Star of David or Not
by Rabbi David J. Cooper
Our Bar Bat Mitzvah Program Director and Kehilla Spiritual Leader Sandra Razieli recently forwarded to me a question from one of our students about why we didn’t have the six-pointed Star of David prominently displayed in our sanctuary, such as on our Torah ark. The question brought up a number of things for me.
I remember as a child I played Judah Maccabee in a Chanukah pageant and of course, on my shield was the six-pointed Magen David. Then, and for many years after, I was under the impression that this had been the symbol of Judaism for 3,000 years. I remember that when I was with tourists at an Armenian church in the Old City of Jerusalem several decades ago, we saw a large six-pointed star carved into the heavy lintel above the church entrance. We asked the Armenian guide why a “Jewish star” was carved into the stone and he explained that it wasn’t a Jewish symbol when the church was built several centuries ago. I remember with some embarrassment how the others in our group treated this explanation with derision. After all, doesn’t everyone know that it has been a Jewish symbol from time immemorial? As it turns out, not everyone knows because it isn’t true.
The age-old symbol of Jewish spirituality is the seven- branched menorah. Its message jumps out at you. It is light in the midst of darkness; it is the mandate to act as if you were a light unto the nations; it is a symbol of hope. More subtly, the seven lights correspond to seven days – the seven days of the Jewish week (which was not a universal idea 3,000 years ago) and the seven days that the Torah speaks of in the creation story. The central trunk of the menorah and its associated candle upholds the other six branches and their candles, and this hints at the centrality of Shabbat in Jewish tradition, so central that as Christianity and Islam appropriated aspects of Jewish spirituality, they could not avoid setting aside a sacred central day.
There is no dispute at all that the menorah was the symbolic emblem of Judaism for many centuries. But the Star of David has only been a general symbol of the Jewish people since the 1700’s and did not really get seriously adopted until the 1800’s. The number six does not stand for anything particularly significant in the Jewish mind. In the Passover Haggadah, the song “Who Knows One?” asks about the Jewish significance of every number up to 13. The only “six” image the authors could find was the six volumes of the classic of Jewish logic and law, the Mishna. At the time the song was written, the Star of David had no religious or national significance.
The six-pointed star was used in many non-Jewish contexts. For example, it is the shape which was used for the badges of sheriffs, which it would not have been, had it been a Jewish symbol with religious significance.
The Star of David (known by many different names) also appeared upon manuscripts and on the architecture within both the Jewish and non-Jewish world, but only as a decorative motif – not as a religious symbol. When it did begin to be associated with Jews, it is not clear whether it was adapted from within or whether it was imposed by the gentile authorities. At times in Central Europe, it was used to distinguish Jews from gentiles and this was how it was used by the Nazis later in the 20th century.
As a Jewish symbol, its biggest leap forward was the time of nationalism in Europe. For fairly arbitrary reasons, and with no religious explanation, it became the Jewish nationalist symbol and found its way onto synagogues, and eventually it was incorporated into the flag of the Zionist movement, which later turned it into the flag of the State of Israel.
During my trip to New York this June, I visited the graves of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother. I noticed that on his grave, a menorah was carved; on her grave was a Star of David. I wondered if this had something to do with him dying 19 years before the founding of the State of Israel, and she dying 17 years after the state was founded.
Kehilla decided long ago not to have nationalist symbols as part of our spiritual imagery. That is why we do not have American or Israeli flags in our sanctuary.
Today, many people associate the Star of David with the State of Israel and with the Zionist movement the same way we associate the Stars and Stripes with the American nation. I may support the State of Israel and the United States, but I don’t want nationalism mixed in with my spiritual experience. God or spirituality transcends all nations. Enlightenment should shine on everyone, and that is why I prefer the more ancient image of the seven-branched menorah as the symbol of Judaism and of Kehilla.