If you believe that the Ten Commandments are an essential element of being Jewish and/or a good person . . . what’s the second one?
The first one is “I, Adonai, am your God, having brought you out of Egyptian slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)
And the second?
“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above . . . the earth below . . . the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them and serve them.” (Exodus 20:3-5a)
And so, unlike Christianity, for example, in which the embodiment of God is central, we steer clear of attempting to depict God in any way, in any form. We believe that divinity cannot be captured by anything that we could see or touch or smell.
Likewise, with human beings created in the image of God. While Jews throughout the ages have left behind synagogues and, much more importantly, books, we have not littered the world with statues as did the Greeks and the Romans of the ancient world.
STATUES & COMMEMORATIVE HOLIDAYS
This has come to mind recently in the turmoil over the removal of offensive statutes and arguments over, say, celebrating Columbus Day.
I agree with those who argue that the symbolic freight of statues of Confederate heroes and flags had one purpose only: to glorify white power in the South. And I agree that, at the very least, we need to consider carefully whether and how to celebrate Columbus Day, given what he has represented but, in fact, what he actually did – a lot of which was barbaric.
Where I depart, perhaps, is in thinking that it is folly to erect statues at all. And, perhaps, it is equally difficult and dangerous to establish a holiday in honor of a human being.
If we cannot represent divinity in all its vast mysteriousness, what makes us think that we should – can – embody a human being in its complexity? Celebrate an event without acknowledging the loss to others that it might have entailed. Few would argue, I think, against celebrating the defeat of Hitler and, yet, what do we do with the fire-bombing of Dresden and the twin terrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Just yesterday, a cousin asked rhetorically, “Should we eliminate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day because we also recognize King’s imperfections, failings and sins?”
I thought to myself: that is the difficulty, isn’t it? In order to celebrate a person we must overlook the flaws and failings that are always attendant to human life.
There are no universally observed Jewish holidays in memory or honor of a person. We commemorate events – The Exodus; The Giving of the Torah; The Fall Harvest; the Destruction of The Temple. But we have no “Moses Day” or “Moses Maimonides Day.” In fact, when Moses dies his burial place is left unknown, which denies the possibility of pilgrimage.
And those holidays focus more on ideals than on events. The Exodus – human liberation from human tyranny. The Giving of the Torah – our human capacity for learning, knowledge and wisdom. And so on.
Given all of this, I suggest that we do away with all statues. There are, likely, no persons whom they can exalt whose conduct was so good, so blameless, that the symbolism doesn’t cut both ways.
As for commemorative holidays, like Columbus Day or MLK Day, or Thanksgiving or the 4th of July?
Perhaps they should be understood as study days, days in which learning can unfold the manifold dimensions of a life or event so that real learning – by which I mean dwelling in the grays instead of the blacks and whites that obfuscate truth – can take place. Instead of dismissing school for a day so that young, learning minds can play video games or watch football, perhaps teachers ought to guide their students to understand, for example, the conquest of this land in all of its complexity, to explore the wide range of Dr. King’s thinking which was far richer than a call to end racism and to establish civil rights for Black Americans.
The problem with statues, as our ancestors understood, is that while they strive for education and inspiration they operate more on the level of simple marketing.
And, as Prof. Ken Seeskin wrote in his penetrating study of idolatry No Other Gods, the statues we erect look more like ourselves than the ideals we would like to ennoble.