Living just outside Washington, DC, makes me often ponder the role of monuments and memorials. No matter how often I pass them, I am consistently awed by their gravitas and majesty. I’ve been thinking more about the role they play in our landscape, post-Charlottesville. I imagine we all have.
Many of us entered this High Holiday season with high anxiety. Given the spate of natural disasters and man-made ones, it’s hard not to agree with the visuals that my colleague Rabbi Danny Zemel conjured in his sermon on Rosh HaShanah: “The symbols of this great city all in beautiful white marble are darkened — somehow all gone gray. Is Lincoln bent over in tears in his great chair facing the National Mall? Is Jefferson standing still and erect over the Tidal Basin? Can King hew a stone of hope from a mountain of despair?”
These are powerful images and ones that confirm an observation made by philosophers Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit in their 1994 book “Idolatry”: “Shared values, derived from the association of fixed visual perceptions, create a certain shared sensibility in people.” Monuments are designed to evoke shared responsibilities around heroism, patriotism, social justice, leadership and public service. But what if they don’t? What if their very presence does psychic harm?
Lately, this country is having a symbol problem. Objects have turned into powerful and emotional triggers, be it a bronze statue or a flag. This raises more than just a little second commandment worry about making humans into towering objects of adoration. It’s philosophically unnerving and realistically untenable.
I have a long-held belief that we should stop building statues and naming schools, pools and airports after people. Unless they are certified angels or fictional characters, human beings are flawed, imperfect creatures. We all know names that have been erased from buildings after an embarrassing revelation. It shouldn’t surprise us.
Putting people on a marble pedestal will only mean the crash is more shattering when they fall. And they will fall. Maybe not now. Maybe we will uncover the schmutz in another century, but it’s there because we all have it. This Sukkot, we will read Ecclesiastes [7:20]: “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
Not all statues are the same, of course. A statue of FDR is a far cry from one of Stalin. But it’s still a statue. I am haunted by an exhibit in Prague’s Museum of Communism. There I learned that it took 5 1/2 years to build a 51-foot statue of Stalin, commissioned two years after his death in 1953. It was knocked down in 1962. Otakar Svec, the sculptor, committed suicide the night before its unveiling. His wife committed suicide a year earlier. Two lives were decimated by a man no longer living who was responsible for killing millions. In 1996, as a promotional stunt for a concert, Michael Jackson placed a temporary 35-foot statue of himself in the exact spot. I rest my case.
Idol worship in its most primal sense is the deification of an object. In the Talmud, Rav observed that “the evil inclination for idol worship destroyed the Temple, burned its Sanctuary, was responsible for the murder of the Righteous Ones, and caused the Jewish people to be exiled from their land. And it still dances among us…” We all want to make objects into something grander than they are. The desire still dances among us.
As a retort, this passage of Talmud denies that the worship of objects has any efficacy or force. “Didn’t You give it to us solely for the purpose of our receiving reward for overcoming it? We do not want it, and we do not want its reward” [BT Yoma 69b]. Let us not harbor this temptation at all. So then what became of it? “The prophet said to them: ‘Throw it into a container made of lead and seal the opening with lead, since lead absorbs sound.’” Take the desire to deify an object and bury it in an object. It could never work.
When we crossed the Jordan River into Israel, we took stones to mark the event, objects of the place with no signifying markers. We have no idea where Mount Sinai is or where Moses was buried. In Israel today, you will find few statues. Monuments are generally abstract. The need for adoration of the human must be constantly tempered.
Perhaps it’s time to make monuments to historical experiences rather than to isolate and celebrate individuals. No one person makes a movement. Maybe we can name places after values that we believe should be universal because the need for worship still dances among us. And sometimes the dance becomes violent.
Erica Brown, whose column appears the first week of the month, runs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University. Her new book is “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet” (Koren/OU).