Recently, the City of New Orleans removed its Confederate monuments, prompting both celebrations and protests. The actions and their aftermath reverberated across the country and, not surprisingly, into Virginia. Protests and counter-protests erupted – violently – in Charlottesville a couple weeks ago, and calls have been renewed in Richmond for the removal of our Confederate monuments, despite staunch opposition to such a change. How might the Jewish tradition guide us on this topic?
Today is Shavuot, the day we commemorate the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Among the first instructions God gives the newly freed Israelite slaves was:
ג לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ
ד לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ ׀ וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣֙יִם֙ ׀ מִמַּ֡֔עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר֩ בָּאָ֖֨רֶץ מִתַָּ֑֜חַת וַאֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בַּמַּ֖֣יִם ׀ מִתַּ֥֣חַת לָאָֽ֗רֶץ
ה לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒
3 You shall not have other gods besides Me.
4 You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them…
The prohibition against idolatry, connected with the principle of monotheism, is about as fundamental a tenet of Jewish faith as they come. Ask any religious school child, and she or he will likely relate the midrash about Abraham and his father’s idols. In this apocryphal story, God chooses Abraham to be the first Jew because Abraham, the child of an idol-maker, reasoned that God alone was sovereign and that idolatry was therefore wrong. To prove the point to his father, Abraham smashed all the idols in his father’s idol shop and pinned the blame on the largest idol in the store, thereby showing his father the absurdity of idol worship.
But the Torah doesn’t just forbid idolatry because it is silly or illogical to worship statues. After all, there are plenty of silly beliefs or practices that the Torah does not forbid, whether because their ridiculousness is self-evident, or because absurd ideas and behaviors are not necessarily harmful. And the Torah goes further than merely prohibiting idolatry. When they conquer the Promised Land, the Israelites are also to utterly destroy all pre-existing Canaanite idols and holy places (Deut. 12:2-3).
These commandments, these strong and ubiquitous bans on idolatry, imply that the practice is not merely intellectually wrong, but also, more importantly, morally or spiritually problematic.
What’s the moral or spiritual problem with making graven images? Foundational to the biblical moral order is loyalty to God. The system unravels unless God alone is seen as authoritative. The Torah’s concern about graven images is that they will steer our loyalties away from God alone.
It is important to recognize that the Torah doesn’t see the creation of sculptured images or other likenesses as inherently problematic. The Torah doesn’t forbid all art, even art that depicts animals or humans. On the other hand, the Torah doesn’t only forbid images of God or of other entities people identify as gods. Rather, the Torah is forbidding something specific: the making of an object of veneration (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4).
In the prohibition on idolatry we find in the 10 Commandments, the forbidden action of making an image is connected to the forbidden action of bowing down to it. The Torah is only banning images made for the purpose of exalting, celebrating, or venerating them.
Why? The answer is given away by the next action listed after “You shall not bow down.” “You shall not serve them,” the Torah utters with its very next breath. Objects we venerate invariably come to represent the ideals we serve, and the ideals we serve, in turn, inevitably compete with God for our loyalties. Be mindful, the Torah is teaching, about the statues you erect as objects of honor, because the objects you honor influence your values, your values command your loyalties, and your loyalties steer your actions. You may think you control your monuments, but ultimately, your monuments may come to control you.
What does this have to do with our monuments? Back when I was in college in New York and rabbinical school in Los Angeles, I had an annual tradition of hosting a “Southern Shabbat Dinner.” I would convene a dozen or so friends and treat them each year to a feast of fried chicken, corn pudding, greens, Brunswick stew, sweet potato pie, and pecan pie. The mint juleps were also ice cold, syrupy sweet, and bountiful.
But the dinner wasn’t just about the delicious food. It was also meant to be educational. As one of only a handful of southerners among primarily Yankee classmates, I felt a special kind of pride – maybe it was simply contrarianism, a quality I’ve been accused of possessing from time to time – and a responsibility to acquaint my friends with my culture. So, at the dinner, I would give each guest a short biography of a figure from Southern history, and they would have to give a brief presentation about their assigned figure for the rest of the group, ideally in character.
Now, some of the biographies were relatively innocuous ones, like Elvis Presley. Others were truly heroic icons, like Martin Luther King, Jr. But many of the assigned figures, revered by many in the South, were hardly uncontroversial. Each year, I would assign guests historical figures like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and, at the time, my personal favorite, John C. Calhoun, the former Senator from South Carolina, Vice President of the United States, and philosophical architect of southern secessionism. Their biographies were presented without irony or qualification, held up with the same esteem for their place in shaping the story of the South as Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks.
It was not until quite recently – perhaps it was in the summer of 2015, when a white terrorist who embraced Confederate ideology and iconography murdered nine innocent African-Americans in a South Carolina church – that I began to feel conflicted about the fact that my celebration of Southern history and heritage centered around a celebration of the supporters and defenders of slavery. But growing up as I did in Georgia, it was easy to miss the true significance of those figures.
Lee, Jackson, and Davis, as well as other Confederate leaders and iconography, were omnipresent in the Georgia of my youth, and they still are today. The Georgia state flag, which was displayed alongside the flags of the United States and the State of Israel in my Jewish day school, was, until 2001, the year I left for college, the Confederate battle flag. The cover of my 3rd grade Georgia history project were the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.
John C. Calhoun, the South’s most eloquent and high-ranking defender of slavery as a “positive good” was presented as a champion of conscientious objection, principled resistance, and state’s rights.
Lee, Jackson, Davis, and other Confederate leaders were typically depicted as valorous heroes, men of pride and honor who loved the South and were willing to fight and die for her defense. I learned to drive on streets named for them, and walked frequently past statues honoring them and their compatriots. I lived the first six years of my life in an Atlanta suburb called Stone Mountain, named for a nearby large granite formation, the north face of which was adorned with a massive bas-relief of Lee, Jackson, and Davis, atop noble steeds and in full military regalia, charging gallantly forward. I’ve probably climbed that mountain a dozen times, and made a visit at least once every summer to this Confederate Mount Rushmore for an incredible nighttime laser and light show – you can still see the show today – projected onto the north face, during which the three horsemen would come to life, fight bravely to defend the south, and, to the tune of a melodramatic rendition of “Dixie” that ensured there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the crowd, would be forced to surrender their swords and abandon their apparently noble cause as a laser-projected outline of Atlanta burned.
Sure, I learned the history of the Civil War, and I had teachers who were committed to ensuring their students knew the racist rationale for Southern secession and the extraordinary violence southern leaders unleashed to defend involuntary human servitude. My teachers did not shy from noting that the Southern states seceded upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who was seen by southern leaders as a man whose “opinions and purposes,” to quote South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession, “are hostile to slavery.” My textbooks did not avoid the truth that the organizing principle of the Confederate States was slavery. They did not ignore the Mississippi Declaration of Secession, which said, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” And they did not avoid Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Corner-Stone” speech, in which he said the corner-stone of the Confederacy is, “the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” I learned in school that the Confederacy was not a peaceful Southern society wanting to be left alone, but, rather, “an aggressive power,” one that fired the first shots of the Civil War because it was determined to secure at all costs “the bondage of a third of its residents, with dreams of expanding its fields of the bondage further South.”
But the ubiquity and normalcy of Confederate iconography that existed all around me in my youth made it such that I scarcely associated those images or those figures with the cause they represented and for which they fought. In other words, in the classroom I learned about the direct connection between the Civil War and slavery, but my experience on the streets, out in the world, severed that connection entirely. Out there, the Civil War, at least as it was embodied by representations of its chief Southern leaders and most prominent symbols, was about Southern pride, honor, and bravery. It was about the preservation of tradition, about maintaining a more civil, more noble way of life, about defiance in the face of tyranny. In theory, the Civil War was about hate. But in practice, the Civil War was about heritage.
And since we learn so much more from what we observe rather than from what we hear or read, it was inevitable that my associations with the Confederacy would be fairly sanitized. After all, if someone has a statue erected in his honor, the mind naturally assumes, he must be a person worthy of honor. If my state elevates a particular symbol, it must be a symbol worthy of elevation. Sterilizing the Confederacy was the only way to square the circle. Thus, while on some level I knew what the Confederacy and the Civil War really was about, I more commonly pictured it devoid of the racism, the oppression, and the violence, a picture of a glorious, idyllic South and of the heroes who built and fought for that largely lost civilization.
The objects you honor influence your values, your values command your loyalties, and your loyalties steer your actions. Those monuments, such a pervasive part of my youth, warped my view of past and present, and blunted my desire to build a different future. They disabled me from truly understanding Southern history, which prevented me from truly grasping the enduring legacy of that history — everything from economic inequality to lingering racial attitudes to Jim Crow to “the new Jim Crow” of mass incarceration — which in turn guided and, often inhibited, loyalties and behaviors. I became, however unwittingly, complacent in enduring structures of oppression.
It turns out my confusion represented the success of a deliberate strategy, a program that was initiated almost as soon as Lee surrendered to Grant in Appomatox. This movement, known as the Cult of the Lost Cause, aimed to shape the narrative about the South, about the Confederacy, and about the Civil War. The Lost Cause movement, it should be noted, started here in Richmond, with the publication of an eponymous book by Confederate apologist Edward A. Pollard in 1866. In this telling, the struggle between North and South was not a fight over slavery but, rather, a clash of civilizations, between, on the one side, a materialistic and power-hungry society bent on cultural, political, and economic imperialism, and, on the other, a genteel society, rooted in the land, steeped in tradition, and based upon codes of civility, honor, and loyalty. It aimed to tell defeated Southerners that their cause, though defeated, was just and noble, that their way of life was superior to that of the North and worth preserving, and that, therefore, Confederate leaders were worthy of veneration, honorable men who sacrificed for an honorable cause. It aimed to tell victorious Northerners that the South may have been bruised, but it was not defeated, and that it would, in glory, rise again. And it aimed to tell newly freed slaves, that, whatever their legal and economic gains, their rightful place was to be subservient to whites, and that the old masters were still in charge.
Telling this story about the South was not idle nostalgia. As George Orwell famously observed in his dystopian 1984, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Southern white political leaders, many of whom were former Confederates themselves, wanted to maintain all they could of the way of life they had lost. The erstwhile Confederates who formed the core of this cult said themselves that they yearned to maintain “the supremacy of the white man’s civilization in the country which he proudly claimed his own…founded upon the white man’s code of ethics, in sympathy with the white man’s traditions and ideals.” And, true to Orwell’s insight, one of the key strategies they employed to accomplish this was to build monuments and memorials like Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument, which was dedicated in 1890. Just a few years later, the Jefferson Davis monument was commissioned. At its 1907 unveiling, during which there was a A Confederate reunion parade, a former Tennessee senator was quoted as saying, “We make no confession of wrong, we plead for no forgiveness of error, we ask no tenderness of the future historian, no charity from the enlightened judgment of mankind.”
Not coincidentally, alongside these efforts, in precisely the same time period, an extraordinary wave of intimidation, violence, and terror was aimed at the black population in the South. The political energy behind the statutes coincided with a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the passing of Jim Crow laws that codified segregation and curtailed civil rights for black residents. The construction of the bas-relief Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain began in 1916. Just a few months earlier, the Georgia Ku Klux Klan was formed on that same spot, spearheaded by the very men who commissioned the carving. Richmond’s Stonewall Jackson monument was erected around the same time. By securing control of the present and of the past, they could tell a story about the past that would influence the direction the South would take moving forward.
Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, was, then, right the other week when he said “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history.” They were designed purposefully, to celebrate the men they depict and the cause for which they fought. They were designed with the knowledge that the objects we honor influence our values, our values command our loyalties, and our loyalties steer our actions. They were designed, in other words, to be idols.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Torah would demand their destruction or even their removal, although it certainly wouldn’t object to such an action. Rather, the Torah would encourage us to consider ways in which their original purpose could be somehow subverted, and thus neutralized. Perhaps clearly visible signage could be added clarifying the historical record. Perhaps they could be moved to a sculpture park or museum, where attention could be paid to putting them into appropriate context. Perhaps they could be transformed, somehow, into pure works of art.
The best solution will be worked out by people smarter and savvier than I. My hope today is merely to open our eyes to the moral gravity of the issue and further a crucial conversation we must, as a community, have. For too long have our hearts been hardened by the sympathetic magic of looking to these gods of granite and bronze. For too long have we served the interests represented by the images we have been told to venerate. The time has come to heed the words of our history, of our heritage, of our tradition, of our Torah. The time has come to bow no more at their pedestals and to worship no more at their altars. The time has come to put away all other gods and dedicate ourselves only to the One whose defining quality is setting slaves free.