Open Letter to My Students 6: Jewish Wisdom About Monuments of Oppression

1. Tradition and the Rule of Creepy Crawly Things
How do we use Jewish tradition to help us navigate life’s challenges? Just like love, tradition is a many-splendored thing, but its wisdom comes liberally mixed with age-old prejudices, superstitious nonsense, and downright stupidity. Thirty years ago, while researching an article on the subject, I asked my teacher and colleague, the late Harry M. Orlinsky, to define “tradition” and he replied, “Tradition is just a lie going back at least a century.”
That pithy definition made it into my article, along with my equally jaded observation that as much as tradition is often a very good thing, the wrong traditions, like the wrong food, can kill you; the wholesale recovery of Grandma’s favorite ethnic recipes turns out to be less wholesome than we expected.
Another metaphor made it into my book on circumcision, when research dug up various medieval traditions that I found abhorrent. It occurred to me that tradition is like a high-rise apartment building where each generation lives atop the abandoned apartments of earlier generations who occupied the floors below. From time to time, we walk nostalgically through the places downstairs, looking for old and dusty ancestral pictures to resurrect, refurbish, and reframe as our own. Often, however, what our ancestors admired simply embarrasses us.
The basement can be particularly disturbing; it’s where our forebears deposited what even they considered the detritus of their times. And for every grimy picture we find there and choose to redisplay back home, there are a hundred that we are happy our ancestors got rid of. We don’t readily even admit they are still there. That every tradition has an embarrassing basement is what I call “The rule of Creepy Crawly Things.”
It’s worth frequenting tradition’s basement on occasion, not to find what is recoverable but to admit what is not: to see what we once were, to remember how we have improved, and to keep in mind the likelihood that we probably still have a long way to go.
2. A Short List of Continuities
I think of this analogy whenever people ask me what Judaism has to say about things, because everything depends on what part of the Jewish apartment building we investigate; and what antiquated basement specimens we choose to dredge up. Tradition’s mixed bag of goods should come as no surprise, mind you. Nobody would seriously ask, about some matter of moment, “What is the position of western philosophical thought?” – as if everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell must have a single point of view. Why do they imagine Judaism must be any more homogeneous in content?
Traditions on their own (whether religious or philosophical) can teach us nothing: they are layer upon layer of interpretation, some interpretations properly relegated to oblivion, others deserving renovation, but “relegation” or ”renovation” is a matter of subjective judgement.
Still, as I wander through my Jewish apartment building looking at all the generational dwellings below my own, I cannot help but notice some things that pretty much everyone valued and pretty much no one repudiated as disgusting basement rubbish. These are what we mean by “Jewish values,” Jewish tradition’s attitudinal continuities that are more likely to prove lasting.
My short list includes Five Principles:
1. Learning: the supreme regard for learning, reason, and argumentation “for the sake of heaven,” to get at the truth. We question everything, preserve minority opinions, have no hierarchy we must follow, encourage debate, answer questions with more questions, and love learning for its own sake.
2. Truth: we have, by and large, welcomed truth from all quarters, not just Torah but the world of science and the arts as well. The Talmud valued the physics, astronomy, and mathematics of its time; medieval rabbis became physicians, philosophers, and poets. The best of modern rabbis too are widely read and convinced that science and philosophy matter. Truths may be eternal, but our knowledge of them is not: as we grow in knowledge, we see the truth of things more clearly.
3. Justice: a passion for justice, and the absolute horror at the idea of a social order without trained, compassionate, and thoughtful judges, dedicated to arriving at the truth by reasoned and impartial investigation. The worst that can be said of a society is, “There is no justice and no judge.”
4. Political realism: the realization that without government, we would “swallow one another up alive” (Avot 3:2); balanced by the caution that people in power will usually sacrifice principle to the furthering of their own interests (Avot 2:3).
5. A mistrust of violence, especially mob violence: not because Jews were the ruling parties protecting their own monied interests, but because they knew how easily mob violence settles for scapegoats and achieves no substantive change.
Given the Rule of Creepy Crawly Things, we can easily find exceptions to all of this: the very rabbis who warned against abuse of power could be powerfully abusive themselves. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox elite are hardly committed to the open-minded search for truth. Left to their own devices, rabbinic ”true believers” too resort to violence to achieve their ends. But overall, my Five Principles have adorned the various levels of Jewish tradition enough to make them “continuities.” They are my starting point for thinking about what to do with the monuments of oppression, now under attack across America.
3. Monuments of Oppression: A Museum of the American Amalek
Principle 3 (Justice) demands we do something about these monuments because we see now how injustice is perpetuated by them. That we never saw it before should not blind us to what we see now, because Principle 2 (Truth) leads us to welcome revisions of truth based on new evidence. Alas, Principle 4 (Political Realism) reminds us that politicians and power brokers will not always do the right thing; they are likely, instead, to do what their interests dictate. However, Principle 5 (Mistrust of Violence) warns us not leave it to mobs on the street, not even the mobs we like; the last thing we want is on-the-spot decisions to tear things down violently, especially because it will be easy for people with power to sacrifice a monument or two and do nothing to correct the actual injustices. Principle 1 (Learning) recommends empowering a process of study to decide the best course of action. If nothing happens, there are other principles that kick in, including ways to change the governmental order through nonviolent means, wherever possible. But in fact, despite outliers to the contrary, we already have widespread acceptance that something must be done. We have made great progress in just the last few weeks.
I suspect I will not make anyone’s short list of the thinkers charged with the decision on the monuments, but I do have a piece of Jewish wisdom that I would recommend. I am thinking of the biblical arch-enemy Amalek who attacked the fleeing Israelites as they struggled to make it out alive in their trek across the wilderness to the Land of Israel. Instructed ever after to eradicate Amalek’s memory (Exodus 18:14), Jews dedicated an annual Sabbath to reading the Bible’s indictment of him (the best way, ironically, to perpetuate the memory we want destroyed).
The idea seems to be this: only by retaining our worst memories of cruelty can we be assured that humankind will not again revert to the very same cruelties again – hence, the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery. I would, therefore, dismantle the offensive statues and remount them in a Museum of the American Amalek, a series of rooms dedicated to showing how even the greatest of American heroes went terribly wrong, how generations then perpetuated their wrongdoing, and how at last we dedicated ourselves to doing the right thing.

3 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 6: Jewish Wisdom About Monuments of Oppression

  1. Thank you very much for this! I agree with your prescriptions regarding the monuments, but I especially value this blog post because of the careful and nuanced way you arrived at these five principles. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how to arrive at ethical frameworks given the complexity of the world and our traditions. Within the cacophonies of both the Jewish tradition and our American tradition it’s great to have these principles to turn to, although, as you seem to suggest, even these principles can sometimes be questioned!

  2. This is beautiful, Larry. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for posting thiis

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