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Statues and Idols


All of a sudden it has become fashionable in the USA to take down or demolish statues. There is a case to be made that none of them should have been put up in the first place.

The earliest statues we have discovered were of what we call pagan gods. The oldest is a fertility figurine discovered in Northern Israel at Berekhet Ram, around 230,000 years ago.  While the earliest European ones go back merely 30,000 years. Unless, of course, you believe the world is five thousand seven hundred and eighty years old!

With the emergence of Biblical monotheism all such figurines and idols were strictly forbidden. But human nature being what is, even most Israelites, continued to worship them, sometimes as independent gods, sometimes as agents of a single greater and non-representable one. They obviously believed in covering their bets. Like going to different astrologists until you get the answer you want to hear.

The wonderful Greek figures we can see today, were of gods and heroes. Some like to argue that it was the Greeks who first reproduced the human form for purely aesthetic reasons. And indeed Aristotle wrote an important book on aesthetics.

Almost two thousand years ago the Roman and Christian Emperor Theodosius, following the Biblical law against idols, banned any kind of pagan statues. But as Christianity expanded and fractured, effigies began to proliferate in the Catholic West.  While in the Orthodox east Icons were permitted because they were only two dimensional. During the history of Christianity, there have often been periods of Iconoclasm that led to the destruction or defacing of statues. This is why in many museums today you can see so human forms without arms or noses. 

Judaism and Christianity interpreted the second of the ten Commandments in different ways.

“You shall not make an idol and any picture of anything thing in the heavens above, on the earth below or in the water beneath. Do not bow down to them or worship them.” Were the two sentences referring to God and idols one or two commands? Many Christians understood it to mean only that included in worshipping God is that one should not make idols of others. The two commands were really one.

Most rabbinic authorities have interpreted the second command to mean that one cannot make any image at all of the human figure or any other image intended for worship as gods. However, some have argued that one may possess two-dimensional art for purely aesthetic purposes and whole-body sculptures only if incomplete.  In some early synagogues, there were indeed two-dimensional mosaics of biblical characters. Look up the Dura Europus synagogue ( now in what is now called Syria) which dates to the third century.  And some even argue that the cherubs over the ark show that images were allowed much earlier.

Abstract, non-representational art presents no difficulties (other than price). And nowadays there are plenty of very Orthodox artists churning out art (usually of very moderate merit). Some religious extremists still insist on no images at all ( unless they have a black hat and grey beard).

But there has always been a distinction between the tolerant attitudes of rabbis living under Islam which also forbade images, in contrast to those living in Christian societies that have religious effigies; the crucifixion, virgin Mary, and saints. Maimonides even recommends looking at beautiful objects and architecture for inspiration in his “Eight Chapters.”

The Greeks and Romans liked to have statues of victorious generals. And of course every incoming victor set about smashing all trace of the defeated. Fortunately, some were left so that we now have important archaeological information that helps us understand other societies, even evil ones. Statues have always played a part in recording the cultures and histories of all the major nations.

But in  Judaism, statues never caught on. We did not go in for that kind of glorification or hero worship. The only sculptures of Jewish figures that I am aware of have been of coins or those put up by secular authorities. Like Maimonides in Cordoba or Rabbi Lowe of Prague. Many Holocaust memorials now have sculptures as well.

So given the fact that we are by nature, not particularly interested in statues as commemorations or tributes, what should we think about this new iconoclasm that seems to demand the removal of any statue any group feels offended by? 

I was taught in Britain to recognize the difference between good and bad characters and that attitudes and opinions constantly change. And I was fully aware of how many of those kings and Bishops commemorated in public buildings, institutions even universities had persecuted and despised Jews . But knowing that made me proud of our destiny and that we had survived it all. We always emphasized remembering, Zachor. Even the bad guys. To eradicate the past and its symbols prevent learning its lessons. 

The trouble is that nowadays secular, state schools and universities do not teach history any more or a very narrow limited sliver of it. And those that do, propagate such narrow dogmatic ideologies that they seem incapable of seeing other points of view. That is why education is so important and indeed museums. But at the moment children are taught to hate. To see black and white. This is why there is no solution to the Israel Palestinian conflict and why hatred of Jews on the rise in the USA and Europe.

Will Martin Luther King be demoted because he was against violence? Shall we destroy an image of Edward the First even though he expelled the Jews in 1290? Or tear down all Christian statues of bishops who burnt Jews to death or forcibly converted them that you can see on the Charles V  bridge in Prague? Or of Saint Louis of France or King Wenceslas who burnt the Talmud? Or the statue of Bogdan Chmielnicki who murdered more Jews than the Crusaders but Ukrainians today regard as a national Hero? Or indeed Napoleon’s tomb because some still think he was a disaster, not an innovative hero? Neither Washington, Jefferson nor Lincoln were perfect but they helped make America what it has become. The only other solution is to leave them all up with captions such as “Winston Churchill, who all but saved the free world, also sinned by smoking cigars.”

You might argue that we should not impose statues on the public altogether particularly in multi-cultural societies. The public arena needs to be a safe for every group. If there are  statues that offend sensibilities and we cannot agree, then indeed it makes sense to take them all down and remove them to museums where we can  teach the next generation to be less narrow minded and prejudiced. Oh yes, and plant trees instead. Better for the air and the climate.

Revolutions are intoxicating. Particularly for young idealists, firebrands, anarchists. But the record of both fascists and Marxists is not a good one. Just think of the Jacobins in France, or Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Nazism  in Germany and Chavismo in Venezuela. 

Incremental change works better. There have been plenty of changes over the years. America today is not the America of fifty years ago.  There has actually been a black President and black Police Chiefs. Although more is needed for many minorities and disadvantaged sectors of our societies. And they will come.

But when fanatics control the streets, to remain silent is to capitulate and commit cultural suicide. And at this moment that is what the politically correct are encouraging. Anyone who disagrees must be a racist and fired from his or her job. And this not just an American issue. Like COVID, the virus is spreading.

5 thoughts on “Statues and Idols

  1. Thanks, once again, Jeremy for your erudition. I did suggest to a recent iconoclast I met, to get up a band of Jews so that we might destroy the pyramids for making us as slaves, build them. He was dumbstruck but then, in my opinion, he was dumb.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your Zoomish droshe and it was great to both see and hear you. Shabbat Shalom.

  2. “But when fanatics control the streets, to remain silent is to capitulate and commit cultural suicide.”

    I agree—defund the police and stand strongly against all racism.

    I also agree that statues to glorify a human being are a stupid idea, as our Torah should have taught us long ago.

  3. Dearest Shoshi

    I certainly agree about re thinking what we expect of the police. Most countries have given over issues of vagrancy, mental illness, school protection even traffic control to the police who are simply not equipped to deal with these or rather prioritise poorly.
    What concerns me is that the current social services agencies are already doing a terrible job, overstaffed with place holders and incompetents. I honestly think the reform of bureaucracy in general is a far greater priority than slogans. but I cant see anyone on either side willing to tackle this.

    1. Yes, everyone agrees that social services need help and development. Though, considering the caseload of the average social worker (whom I would not presume to call an incompetent), I do not agree that they are overstaffed.

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