Talmud this Shabbat: Beheading Columbus–What is a Jewish Approach to Statues in the Public Square that Offend Contemporary Sensibilities?

Nine days ago, in Boston, in the North end, a statue of Christopher Columbus was beheaded. Similar violence, destruction and removal has been done to numerous statues in the public squares of our nation. Confederate leaders. Confederate soldiers. Confederate generals. Slaveholders. Taken down. Beheaded. Decapitated. Destroyed. Removed. It is a nation-wide trend. Photos and texts are attached.

The case for statue elimination is plausible, even persuasive. As William Faulkner trenchantly observed, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Statues of racist Confederates who rebelled against our country and fought for the right to own slaves give succor and solace to racists and white supremacists today. They are deeply offensive to the notion that all human beings are made in God’s image and have equal dignity. They are particularly offensive to communities of color. As my son observed in support of Yale changing the name of one of its residential colleges from Calhoun (the preeminent advocate for slavery) to Grace Hopper College (a computer scientist), how would we feel if our children were residents of Goebbels College, or Hitler College? The intensity behind statue elimination I totally get, and perhaps it’s not wrong.

But what are the costs? What are the costs in terms of mob justice? Fury from the left, like fury from the right, is still fury. What about reasoned argument and due process?

Where does it end? Why not take down the Washington Monument? He too owned slaves. Why not take down the Jefferson Memorial? He too owned slaves.

Most importantly, what do we lose when we erase the most painful and hurtful parts of our history? Is there some other move so that we can actually learn and grow from the most painful and hurtful parts of our history? How can we learn from history that is literally effaced and erased?

Tomorrow morning we are going to see two possible approaches to statue elimination, both in the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses’ final speech has so much to teach us now in this fraught season.

Michelle, Elias, Aliza, Dan and I all look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.

Shabbat shalom,