Neil Janes
Rabbi, Executive Director, Educator, Academic, Writer

Korach’s Rebellion: Firepans, Statues, Racism and Culture

We tell stories of iconoclasm to our children all the time. Remember Abraham’s father – Terach? The sages of antiquity teach a well known and remarkable midrash about his imagined idol business. Abraham, left in charge, smashes up the shop and leaves the stick in the largest idol’s hands. When he’s challenged by his father he says ‘Not me dad, it was the idol that did it.’ Terach recognises this for nonsense and Abraham precociously responds, ‘You pray to it and yet you doubt its power – listen to what you’re saying!’

The midrash continues with Abraham delivered into Nimrod’s hands who challenges Abraham to worship all sorts of things in the natural world. Abraham makes sport of Nimrod too – in an argument ad absurdum he shows the foolishness of praying to things, because ultimately you will end up worshipping people. The midrash concludes with Abraham thrown in a fiery furnace, from which he is saved. But his brother Charan, who hedged his bets as to whether he should side with Abraham or Nimrod (monotheism or idolatry), dies.

The rhetoric would doubtless not be lost on Jews of the first centuries living in the cultural milieu of the Greco-Roman world – remember Exodus 20:4, “Thou shalt not make a graven image…”. In their world surrounded by gods and their statues, the sages were saying, ‘don’t be seduced by them and don’t hedge your bets.’

Of course, in terms of iconoclasm, one of our most striking examples is Elijah against the Prophets of Baal and Prophets of Asherah. Remember Charan who, in the rabbinic imagination, hedged his bets. Well listen to Elijah in I Kings 18:21:

“Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Eternal is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!” But the people answered him not a word.”

When nothing happens to the bull that was to be offered up in the contest between the Prophets of Baal and Elijah over whose god was really God, Elijah mocks them and says:

““Shout louder! After all, he is a god. But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.”” I Kings 18:27

Iconoclasm is a tough gig and persuading people to stop worshipping idols can be a long process of deprogramming. The outcome of the contest of course is that God is vindicated and the people are convinced and call out those words that we recite at the end of Yom Kippur:

Adonai hu haElohim, Adonai hu haElohim”

Adonai he is God, Adonai he is God

In thinking of iconoclasm and tearing down idols, I think of King Josiah (7th Century BCE). When he sends money for restoration of the Temple, a scroll is given to him from the High Priest Hilkiah (II Kings 22). The scroll is read to King Josiah and he is distraught that the word of God has not been followed. In an act which is reminiscent of the public reading of the scrolls of the law in other places in the Hebrew Bible, the text is read to everyone and they affirm to follow with all their heart and soul the commandments of God. Thereafter, King Josiah tears down every idol, cultic centre and component of idolatry and worship of Baal and Asherah in his kingdom. The altars are smashed into dust and buried. With puritanical zeal, Josiah removes necromancy, mediums and anything detestable (II Kings 23). The land is purified of idolatry.

We have plenty of figurines of Baal and Asherah in museums around the world from the ancient Levant. In fact, a most recent article in Haaretz tells of archaeologists thinking that a ‘staff’ of the like perhaps that Moses carried, has been identified as a possible life-size staff of an idol of Baal some 3200 years old – idols the like of which scholars think may have been dotted all around the region. This staff was found at Lachish – an ancient site dating back over three thousand years though possibly familiar to you from the Lachish reliefs which are found in the British Museum which were found in Iraq and testify to the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s victory of Judah and siege of Lachish in 701 BCE.

From Abraham to Elijah, from King Josiah in the 7th century BCE to midrashim in late antiquity, we teach iconoclasm from an early age. But statues are not idols and slavery and racism is not theology. And even though some Jews profess a kind of puritanical position vis a vis art work that depicts the human form, most of us would hold that we can differentiate between art work and objects of worship.

So how do we respond to the national debate about statues and eponymous places in the landscape of Britain?

I remember seeing the paintings of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand at Hampton Court Palace. I suppose I should thank them really, because without them my children would not exist…we’re pretty sure my wife’s Alexandrian family arrived in Egypt several generations after their expulsion from Spain in the 15th century. Isabella and Ferdinand, whose statues can be seen in many places, were Catherine of Aragon’s parents – Henry VIII’s first wife, which is why their portraits are found at Hampton Court Palace. And it was under their reign that in 1492, the same year as the Jews were expelled, that Columbus sailed the ocean blue and Europe rediscovered the Americas.

Did I want a massive sign underneath their portraits telling everyone the less edifying aspects of their lives? Possibly. Though I’d rather a photograph of me and my family under their portraits, all in order to say in the caption: ‘Yeah, thanks for the murder, forced conversion and expulsion, but we’re still here’. Portraiture and statues are not easy educational bedfellows (as any talented tour guide will tell you) and good history teaching is not indoctrination, and I’m not sure Hampton Court Palace would go for my suggestion as part of their position in our national heritage! Though two years ago the Tower of London (another branch of the Historic Royal Palaces) devoted a great deal of time to thinking about the place of medieval Jewry in its history.

However, in Hampton Court Palace there is context and an exploration of history that educates and informs – I recommend it by the way. And you have to pay to get in, so you’ve already arrived with intention of being informed. But a statue in the middle of Bristol – that’s different, most people do not have a clue about what these public monuments stand for or are designed to evoke. The argument for education is spurious and deep down we all know that. Statues are about public signalling, not educating. We need to confront racism in society and, yes, change our public space landscape to reflect a changing understanding of our society and our history as much as change how we project a vision of our future.

You see, history, memory and national culture are complicated. I’m reminded of Professor Robert Cover’s seminal article ‘Nomos and Narrative’ in 1983 in which he grapples with the particular and the universal. Specifically, how to understand the strong forces that tie individual communities together through the specific, the particular, to create their cultural worlds. His example of this is the three pillars of Simeon the Righteous, “The world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah (Temple worship) and Gemilut Chasadim (Deeds of Loving Kindness)” (Pirke Avot 1:2). He contrasts these with the weak forces which are “The universalist virtues that we have come to identify with modern liberalism, the broad principles of our law” and these he says, “are essentially system-maintaining”. For these his examples are those of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel who says the world is maintained on three things, “Justice, Truth and Peace” (Pirke Avot 1:18).

Our universal enlightenment ideals of justice, equality, autonomy and universalism allow our worlds to contain the complexity of variety, different religious communities and cultures. As Jews we have Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim. Other religious communities have other principles and central tenets. And the universal virtues, the weak forces, allow us to negotiate the civic space when communities or particularist ideas come into conflict or require navigation. Cover highlights in his time, Roe vs Wade and Furman vs Georgia, landmark cases that dealt with a pregnant woman’s right to bodily integrity and freedom and the application of the death penalty. Narrative worlds are complex and Cover also discusses both civil rights and the abolition of slavery in his article and the way that the constitution was interpreted and changed in the USA – the law, you see, can change. His article concludes, in predicting a new moment of change:

It will likely come in some unruly moment – some undisciplined jurisgenerative impulse, some movement prepared to hold a vision in the face of the indifference or opposition of the state. Perhaps such a resistance – redemptive or insular – will reach not only those of us prepared to see law grow, but the courts as well. The stories the resisters tell, the lives they live, the law they make in such a movement may force the judges, too, to face the commitments entailed in their judicial office and their law.

The national and communal narratives that locate and give meaning to law can also change, in fact, they must change. This is more than history, it is the way we give voice to our sense of who we are and how we come to be and of where we are heading. The epic narrative of our people begins in the beginning and the first monotheistic family of Abraham and Sarah, it continues through the miraculous redemption of the Exodus. The individual and the national covenantal narrative provides a rich framework for every Jew that has lived and they endure through time and give us a sense of the future – though postmodernism has had its effect on that too, just read Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s book ‘Zachor’ or Professor Moshe Halbertal’s ‘The People of the Book’ to see how. But, here in the UK, our national character and narrative – the stories we tell ourselves about who we are in Britain – are not settled and for good reason. The rupture and discourse around our national character and culture, of the formative stories we tell ourselves, brought to relief by the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and also by the far right counter thuggery, means that there is a moment for renewal and a process of recreation.

In my first visit to Budapest, Jeremy Leigh – my teacher and guide – took us to Memento Park. It was after our visit to Prague, where we heard the chime of the astronomical clock with the image of the Miser (the Jew) just one of the many anti-Jewish medieval images around Europe. But here in Budapest at Memento Park, the statues of Marx, Lenin and Engels, along with other communist leaders, are on display. The statues are those which were removed after the fall of communism and the park created in 1991. Ákos Eleőd, the architect who designed the park, said:

This Park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described and built up, this Park is about democracy. After all, only democracy can provide an opportunity to think freely about dictatorship. Or about democracy, come to that! Or about anything!

It’s a brilliant place to visit in order to think about how we conceptualise memory and represent a national identity in monuments and statues. In removing the statues but keeping the statues, a new kind of discourse and national identity was formulated, post communism. I’ve been thinking a lot about my visit there and amusement at seeing the kitsch ‘souvenirs’ of communism being sold in the gift shop. Beneath the playfulness of the experience, lies something more serious about public space, about ideology and about how architecture, art and space, can be utilised to create conversation or constrain conversation.

And on that I am reminded of the firepans of Korach’s rebellion. The contest between Moses and Aaron and the rebels leads to unequivocal proof that God chooses Moses and Aaron to lead, not the rebels. But note well, the firepans were not being used for idolatry – they are being used as part of the religious process of self-understanding of the community. And it’s because of that I think we’re told in Numbers 17:3:

“[Remove] the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar—for once they have been used for offering to the Eternal, they have become sacred—and let them serve as a sign to the people of Israel.”

They have become sacred – holy – set apart. Their function in trying to offer tribute to God was part of the story of the community self-understanding and once used for this purpose they cannot be thrown away. They are hammered into a plating for the altar as a sign for the people. It is from this snippet that the Talmud in Menachot 99a learns: One does not decrease in ‘set apartness’ (in holiness) one only ever increases. Having been used for this purpose the firepans cannot be just thrown on the rubbish heap, but they also cannot remain as firepans functioning in the way that they were. Ingeniously they are incorporated into the continued religious and civic life of the people as part of the altar and it is here that they are to serve as a ‘sign’.

And what sign is it that they serve? In Rashi’s commentary he gives us the answer (drawing on Torah) writing that a sign is a remembrance or a memorial – in order that people looking on the plating around the altar would be reminded of the story of Korach and its consequences.

Now am I not suggesting that slavery was some kind of equivalent to an offering to God by the Korach rebels – absolutely not. Nor am I suggesting we take the statues in our public squares and beat them into plating for some other ‘set apart’ purpose of civic life. Or even that we melt them down, grind them up or follow the Roman model as explained by Professor Dame Mary Beard:

It was common practice to give a makeover to a marble head and to change the image of one emperor you didn’t like into that one you did (or, to put it another way, to save money by recycling the old guy into the new). And occasionally you could even change one god into another just by changing the statue’s label.

No, don’t destroy. But we should think creatively, like in Budapest, like with the story of Korach, about how we view our past and the history we tell ourselves about it and how that history informs our sense of who we are today. Let’s be ingenious. This is a moment of opportunity to think about our vision of Britain. And we should take it, not miss it by drawing a dividing line between those who tear down and those who demand never to tear down.

Culture is not something that exists in a refined and monolithic form. It is created and recreated and we are participants in that. And memory and memorialisation is part of culture – statues are not a history lesson, they are about the stories we tell ourselves and those we choose not to tell, or unconsciously omit. The debate over Colston’s statue is not just about the statue and, as Professor David Olusoga, a much greater expert on this subject than me, writes:

We do need to rethink who is memorialised in our public spaces. Bristol is a better city without Edward Colston. But statues are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The real conversation has to be about racism and how we confront it.

As a nation we have just about survived part one of Brexit which really did very little for us in thinking about who we want to be as a country in regard to our opposition to racism or immigration, except perhaps our nostalgia for a fantasy of an independent past. And throughout the Brexit debate we endured the rhetoric alongside all manner of inflammatory anti-migrant billboards and false promises on buses and then…and then the same day the anti-migrant ‘Breaking Point’ poster was being written about in the national press, we were horrified as we heard of the murder of Jo Cox MP on the 16 June 2016, by someone with far right tendencies.

Now in 2020, plunged into a pandemic we have new conversations about health and socio-economic inequality, the welfare state, and undervalued essential workers. And again the conversation we are having is about race as part of our wider analysis of the response to COVID-19 – because people of Black, Asian and Ethnic minorities are being affected disproportionately and we do not know enough about why. These are things that demands us to move beyond scientific answers to look at the public policy questions and social challenges.

We have to talk about our culture and our society, plurality of debate and the type of world in which we want to raise the next generation. Some might even call it a vision – and not a soundbite vision on a bus, but something that is hard work and allows the navigation of conflict and the holding of a variety of voices. One thing is for certain, I don’t want us to be distracted by debates over boarding up statues or removing them when something more significant is at stake than an object of adoration or repulsion. We don’t worship stone, metal or marble and we cannot afford to pick the wrong conversation. The conversation now should be about racism, about Britain’s historical role in the slave trade and the history of abolition, the ongoing issue of slavery in the world, how we respond to the problems of the hostile environment and the Windrush scandal, our discourse on immigration and asylum as we leave the EU and the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on people who are Black, Asian and minority ethnic and other religious groups. The boarded up Cenotaph and statue of Winston Churchill, alongside the far right thugs performing a Nazi salute is a warning about losing sight of the debate – there are sinister undercurrents at work in the far right who will seize on this moment to harm us. As David Olusoga writes:

Those who hope and believe that this moment could bring about real social change have to confront a difficult question. If forced to choose between a proper national debate on racism or the statue wars, which is it to be? Of course, there should be no binary choice here. But I fear there might be – and the former has to be prioritised over the latter. This is not to say that the process by which we reassess and in some cases remove statues of slave traders and other men who did terrible things should stop. But it is to say that allowing the statues issue to get in the way of the anti-racism debate would be a mistake, and would empower objects that we mostly ignore.

In the end, yes history is complex and historical figures are invariably full of actions that may be regarded as righteous and also evil. Any school age history student can tell you that. This is not a simplistic debate over whether any one person should have a concert hall named after them or their statue torn down from a public space. But lest anyone pretend that complexity can be used as a veil for saying there are fine people on both sides and to equivocate over the right and wrong of anti-black racism or of slavery- let us be clear, our universal values of equality and freedom are at stake. There is no hedging of our bets. This is about who we are and who we would like to be as a nation, our vision of the future, and how we can confront the evil of racism in all its forms.

About the Author
Rabbi Neil Janes is part of the rabbinic team of West London Synagogue of British Jews and Executive Director of the Lyons Learning Project. He was ordained by the Leo Baeck College in 2006 and as part of his studies he learnt at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. From 2006-2010 he was the rabbi of Finchley Progressive Synagogue and from 2011-2015 he was one of the rabbis of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St Johns Wood. Rabbi Janes is researching for a PhD studying rabbinic literature at Kings College London. Neil is a lecturer at the Leo Baeck College teaching Talmud and Midrash. In addition to his MA in Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Neil also has a BA in Psychology and Education from Cardiff University.
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