Symbols That Define Us (Or Don’t)

13 February 2015 
24 Shevat 5775 

Last week one of our history teachers, Dr. Kevin Levin, inspired us with a historical-ethical limud clali (community learning) in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution and the abolition of slavery. Dr. Levin is a historian and expert on the Civil War, who published a book entitled Remembering the Battle of the Crater, and who writes a popular blog called “Civil War Memory.” His talk was a classic “Facing History” experience, one that helped us see our own contemporary experiences and the challenges our society faces today in the context of the story that has shaped where we are today.  

Before delving into his topic, Dr. Levin shared with us what studying and writing about history mean to him. “I sometimes feel it is difficult to get my bearings in (the complexity and fast pace of) the present. I move to the past because I can slow down, understand what happened, and see what I can learn from it.” The study of history is not about the memorization of facts and figures; it is about getting inside the experiences of those who have lived before us and seeing their stories as case studies in the human experience. So often the issues with which they wrestled and the choices they had to make continue to be those that challenge and define us and the society we continue to create.    

In his talk, “The Confederate Flag: Symbol of Slavery or Regional Pride”, Dr. Levin gave an overview of the history of the Civil War through the civil rights movement, focusing on what he described as the “most divisive symbol of the Civil War,” the confederate flag. He explained how the confederate flag reemerged only decades after the Civil War as a new symbol, first of southern regional pride and then of the anti-civil rights movement. In Massachusetts, people are still wearing tee shirts with the confederate flag on them and flying confederate flags. The African American rapper and musician, Kanye West, has tried to subvert the symbolism of the flag by reclaiming and making it, in his words, “my flag.”  

Dr. Levin brought history to life through stories and images and, unwilling to give them simple answers to the questions they asked, he challenged our students with questions about history and society, race, symbols, and how the personal choices we make affect others. Symbols like this one often “sit at the core of our national identity,” he explained, “so we have a responsibility to understand the symbols with which we do or do not identify.” Can a symbol be subverted, reclaimed, stripped of its original, historical context? Do I have a responsibility to consider historical context and others’ associations with a symbol that has personal meaning to me? How do we build a community and a society that honor a diverse range of experiences, loyalties, values, and aspirations? How do we have honest, difficult conversations about symbols, race, and other defining issues in ways that respect and elevate rather than degrade?  

 Dr. Levin’s talk was timely, not only because of its proximity to the anniversary of the passage of the 13th amendment but also because we just completed reading our stories of yetziat mitzraim, of the Exodus from Egypt, and maamad Har Sinai, the revelation at Sinai. After the dramatic splitting of the sea and the revelation of the Ten Commandments, this week we, so to speak, come down the mountain to the world of mishpatim—the detailed laws, rules, and interpersonal ethics that will govern the just society that B’nei Yisrael are charged to build.  

 It is no coincidence that the opening laws in our parsha deal with slavery and the treatment of slaves for, as we will be reminded over and over again, “you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Judaism and values-based education like Dr. Levin’s limud clali demand that we continually retell and wrestle with our past in order to translate our most profound spiritual experiences, our timeless ethical principles, and our vision for the people we want to become into the details of our everyday lives.  

 Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  


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