Masks that Conceal, Masks that Reveal

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
March 4, 2016 / 24 Adar I, 5776

Privacy and Security

One of the costs of America’s long election cycle is how it divides or draws away our attention away from other important issues that confront us as a nation. The FBI’s case against Apple certainly is making news. Without the election to contend with, this story in which the government is demanding that Apple hack its own encryption would probably be claiming much more attention. After all, it pits our constitutionally enshrined right to privacy against our equally strong desire for security in a world plagued by terrorism and threats. Two important social values in conflict like this normally creates compelling drama.

I have found myself drawn to this unfolding case. Last Shabbat, we talked about privacy in Jewish law and tradition. Not surprisingly, Judaism doesn’t discuss privacy as a right, but as an obligation. We are obligated to protect both our own privacy and also that of our neighbors. What is most fascinating is that the Jewish emphasis on privacy is geared toward producing a certain sort of moral society in which we safeguard the dignity of others.

Given how important privacy and security are in the national conversation, we’ll be continuing our discussion on Saturday, March 12th and on Sunday, March 13th.

Saturday, March 12th, our special learning session will be:

Privacy is a Social Commodity: Building a Dignified Society.

1 pm in the Zidell Chapel.

Sunday, March 13th, I’ll be speaking at the Men’s Club.

Security in Jewish Law: The Limits and Permits of Self-Protection

9:30 am in the Stampfer Chapel

Both sessions will be participatory. In addition to some lively discussion, people who are able to attend both sessions will walk away with some key concepts that shine a different perspective on these issues than the media does. 

Purim Flashback: Prepping for the Holiday with Hollywood

This past week, we rented Jim Carrey’s 1994 odd-ball superhero movie, The Mask, for Amitai to watch. Listening to your kid belly laugh in fits of hysterics is surely one of the most joyous sounds any parent can hear. Thank you, Jim Carrey. Your sense of physical comedy was unique.

The basic story line of The Mask is rather simple. A nerdy man who has difficulty expressing himself discovers a wooden mask of the Norse god, Loki. The artifact turns him into a cartoon-like super hero who is able to alter himself and the environment around him. Bullets no longer hurt him, and he can even swallow a large bomb to no ill-effect. The most profound power of the mask, however, is how it enables him to overcome his sense of inhibition. Wearing the Mask, he can finally approach and get the girl.

Is there a difference between inhibition and self-control? After all, Judaism offers us continuous spiritual disciplines to master ourselves. In kashrut, we control what sort of foods we can eat and when (but not how much we can eat. That’s up to us). On Shabbat, we overcome our desire to do and act, and learn to accept the world as it is for a day. Judaism over and over again helps us to develop self-regulation. On the other hand, inhibition, at least as it is portrayed in The Mask, is often how we disown our impulses out of fear. Loki’s Mask allows the wearer to have no social inhibitions–to become a bit outrageous.

Most cultures have celebrated the mask or the costume party. From costume balls in the age of the waltz, to American Halloween, to Japanese kabuki theater; from the Mexican Day of the Dead to New Orlean’s Mardi Gras; from African ancestral masks to Native American animal masks–humanity has celebrated its masks. On one level, those who wear masks may indeed relinquish some inhibition–which highlights the social masks we wear in our daily life. Masks, in other words, remove who we pretend to be and let the real self emerge, as in Jim Carrey’s movie. To wear a mask is to live unmasked.

Masks, though, point to a deeper, mysterious and unifying part of our humanity. They assume that we can “channel” and connect with others–while wearing the mask, we become that person, bird or spirit. Masks are designed to let us cross boundaries normally closed to us not just because they remove our inhibitions, but also because we can and desire to have access to different ways of being. Any young child who pretends to be a dog or a cat is expressing this human capacity and need to experience the world through the eyes of another.

On Purim, we encounter many forms of masks, costumes and upheavals of identity. Esther continually wears a mask that covers her true identity–she hides from herself and the king that she is Jewish. When her people are threatened, she finally understands that this sort of hiding doesn’t work. Haman also wears a mask of deception. He assumes the king wants to honor him and describes how the king should reward a faithful servant. As a result, his arch enemy Mordecai is dressed in royal garments and led around town, not he. God, of course, is famously hidden and nowhere so well as in Purim. In the megillah, we can only discern the divine presence through the unfolding of history.

Carl Jung famously wrote about the persona–the social mask we all wear. If we cling too tightly to our persona, we risk becoming emotionally brittle. With no persona, however, we are blind to the world and the needs of others. I think our deep-seated desire to don masks is essential. The act of consciously wearing a costume can put us in touch with who we really are. It surfaces the repressed parts of our lives–our inhibitions and challenges us to chose self-control over repression. It allows us to be playful, which is itself a sign of emotional health.

Costumes are serious play. I hope you are busy planning yours, and can’t wait to see who or what you come as on Purim, Wednesday, March 23rd. Until then, I invite you to spend a few moments thinking about the masks you don in your daily life. What do they say? Are they still serving you?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

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