The removal of Confederate statues is an opportunity to think about what stories need to be told next.
Recently, much of the country has been focused on the question of Confederate monuments, iconic tributes to a bygone and — most would say — nary-missed era. As white nationalists and neo-Nazis exploit these statues to bolster support for their warped visions of American greatness, a number of cities around the nation have quickly mobilized to remove them.
Here in Baltimore, four monuments came down in August, under cover of night, leaving behind pedestals supporting only air, photonegative memories of horses and figures that once stood proudly on those plinths. Much of the conversation in the aftermath of the statues’ removal has been what to do with them?
Put them in a museum? A cemetery? Melt them down and turn them into black heroes like Thurgood Marshall or Harriet Tubman?
This is an interesting and worthy discussion, but I have a different question: What should be done with the pedestals?
Statuary has always been somewhat at odds with Jewish tradition. Idolatry is the closest thing we have to a cardinal sin because, as I shared last month, it strives to constrain a limitless God.
But this aversion to sculptures seems to have ebbed and flowed over time. The Talmud records (Avodah Zara 44b) that none other than Rabban Gamliel, the patriarch of the Jewish community, would utilize a bathhouse decorated with a statue of Aphrodite!
Even Solomon’s Temple contained a possible violation of the Second Commandment that prohibits creating “… any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Ex. 20:4).
The Ark of the Covenant was adorned with cherubim while housing the very tablets on which the above words were inscribed. In close proximity was a copper serpent, commissioned by God and fashioned by none other than Moses (Num. 21:8-9) until King Hezekiah destroyed it in the 8th century BCE (II Kings 18:4).
By the time of the Babylonian exile, the Ark itself had disappeared, and when the Second Temple was built, no replacement was made. The dimensions of the inner sanctum were the same, there was space for what was biblically understood to be God’s footstool, but for the next several hundred years, the Holy of Holies would house no earthly vessel, save for the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur.
This historical progression could provide a template for considering the fate of Confederate pedestals. Surely, the Holy Ark and Stonewall Jackson are not analogous! But the notion of elevating ideas and values over things, of avoiding the temptation to worship the work of human hands, is central to monotheism.
Statues venerating chattel slavery serve only to reinforce the point. What if, in the coming months and years, these sites undermine the very white supremacy that put them there in the first place? Pedestals, with proper oversight, could become stages and canvases. Theater troupes could perform on and around them, content that challenges viewers to confront our city’s legacy of racism. Artists could create temporary installations atop the platforms, tributes to Baltimoreans, ideas and values pointing us toward a more just society. Managing these exhibitions would be a good course correction for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts after its missteps surrounding this year’s book festival.
This is my suggestion, but I offer it with reservation and even trepidation. Whatever is ultimately done with both the statues and the pedestals on which they once stood, it must be the African American community that decides. They are the majority of Baltimore’s population, forced to walk, jog or drive past these Confederate idols for more than a century. They are the ones whose ancestors were the property of whites.
We Jews have never needed anyone to tell us how to memorialize the numerous sins visited upon our people over time. Black Baltimoreans, too, know their story well.
Watch “White Nationalism, Anti-Semitism and the Scapegoat” by Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg:
Daniel Cotzin Burg is rabbi of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on TheUrbanRabbi.org. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.
Top photo: An empty Confederate monument pedestal in Mount Vernon. (Photo courtesy Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg)
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