James Carroll in his fascinating book: Constantine’s Sword, “Before Constantine, the cross lacked religious and symbolic significance ….
The place of the cross in the Christian imagination changed with Constantine. ‘He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline … he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription CONQUER BY THIS.’ The story goes on to say that Constantine then assembled his army – ‘He sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure of the sign he had seen’ – and gave them the new standard to carry into battle … The army behind this standard did conquer, and Constantine … was thus convinced of the truth of Christianity…
Constantine put the Roman execution device … at the center not only of the story of his conversion to Christianity, but of the Christian story itself.”[3]
Thus, the cross became THE central symbol of faith for Christians through the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. And more importantly, it has remained a central symbol to Christians ever since. Clearly the cross, now the central symbol of Christianity, has power and meaning enough for people to want to build 200 feet tall depictions of it for all to see.
Now I know what you are thinking, why on earth is the Rabbi talking about crosses on Kol Nidre? Great question, thanks for asking. Not to worry, it will hopefully become clearer as we continue our conversation.
Needless to say, we wonder: why do these symbols have such power over our collective imaginations and why they pull at our heart strings so much. Why do we ascribe power to mere symbols?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica “The word symbol comes from the Greek symbolon, which means contract, token, insignia, and a means of identification. Parties to a contract, allies, guests, and their host could identify each other with the help of the parts of the symbolon. In its original meaning the symbol represented and communicated a coherent greater whole by means of a part… The discovery of its meaning presupposes a certain amount of active cooperation. As a rule, it is based on the convention of a group that agrees upon its meaning.[4] It is that last part that I want to emphasize, “it is based on the convention of a group that agrees upon its meeting.” A symbol can only be a symbol if we all agree to its meaning.
Now I know that this definition was a bit dry and academic, but to take a step back, the whole concept of symbols and symbolic language is actually quite fascinating. No other creature that we know of can use abstract concepts in communication.
According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind it all stems from the ability of homo sapiens to create fiction. Fictions such as “the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states … give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers…”[5]
“(So) how did Homo Sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”[6]
When we are talking myths, we are not using it in a pejorative sort of way. It is more like our origin story how all Jews are descended from Abraham and Sarah. Or like we will read tomorrow how our ancestors bound us to a covenant at Sinai. We all believe in these stories, whether we accept them as factually true is a conversation for another day. But it is these stories that help to bind us together as a people.
So too the evolution of symbols. A symbol works because we agree to the meaning of the symbol. However, meanings of symbols can certainly change over time. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the image of the swastika. The image of the swastika can be found in Asia dating as far back as 3000 BCE.
Perhaps the most well-known depiction of it is the Hindu version which uses this as a symbol of prosperity or goodness. But we all know the history of what happened when the symbol was co-opted by hate. None of us can see that symbol without associating it with the massacre of six million Jews. You just can’t.
Of course, this can be problematic, say when there is a Hindu-Jewish wedding of the son of a former congregant of mine. This young man was marrying a wonderful woman of Hindu background and they were going to be joining the two ceremonies. Now I was not the officiant, but I was asked by the mother of the groom about a problem. Because the swastika is such an important symbol in Hindu tradition, it was going to be on display before the Hindu part of the ceremony. Needless to say, the mother of the groom was very concerned about her Jewish friends and family walking into such a celebratory occasion and seeing this symbol.
We were unsuccessful in talking the bridal party into removing the symbol, but we came up with an explanation to send out to any Jews attending, so at least they would understand the purpose of the symbol in the ceremony. It probably eased their discomfort a little bit. And thankfully because everyone knew what they were walking into, they did not immediately storm out.
But this gets to the heart of the problem of symbols. The majority who believe in the symbol, believe everyone should accept their interpretation of it.
To get back to the cross. We discussed it from a Christian perspective. But what about from a Jewish perspective? Because of Constantine’s vision and the making of the Roman Empire into a Christian Empire, the cross became not just a symbol of faith, but also a symbol of Jewish persecution. For example, in 1096, with the First Crusade, in the words of one witness which we find in Constantine’s Sword, “There first arose the prince and nobles and common folk in France, who took counsel and set plans to ascend, and ‘to rise up like eagles,’ and to do battle and ‘to clear a way’ for journeying to Jerusalem, the Holy City, and for reaching the sepulcher of the Crucified … they said to one another: ‘Behold we travel to a distant land to do battle with the kings of that land. ‘We take our souls in our hands’ in order to kill and subjugate all those kingdoms that do not believe in the Crucified. How much more so (should we kill and subjugate) the Jews, who killed and crucified him … They – both princes and common folk – placed an evil sign upon their garments, a cross.”[7] The cross, a symbol of redemption and hope for so many, became for us a symbol of persecution and suffering.
This disagreement over the meaning of such an important symbol has always an issue whenever discussing ecumenical experiences such as interfaith services. Christians, for whom the cross is a symbol of redemption and a core part of their faith, have a very hard time understanding that many Jews view is as a symbol of repression and persecution. More often than not, the compromise is not to have a cross on display. But, as with any good compromise, there are still quite often, hard feelings because there is not unanimous agreement on the meaning of the cross.
This, I feel is the core of so many of the cultural debates going on in our society today especially with regards to the American flag. For what we are witnessing is a fundamental disagreement over the meaning of this symbol.
This is why it is so complicated when it comes to the recent culture wars with regards to the flag of the United States of America. Now not to get into the issue of whether or not we should even be reciting the National Anthem at sporting events aside, clearly there is a conflict between the meaning of the flag and its symbolism. On one side, the flag represents the sacrifices of the men and women of our fighting forces. On another side, it represents an imperfect nation, where young men of color often die needlessly at the hands of authorities; where the politics and practices of racism still abound generations after the end of the Civil War.
The truth is, because the flag is a symbol, both of these interpretations are correct. The problem is when one side will not accept the interpretation of the other. That is where we get at the core of this conflict.
This is in part why we Jews have never had much use for symbols. Even the Magen David, the Star of David, which has been generally used as a symbol of, by, and for Jews, only dates back to about 1000 C.E. But it is not a symbol of veneration and worship. It is simply a symbol of identity. Of course, it has been used by our enemies against us, but that is a sermon for another day.
So, what then does our tradition have to say about symbols, flags, statues, and the like? The simple answer is that our tradition errs on the side of being leery of symbols. All symbols be they the cross, that ancient Hindu symbol, or the venerated Stars and Stripes, mean different things to different people based in no small part on their experiences with the aforementioned symbol. The greatest mistake we can make is in assuming that our interpretations are the correct ones while dismissing other interpretations out of hand.
We are a people that abhor idolatry. We have since the time of the prophets. And we should avoid at all cost, making idols out of our symbols.
Symbols, flag, statues and the like, should never replace the humanity we can find in each other. We may very well disagree over their meanings. But if we place the symbols above our fellow human beings, we run the risk of destroying all that they stand for, like our nation’s flag.
On this Yom Kippur, may we be reminded of the power that symbols can have over our lives. But may we also be reminded that they are only a part of our collective imagination. We are the ones who ascribe meaning to them. And may our meanings, our interpretations, their representations never diminish, in our eyes, the humanity of those who interpret our symbols differently.
Cayn Yehi Ratzon, Be This God’s Will

[3] Carroll, James, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, pgs. 174-175
[5] Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015, pg. 25
[6] Ibid., pg. 27
[7] Carroll, James, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, pg. 237

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