Main idea: our tradition has a framework about idolatry that can be helpful for us to understand how to deal with the question of Confederate statues in America – arrogance and anger
RH is the day when we talk about sins. One of the greatest sins in Torah is idolatry, as probably even the most distracted student in Hebrew school knows. But bowing down to an idol, a statue, is not something that we are likely to do nowadays, is it? Well, hold on to your pews: I want to talk about idolatry because there have been a lot of talk regarding statues lately, particularly in the South, but also regarding the statue of Teddy Roosevelt in the front of the Natural history Museum in New York. And our tradition can help shedding light on these issues.
What defines idolatry?
In Torah, idolatry is defined by the existence of a belief in a power that is not God, and that power is representable with an image, whether a statue, a painting or something else.
This idol, when properly taken care of, controls nature and human behaviors for the advantage of the follower. It is a form of manipulation of reality, of people and of nature.
Many of us believe that the laws regarding idolatry really do not apply to us anymore – after all, most Americans are not idolaters, we are Jews or Christian or Muslim or nothing. If we think about idolatry at all, we tend to reimagine idolatry as the blind following of money, status, or a charismatic person in detriment of higher values and intimate relationships. Those are all real forms of idolatry, do not get me wrong. But this is a step above the initial idea of idolatry.
Idolatry stays in human consciousness for millennia as a system connected to images.
We all know that images are powerful. An image is worth one thousand words. And an image well placed in space and time is worth ten thousand words. Polytheistic idolatry gets that – think about the gods of the Romans and the Greeks, and the great sculptures that survived to this day, and where they were placed.
Several thousands of years after the Torah kernel about idolatry, the Talmud will discuss it in detail, as it discusses everything in detail.
One of the questions it raised is – what is idolatry and what is decoration? At a certain moment, even the Greek and Roman pagans are using their own statues as decoration and not necessarily worship. The example given is a bathhouse in which a statue of Aphrodite is set in. Can a Jew still use that bathhouse? The answer might surprise you: yes. Why?
Because no one says “let’s make a bathhouse for Aphrodite, they say ‘let’s make an Aphrodite for the bathhouse”. So statues can be just decoration, or they can be something else entirely.
So let’s talk about that “something else entirely:” the rabbis will connect idolatry to two human feelings and ideas. Arrogance is the first one: God and the arrogant cannot dwell in the same place, because an arrogant person leaves no space for God, given that they are so full of themselves – the arrogant person, the Talmud says, is like someone who worships idols. Why? The idea is that self-worship, putting yourself above all other humans, is idolatrous itself. After all, Genesis tells us we are all created in God’s image. So any time you hear someone putting down some one else because of how they were created, beware – this is idolatry, just disguised in arrogance.
A famous story in the Talmud is about a rabbi, who is full of himself because he studied so much Torah. That rabbi sees a hunchback, who greets him with “Peace upon you, my teacher and rabbi” – a very proper and educated greeting. But the rabbi says back “oh, you empty one! Are all the people in your town as ugly as you?” To what the hunchback, obviously used to this kind of treatment, but hurt nonetheless to receive this from a rabbi, answers: I don’t know. But you can go ask my Maker and complain about the ugly vessel He made!”
The rabbi immediately realizes his sin, throws himself on the floor and begs forgiveness.
Why? Because being an obnoxious arrogant person, the rabbi knows, is tantamount to being an idolater.
Anger is the second feeling connected to idol worshiping in the Talmud. It is similar to arrogance in that you see yourself as the center of the universe; it is different than arrogance in that you can be consumed and controlled by anger, which most often leads to destruction. Anger can make you destroy things, relationships, and human lives. It can make you say and do things that, weren’t you under the control of anger, you would never do. Anger can also become a form of manipulation since it is used to intimidate and submit others – this is particularly true in abusive relationships, but more and more we see people using anger to make others bow down to their desires. Anger can even become a habit – there is a side of indulging in that feeling of being powerful.
Now when we think about statues set in certain places, and people protesting the presence of those statues, and others defending the presence of the statues, we have to put all those thoughts together. What does the presence of the statues of Confederate leaders tell African Americans? How can we understand what they mean and what their messages are?
The first thing we have to understand is the story behind those statues, and when they were erected, and why. When people say “you can’t change history” they are right. But you can choose what pieces of history you glorify – because that is one of the functions of statues.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are 1747 memorials to the confederacy in America. 718 of those are statues. Most of those are in the south, but not all. Now that you are reading this online in the blog, here is a link: https://www.splcenter.org/news/2018/06/04/splc-report-more-1700-monuments-place-names-and-other-symbols-honoring-confederacy-remain
Now I imagine we all agree that the Confederacy’s most important goal was to keep slaves in slavery. Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, gave the Cornerstone speech in 1861. He said that maintaining slavery was the immediate cause of declaring the Confederacy. And then he adds – and I’m just quoting here – “the proper status of African Americans is subordination to the superior race.” This is White Supremacy distilled in 12 words. Sure, in the same speech he talks about states’ rights. But we should notice that when the Northern states passed laws to protect runaway slaves, the southern states did not care so much about states’ rights and wanted the federal government to override these laws. So really Confederacy was about slavery, and the claim that the Confederacy was about states’ rights is the sieve trying to cover the sun.
You know the dates better than I do. We all know that the civil war ended in 1865, and that year also mark the founding of the KKK – no coincidence there, as is no coincidence that many of those statues depict Confederate leaders that were also members of the KKK.
But here is the interesting thing about the history of these monuments: according to the Southern Poverty Law Center most statues were actually erected and placed between 1900 and 1920. And that coincides with something that was shocking to me when I learned, after I arrived in America: the establishment of the Jim Crow laws. There is a more appropriate name for them, which is Black Codes, because Jim Crow does not really do justice to what it is: slavery mutated into law.
And here is a link to see the chart that shows the dedication of these statues through time: https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/16/us/confederate-monuments-backlash-chart-trnd/index.html
The presence of those particular statues, just like those particular laws, are about reasserting White Supremacy in the South. The chart of the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that there was another wave of putting up those statues in the South, smaller, but truly there, happened in the 60’s as a response to the Civil Rights movement. Which was another piece of American history that blew my mind when I learned about it. Brazil had slaves in much larger numbers than America, but when slavery was finally abolished in Brazil it came with rights for all, women included. Here we needed Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, among other millions of people fighting then, and still fighting today to make sure that Blacks are treated with a modicum of equality in terms of civil rights.
Those statues, in truth, represent both arrogance and anger. The arrogance of believing that a human is essentially better than another solely because of how they look, and anger at the loss of status and power. Take those two periods of history together and here we see that those statues are to keep Black people “in their place” – because those are the messages of that particular set of images. It is a message of power and of oppression.
If you remember a little of the story of the Maccabees, the one we tell near Chanukah, you will remember that the point of no return was the placement of an idol inside the Beit HaMikdash, inside the Temple. It was a message of power and of oppression: we, civilized, Helenized Syrians, will force you to adopt our view of the world by hook or by crook. Because where and when a statue is placed sends a message to all those who look at it.
And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself – how would you feel if any place in America decided to erect a statue of Adolf Hitler, claiming that it is just telling history how it was?
This thought experiment can only happen in America, because you know, in Germany you do not have any statues or busts of Nazis. No matter how many German soldiers fell, no monument celebrating the Nazi forces are found – but all Germans know of Germany’s past, and all have learned in a long, difficult and hard process, but a process that made Germany a better country.
The point is: Statues do not teach us history; they teach us what values we glorify using history. The statue that I always connected with the Natural History Museum in New York will be coming down soon. I have to say that I have a soft spot for Teddy Roosevelt, in part because he was the father of the National Park System here in America.
But the statue itself, erected in 1940, shows Roosevelt carrying a rifle, on a horse, followed by an African American and a Native American, both half naked, barefoot and unarmed. It was commissioned a few years after his death, in 1925. And just by the description you can tell what values that statue is supporting, and how troublesome it became for the museum in light of our awareness of today.
No one is perfect. We can’t expect from historical figures the values of today. But we can and should decide what values stay as bedrock for our society, and what values do not, what values we glorify today in order to create a country closer to its ideals of giving bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance, what actions we will take to bring about healing and an America that truly gives everyone a fair chance.
When we use symbols and statues and images to oppress people, arrogantly maintain our own power, and angrily ascertain our supremacy, we are committing idolatry. Maybe not the idolatry of bowing down to an idol and offering it food, drink and animals, but the idolatry of anger and arrogance. The idolatry of thinking that the other is necessarily worse than me.
When we embrace those ideas – anger and arrogance, we forget that the very first chapter of the Torah teaches us that all humans are created in the image of God. A midrash in a collecton called Yalkut Shimeoni tells us that when God was about to create the Human, God took land from all the corners of the world. God took black soil, and green soil, and red soil and yellow soil, and each of those were used to make a part of the body of that first Human being, and so no part of the earth could say “humans don’t belong here”.
The Talmud goes one step further: all people are descended from a single human so that no person can say, “My ancestor is greater than yours.”
As we revisit our actions and values this Rosh Hashanah, as we search for ways to heal personally and collectively from a very difficult year, may we revisit our relationship to idolatry and what it means. May our hearts be open to listen, understand and have compassion on all human beings, all created in the same image – the image of God.