By Clifford S. Fishman
The Second Commandment forbids us to “make … a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below…. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” There is disagreement as to whether we should read this as an absolute ban, or only a ban on creating such “images” for the purpose of bowing to them and serving them. Perhaps if the United States had followed the absolutist approach, there would be less contention and strife among us today.
Even the best societies — including ancient Israel and modern America — have their shameful episodes as well as their noble ones. And this is also true of the men and women we honor and venerate. Our Tanakh portrays our biblical heroes — the patriarchs and matriarchs, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Miriam and King David —as human beings with flaws and sins as well as virtues. Anyone who studies Torah or attends services knows that.
But I don’t think America has done as good a job in evaluating our national heroes — until recently. That process began several years ago with statues venerating leaders of the Confederacy.
I believe those statues and monuments should come down. But how they come down is also important. Removing them as a result of the political process — as a result of legislation or lawful action by a governor or mayor — should be applauded. Doing so by mob violence should be condemned and prosecuted, regardless of how much we disdain the person or the cause the statue symbolizes.
Those who oppose the removal of monuments to so-called Confederate heroes have asked a question that strikes at the heart of how our country was founded, and what our country is and should be. They ask: Why stop at Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis? What about Washington and Jefferson? They enslaved Black people, too.
They have a point. And Washington and Jefferson didn’t “merely” enslave. Jefferson sexually exploited at least one enslaved woman. Evidence of George Washington’s use and abuse of the Black men and women he enslaved — evidence long known to historians, yet withheld from the general public — is appalling. Should we tear down their statutes, too? Should we blast their faces off Mount Rushmore?
I do not think so, because there are at least two major differences between honoring Washington and Jefferson on one hand and Lee, Jackson and Davis on the other.
First: Consider why these men are honored. We honor and celebrate Washington and Jefferson because they risked their lives to create this country, and to advance the cause of human freedom. Not for all humans, sadly, but is the world better for what they accomplished? Is the cause to which they dedicated their lives noble and worthy?
Yes. And that is why we name things after them and build statues and monuments to honor them.
Compare them to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. What was their cause? Treason against their country and the preservation of slavery. Worse still, why were their statues erected? They were put up early in the 20th century as part of a campaign to humiliate and intimidate the descendants of slaves. To send a message that the promise of freedom and equality in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments was an empty promise. As a warning to Black people: You’d better know your place, and stay there, or else.
We don’t reject our biblical heroes, because we recognize that, despite their significant human flaws and their sins, what they stood for, what they dedicated their lives to, what they achieved and the legacy they left us, are worthy and noble. Similarly, with regard to Washington and Jefferson and other American icons. We should continue to honor them and celebrate their accomplishments, but we also acknowledge their sins and their flaws, their mistakes and weaknesses and moral blindness. We must engage in difficult, nuanced, painful discussions about them and the origins of our country.
Doing so also acknowledges the victims of our heroes’ conduct, and reminds us that we need to redress resultant evils that still pollute our country today.
Clifford S. Fishman, a longtime member of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, is a professor emeritus of law at Catholic University.