The great debate raging across America right now is do we or don’t we take down statues from our public squares? And if we do, which ones come down?
Some have been arguing for a removal of any Confederate heroes. After all they fought for slavery and committed treason against this country! Others take this even further and suggest that anyone who ever owned a slave should not have the honor of a statue and any such statue should be ripped down. Of course, this would include almost all the founding fathers, up to and including George Washington.
Sometimes this approach has strange ramification – like when protestors toppled the statue of General Grant who was instrumental in defeating the Confederacy and by extension, defeating slavery. All because he owned a single slave who he received from his father-in-law and who he ultimately freed.
And there are those arguing to leave them all up, the poet-philosopher, George Santayana famously said, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Leaving the statues up is a way of reminding us of the past, in all its ugliness.
It’s an important question to grapple with on July 4th; what is this country? What does it represent? How do we understand its past? And how does that affect its future?
Reading about these debates I have gained new appreciation for the Torah’s ban on statues. According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to create a statue of a person. Some go so far as to forbid dolls, and if you look closely in some Chassidic homes, the dolls in their homes are slightly mutilated for this reason. Most do not take it to this extreme, but full-fledged statues will not be seen in Jewish institutions. Israel, famously, has very few statues of its leaders.
The simple rationale behind the prohibition is that a statue may come to be worshipped. But it’s a little deeper than that –
A statue conveys perfection – and our tradition goes out of its way to highlight the imperfections of our leaders, the greatest example of whihc is found in this week’s parsha: Moshe, the paragon of perfection – the individual who speaks to G-d face to face, like a man speaks to a friend, even he succumbs to failure, to mistakes, to poor judgment.
Whatever he did is immaterial to the broader point that the Torah makes over and over again – our leaders are imperfect. Our leaders are… human.
A statue is not only an affront to G-d but it misrepresents what it means to be human. A bronze statue, a stone bust – that’s not who we are. We are flesh and blood, pushed and pulled by our emotions and faulty thinking, trudging our way through life.
It’s a view with important ramifications. I am reminded of R. Berel Wein’s famous and somewhat cynical statement – don’t judge Judaism by the Jews. He’s often quoted when some great Jewish leader fails to represent the Torah and its values. There’s truth to his statement; no Jew is perfect, and some are downright evil. And for this reason, no one can be immortalized with a god-like statue.
But I believe that this is an oversimplification or perhaps an incomplete picture – that simply focusing on the imperfection of leaders is not the Torah viewpoint either.
This same parsha that tells us of Moshe’s failing begins with the laws of reclaiming ritual purity. Coming into contact with the dead brings about a change in a person; a change that necessitates a process of reintegration into the holy camp.
Reintegration does not happen on its own – you cannot get a DIY purity kit. The individual who is trying to break free from the chains of impurity NEEDS a kohein, a priest; a priest who is placed on a pedestal and given the title of leader, of spiritual guru.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that is an intrinsic part of the process. You know, you don’t need a rabbi to give a speech on Shabbos morning, you don’t need a rabbi to officiate at a funeral, and you don’t really even need a rabbi to perform a wedding. But here, when it comes to spiritual growth, to break free from evil, we need to have a role model, an individual who represents to us what is good and what is pure.
And so we are not anti-leader; Korach was wrong, wasn’t he? Kol ha’am kulam kedoshim, the entire nation is equally pure, was rejected. There are individuals who we look up to.
And like most things, a balance is needed:
In 1967, Dr. Gordon Allport, the father of personality psychology developed a model to better understand why people connect to religion. He described two extremes; intrinsic religious motivation and extrinsic religious motivation.
Some are drawn or stay connected to their faith for extrinsic reasons; the social element, the camaraderie, maybe the cholent or the kiddush.
And some, are drawn or connected to the beliefs of their faith, to the practices, independent of anything and anyone else.
All of us fall somewhere between these extremes, but it’s important to reflect upon where on this continuum we are.
Two weeks ago, we sent out a poll to our membership, asking people if they felt more or less connected to shul; a similar question would have been, do you feel more or less connected to Judaism right now.
I imagine that for those who have a more intrinsic connection to Judaism, these past few months did not affect as them deeply, maybe, away from everyone else, they even felt closer to G-d.
For those who have a more extrinsic orientation these past few months, apart from shul and Jewish social life, has been especially trying to their faith.
Parenthetically, as my colleague Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin has suggested, this model helps us better understand why some people leave their faith; some leave because they were bullied or mistreated or perhaps when they witness great people acting very small. Others leave because they have questions. Presumably this is all a reflection of where they fall on this continuum. An intrinsically motivated religious individual isn’t so deeply impacted by the failures of a leader, just like they’re not deeply impacted when there’s no kiddush after shul. Whereas an extrinsically motivated religious individual isn’t bothered to the same extent by a question, a challenge to their faith; they listen, they think, they discuss, but they’re comfortable moving on.
I see our parsha as preaching the value of both; of growing in our intrinsic connection to G-d; not being swayed by other people, be it the social elements or the role models. My religious persona must stand alone and independent of all influences. Because such a persona can weather so many storms; it could overcome scandals which leave us leaderless and it could overcome pandemics which leave us all alone. Moshe can fail and the Jewish People can live on.
And at the same time, there is value in the Kohein, in the priest, in the role model who inspires us, who connects to us, who teaches us. You could be fully Jewish living alone on an island filled with Jewish books and religious items, but something would be missing. So much of our faith comes about from THIS; what we are experiencing right here. And yes, from a give and take with role models, with teachers.
I’ll be personal – I am one of those people who would be very comfortable living my life on an island with those Jewish (and non-Jewish!) books, but I have started to appreciate now, more than ever, how much I would be missing.
Exposure to real, living people who are so much greater than me in so many way – that forces me to grow. The interaction with people of different viewpoints – that forces me to think. And the warmth of community allows me to breathe – it gives me comfort, knowing that I am part of something.
So ask yourself who you are; what’s your motivation to be here, or to be Jewish? Is it intrinsic or is it extrinsic?
And when we realize where we are on that continuum, to move just a little bit in the opposite direction.
For those of us who are more intrinsically motivated – to check our arrogance and to find people who we can aspire to, who we can emulate. To lower our guard, to stop being so independent and instead recognize how good we feel in the embrace of others.
For those who are more extrinsically motivated – we may be going back to our Covid islands in just a little while, who knows. So what does my faith look like behind closed doors? How can I develop a more personal connection to God?
There are no eternal statues in Judaism. The only things eternal in Judaism are G-d and the Jewish People – netzach Yisrael. Whatever your motivation, you’re here, you’re part of this people, and you’re beloved by G-d. May we all be motivated to deepening our relationship with G-d and with one another.