Eli Birnbaum
Rabbi, writer, educator, dreamer, millennial, closet anthropologist

Bulls On Parade

(Pixabay.com)

Across the globe, monuments fall. In Bristol earlier this month, large crowds tore down the statue of deputy governor of the Royal African Company and (therefore) prominent slave trader, Edward Colston (1636-1721). His effigy was dragged through the streets before being dumped in the river Avon as the crowd cleansed the city of Colston’s legacy by removing it from under the shadow of his watchful gaze.

Embed from Getty Images

This isn’t the first time Colston has been front and center of public scrutiny. Commemorating Anti-Slavery Day in October 2018, an anonymous street artist created a powerful installation at Colston’s feet: a scale-model sculpture of a slave ship, packed with its macabre human cargo and surrounded by descriptions of the demeaning tasks they performed.

(James Beck/Freelance)

Although only installed temporarily, the artwork sparked a passionate debate as pressure grew to reword the plaque on Colston’s plinth in order to publicize the historically uncensored version of one of Bristol’s “most virtuous and wisest sons” (text of the original plaque from 1895). True, Colston donated an estimated £17,000L (the equivalent of almost £2 million today) to various causes across the city, but the public deserved to know the unethical and immoral source of his vast wealth.

Sadly, as is often the case when bureaucrats get involved in anything, no-one could agree on the revised wording. And so the application of July 2018 was edited and resubmitted in a third attempt later that year. This edition was approved at council level, commissioned and even cast, before being vetoed by the mayor’s office in March 2019 for being too gracious in its portrayal of Colston’s role as a slave trader. Having read the text of the ‘plaque that almost was’, I tend to agree with the mayor’s critique and eleventh-hour interjection.

By the time discussions for a fourth edition were re-opened, it was too late. Colston’s monument was ‘sleeping with the fishes’ and one of Bristol’s “most virtuous and wisest sons” was nothing but an empty plinth. Who knows; perhaps the crowds would have been ‘plaque-ated’ had a more accurate and honest description of Colston’s exploits been in place.

The whole saga got me thinking. I sat for a while, gazing at the two pictures – one of Colston thrown into a river, the second of the 2018 art installation. And I wondered: which of the two approaches to confronting the indignity of our past is the most ‘virtuous and wise’?

Perhaps you’re of the persuasion that neither approach is wise. Perhaps you feel that ‘revising’ history by imposing modern values on bygone eras is a futile exercise in intellectual dishonesty. Perhaps you would highlight that everything he did, despite being morally reprehensible, was perfectly legal (at the time) – and therefore impossible to criticize from the comfortable context of the 21st century. Perhaps you would prefer to remember people like Colston for the good he did, invoking classic Jewish concepts such as giving the benefit of the doubt.

For my part, I struggled to accept any of the arguments above. I knew that I agreed with the action against Colston and innumerable other effigies across the globe. But for the life of me, I couldn’t decide. Remove, or revise? Dunk, or detail? Remember, or forget?

I found myself contemplating sections in the Torah that deal with episodes of public shame. We are blessed in that the corpus of our literature is overflowing with examples. Sins are not glossed over. Mistakes are laid bare for all to see. More prescient than those who erected statues of morally ambiguous and sometimes appalling individuals not all that long ago, the Torah speaks from antiquity to a flawed, vulnerable humanity; cautioning us against the hubris of celebrating finite dust in a desert ever-shifting with the sands of time.

My mind drifted to the story of the Golden Calf; that gold standard of biblical sin whose ripples are felt in every calamity that has and will ever befall the Jewish people (Talmud Sanhedrin 102a). I was drawn to Moses’ reaction to that national catastrophe. It is a reaction that is at once easy to relate to and yet profoundly informative, not least for the fact that according to tradition, it was one of only three occasions in forty years that Moses acted without first consulting God.

(Pixabay)

Already fully aware of what the people are up to (God informs him such in Exodus 32:7-10 and Moses prays for forgiveness in response), Moses’ reaction when he actually sees the idolatrous revelry unfolds in stages. The first is visceral and driven by emotion:

And Moses turned and descended from the mountain. And the two tablets of the Covenant were in his hand…And it was as he drew near to the camp, and he saw the [golden] calf and the people dancing; and his anger flared, and he threw down the tablets from his hand, and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”

“And Moses took the [golden] calf that they had made, and he melted it, breaking it down until it was extremely fine. And he sprinkled the remnants across the water, and he gave it to the Children of Israel to drink.

Moses’ decision to shatter the tablets was so unusual and indeed surprising that the sages (Talmud Shabbat 87a) were compelled to use biblical exegesis in order to demonstrate that he had in fact channeled his anger in a way that met with divine approval.

Stage one: Emotion.

The next stage is a crucial one, often overlooked when emotions run high. Moses moves to contextualize the tragedy. How and why did it happen? He holds Aaron – leader in his absence – directly accountable, but gives the him ample time and space to offer an explanation.

And Moses said to Aaron: ‘What did this people do to you, that you brought upon them a great sin?’

Stage two: Clarity.

The final stage is perhaps the most powerful and relevant to us today. After praying for forgiveness, shattering the tablets at the foot of the mountain, melting the idol and forcing the people to face the realities of their misjudgment by internalizing (drinking) its remnants, we are left wondering: whatever happened to the broken shards of the first tablets? The Talmud explains: We kept them.

‘The Ark of the Covenant contained nothing, aside from the [second] tablets and the shards of the broken [first] tablets’ (Bava Batra 14b).

Stage three: Memory.

In summary:

  1. Emotion:  Caught in the heat of the moment, be mindful of the raw feelings it evokes. Do not be afraid to accept those feelings, acting on them if necessary.
  2. Clarity: Now – crucially – take a step back from the moment and its maelstrom of emotions to properly contextualize the facts, processing how and why things went so wrong.
  3. Memory: Take a step forward into what will be a ‘new’ moment by preserving the memory of the catastrophe. Know where you have come from in order to grasp where it is you must go.

Looking at how protests around the globe have spilled over into destruction and impromptu acts of culture-cleansing, it would appear that we are still at stage one of the process. It is a painful but necessary stage (within reason) – a cathartic and urgent ‘cultural coming of age’. But the stages to come are far harder to navigate. Taking that step back to calmly analyse the facts requires enormous restraint, patience and impartiality. Preserving the memory of the disaster requires courage, humility and honesty.

The episode of the Golden Calf helped guide my outlook on what has been a turbulent month. It showed me: Impassioned, instinctive reactions are normal and indeed can even be highly beneficial. But without the ‘deep breath’ of grounded reckoning, it is impossible to know for certain what the underlying problems really are. And without a powerful and lasting reminder of those problems, we run the risk of ultimately losing the impetus and focus to fix them.

What intrigued me about this final idea is that it is the non-abstract, tangible legacy of the Golden Calf; a physical reminder that would accompany the Jewish people throughout the entirety of the eras of Judges and Kings. Leaders came and went, enemies rose and fell, Israel waxed and waned. But those shards remained, placed in the holiest article in the holiest location, a silent witness to a paradise lost: Remember. Remember what you broke. Remember why it was broken. Learn how to fix it.

About the Author
Born and raised in London, England. I spent six years in Talmudic College before studying for Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. I hold a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. I am fascinated by pretty much everything, but nothing more so than exploring current affairs through the kaleidoscope of Jewish continuity in the 21st century. I currently oversee Aish UK's educational and published content. (All views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of Aish UK).
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