What does Jewish tradition say about tearing down statues? It’s complicated.
We Jews aren’t big statue fans. You know, that second commandment and all: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”
I remember back in the 1970s when my father, the beloved rabbi of a Baltimore synagogue that attracted Jews of all backgrounds, received a large, heavy package, a gift from a congregant. He brought it into the house, read the note of appreciation and opened the box. His face became a mixture of shock and disgust. In the box was a stone replica of Michaelangelo’s “Moses,” complete with horns (the artist’s famous misunderstanding of “koran ohr panav”). The leaden lawgiver was hastily removed from the house, never to be seen there again.
So our Torah-based disdain for graven images might predispose us to a lack of great interest in the ongoing national push, born of citizens’ newfound racial righteousness in the wake of George Floyd’s death, to destroy statues of Confederate generals, men who owned slaves, and those whose actions involved the subjugation of innocents.
But as Jews, we do have a stake in this conversation. Think for instance of the bipartisan group of Congresspeople who called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to replace or alter three VA-administered cemetery headstones that featured swastikas or pro-Nazi messages. Two of the graves, of German prisoners of war, are in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio; and one, at Salt Lake City’s Fort Douglas Post Cemetery.
The Texas gravestones feature an iron cross and swastika, along with the epitaph, “He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland,” while the one in Utah includes a swastika and another Nazi symbol, a Knight’s Cross. The VA at first balked at the request, but eventually decided to replace the stones.
Most of us would consider that decision proper. A visitor to an American military cemetery should not be subjected to the sight of a swastika. And Black Americans, similarly and rightly, feel they should not be subject to the sight of towering figures of stone depicting people who fought to defend American slavery. Thoughtful decisions to remove some stone depictions of historical figures are not unreasonable, like that of New York’s American Museum of Natural History to take down a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, sculpted riding high over two other figures, a seemingly subjugated Native American and an African.
What, though, of a Teddy Roosevelt statue that didn’t include such “commentary,” but was intended only to honor the 26th president of our country? Or of one depicting our first president, recently defaced in the name of the same developments?
Roosevelt, to be sure, held some opinions that are anathema to most Americans today, and George Washington famously owned scores of slaves, freeing them only in his will, upon his death. But Roosevelt promoted a number of positive policies over his long career of public service. And Washington was, after all, a founding father of the republic.
Another American president, the 28th, Woodrow Wilson, has been de-honored of late, his name removed from a main Monmouth University building and from Princeton University’s school of public policy because of Mr. Wilson’s racist attitude toward Black people.
Where do we draw the line?
The Torah, as it happens, has something to say on the subject.
In stark contrast to the foundational texts of other religions, ours doesn’t shy away from conveying unflattering truths about its heroes. Our religious tradition cautions us to understand the sins of our forefathers in context, certainly. But it doesn’t spare them a blunt recounting of their failures.
There is no denying that, for instance, Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him and sold him as a slave, or that Moses disobeyed God’s orders, or that Saul wanted to kill David, or that David wanted Bathsheba’s husband to die in battle.
And yet, the Torah is very clear in teaching us that those flaws in the lives of great people are not what define them for us. All of Jacob’s sons are considered our righteous forefathers, the Torah itself is called “Moses’ Torah,” Saul was eulogized by David, and David remains the quintessential “king of Israel” and author of the Psalms.
There’s a lesson here for today’s protestors: There’s a difference between a flawed forefather and one whose character is defined by that flaw.
Washington is most famous for leading patriot forces to victory in the nation’s War of Independence and for serving as the country’s first president; Roosevelt, for establishing an important role for the U.S. in world politics, for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, and for beginning the construction of the Panama Canal, and Wilson is most remembered for entering the U.S. into World War I, arguably turning the tide of the war against Germany and its allies.
These men had their flaws. But they don’t represent racism in the same way a Confederate general does. And they don’t deserve the same treatment.
Leave the statues of truly flawed American leaders — like those of Henry Ford, an anti-Semite best known not for his hatreds but for his cars — for birds to roost and leave deposits upon, and let the sordid elements of their lives be conveyed by competent history teachers.
As for the graven images of Confederates — it’s time for them to go.
Avi Shafran blogs at rabbiavishafran.com and also serves as public affairs director of Agudath Israel of America.