Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Among the Ten Commandments is the second commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, no any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20, JPS Translation).
Since the incident of the Golden Calf and the Israelites’ subsequent and faithful acceptance of God’s covenant represented by Torah and its teachings (cf Exodus 32), statues, obelisks, monuments, and the like have been an abomination. To the commandment’s charge, add the fact that in Jewish history our people has been driven from homes and lands in nearly every century. Jewish communities were never the main governing power where they lived; they could never have had major monuments or statues of their own. The combination prevented the Jewish people from ever establishing deep roots and erecting monuments to their heroes or achievements. What they left behind in the places they fled from were “monuments” to intellectual, artistic, economic and political achievements and contributions.
What they took with them were the essential Jewish ideals and values that sustained them until they found a safe haven, again, if they were fortunate to do so. The only physical objects they created, and in some cases took with them where they were going, were ritual items such as wine cups, Torah adornments, and candlesticks. Even so, they were not objects of worship or adoration; they only enhanced the beauty of the ritual mitzvah on the Sabbath and holidays. Few examples of monuments exist even in Israel, and those that do exist are interpretations rather than molds or images of people. That is why the subject of Confederate statues and monuments in America, fails to attract Jewish responses. We’re frankly unaccustomed to the matter because we have no experience venerating, let alone bowing down to, “idols” of any sort. So, what could be our Jewish position in the current debate on Confederate statues?
First, we learn from Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi who wrote about memory and history in his book, “Zakhor” (1996). Jews, he explained, excel not at history, at recording dates, times and details, but at memory, of preserving the meaning of what happened in their past. Erecting statues and monuments do not teach about history; rather, they establish collective memory. Thus to erect one is not educational, but rather it is meant to evoke an emotional response, and for many, that response is painful when they are confronted with confederate statues.
It follows that those who oppose removing them because it’s tantamount to erasing history are wrong. The presence or absence of statutes doesn’t change anything about history that’s already recorded in history books or will be researched by scholars. Only revisionists and redactors should be feared for the damage they do to honest scholarship even about regrettable periods in our countries past.
Second, saints and iconography are norms in some Christian faiths and eastern religious traditions. Venerating statues and worshiping before iconography are integral to their faiths’ creeds and ritual observances. It’s no wonder then that removing flags, statues, monuments, etc., are akin to erasing something or somebody from the present. To them, they’re one and the same. However, they don’t symbolize what our nation stands for, today. They remind us of what the Confederacy hoped to achieve at the expense of our nation’s integrity and unity.
Though Abraham Lincoln first entered the U.S. into the Civil War to maintain its territories, he soon came to understand the depth of the inhumanity of human slavery and was driven to abolish it. Public statues and monuments to a lost and inhumane period of our nation’s past are an affront to our population of men, women and children who are today’s beneficiaries of a proud nation, not the lost plunder of a failed Confederacy.
Therefore, our Jewish position is clear: Take down those statues and monuments. Move them to a museum where history and education are the purpose, or transform them, as Isaiah spoke, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). Praise those who honor our nation’s values and its people’s rights. Let the spirit and values of our nation and its people be represented in words and deeds that no person or army can ever tear down, because they alone are inviolate, enduring and true.