What goes up when the idols come down?

Photo by author, 2/10/2020 - "Rumors of War" by Kehinde Riley, displayed in front of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  The piece is the sculptor's response to "seeing the Confederate monuments.  What does it feel like if you are Black and walking beneath this.  We come from a beautiful, fractured situation.  Let's take these fractured pieces and put them back together."  Quote from https://www.vmfa.museum/about/rumors-of-war/
Photo by author, 2/10/2020 - "Rumors of War" by Kehinde Riley, displayed in front of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The piece is the sculptor's response to "seeing the Confederate monuments. What does it feel like if you are Black and walking beneath this. We come from a beautiful, fractured situation. Let's take these fractured pieces and put them back together." Quote from https://www.vmfa.museum/about/rumors-of-war/

I remember things being blown up. One of my earliest recollections is the TV news coverage of the Brady Street Bridge being dropped into the Monongahela river.  Years later, the Greenfield Bridge, mere blocks from where I lived, started losing pieces onto the highway below, and ultimately met the same fate as the Brady Street while people watched live over the internet.  Even the home of four Super Bowl championship teams and two World Series victors (yes, there were World Series games in Pittsburgh.  With fans in the stands.  Sitting mere inches apart) couldn’t escape the high explosives; Three Rivers Stadium came down in 2001 to make way for its two successors, flanking the parking lot that was poured over the old building’s footprint.

They couldn’t dynamite Pitt Stadium; it was too close to too many busy streets and other buildings.  To make way for the Petersen Events Center, the old concrete bowl was painstakingly and very loudly deconstructed, its turf peeled up and cut into squares for sale, and the rubble carted away over the course of a year.  I remember this one best of all, because I spent that year sitting in the building across the street, trying to study over the noise of the cranes and wrecking balls.  It was my first year of medical school.

I was still holed up in that same building the following year when there was a demolition that got a lot more attention.  It wasn’t a decrepit bridge or an outdated stadium whose time had come, but an irreplaceable piece of history halfway around the world from my study table – the stone Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

For 25 days in March, 2001, the Taliban bombed away at those statues carved into the sandstone cliffs, forcing prisoners from the city to lay the explosives, until nothing remained except the stone recesses into which the statues had originally been carved[i].  The Taliban were not trying to bring the cliffs up to code, or put up newer, more modern Buddhas.  They were tearing down an idol.  In the years since, sites in Iraq and Syria have met the same fate, for the same reason, as the Bamiyan Buddhas.  ISIL weren’t much for ancient history, either, if it looked like idolatry to them.

I felt like I should be horrified – and yet there is a commandment in the Torah, one that was read during my own aufruf and which we read again this week, that tells us to do exactly this sort of thing on entering the land.  “You shall smash their altars, and you shall shatter their monuments, and their sacred trees you shall burn in fire, and the idols of their gods you shall cut down and you shall eradicate their name from that place.” (Deuteronomy 12:3, italics mine, translation from the 2018 Steinsaltz Chumash).  It begged the question: whose side was I on, the Buddha or the Taliban?  Ironically, one of the areas where Islam and Judaism are pretty much in lockstep is in a vigilant opposition to the worship of objects, graven images, or any depiction of God.  Islam takes it so far that Islamic art consists primarily of calligraphy, rather than risk any sort of depiction.

Surely, I argued in a d’var Torah I gave in 2018, the idolatry that challenges us today is more symbolic, and no amount of destroying statues will suffice to “cut down” idols like the profit motive, or racial hatred, or the incessant spreading of gossip that seems to power most of the content of produced and social media.  Did we really see ourselves on the same side of this – or any – issue as a group that would tear down an “idol” while at the same time treating their prisoners with the same regard for human life as the builders of the Tower of Babel?

But it was 2018.  Events were already underway that should have, even then, caused me to see yet another layer to this question.  Already, a year earlier, the deadly conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, had erupted after the city decided to move a statue of Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Confederate Army, out of a public park.  A graven image, representing values the city no longer endorsed, had to go.[ii]  Lee is under fire this year, too.  Sherman Neal II, a veteran and now assistant football coach at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, is a leading voice asking that city to remove a statue of Lee from the square in front of the courthouse.[iii]

Lee has company, though.  Central Park in New York City has all sorts of fascinating statues, including one of Balto, the half-dog, half-wolf sled-puller that helped save the children of Nome, Alaska from a diphtheria epidemic.  But one statue you will no longer see there is the statue of J. Marion Sims.  Sims is known as the father of modern obstetrics and gynecology – and known for making most of his important discoveries through experimenting, without anesthesia or consent, on enslaved women.  In 2018, the city removed the statue from Central Park and deposited it next to Sims’ grave in a Brooklyn cemetery.[iv]

Protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd this spring often targeted statues and monuments of the Confederacy, slavery, and white hegemony, from generals to segregationist politicians to former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, known for his endorsement of brutal police tactics during his tenure in the ‘60s.  Meanwhile, the last few years have seen movements to knock even US presidents off of their proverbial pedestals for their roles in slaveholding, segregation, and the slow genocide of the First Nations: Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, and inevitably Washington and Jefferson.

All of which led my decidedly secular friend in Herzliya to share the following with me last month:

“…I gained a deeper understanding for the wisdom of the [‘make no graven images’] commandment.  Don’t make statues of your great leaders, for they are doomed to eventually disappoint.  Heroes often don’t age well, no human is perfect, and if we intend to improve ourselves, far better to be inspired by the best of their ideals… than to venerate (or worse, deify) their flawed humanity.”

The Torah doesn’t tell us to smash the idols of our enemies in order to erect new ones of our own.  It tells us to smash idols because there shouldn’t be statues we set up to worship in the first place.  Most of my parents’ generation cheered when statues of Josef Stalin were pulled down during rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  Many in my generation celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein’s likeness in Baghdad in 2003 (which, come to think of it, strongly resembled Stalin’s).  But how worthwhile is it if the we replace a Louis XVI statue with a Napoleon, a czar with a Stalin, or a Lee with a civil rights leader who later turns out to have committed fraud, or domestic violence, or worse?  A person we lionize for years can be laid low by one misdeed – or even by the failure to prevent someone else’s hateful act, as in the case of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno (lion pun intended).  Our likenesses may be made of stone – our reputations are not.

Which brings me back to that noisy room overlooking Terrace Street.  It’s in a building named Scaife Hall.  The Scaife in question is Alan Magee Scaife, notable mostly for being wealthy and related by marriage to the Mellon family.  Yet the 2018 Racial Justice Report Card commissioned by White Coats for Black Lives identifies Scaife as a building with a racist legacy.  Scaife’s daughter, Cordelia May Scaife, believed in eugenics, and was a strong supporter of anti-immigrant policies in the US.  It’s not clear whether her father held the same views in his lifetime, but the association was enough that WC4BL thought it was time for a change.[v]

My alma mater has had to ditch a building name already in the past decade, removing the name of Thomas Parran from the school of public health in 2018 after it became painfully clear that, as surgeon general of the US from 1938-1948, he had not only participated in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study (and a less well-known study done in Guatemala), but was likely its designer.[vi]  Parran also perpetuated the “American Plan,” under which women underwent harmful treatment and forced sterilization under suspicion of being “promiscuous,” whether or not they actually had any sexually transmitted diseases.[vii]

But whose name goes up in place of Parran and Scaife?  Just a few blocks from those two buildings is an empty plinth, once occupied by a troubling statue of the songwriter Stephen Collins Foster standing over a Black man playing the banjo and looking up at him adoringly.  Foster took leave of his post just a few months before Parran vacated his name-plate; the plinth still sits alone.

After I read the report card, I did a little thought experiment: whose name would I put in Scaife’s place.  I thought of the recently deceased Dr. Morris Turner, a legend among Pittsburgh OB/GYN physicians, whose hands brought thousands of babies into the world.  A deserving honoree, but perhaps not a public enough figure.  Former Pitt pathologist Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian physician whose work on CTE led to the sea-change in rules around head injury in 21st century sports, also came to mind, yet Omalu, perhaps because of the people he chose to challenge with his findings, fights a constant battle to preserve his reputation as a scientist.  I pondered Rebecca Skloot, a Pitt-associated author whose book on Henrietta Lacks was a major contribution to understanding the way in which Lacks’ cell line helped to catapult researcher after researcher to fame while her legacy and her family were forgotten in obscurity.  But wouldn’t honoring Skloot, a White woman, just perpetuate the same indignity that had been done to Lacks repeatedly before Skloot’s book came out?

An old Israeli pop song about the Western Wall, called “HaKotel,” choruses, “yesh anashim im lev shel even, yesh avanim im lev adam.” “There are people with hearts of stone, there are stones with human hearts.”  In the end, the statues, and the plaques, are human beings turned to stone.  Ossified in that stone are all the deeds, good and bad, hidden and revealed, of the people whose likenesses are carved there.  As my Herzliya friend pointed out, they don’t age well.  But 1950 years later, the Kotel still stands with the power to make us weep.  So, too, the civil rights memorial, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial, and countless other structures which carry not a name, but a message; they are stones with human hearts.  Not a statue of Dr. King, but enduring words that he spoke, not of his own, but from the Bible: “Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Words, not statues.  A very Jewish memorial.  The legend is told of Shimon haTzadik, a sage from the era of Alexander the Great, meeting the emperor to address his demand that a statue of him be built in Jerusalem.  Rather than engage in open rebellion, as happened some 160 years later under the Hasmoneans, Shimon haTzadik called Alexander’s bluff.  “We cannot agree to your statue.  However, surely you know that we Jews value nothing so much as our children.  Let our tribute to you be that every boy born in a Jewish family for the next year will bear the name Alexander.”  To this day there are Jewish Alexanders, including one rabbi who honored me with a speaking invitation to his shul last fall, but no statue of Alexander the Great in Israel.

Words, not statues.  The greatest legacies left by many Jewish luminaries are their books, and while some books are indeed known by their author’s names (the old blue Chumash is the Hertz, the heavy Talmudical dictionary the Jastrow), Jewish culture is curious in that many times, the authors become known by the titles of their books: the Chofetz Chaim, the Ben Ish Chai, the Netivot Shalom.

If we are going to knock down these idols, let’s put something different in their place when the dust and rubble settle: sites of inspiration.  Memorials not to one “great” individual, but to the thousands who can finally be named by name, whose memories have been suppressed and covered up by the people who used to sit on that pedestal.  Words of comfort and encouragement, poems and prose and preaching.  Living monuments, like that year of the Alexanders – people who resolve never to oppress, never to experiment on their fellow human beings without consent or compassion, never to settle for an unjust arrangement.  People with the humility to know that no matter what they achieve, a new generation will someday come and say, “you don’t deserve to be on that pedestal, we will not worship your image any more.”

Ironically, those stone Buddhas in Bamiyan represented a man who would likely have been horrified to be carved into stone – and yet has probably been carved into stone (or jade, or bronze) more often than any other human in history save one (who also probably wouldn’t have been big on the statues).  Despite everything I’ve said here, I still regret the loss of those carvings – if there are going to be graven images in the world, at least let them celebrate peace, tranquility, and renunciation of the material world.

Oh, and if anyone lays a finger on the Fred Rogers statue on the North Shore, you and I are going to have words….

[i] Nasir Behzad and Daud Qarizadah, “The man who helped blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas,” BBC Afghan, 12 March 2015.

[ii] Jacey Fortin, “The Statue at the Center of Charlottesville’s Storm.”  New York Times, August 13, 2017.

[iii] https://www.wkdzradio.com/2020/06/01/murray-state-coach-asks-for-lee-statue-to-be-removed/

[iv] P.R. Lockhart. “New York just removed a statue of a surgeon who experimented on enslaved women.”  Vox, April 18, 2018.

[v] White Coats 4 Black Lives.  Racial Justice Report Card, 2019.

[vi] Parran Hall Name Disappears After Board of Trustees Agrees with Chancellor’s Recommendation.  University Times, July 5, 2018.

[vii] Emily Drzymalski.  “Scott Stern discusses American Plan legacy.”  The Pitt News, January 11, 2019.

About the Author
Jonathan Weinkle MD, FAAP, FACP is a primary care-physician in a community health center in Pittsburgh. He is not a rabbi, though he has often been accused of being one. He is an amateur singer-songwriter, teaches at both Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of the book Healing People, Not Patients.
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