This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is part of a campaign by young rabbinical students, Rabbis, and religious students about Jewish resistance to Trump through the lens of faith, Judaism, and spirituality. Read the full series here.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about statues and monuments recently.
The discussion about monuments honoring the Confederacy has been active in the United States for decades, but we have seen a reprise of the conversation and renewed efforts to remove statues. It is much more than a conversation about what stone structures do or do not grace our cities’ public squares. it is a conversation about what memory looks like in public and about how institutions tell stories about the past in order to communicate something about the present and future. And it is about how we share space and live together.
I have been thinking about these questions since my trip to Hungary and Poland last summer. We visited many monuments and public memorials, and I discovered that these statues of stone or bronze not only represent the past. In expressing a public, institutionally-supported narrative, they shape how we understand the present and envision the future. They are not only symbolic; they play an active role in a society’s wrestling with history, a process that is always fraught.
Outside of the Polin Museum in Warsaw, which documents one thousand years of Polish Jewish life, there is a monument honoring the Warsaw ghetto fighters. It is carved, in part, from a huge slab of gray stone which was brought to Warsaw by Hitler’s chief architect. Our tour guide told us Hitler planned to erect thousands of these slabs in a continuous monument stretching from Moscow to Berlin.
I knew that Hitler’s goal was world domination. But confronting the size and weight of that enormous slab of stone and imagining a cruel line of them marching across Europe allowed me to internalize that possibility in a whole new way. Seeing the stone itself allowed me to understand the scope of Hitler’s goal in a way no history book or lesson had before.
Seeing the stone transformed into a memorial honoring Jewish and non-Jewish Poles who fought back against the Nazis was very powerful. At the same time, as we learned about the ways anti-Semitism continues to affect people in Poland, we understood that the transformation we saw symbolized in the monument has not fully manifested in Polish society. There is more work to do.
In Budapest, the city’s official World War II memorial depicts Hungary as the archangel Gabriel being attacked by a German imperial eagle, and is dedicated to “all the victims” of the Nazi occupation of Hungary. The story it suggests is that Hungary was helpless under the German attack, when in reality, the Hungarian government collaborated with the Nazis. Moreover, the memorial makes no mention of the millions of Jews, Roma/Gypsy people, gays and lesbians who were targeted by the Nazis.
As a Jew and a queer person confronting that statue, I felt hurt and angry by the distorted history it tells. I also felt scared, because by denying my historical experience, it sent a message that I’m not safe now. A government that is unwilling to face the truth of its cruelty in the past offers no reassurance that it will not engage in more cruelty in the future.
Something very powerful has happened at that monument in Budapest. Hungarians have created what is known as a “living memorial” surrounding the statue. They have brought artifacts, mementos, and signs, and created a kind of altar all around the statue. There are shoes and suitcases, laminated letters, handwritten signs, and photographs. The images tell the stories of people – stories of the vitality of their lives; stories of courage and solidarity; as well as stories of the horror of their deaths.
Where the official statue made me feel troubled and alienated, the living memorial made me feel seen and connected. I felt kinship with everyone who contributed to it, who shared stories of their family members, neighbors, teachers, friends. Maybe their loved ones knew my loved ones who lived in Budapest! The stories were tender and vulnerable, stories telling hard truths but also stories of hope.
It was as if the living memorial illuminated a vast network of people who are committed to telling the truth about the past so that we can do the present and future differently.
This capacity of public monuments to create both disconnection and connection among people is something the writer Rebecca Solnit highlights in her essay about monuments honoring the Confederacy. What they do, she says, is identify an “us” and a “them.” A stone obelisk in New Orleans which was removed this past spring celebrated a white supremacist riot and the November 1976 national election which, as the plaque reads, “recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” The us, of course, is white people only. The statue calls into being a public, a society, that belongs to white folks.
Solnit writes that a monument, like a city more broadly, is “a text that favors one version of history and suppresses others, enlarges your identity or reduces it, makes you feel important or disposable depending on who you are and what you are.” She quotes Maurice Ruffin, a writer and lawyer who lives in New Orleans, who said about his city’s Confederate monuments, “‘The statues — a lot of them physically beautiful — argue that if you’re white, you’re human, and if you’re not, you’re not.’”
It is tempting, to some, to say that Confederate monuments should be preserved on the basis of being historical. But the ideology of white supremacy that Confederate statues were built to honor is not historical; it continues to shape the institutions of our country and the lives of all of us who live here.
The idea that physical objects can be endowed with significance and power and the question of how that power can be transformed are extensively discussed in classical Jewish literature. In the Talmud, a whole tractate, or volume, is devoted to discussing idolatry, known as avoda zara in Hebrew.
The background of this discussion is that the prohibition against idolatry is one of the most severe in the Torah. In the Talmudic volume on avoda zara, idolatry, the rabbis are concerned with the extent to which a Jewish person must go in order to avoid idolatry. For example, they consider how one might benefit from idolatry – by selling something to a pagan for use in a festival; or – in another example – they consider how one might passively participate in idolatry, by drinking from wine which had been offered as a libation to another deity.
In further examples, they wonder about the carved images or statues that exist in the towns they share with pagans. The rabbis wonder: How can a Jewish person tell if these statues are idols or merely decoration? They wonder: if the statue is holding a bird in its hand, does that imply that it grasps the whole world in its hand like a bird, making it an image of a deity? If the statue is holding a sword, is that the emblem of a robber, or does it imply that the statue is an idol with the power to slay the whole world?
And if a statue is an idol, not mere decoration, is there any way to invalidate its power? What about when statues are broken; does a broken statue lose its power as an idol, or are the broken fragments themselves still somehow dangerous?
Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion is that the only way a statue can be rendered invalid, stripped of its dangerous power, is if someone who considered it sacred willfully defaces it. If it breaks by accident, its fragments are still considered dangerous. A Jew cannot “undo” the power of an idol; only someone who worships the idol can do that.
This is a powerful idea. Only someone who is invested in an image’s power can take away that power.
Resh Lakish, on the other hand, reasons that if a person worshipped a statue and then saw that statue broken, the person would think to himself, “’It could not save itself, so how can it save me!” and this feeling would invalidate the image as an idol
even if the person did not expressly deface the statue.
This line of thinking suggests that there can be a kind of external intervention that dismantles the idol and invalidates its power.
A conservative journalist arguing for the preservation of Confederate statues notes that most were built fifty years after the Civil War, by the descendents of the hundreds of thousands of Confederate soldiers who died in the war. The monuments, he insists, were an expression of grief and a remembrance for a whole generation. Removing the statues would be dismissive of this experience of grief.
I find this compelling. Ignoring or dismissing the experience of anyone who lives in our country is not only a loss for us, but is dangerous. And I think the journalist is arguing, in line with Rabbi Yohanan, that those who are invested in an image’s power are the ones who can and must transform its meaning.
That is a powerful vision. If the people who are invested in honoring the Confederacy, and if our governments, universities, and other institutions were to dig deeply and uproot white supremacy from their foundations, the statues would no doubt have a different kind of significance, if they were even left standing.
But I think Resh Lakish has a point too: sometimes external intervention can have a powerful impact on changing the status of an image.
The living memorial in Budapest interrupts the implicit claim by the Hungarian government that its monument speaks for all Hungarians. It says – we are people, not a faceless public. History cannot be told in a simple narrative. It is nuanced and complex; it is full of faces, full of shoes, postcards, suitcases, and stories. We resist – or embellish – the simplified narrative our government offers in our name.
I want to see a living memorial around every Confederate statue in the United States. I want them to be not only symbolic, but representative of real work and powerful struggling with history happening everywhere. Bring photographs of your grandparents who were klansmen, along with words about how you reject their thinking; bring suitcases that were carried on the underground railroad; bring stories of real lives, stories of courage and solidarity and resistance, stories of pain and oppression. Tell the truth.
Let the power of these statues to disconnect, to tell some of us that we are not fully human, transform into power to connect, to heal, to build together.
Part of the work of the Talmudic rabbis in their thinking about avodah zarah is to make it possible for Jews to co-exist with pagans. They go to some length to identify certain images – even of Greek gods – as mere decoration, so they can use the same bathhouses and market squares. I think this was pragmatic, not an idealistic vision of a multicultural society. But it was nevertheless about making peace with those with whom they lived. And I don’t want to make peace with white supremacy.
Of course, this whole conversation is really about teshuvah – about how we deal with past wrongs, take responsibility, apologize, make reparations, and change our behavior. The High Holidays teach us, again and again, that this is a communal process and an individual process.
Let us each consider our own stories about the past. How do they shape our present and our future? What images need to be transformed? What stories need new chapters? By doing this work in our hearts and in our relationships, we pave the way to do it on a societal level. And we join that vast network of people who are committed to telling the truth about the past so that we can do the present and future differently.
May this be a year of great and powerful transformation, and a year of deep and gentle healing. Shanah tova.