Francis Nataf
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Robert E. Lee and the month of Elul

Humanity's cultural yardstick of values is fickle; better to uphold the personalized standards of God

Like many Americans — even in the North — I grew up with a great deal of respect for Robert E. Lee. From what I had read, he was an honorable man who did what he could to defend his neighbors and community. He was known for his impressive initiative and leadership in pushing back the larger and better equipped Union forces again and again. As was the case with many Southerners, the war he fought was not about slavery, but paradoxically about liberty. And though he inherited slaves, his hands were far less tainted in this regard than many of America’s founding fathers. I assume that this is why all the statues and honors granted him have been accepted for so long, in a United States that sees slavery as an obvious evil and injustice. I am not writing to defend the above narrative. Rather, I write as a neutral observer, noticing a not uncommon historical process. A nation’s heroes do not stay static. On the contrary, yesterday’s heroes are often today’s villains.

How great was Peter the Great of Russia, that he should be honored in that country? Indeed, the Communists revoked many of his honors and put up their own heroes in his stead, only to have them brought down a few generations later, in turn. What about Napoleon? As a Jew, it is hard to ignore the fact that he brought formal equality to Jews all over Europe. Indeed, it was not just the Jews who benefited from his reign, but many others as well. Yet he was a dictator and brought unnecessary war and suffering throughout the region. Should there be room for his statues in the new Europe?

Nor is it so obvious that American heroes will stand the test of time either. Did Lincoln really have no other choice than pursuing a war that left 600,000 dead, not to mention the maimed, the destruction and the long term historical fallout that the US faces until this very day? It has been said that the financial resources used by the Union war effort would have been enough to buy the freedom of every last slave in the Confederacy. Likewise, a critical examination of JFK’s tenure might show him to have been a reckless Cold War warrior that committed the US to an unsustainable conflict in Vietnam, and nearly set off a third world war with his policy on Cuba. My point here is not to argue one way or another, simply to illustrate the fact that no legacy is ironclad.

So you will ask, what does that have to do with Elul? Elul is the month that Jews traditionally prepare for the judgement before God, that arrives on its heels at Rosh HaShanah. In Judaism, we speak of God as the true Judge: On the one hand, He sees through the rationalizations we make for ourselves. This includes the most powerful rationalization that I am just going along with what everyone around me is thinking and doing. On the other hand, God is also aware of all the cultural forces and influences that shape us and make us simply assume certain values to be true, without our even being aware of them. When statues come down in Elul, it helps us focus on which judgement we care about more. Do we measure ourselves against the constantly-changing, always fickle yardstick of man, or the true and personalized yardstick of God?

Certainly, it is important to try to honor those who deserve it and not to honor those who don’t. But it is even more important to know that what we decide today may well be overturned tomorrow. It is more important, because it forces us to think beyond the narrow confines of our time and culture. Thinking in such a way is what allowed the Jewish people to bring so much light and progress to the world. Indeed, Moshe might be surprised to know that his image is also among the pantheon of sculptured figures in the world. Surprised, since at the time of his mission, he understood that neither he nor his mission were likely to be met with great accolades. But he also understood that it didn’t much matter. What did matter was teaching and doing what was correct.

As with most issues, having a broader, more thought-out perspective, makes the current American statue-wars pale a bit. For life is not really about the honors we give or receive. It is about deserving them.

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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