Jonathan Muskat

A Torah Perspective on the Statue Wars

Recently, there has been much debate around removing statues and monuments that commemorate historical moments and national heroes whose beliefs and actions are inconsistent with present day attitudes about racial equality.  To me, these debates come down to the overarching question of how we balance two competing values.  On one hand, we want to promote an end to racism and do not wish to glorify those individuals or movements who promulgated racist beliefs.  This may be accomplished by removing some of these statues or monuments.  On the other hand, we value the right to free speech, even when we disagree with its content, and we do not wish to silence free expression.  I am very conflicted about this issue and do not have a clear, definitive view on how to answer this question.  At the same time, I think our Torah and Torah values can provide some direction as to how we approach this debate.  I look forward to your feedback to my article as an opportunity to help further refine my thinking about this issue.

At the outset, I think we should distinguish between those monuments that merely offend us and those monuments that can or may likely incite abuse and violence.  For example, in Prague there is a towering bronze crucifixion statue with a plaque with a Hebrew inscription that reads, “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts.”  The words of the Biblical prophet Yeshayahu were placed by the Prague’s government to humiliate the city’s Jews in 1696, apparently to punish them for an alleged blasphemous act by a Jewish leader.  This statue and inscription are very offensive to me as a Jew.  At the same time, I don’t believe many locals understand the anti-Semitic meaning of the statue and inscription and I am doubtful that this statue and inscription will lead to anti-Semitic behavior.  If my assumption is correct, that the statue and inscription are simply offensive and do not lead to anti-Semitic behavior today, then I would be less inclined to advocate for their removal.  In such a case, I would be more concerned that removing this monument would lean too close to suppressing free speech.  And in fact, maintaining this statue leaves it as a testament to a historical reality that, while upsetting, should not be erased.

Even though we recently read in the Daf Yomi (Shabbat 116a) that we should burn heretical books, I wonder how much this halacha should be practiced and/or publicized because of the impact it can have on suppressing free speech and even potentially the burning of Sifrei Kodesh.  Indeed, only a few years after the public burning of the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed and other works in 1233 by the French authorities at the urging of Rabbinic leaders like Rabbenu Yonah, the Talmud was placed on trial in France and was found guilty. In 1242, 24 cartloads of the Talmud were burned in the city square.  It was reported that Rabbenu Yonah subsequently publicly admitted in the synagogue of Montpellier that he had been wrong in all his acts against the works of the Rambam and begged forgiveness for his actions.  Once we begin to advocate for the destruction of monuments that offend us, we open the door to others advocating for the elimination of our Holy Scriptures that may contain certain beliefs or philosophies that offend others.  It seems to me that there is some real danger in erasing historical works because they are at odds with prevailing beliefs and philosophies of today.  However, preserving such works in libraries or private collections is not the same as holding them up as statues for public celebration.  Is there a way to allow works of history to remain intact as a testament to another time, without honoring the acts and ideologies we find abhorrent by today’s standards?

I think that this approach is consistent with our modern orthodox ideology, as I understand it.  That is, to engage the world and evaluate the world through the prism of Torah.  We encounter ideas and ideologies that may be inconsistent with our religious worldview and that may even offend us.  But we don’t advocate to silence those ideas; rather, we work hard to understand how these ideas came into existence and how we should respond to them, a “da ma l’hashiv” approach, if you will.

Based on this analysis, it would seem to me we should not tear down the Washington and Jefferson Monuments because Washington and Jefferson owned slaves.  I can understand how seeing these leaders who owned slaves being glorified in marble is hurtful to some.  But I don’t think that these monuments induce racist beliefs and ideologies in those who see them today.  It is commonly understood that most people do not see beyond the limits of the society in which they live.  Even for the most forward thinkers, most operate within some boundaries of what is imaginable given the time and culture in which they live.  Our society has progressed from then until now in how we view minority communities.  As such, most reasonable people would not view Washington and Jefferson as individuals who represent leaders of racist ideologies that we should not honor.  They were great individuals living at a time when our thinking in this area was not as developed as it is nowadays.

To me, the trickier question is keeping those statues or monuments that may likely lead to racist thought and incite practices that will be abusive and/or violent.  The Torah believes that every person was created in the image of God and every day in “Ashrei” we recite that God is “rachamav al kol maasav,” or He is merciful to all of His creations.  We have a responsibility to imitate God and to care for the whole world, including every member of society, and to work hard to eliminate abusive, hateful and violent racist behavior.

How should we view Confederate State flags?  Flags, in general, are meant as a symbol or a banner for that which we hold dear.  A confederate flag certainly expresses pride in the Confederate States and that for which they stood.  It is true that the Confederate States stood for many things that may not be objectionable to the average person, like greater states’ rights as opposed to federal rights, but displaying flags of Confederate States of America in the modern era began as a response to the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.  As such, it seems to me that these flags promote ideas and ideologies that will likely lead to abusive, hateful and violent racist behavior, even today.

I will be the first to admit that many of the controversial statues being debated today do not seem to promote racism to me.  For example, outside the Museum of Natural History, the bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback and flanked by a Native American man and an African man is perceived by many as a symbol of a painful legacy of colonial expansion and racial discrimination.  The museum has decided to take the statue down.  I simply believe that this statue reflects the American view of minorities during the presidency of Roosevelt, but it does not reflect what the American view is now.  I view the statue as an important historical piece and not what should be American values today.  And I worry that taking it down errs a little too closely on the side of erasing history and silencing expression. However, others may view it differently and if, indeed, the consensus is that it does, in fact, promote abusive, hateful and violent racist behavior, then I think that there are grounds to remove the statue.

To that point, someone recently asked me how I would feel if there was a statue of a Nazi leader in my neighborhood.  I think that in evaluating a Nazi statue, it is used and currently viewed as a symbol for hate, and not as a tool meant to induce study and reflection about an important time in history.  The Nazis were so extreme in their hatred that the slippery slope argument seems less tenable to me; I am less afraid that removing a statue of a Nazi leader will lead to silencing other types of speech.  However, I must recognize that this is my assessment, and that my judgement in this regard is influenced by my own history and life experiences.  The way that I view the Nazi statue may be the way that others view offensive monuments that are more personal to them.  I’m not sure how to make an objective determination.

I do not believe that most people who advocate for removal of statues and monuments of people that were involved in discriminatory politics are in favor of whitewashing history or pretending that the discriminatory practices never happened.   They argue that a statue in the public square is not studied.  It primarily is erected to honor a person.  I think that there is some halachic basis to make that distinction.  The Torah prohibits the crafting of three-dimensional human sculptures.  The primary concern is one of idolatry, of worshipping that person.  There is nothing halachically wrong with studying about a person, but a sculpture lends itself to honor or even worship.  It should be noted that some halachic authorities like Rav Ovadia Yosef (Halichot Olam, volume 7, p. 281) permit one to own dolls.  He explains that halacha prohibits figures of human beings because they give the appearance of idolatrous articles.  When it comes to toy dolls, however, it is clear to all that they serve as toys for children and are not used as objects of worship.  To me, this demonstrates that sometimes context matters and there is a greater concern of honoring a statue if it is placed in the public square than if it is placed in a museum as a method about studying a person, an era, or how a person was perceived in a certain era.

But I will say this.  I am very concerned with the slippery slope.  I am concerned that in trying to progress as a society, we may sacrifice free speech and find ourselves silencing different ideas and viewpoints.  It is so difficult to have real conversations nowadays because so much is triggering.  We can go so far to eliminating all offensive content that discourse becomes impossible.  Not to mention how much harder it will be to learn from history, if monuments to our challenging history are literally erased.  Abstaining from difficult conversations carries its own real dangers, as this can lead to extremist, violent and hateful behavior among those who have not been exposed to a wider point of view.  In discussing the sin of the tower of Bavel, the Netziv famously explained that the sin was that the leaders wanted to silence multiple ideologies and thoughts.  According to the Netziv, the function of the tower was to become a watchtower to spy on people to ensure uniformity in thought.  The leaders of Bavel wanted to create a totalitarian state without free speech and free expression of different ideas.  The Midrash in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 24) explains that this attitude led people to say that if a person died, then that was of little consequence because he is replaceable, but they would mourn and cry if a brick fell!  When we suppress freedom of thought and freedom of speech, this leads to intolerance, and intolerance leads to violence.  In my mind, there is both a danger of violence in keeping these statues and in removing them.

I would much prefer in general that instead of removing statues we add a plaque clarifying that this statue is for historical purposes only and reflects the zeitgeist of the time, but does not reflect current values of racial equality.  However, I can understand why some would feel that this would not be enough to eliminate the legitimate fear of promoting violent, racist behavior.  Therefore, an honest non-partisan conversation has to be had by stakeholders who value both freedom of speech and racial equality, and are concerned about violence that can emanate from the elimination of either value.  Doing so will enable American society to come to a consensus decision as to what types of statues, if any, can and should be taken down.  Furthermore, a genuine national conversation might be the greatest means to moving our nation forward; away from hate, and toward each other.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.