The Opacity of Symbols and the Clarity of Encounter: Some Musings on Race

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
February 12, 2016 / 3rd of Adar I, 5776

Ever since the Superbowl half time show, the blogosphere and the media have been analyzing Beyoncé’s allusion to the Black Panthers and the Black Lives Matter movement. (For those who didn’t catch it, the dancers’ black leather and berets referenced the Panther’s uniforms.) Unsurprisingly, it’s not just Jews who hold multiple opinions! One reason for the bounty of discussion that has followed her performance is the special power that symbols possess. Symbols, like poetry, tend not to mean one thing, but hold multiple possibilities of meaning. It is why symbols often can survive for thousands of years, collecting layer upon layer of significance.

If we think about our many Jewish symbols, we can each understand this from the inside out. I am the proud owner of some kiddush cups that have been in the family for hundreds of years. They have been burnished by time so that they represent more than just the mitzvah of reciting kiddush on Shabbat. They remind me of my parents and grandparents. They force me to reflect on their places of origin and what life was like for my ancestors.

The very power of symbols also speaks to their limitations. By representing so many concepts, both personal and private, symbols also become opaque. Because we can’t know exactly what the intentions of a person who utilizes a symbol are (sometimes they don’t know either), we read our own understandings into their actions.

I’ve been thinking about how the barriers to understanding, which symbolic language creates, are best addressed by direct encounter. Just yesterday, I was privileged to take part in three conversations in which racism and prejudice were the topics. Two were with congregants, one was at the Bilal Mosque in Beaverton.

One congregant (who has given me permission to share our discussion) was disturbed that our Purim theme this year is a Mexican fiesta, replete with a menu of tacos and other tasty treats. While Purim is our day of topsy-turvy fun making, she felt that when white folks use the outfits of an economically and politically disadvantaged group, such behavior veers into racism. We had a long and edifying discussion.

She asked how I would feel if a bunch of Mexicans held a “dress like a Jew party.” What’s fascinating is that such a party would cause her pain, but doesn’t distress me. I actually appreciate when non-Jews find our culture compelling enough to use for entertainment. For entertainment–not for hatred and not for prejudice. After all, a couple of weeks ago in this column, I wrote about my prized Russian bottle of “Poor Jew Vodka,” whose label stereotypically portrays a Jewish beggar. Rather than being offended, I find it rather droll–even though some of my own ancestors were persecuted by the Russians. But I recognize that other Jews might take umbrage at the label. These are difficult and genuine dilemmas. We all find a slightly different world.

I am grateful for her perspectives and her sensitivity, although I struggle to see the same issues that she does in our theme. Perhaps part of these differences stem from how we view the role of humor? There are people, after all, who feel that sarcasm always points to some sort of resentment, and others who believe, in opposition to Freud, that sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Perhaps the intentions we bring to issues like these change what they mean to us? What does seem true is that because of our conversation–our encounter–she and I understand one another a bit better. The opacity of the symbolic was removed by genuine discussion. That is valuable.

Then last night, a hundred or so Jewish and Muslim dads gathered at the Bilal Mosque. Ostensibly the topic we were going to explore was raising children as a minority parent. Indeed, we discussed that. Simultaneously, people were able to express their own biases–against Muslims and against Jews. One individual who served in the Israeli army talked of how his previous encounters with Muslims were always framed in oppositional terms. He had to aim the gun, or he had to hide behind a barrier to avoid the gun. For him, last night’s encounter was a revelation. Similarly, Shahriar, the president of Bilal, spoke of the prejudice he had toward Jews, and how he shed those false beliefs in good measure because of the relationship he developed with Rabbi Daniel Isaak and other Jews in the Portland community.

What is essential is how people felt sufficiently safe to speak from a place of their own integrity and their own experience and to do so without rancor or hatred. They spoke and listened so that they could better understand, and from that understanding deepen their own compassion for others. That to me is genuine community–where we can celebrate our differences rather than whitewashing them in the name of uniformity. Where we can live the honesty of our own souls.

Yesterday was a good day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

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