Unlike the New Testament, in which Jesus personifies perfection as the son of God (Matthew 27:54), the Torah details the human frailties and shortcomings of our ancestors. Murder, incest, envy, prostitution, domestic violence, and slavery are just some of the tales spun that have provided fodder for many Hollywood movies. That’s because Judaism accepts our imperfections. But as we are made in the image of God, we have the ingredients for progressing beyond our own egotistical needs. The mitzvah system is our toolbox for evolving from our present shortcomings toward reaching new ethical heights.
Yet according to the standards of perfection applied by today’s radical social justice warriors, we ought to tear down Michelangelo’s statues of David and Moses in Florence. The former, after all, was an adulterer and sent his lover’s husband to death, and the latter killed an Egyptian, albeit to rescue a slave. Yet despite their human imperfections, it would be a travesty to destroy the sculptures depicting these men of God.
It’s dangerous to judge historical figures ex post facto. Instead of condemning them because their behavior would be unacceptable today, they should be evaluated on how they moved the needle of progress forward against the backdrop of their society’s ethos. Using this standard, statues of Confederate generals and politicians on public land should be either removed or repurposed to educate others on the evils of slavery and secession that these traitors glorified.
Our slave-holding founding fathers, on the other hand, established the foundation upon which we citizens and our country can better ourselves through the founding documents of our republic. And our first president rejected becoming another King George when he voluntarily retired from the presidency after serving two terms. Will the musical “Hamilton,” which was written to honor our founders — flaws and all — with a multi-racial cast be deemed treif in today’s extreme zeitgeist because George Washington owned slaves?
It defies any sense of decency when a statue honoring the man most responsible for eliminating slavery through military means, Ulysses S. Grant, is ripped down, or when the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., funded by freed slaves and honoring that most historic proclamation, is a source of controversy.
Monuments and statues can also instruct about the times and issues faced by the protagonists. The closest secular holy sites we have in our country are in our nation’s capital and Gettysburg, Pa. In the latter, we learn the names of soldiers and regiments of Union and Confederate soldiers. But we also discern the futility of the Confederation’s “Lost Cause,” as exemplified by Pickett’s suicidal charge against Union firepower.
Statues depicting the sacrifices made by numerous regiments from the Union and the Confederacy serve as a source of instruction about the lengths common folk went toward defeating or preserving slavery. Today’s generation should learn about the passions on both sides of the Civil War.
We should also note that some historic relics, which could be framed in a negative light, are preserved in order to inform later generations.
In fact, the Arch of Titus in Rome has come to symbolize Israel’s rebirth as a modern nation. The Arch celebrates Titus’ triumph in sacking Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, and, as chronicled by Josephus in “The Jewish War,” murdering hundreds of thousands of Judeans who died defying the Romans. Yet depicted in the Arch is a representation of the menorah used in the holy Temple, which now serves as the emblem for the State of Israel and is a fixture in front of the Knesset.
The most horrible testament to evil is the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp; if anything deserved to be destroyed it was this symbol of industrialized extermination. Yet today, hundreds of thousands visit this site and learn how a civilized country could descend to such barbarism. It’s also a living symbol of historical fact which can refute efforts at Holocaust denial.
We should honor those who made a difference in the past — judged by the standards of those times — and who moved us forward in our uneven path toward making a more perfect union.
Perfection is rarely, if ever, achieved. Even so, goodness abounds and should continue to inspire others for generations.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.