In Judaism, Heroes Are Not Saints and That’s Okay

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked legitimate outrage not only across America, but across the globe. If there is anything positive to come out of this horrific incident it is that the United States and other nations will finally address long-festering issues of police brutality, racism, and other inequities.

But the murder of Floyd has also unleashed a wave of illegitimate and destructive nihilism. In its early stages, the nihilism took the form of wanton destruction of property and other violence that resulted in still more deaths. More recently, it has manifested itself in a fanatical form of Wokeism that seeks to delegitimize the underpinnings of Western civilization.

In a new outbreak of Puritanism, not witnessed in what is now the United States since the Salem witch trials, woke mobs are serving as judge, jury and executioners of long-dead icons. With the fervor of Iran’s religious police, Woke mobs have taken it upon themselves to smash or deface statues and monuments dedicated to those who do not pass muster with a morality code that came into being five minutes ago. In the United Woke States of America, even the greatest of our historical figures — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, to name just a few — now face their comeuppance at the hands of the mob, or at least their granite and bronze likenesses do.

Judaism — a value system that has been around a bit longer than Wokeism — seems to take a more charitable view of our imperfect historical figures, and Tanach makes no effort to mask their human sins and foibles.

The second Parasha of the Torah is introduced with these words: “These are the offspring of Noah — Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” Numerous commentators observe that the Torah’s message here is that context is important. In a time of rank degeneracy, Noah (whose personal flaws become evident as the story unfolds) stood out as a righteous man whom God saw fit not only to save, but if the Torah is to be taken literally, as the progenitor of all humankind.

Moving forward a millennium, we find the story of King David, another venerated but deep flawed figure. David, was the man who composed psalms that are recited to this day by Jews and Christians, and from whom it is said the Messiah will descend. He was also the same monarch who calculatingly used the power of his office to dispatch Uriah, the husband of Batsheva, to his certain death, because he coveted her (see: Commandment #10) for himself.

Likewise, David’s son and heir, King Solomon is an equally complicated figure — a man who used his “privilege” to indulge his lust for gold, women, horses, and other forms of self-aggrandizement. And yet, he was the man chosen by God to build His Holy Temple. Solomon’s lofty and prophetic writings, most notably Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs remain part of both the Jewish and Christian canons, in spite of the author’s thoroughly document character flaws.

The list of flawed Jewish heroes who failed to live up to the ideals set forth in the Torah, and yet whose achievements changed the course of history, has carried on throughout the ensuing millennia right up to this day, including the founders and current leaders of the modern state of Israel.

Radical Wokeism, which posits that our civilization must be razed to the ground because it is rooted in original sin and brought into being by sinners, is nihilism at its worst. Liberal democratic societies, which are the offspring of ideas and laws first propagated in Tanach, acknowledge the sins and mistakes of those on whose shoulders we stand. We reap enormous benefit from their successes and accomplishments and, hopefully, learn from their personal and collective failures. 

We should have the humility to recognize that we do not possess the moral authority to sit in judgment of people who lived in different epochs, to trash their characters, or ban their books and films (one small step short of burning them). Leaders, military heroes, writers, artists have never been saints, and neither are the people who judge them unfit for veneration.

About the Author
Ira Mehlman is a media and public relations consultant based in Seattle
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