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Jefferson's Statue, Jefferson's Words

I imagine a debate about our founding father, Abraham and what would happen if we were looking at a statue of him.

On the one hand, he set out on a journey that reshaped the world. In this new land to which he traveled, he grew closer to God. His family, and wealth, increased. Through his heirs three religions were born, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I would like to think the world has benefited from his extraordinary vision. On the other hand, he fathered a child with his slave, Hagar. He then cast this child, Ishmael, and his mother aside, leaving them to die in the desert. I remain troubled by his heartlessness.

I recognize his flaws but hold on to his faith in God. Others might be unable to look past his wrongs. If holders of these divergent views were staring at the same image, would they be able to compromise? Would the nuances, the mistakes and failures, be smoothed over? In the Torah’s words, there is room for opposing views.

I wonder as well. Do I hold on to the aspirations in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” or the image of Jefferson now removed from New York City’s Council chamber?

I have come to believe that statues are more about their creators than the people they depict. Did you know that Jefferson’s statue was commissioned in 1834 by one of the first Jewish officers in the U.S. Military? Uriah Phillips Levy served in the navy and fought in the War of 1812. He was a member of New York’s famous Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue.

He saw in Jefferson the possibility of overcoming the antisemitism he experienced. In fact, Levy is also responsible for commissioning the Jefferson statue in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Was Levy unaware that Jefferson was a slaveholder? I doubt it. Levy was like far too many of his contemporaries unaware of slavery’s evils. I imagine he thought Jefferson’s words applied to his own circumstances. He did not think beyond his circle of concern.

Should he have widened his concern? Should he have seen the humanity of others, most especially of those not yet recognized as equal Americans? Should Jefferson have broadened his understanding of “men” to mean men and women? Should our founding father have seen Blacks, Native Americans and other human beings besides White men as endowed with equal rights? Yes! Did he? No.

The words he penned offer opportunities for new, and more expansive, interpretations. His story is both a source of inspiration and his shortcomings a cause for embarrassment when measured against today’s values and mores. I see in his image only the inspiration that Levy saw. His vision helped to liberate my ancestors. I recognize that others see in this same image the face of oppression and their ancestor’s subjugation.

I see in his words room for all of us.

Throughout history statues have been erected and then torn down. I would prefer we spent more energy trying to live up to our founder’s aspirations rather than arguing about the image each of us sees in a statue’s visage. I would prefer adding more statues and thereby widening our circle of concern. I fear that when tearing down, our vision is not expanded but instead becomes more limited.

The other day I was in Poughkeepsie and walked across the recently completed Walkway Over the Hudson. I stumbled upon a statue of Sojourner Truth. At first, I was saddened to read that it took well over one hundred years for this leading abolitionist to gain a place in our pantheon of American heroes. And then it occurred to me that this might be a better response than toppling statues every time we become disappointed, or troubled, when unearthing heroes’ heretofore unspoken flaws.

And then I recall, statues invite controversy. They inevitably become idols. As soon as a statue is erected there lurks a danger. Its object of worship can become ossified.

Judaism has long placed more faith in words than objects. It elevates books over statues.

Look again at our Torah’s words.

“God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry…’” (Genesis 21)

There is room for all of us in these words. There is room for all of us in Jefferson’s aspirations.

I hear Sojourner Truth’s words anew, “Religion without humanity is very poor human stuff.”