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Are any historical heroes left? Lessons from a people with a long history

Removing the statues of our accomplished leaders - who were also sometimes terribly wrong - hides the fact even our most righteous do err
Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City look at a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, flanked by a Native American man and African American man, on November 17, 2017. The statue will be coming down after the museum's proposal to remove it was approved by the city (AP Photo/ Mary Altaffer/ File)
Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City look at a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, flanked by a Native American man and African American man, on November 17, 2017. The statue will be coming down after the museum's proposal to remove it was approved by the city (AP Photo/ Mary Altaffer/ File)

Like many others, I have been grappling with the widespread reevaluation of historical legacies in the past few weeks. What began as a limited impetus to move faster on the rethinking of Confederate heroes somehow morphed into a reevaluation of American history and its heroes more generally. Hence, statues of the seemingly innocuous Christopher Columbus soon became a target due to his sin of introducing European domination into the Americas and the ultimate decimation of the local populations.

But it has not stopped there; anyone having anything to do with the Confederacy, slave owning, or even a footnote in the racism narrative has been thrown onto the tracks as well. Thus, statues of slave owner president Thomas Jefferson, the most insightful of the founding founders of the American republic, have also been toppled. And it continues: even President Woodrow Wilson appears to have been enough of a racist for his name to have been removed from no less a standard-bearer than Princeton University’s famous Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs.

Since I have little obvious stake in any of this, it is hard to put my finger on why I am so bothered. As a rabbi who certainly wants sins called out, one would think I should welcome any reevaluation of the past if it gets us to do better in the future. I fully subscribe to the notion that the most important thing about the past is the lessons we learn from it. But perhaps my tradition is telling me that the lesson here is a false one.

Let me explain. While Jewish tradition has very high expectations for human behavior, it nevertheless assumes that all humans are fallible. Consequently, Jewish exegetes and teachers like me have been taught to look for and discuss the faults of our greats. At the same time, we have also been taught to evaluate all historical figures within the context of their overall accomplishments as well as the limits placed upon them by their respective time periods.

One of the most poignant illustrations of the latter is the Talmud’s discussion of one of Judea’s worst leaders, King Manasseh (Sanhedrin 102b): Manasseh comes to one of the Talmud’s great teachers, Rav Ashi, in a dream, and shows him that he was a greater Torah scholar than the rabbi. At that point, Rav Ashi asks him the obvious question, “If you knew so much, how could you have succumbed to idolatry?” Manasseh answers, “Had you lived in my time (centuries earlier when idolatry was much more prevalent), you would have run after me to do the same thing!”

Manasseh remains a villain, and we certainly do not name streets after him. Nevertheless, we see a similar approach when it comes to our heroes. Let’s take Moses. The Jews have no greater hero. And yet not only is he criticized by the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash, he is criticized by the Torah itself. The idea seems to be that the good does not cancel the bad any more than the bad cancels the good.

For me, one of the most exciting facets of the Jewish tradition is its awareness of complexity. Humans are messy, such that even so great a figure as Moses is not — you will excuse the expression — lily-white. But neither is Manasseh all bad. This appears to be the background for my discomfort. I am concerned that today’s historical revisionism is moving toward a sterile reductionism of either/or. If an individual does not meet everyone’s hero standard at all times, they are dubbed a villain, or at least unworthy of any general public honor.

I am not giving specific guidelines. I am simply saying that we must not create artificial and superficial benchmarks that deny the complexity of human life and ignore historical context. From there, it is too easy a jump to George Orwell’s dystopian vision, in which “every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered…. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.
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