It was September, 1997. I was deep into writing an “unauthorized autobiography,” if you will — of Moses. Everything, for me, was the extraordinary Moses. I was imagining what he would have done or thought if he were I. Perhaps what I would have done or thought if I were he.
In a way, during that time, Moses and I were inseparable. But there were no writings authored by Moses to turn to for guidance — not really. Yes, the Bible. But was it really Moses telling his story?
I decided to head to Rome. There, perhaps, at the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (“St. Peter in Chains”), I could visually embrace Michelangelo’s incredible ode to Moses. As anyone who has been there knows, photographs are simply insufficient. Thus, and, perhaps better for my purpose, I felt I could understand Moses — the horns placed at his forehead by Michelangelo, notwithstanding. It was, for me, magnetic. Until the carabinieri almost bodily but gently removed me at closing time, I was entranced. For me, the greatest man in history, the greatest man in my religious life, was staring at me. Seated before me, I couldn’t draw myself away from him and his powerful gaze. I was transfixed largely because of what he meant to me.
It wasn’t at all the same for me in Florence — there, the august “David,” also by Michelangelo. Was it because I didn’t idealize David in the same way, or in any way at all? Was it because his nudity seemed almost bizarre? Or was it because I well knew that he was an adulterer and the murderer of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittite? Of course, I wouldn’t have been moved to spray paint the statue due to David’s deadly sins (even without the criminal implications of doing so). Reproving David in that way was not for me to do, no matter how much I despised what he did and that his mortal sins have been overlooked, even justified, by religious orthodoxy over the millennia.
I returned to New York, and to Moses. To my amazement as I continued my research into him, there I saw it more starkly than I had appreciated before. Moses, following God’s command, incomprehensibly was telling the Children of Israel that upon reaching the Promised Land guaranteed to them: that they should possess the land and “break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars and their sacred trees shall you burn in the fire; [and] their carved images shall you cut down.” (Deuteronomy 12:10).
Did I wonder at the moment I was confronted with this passage whether there was a deep and abiding flaw in Moses — that whereas he had persuaded God by “talking back” to God before, this time was different? He simply failed to demur or offer any resistance whatsoever to God’s command that these idol worshipers had absolutely no right to a different belief system, even though they weren’t given God’s Law at Sinai. This, also, despite the command’s seemingly uncivilized nature, just like the Taliban destroying the statues of Buddha in the mountains of Afghanistan in this century?
Having now focused on this disturbing verse, would I have wanted to destroy Michelangelo’s statue over the hypocrisy that it presented about Moses — a man, the man closest to Him, unwilling to remonstrate with God that He was going too far? Indeed, it was something, by contrast, Moses was willing to do when God, at Sinai, proposed to destroy the Jewish people and start over again, ironically over a sculpture — the Golden Calf. And did I not find starkly offensive his unwillingness to try to persuade God against commanding the stoning of a man for simply gathering wood on the Sabbath? Given what I saw as such monumental flaws, was Moses truly worthy of being lionized – almost deified — by Michelangelo in the way he was at the Basilica?
Or, rather, did I come to see Moses — as are most great figures — as complicated, created in nuance, with both greatness and often even terrible flaws. Like, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Washington, Columbus, Grant, Leland Stanford, Elihu Yale? If we lionize figures and blot out their imperfections in telling their stories, we leave ourselves open to a constricted view of the reality of life itself. When Cromwell wanted his portrait to contain “warts and all,” he was saying just that. And, on the other hand, if we only consider what they did on the worst days of their lives and dismiss the good by obliterating time-honored homages to them, aren’t we guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater?
This isn’t to say that monuments to the likes of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis whose “greatness,” as it were, to the Confederacy and history rests exclusively on their having enabled the institution of slavery stand on the same footing. These “idols” cause continuing hurt to black people who have suffered so long and so imposingly as a natural consequence of an odious institution that allowed the ownership of man. Indeed, statues honoring them surely warrant (peaceful) removal from the public square for reasons far beyond race: as secessionists these men were treasonous to America, period!
But shouldn’t statues memorializing others who have made major contributions to American society — e.g., Washington and Jefferson despite their hideous history of slave ownership — be seen, despite their deep flaws, as memorializing men with great imperfection? They lived in their times, and their repugnant conduct should be discussed and displayed. But that display should also acknowledge their good works and contributions to society. People are nuanced and complicated!
Where would Moses be if we only judged him over the worst days of his life and the worst of what he gave the world, and if we smashed the statue memorializing him because we did? Wouldn’t it be intriguing indeed if Michelangelo intentionally placed the horns on Moses to remark on Moses’s negative side alongside the rest of his gloried life — rather than, as commonly understood, because of a language misunderstanding incorrectly substituting the word “horns” for the word “beams”?
History needs to tell both sides of every story, every man or woman, if there are two sides of the story. A statue can do that, even today, by telling their dual stories – indeed, including the negative aspects of who they were in an inscription prominently placed on or alongside the statue.
If we’re not willing to do that, if we’re not willing to recognize the good and the bad in every (traditionally) great historical figure who was previously found worthy of a statue, society will have a hard time allowing anyone’s statue to remain.