The symbol commonly known as the Magen David (“Shield of David”) or more colloquially as the “Jewish Star,” is the subject of an unusual responsum written by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in 1968 (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3, 15).
The familiar six-pointed polygon yielded by two superimposed triangles adorns countless synagogue ark-curtains and Torah-covers, containers for religious items and pieces of jewelry.
And, of course, the Israeli flag, set between two broad stripes meant to evoke a talit, or Jewish prayer-shawl. It was, in fact, that appropriation of the Jewish star symbol which formed the basis of the question posed to the famed decisor of Jewish law: Since the State of Israel is the fruition of an essentially secular, political dream – Herzl’s Judenstaadt – is the Magen David symbol appropriate as an adornment for religious items?
Rabbi Feinstein replied that regardless of what service the symbol may have been pressed into, it remains an ancient Jewish emblem, and is therefore entirely properly displayed in synagogues and on religious objects.
What the Magen David signifies, however, the revered rabbi continued, is not entirely clear. Despite the hexagram’s antiquity, there seems to be no authoritative Jewish source that addresses its significance.
All the same, Rabbi Feinstein suggests that the six-pointed form symbolizes G-d’s dominion over all of space (“above and below and in all four directions”).
We experience our universe in three spatial dimensions. To pinpoint the location of an object, in other words, one must identify its latitude, longitude and altitude with respect to some other fixed point. Things can be moved in two directions along each of those three axes, and so a six-pointed figure symbolizes all of space – and, in the case of the Magen David, reminds us how the universe is transcended by the Divine.
As to the Jewish Star’s connection to King David, writes Rabbi Feinstein, “perhaps it signifies that David, during the wars he fought, relied on G-d, Who rules over [all of the universe], and thus, as the Torah commanded, never feared mortal kings and their armies.”
G-d’s hand, so apparent to King David, was evident as well to many Jews – even of secular bent – in 1948, when Jews living in the Jewish ancestral land repelled the attack of the Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese armies set on obliterating the nascent Jewish State and its inhabitants.
Similarly, in 1967, Israel’s routing of the armies and air forces of its belligerent neighbors Egypt, Syria and Jordan (assisted by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria) – what came to be known as the Six-Day War – was widely regarded as miraculous. The religious Jewish identities of untold numbers of Israeli and American Jews were forged by that summer’s events.
Others, though, less willing to concede supernatural impact on earthly matters, chose to write off Israel’s dazzling victories as the predictable yield of superior military intelligence and fighting forces. That attitude became increasingly common, particularly in the boasts of Israeli leaders.
In 1973, however, amid vocal Israeli confidence in early warning systems and air superiority, came the Yom Kippur War, exposing the limitations of such achievements. Israel – although she thankfully managed to prevail in the end – was not able to forestall – or even foresee – an attack launched against her by Egypt and Syria (again aided by other Arab states). The bubble of Israeli military invincibility was burst.
Two inconclusive wars in Lebanon later, the sobering only continues. Israel, despite its vaunted military might, has become politically precarious. Of late, calls for her destruction – from within, through an unfettered “right of return” for descendents of once-resident Arabs; and from without, in the form of blatant threats from points east – have alarmingly increased, both in frequency and intensity.
Still and all, miracles – of a sort easily overlooked by all but sensitive eyes – abound. Terrorist intentions are foiled, explosives detonate in the hands of their crafters and rockets fall harmlessly in fields. Improbable missions like the recent bombardment of a mysterious, but no doubt worthy, target in Syria succeed. Such small salvations elicit deep gratitude to G-d from religious Jews. And the usual expressions of hubris from others, including all too many Israeli leaders, who rarely speak of – and seem oblivious to – the Divine.
To those, though, who include in their daily prayers a plea for the safety and security of our fellow Jews in the Holy Land, who daily recite specially designated Psalms in their merit, the future of the Jewish presence in the Jewish land – the future of all Jews everywhere – remains not in our hands but in G-d’s.
And, in the light of Rabbi Feinstein’s nearly four-decade-old words, we perceive a subtle but striking irony: The true key to Israel’s security, as unrecognized as it may be to some, has been hiding in plain sight since the Jewish State’s founding, fluttering in the wind above every Israeli government building and military outpost.