D’var Torah: Story and Statues

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 12 June 2020

An American reform responsum from the early twentieth century stated the following:
A “question well to be considered is, whether portions [of Torah] offensive to our taste and void of all religious meaning for us, ought not be omitted altogether”

The responsum suggested that rather than read challenging sections of Torah, we might instead substitute “those beautiful and inspiring portions of Deuteronomy which, according to our calendar, are assigned to the hot season of the year when the synagogues are empty, and which ought… to be read before larger assemblies, being of such highly educational, ethical, and prophetic character”.

This responsum did not change practice in American Reform Jewry.  And its message resonates even less in our practice here.

As a community, we choose to read those ‘portions offensive to our taste’;
We grapple with the stories in our tradition that make us uncomfortable;
When we teach our narratives, talk about our history, we do not seek to hide away those bits that are dark from ourselves or our children – those aspects that may once have made sense in the morality of their time but cannot be right for ours.
We do not stop the story of megillah before the massacre;
We do not avoid studying those texts which do not reflect our values – recognizing that as well as wonderful Progressive ideals, our texts also contain sexism and racism.
We do not ignore the impact of our people’s experience on that of others.

Nor do we glorify these, pretend they are not difficult, suggest that because they are ours they cannot be ugly.

We recognize that part of our task as modern Jews is to name and own that which is not beautiful in our tradition, to struggle with it, to use it to make us better people.

Sometimes, as a result, things feel difficult – a relationship with Torah that is messy, unresolved.  Behind me in the ark, at the focal point of my religious life is Torah, and all that this represents.  And part of my grown up Judaism is to recognize that there is much about it that is not good, and to live with that reality.

As we engage in a national debate about the symbolic importance and future of statues, and about the content of our educational curriculum – a debate which, as with so many conversations these days, is incredibly and unnecessarily binary – I am struck by the parallel with this complex struggle we have with Torah.

For too long, the instinct in relation to our national story has been the instinct of that responsum – to ignore that which is ugly, to instead tell the stories we can feel good about.
And, worse, to glorify, to nostalgize, to justify even the worst excesses of colonialization and empire.  To memorialise – including with statues – without recognizing the implications.

When Edie Friedman pointed to the absence of a memorial to the victims of slavery in this country in her lecture yesterday evening, it was a reminder that we have often omitted from our national history that which is difficult – and that we do so at a cost.

Whatever we think of the action itself, the tearing down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol is a symbolically powerful moment.  It demands of us that we reevaluate our relationship with our history, the way that we tell our story.  As Anish Kapoor asked today, this moment demands that we ‘seek to find nobler ways to make spaces of commemoration and history’.

Like Torah, our national story contains that which is good and that which is ugly.  As with Torah, we have to hold them both, acknowledge them as part of who we have been, while no longer allowing them to define who we are.
And just as with Torah, in order to have a grown up relationship with that which is hard, we must not glorify it, nor can we hide or excuse it – but must tell it and grapple with it, messy and uncomfortable as this will inevitably be.