Judaism With Heart
Lev navon y’vakesh da’at
The understanding heart seeks wisdom.
Mishlay (Proverbs) 15:14
Tov lev mishteh tamid Possessing a cheerful heart is (like being part of) an eternal celebration Mishlay (Proverbs) 15:16
Lev Samayach yativ gaha
A joyous heart is the best medicine.
Mishlay (Proverbs) 17:22
I want to live
I want to give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold
It’s these expressions I never give
That keep me searching for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keeps me searching for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
“Heart of Gold,” Neil Young
A little earlier this evening, before I began to write this message, we got together and had a wonderful time in our sukkah, enjoying our annual “Sukkah Supper.” Yasher koach to everyone who helped plan the event, get the food, build the sukkah, decorate the sukkah, and put this fun event together. I’m only not mentioning names because I don’t want to leave anyone out who may have put in an effort.
I brought along my arba minim set so anyone who hadn’t yet could shake, shake, shake – shake, shake, shake – shake a lulav – shake a lulav (oy, sometimes I think that I’m the one stuck in the ’70s). Someone asked why we shake the four species in the six directions, up, down, right, left, front, and back. I explained that these are the basic dimensions of personal space, and as Succot is a harvest festival, we are harvesting the brachot from each of these directions as we simultaneously send out our own blessings and positive energy in these directions. I also pointed out that these six dimensions correlate with the six points of the Magen David or “Jewish star,” which has become a symbol of Judaism.
Following the event, Judy mentioned to me that she had been asked about the “new” symbol that we have recently been using on our new signs and banners, which is that of a Magen David composed of the intersection of a triangle and a heart. Someone had asked if it was sacrilegious to alter a holy symbol of Judaism.
Judaism is an aniconic religion. Aniconic means the rejection of any image or symbol to represent God. As our ancient religion developed from polytheism to monolatry (only worshiping one God but acknowledging the existence of others) to pure monotheism, which asserts the belief that there is only one God and that no others exist, we rejected any symbol or image that would be deemed sacred and be representative of God. This process was by no means always consistent or coherent. Even as pure monotheism was embraced, in the Beit HaMikdash (Great Temple) on top of the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark), there were still statues of two keruvim, or cherubim, mythical winged, humanoid, supernatural beings that were a vestige of past ancient Mesopotamian religious influence. Practically, though, every religion needs a symbol to represent itself, to indicate that the religion is present, and to mark that a building may be a place associated with the religion. For centuries the closest thing to a symbol of Judaism would have been the menorah, which was a reminder of the destroyed Beit HaMikdash. At some point during medieval times the six-pointed star, a symbol also used by other religions, became associated with Judaism. This symbol is never found in the excavations of ancient Israelite/Jewish sites. It was once known as the “Seal of Solomon,” among other names. Magen David actually means “the Shield of David” and has come to be known in common terms as “the Jewish star.” Undoubtedly, neither King David nor his son Solomon would have ever witnessed the use of this symbol. The symbology of the six-pointed star correlating to the six primary coordinates likely appealed to the Kabbalistic-minded rabbis of medieval times.
People often liken the Magen David’s significance to Judaism to that of the Cross in Christianity. This is an erroneous perception. To Christians, the Cross is holy as it represents the basis of their whole religious belief system. When a Christian views a Cross, he or she is filled with religious feeling and a reminder of his or her faith. To the Jew, a Magen David is a brand label. If he or she sees it on salami, it’s assumed that the salami is kosher.
The first time I saw the “Heart Magen David” was on the cover of the Feldheim publishing company’s edition of Chovot HaLevovot/Duties of the Heart, a work by the 11th century sage Rabbeynu Bahya. Later I noticed it was used in jewelry made in Israel. I loved this take on the Magen David and saw it as symbolizing Judaism with a heart, a loving heart. I began to use it to decorate various projects that I became involved in.
One thing that has hurt organized Judaism for years is the perception that it lacks heart. I found the Conservative Judaism that I grew up with to not only be boring and hollow of meaning but also to lack caring and positive emotion. Many people have related to me that they shared my experience and perceptions, and unfortunately this is a problem that also still haunts organized Judaism today. Even if they are mistaken, people may often perceive of the synagogue as only being interested in them for what they can give for the benefit of the synagogue, such as money, and not that the synagogue is there to give them something in a loving and caring way. Sometimes people see the synagogue as only “loving them for their bodies,” in that they are desired for their attendance at services but that there is little concern for the quality of their experience, as the service can be incomprehensible and excruciating to them. The problem is compounded by the common misperception that Jews only care about the Jewish community and are too inwardly focused as a group.
I see the Heart Magen David as symbolizing what we are striving to accomplish as a congregation and as part of our community. We are a loving congregational family that wants to offer an experience of Judaism that is meaningful and joyous and provides a deep and comforting feeling of connection and care. As a rabbi I endeavor to present services that are interesting, enjoyable, informative, and entertaining. We now embrace diversity. We welcome people regardless of sexual orientation. We welcome interfaith families. We seek bonds of friendship with other faith communities. We want the wider community here in Glen Oaks to see us as an integral and caring part of that community. We are a loving Jewish family in our shul and a loving friend to our neighbors. We are building a synagogue culture that needs a symbol that tells all that we offer Judaism with a loving heart. We’re all looking for a heart of gold on many levels and in many facets of life. We can offer one too. The Heart Magen David tells everyone who we are.