Rabbi Sessler D’var Torah

The Symbolisms of Human Dignity

When I was a college student, I found myself one morning sitting in a class next to a person who was nonchalantly sketching a swastika. I immediately felt offended and upset. Being Israeli, I had no qualms about telling her what I think of the inappropriateness of sketching such a horrific symbol in public. In her defense, she rightly pointed out that before the swastika was “symbolically kidnapped” by the Nazis, it served for millennia as a cultural symbol in different ancient faiths, including Buddhism and Hinduism. She was absolutely correct. Nevertheless, for me, as a Jew, to see someone finding aesthetic pleasure in this symbolic depiction in Europe, and after the Holocaust, was more than bothersome. It felt deeply offensive and insensitive. I’m sure many of you share this feeling.

Now let us engage in a brief exercise of cultural and historical empathy, and imagine what African-Americans feel as they pass by the Congress Building in Charleston South Carolina, and see the confederate flag up there. Or when they see people hanging the confederate flag on their home porch, or depicted on their cars’ license plates. And by the way, the white supremacist who murdered nine people in a Bible class last week in South Carolina also chose to have the confederate flag depicted on his license plate.

Those who advocate the legitimacy of the confederate flag use various arguments including federal and non-federal rights, as well as the viability and legitimacy of distinct and competing cultural and historical narratives. In a similar vein, there are those who legitimize making the swastika a culturally normative and acceptable symbol in today’s Europe, even after the Holocaust. I disagree.

Whether we like it or not, certain symbols inevitable became tainted in our collective consciousness as a species, and are now virtually synonymous with the horrific ideologies and monstrous deeds of those who tortured, lynched, hanged, buried alive and gassed people in blind hatred and on ethnic and racial grounds. These symbols, in certain specific geographical and political locations, injure and violate the conscience and feelings of people of decency and empathy.

In Judaism we have a concept called “kvod habriyot” (human dignity). We are not allowed to senselessly remind people of painful episodes in their past, lest we upset, embarrass or humiliate them in the process. The great first century sage, Rabbi Hillel the Elder, famously taught us that the ethical gist of our tradition is encapsulated in the statement: “Do not do unto another person, that which is hateful unto you”. We don’t want to see swastikas hanging on public buildings or private homes in this country, for it is hateful and repulsive to us. Let us also make sure that our fellow Americans no longer suffer from a similar sight in this country, as they drive across or live in this great country, and have to see daily the symbol of the dehumanization, oppression, enslavement, torture and murder, of countless ancestors and relatives in the not-so-distant history of this country. As Jews we are summoned and called upon to be agents of conscience and gentility in this world, let us be equal to this sacred task. We need to make our Jewish-American voices loud and clear, collectively and individually: “Take down the confederate flag”, as it is a religious, moral and political affront to all of us. And as the ADL proudly states its mission statement to include “fighting bigotry and fostering respect” across the entire American spectrum and landscape, it needs to be at the forefront of this important issue and debate.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sessler

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