Open Letter to My Students # 14: Seder Plates, Cufflinks, and Ashtrays

In my last letter, I applauded Jewish food as a symbolic route to Jewish values. “But what makes it Jewish?” people asked. “You yourself say Jewish food is just food that Jews once used alongside everyone else – remember the Romanian woman who converted because of the food?” 

Good question; and it leads us to broader questions of Jewish symbolism. 

Among the many ways to look at symbols is the highly creative approach by psychologist C.G. Jung. 

Jung differentiated symbols from signs. He read off a list of words, and asked people to respond to each of them with another word, the first one that came to mind. Unknown to his subjects, he was less interested in the association they offered than the time it took to offer it. When subjects took an inordinate amount of time responding, Jung suspected that the word in question carried unconscious emotional baggage that was preventing a quick response. “Red,” for example, might easily evoke “stop” or “rose,” but someone who regularly frequented the city’s red-light district might hesitate, as his defense mechanism struggled to prevent his saying “prostitute.” Similarly, “Bible” might evoke “book,” but strong believers might struggle for just the right word to convey the depth of their Protestant faith.

These highly charged items (positive or negative) Jung labelled symbols. Everything else, he called signs.

Religion depends on such emotionally laden symbols, which then attract rational explanations of what they “mean.” These are their sign values: meanings that are culturally available as convenient ways to explain the symbols’ importance. Symbols, then, depend on direct emotional appeal, usually by stimulating our senses: touch, taste, smell, and so on. If our sensory reaction is neutral, we make no special note of the experience. If it is strongly positive or negative, we associate it with the situation that gave rise to it. If the situation is Jewish (Shabbat dinner, for example), something about the dinner (Shabbat candle-lighting, perhaps) is likely to become a Jewish symbol. Eventually, we ask what the candles mean, an explanation that we memorize to justify our strong feelings about them.  

A woman once told me proudly that she had faithfully kindled Shabbat lights every week for over 50 years, because “Light is the symbol of the divine.” That’s the last thing I would have thought of, but she had read it in the old Union Prayer Book (p. 7). Wanting something to explain her love of lighting candles, she latched onto what the prayer book said. 

Imagine two immigrant women arriving in America and attending 4th of July fireworks. One woman came just to marry her American fiancé. The fireworks are nice but have no emotional claim on her. She may or may not attend next year. The other woman fled across the border to escape persistent rape in her home country. As the fireworks brighten the sky, she is overwhelmed by the pure sheer joy of American freedom. She will attend July-4th fireworks ever after without fail. For her, fireworks really symbolize. 

If asked what the fireworks symbolize, both women will say something like, “America,” or “independence.” For the first woman, that is just the culturally assigned meaning that she has internalized as part of American lore. Fireworks are just fireworks. For the second, these fireworks are like no others. They symbolize for her. “Symbolize” is an intransitive verb. Symbols don’t symbolize anything, at first. They just resonate deeply within us. We then attach culturally assigned meanings to explain our feelings.

Years ago, I asked people in focus groups to bring (or bring pictures of) their favorite Jewish symbols. Most people brought the usual stuff: Shabbat candlesticks, an old tallit, a Jewish recipe book, and so on. One man surprised us by bringing ordinary cufflinks, and explained, “My grandfather gave these to me on my bar mitzvah.” He owned a kiddush cup too, I discovered, but it had only sign value for him. He didn’t bring it because he knew instinctively that it wasn’t really symbolic. 

Traditions devise highly complex treatments of these assigned meanings — the Magen David, the “Star of David,” for example. A six-point star is just a six-point star, but sometime in the Middle Ages, Jews starting using it on their tombstones (as did Muslims, actually, who called it a Star of Solomon). Kabbalists enhanced the star’s Jewish association because its six points tallied nicely with the way they counted the six lower-level divine emanations (the sefirot) that carried blessing from the three upper-level ones to the final tenth one, the feminine emanation whence blessings flow to us. When modern synagogues were built, architects wanted a simple Jewish design to etch into the stone exterior – like the cross on churches. The older, more authentic, symbol, the seven-branch candelabra, was too hard to chisel in, so they chose the Star of David. 

This Magen David eventually impacted Seder plates. Some plates are designed to hold five seder foods, and some six, because the bitter herbs (maror) were sometimes called chazeret and it wasn’t clear whether you needed separate entities for each one. The six-food version won because it corresponded to the six points of the star, allowing kabbalists to count the three pieces of matzah as the upper three sefirot; and then label the seder plate (from which we take the symbolic food) the tenth sefirah, the feminine nourishing one.

You don’t, however, have to know all this sefirah stuff for the seder plate to mean something symbolically to you. You might just like eating the sweet charoset and be happy remembering how your mother used to feed it to you before you fell asleep in her lap. 

The compelling quality of my colleague, Ron Wolfson’s, pioneer work in relational Judaism is the fact that positive emotions are likely to arise from warm relationships of belonging. Judaism rooted in relationships provides the emotional ground for attachment, out of which symbols are born.

Here’s a story I told many years ago: it’s about a man named Harry. 

Harry was an older man who had worked all his life as a storekeeper on New York’s Lower East Side – in the days when it was still largely Jewish. It became his habit, day after day, year after year, to have lunch with other store owners. It became a ritual: same restaurant, same surly Jewish waiter, and so on.

Eventually, the area was gentrified. Under new ownership, the old restaurant was slated to undergo construction. There would be harsher neon lighting to get people in and out more quickly; and rectangular tables crowded together, instead of the old inefficient round ones. The old waiters were quitting. Harry’s friends, already beginning to retire anyway, met one last time. 

On his way out, Harry pocketed one of the old beat-up ashtrays. 

“Why did you take the ashtray?” people asked. “You don’t smoke.”

“No,” said Harry, “but those lunches were the best times of my life. I wanted something to remember them by.” When Harry downsized to a small retiree apartment in Miami, he took the ashtray with him, his beloved symbol of years gone by.

The day people leave our synagogues to retire elsewhere, and pocket prayer books to take with them, we will know we have succeeded. 

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