Of Monument(al) Importance by Esther Nelson

I remember being blown away when I read Judith Plaskow’s book, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, shortly after it was published in 1990. She writes, “The need for a feminist Judaism begins with hearing silence.” She notes it’s a “silence so vast [it] tends to fade into the natural order….”  Women’s presence throughout Judaism has not been reflected in Jewish scripture, Jewish law, or in liturgical expression.

Plaskow zeroes in on the story in Exodus where the entire Israelite congregation, gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai, eagerly anticipates entry into the covenant, “the central event that established the Jewish people.” Before this communal event, the covenant had been entered into by way of the individual patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The particularly disturbing verse for Plaskow is Exodus 19:15: “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”

The specific issue Moses addresses is ritual impurity since the emission of semen renders both parties that engage in coitus temporarily unfit to engage with the sacred.  Both women and men need to be ceremonially purified before approaching the holy.  However, Moses does not say “Men and women do not go near each other.”  At this crucial juncture in Jewish history, “Moses addresses the community only as men.” The text makes women invisible. Clearly it was men’s experience that shaped Torah.

Plaskow writes that “[Jewish] women have always known or assumed our presence at Sinai.” Exodus 19:15 “is painful because it seems to deny what we have always taken for granted. Of course we were at Sinai; how is it then that the text could imply we were not there?”

Why make a big deal of this? Can’t the text, asks Plaskow, be relegated to a time in history “way back then” when people and communities accepted gender inequality as the natural order?  Why not just accept the past for what it was and get on with things?  Because Torah (Hebrew Bible) is not “just” history, “but also living memory.” When the story of Sinai is read and recited in services as part of the lectionary reading over and over again, year after year, “women each time hear ourselves thrust aside anew, eavesdropping on a conversation among men and between men and God.”

I thought of Plaskow’s work in relation to the current controversy surrounding the many statues erected to honor the “lost cause” of the Confederacy—the side that suffered defeat in the Civil War.  These monuments pepper the landscape of the United States—especially in the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center in a 2016 report identified 718 Confederate monuments and statues throughout the country—300 of them located in the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.  Virginia displays 223 of them.

I live in Richmond, Virginia, known as the “capital of the Confederacy.”  The beautiful Monument Avenue “honors” five Confederate men at intervals along the boulevard—J. E. B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. (Richmond native, Arthur Ashe, the African-American, international tennis star, was added in 1996. That event sparked a huge controversy.)  

The current controversy, though, centers on whether to preserve the Confederate monuments where they stand—statues understood by some as symbols of a people’s heritage—or remove those statues—understood by others to be symbols of white supremacy.  Some people have suggested placing the statues in museums as monuments to our shameful past. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  Others think the monuments should be left standing, but could benefit (maybe) by placing them within some context.  “After all, you can’t erase history.”  The debate rages on.

Some white Virginia residents, peering through a particular lens, speak about the significance of those monuments recently brought into the national spotlight. Many hear family stories about their ancestors’ fighting “valiantly for the Confederate cause” and want to honor their familial heritage.  Virginia residents of African-American descent, on the other hand, see and hear a different story.  As the above article notes, for many African-Americans, “[t]he same statues not only evoke an age of bondage, but their construction in the early part of the 20th century also is linked to the renewed repression of Jim Crow.”

It seems to me that for some citizens in the Commonwealth of Virginia, seeing these (some would say racist) monuments day in and day out as they go about their business and daily activities might be similar to the experience of Jewish women Plaskow mentions who find themselves invisible in the androcentric text (Torah), thus (at best) marginalizing them and their experience. Give us our history! Plaskow insists.  Women were present at Sinai.  

In that same vein, the prominence of Confederate men (three on horseback) along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, renders some of the population invisible.  Just whose heritage and whose stories are being honored?  The Confederate statues on Monument Avenue reflect an incomplete history, displayed as “the” history of Virginia. When a part of history is presented as the whole, we no longer have an accurate rendition.

History is remembered, written down, and preserved from a specific viewpoint.  Competing narratives don’t make it into the canon—the official story.  The narrative that does get preserved has everything to do with who wields power at specific junctures in time and place. We, human beings, inculcate meaning(s) into our monuments which become symbols of stories and values we hold dear—stories and values which often become set in stone, sometimes literally.

I’ve yet to hear any conversation exploring the kind of a society we want to create and nurture through our memorials.  Do we want a society that renders invisible the experiences of people who don’t fit into an official narrative? Or, do we aim for inclusion of all people through our artistic expressions?

I’ve added an excellent article here from a Virginia Commonwealth University professor for those interested in reading more about the monument issue.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Categories: American History, Belief, In the News, Jewish Feminism, Racism

Tags: , , ,

18 replies

  1. I Both Like You & Your Post.You Seem To Be Like My Older Sister.


  2. “History is remembered, written down, and preserved from a specific viewpoint. Competing narratives don’t make it into the canon—the official story. The narrative that does get preserved has everything to do with who wields power at specific junctures in time and place.”

    Here’s the core issue.

    I’ll never forget arriving in Iquitos, Peru before boarding a boat to study on the Amazon. White or Spanish men with guns on horseback in every square. Where were the Indigenous/Mestizo peoples who actually inhabited this city? I was revolted. In every town in Maine there is a statue of some kind of war hero. It’s revolting and continues to be the story we want to tell.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sara, for your comment. I agree that the domination of one group over another–something that goes along with the glorification of war–seems to be the story that we tell. Social change happens very slowly. It’s frustrating.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The key words are the references to the “patriarchs”–men who controlled and ruled. All those statues are of men, men who fought for control. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all religions based on patriarchy. Nothing much will change until the patriarchal views that prevail in 99 plus per cent of the world are gone.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Juliana, for adding to this discussion. Patriarchy is indeed pervasive. All our institutions are based on that social system. Transforming society beyond patriarchy seems overwhelming in scope–especially given today’s climate.


  3. Reading the first part of this post I immediately wondered what people saw as “unclean” about sex, especially if they wanted to survive. I know there are historical/other religions involved, but bodily ritual cleanliness doesn’t really make sense to me. Jesus talks about ritual cleanliness as not being an enemy to others, not bearing hatred or discord in my heart, etc.
    And as November 11th approaches awash with red poppies, I wonder why we glamorize war with statues and signs of success when war is the most drastic failure of the human endeavour.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Some days it seems as if history is nothing but war, and all the populations mentioned by historians are men, mostly white men, mostly men on horses, mostly men with guns or swords. I love to read history, but I’d sure love to read about something besides military campaigns.

    BTW, November 11 is Armistice Day, not Veterans Day. World War I ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. They did that on purpose so people would remember. But a few years ago the U.S. Congress in their august, mostly male wisdom (hah!) decided to erase our memory of history and rename the day. Armistice day commemorates the beginning of peace in Europe. Which only lasted about 20 years. Alas.


    • Thank you for weighing in, Barbara. You always have interesting facts to add to the conversation. I think the reason I never “got into” history is because so much of it bored me to tears–battle after battle, military campaign after military campaign. Of course history is so much more than a chronology of war, however, that focus reflects the importance our society puts on it all. Awful, just awful…..


  5. I agree with all of the above. Where I live the pieces of public art honouring women are few and far between. Five women who won a legal case that declared women as persons in 1929, tucked behind Parliament where you have to make a specific expedition to see them. Laura Secord, who is a heroine of the War of 1812. Winged Victory on a weathervane. A woman or two on the peacekeeping monument.
    I wanted to organize a walking tour once, and gave up.


  6. Thanks for this post, Esther! I would love to see monuments that tell other sides of the story in the same public space, with context given or many contexts given. What I love about novels is that they can show us how the same story differs, sometimes radically, depending on the narrative POV. Novels in stone. Could we try that?


    • Love your suggestion, Elizabeth. Always a multiplicity of viewpoints present, but so often just one holds sway. Thanks for your comment.


      • I agree that there are multiple viewpoints and even multiple truths. However, some narratives are false if they leave out crucial facts, such as that the Civil War was fought to preserve the right to own human beings, to sell them, to separate families, to beat them, to rape them, to deny their fundamental humanity.

        So I do not agree with those who say monuments to those who fought for slavery should be left in public places with explanations or put in public museums with explanations. Images speak for themselves, especially when they are larger than life-size and intimidating.


      • Thanks, Carol, for commenting. The hullabaloo surrounding these Confederate monuments–at least a good part of it–centers on what kind of monument do we want displayed in our public spaces. Certainly the way they are displayed today in Richmond (and other locations) reflects a honoring of the Confederacy and its war “heroes.” For this reason, many want them torn down and I’m in agreement with that. However, slavery and war with all of its horrors are part of our collective past. How do we own these things without glorifying them? There are numerous Holocaust museums who strive to “tell the story” of gross injustice. I’m also reminded as I write about the author Terry Tempest Williams who wrote FINDING BEAUTY IN A BROKEN WORLD telling about going to Rwanda after war devastated that country and creating “monumental” art with the people in order to bring some balance and healing.


      • I take your point, Carol. And public monuments by their very nature and sources of funding do not lend themselves to alternate points of view. The confederate statues were intended to intimidate and terrorize, to impose and perpetuate a dominant and arguably false point of view. In terms of economics, novel writing is much more accessible, though even pen and paper have not been available to everyone at all times, nor has literacy. Getting a different point of view published and considered, however, is often still a monumental task. It is an impossible fantasy, but I will continue to imagine what it might look like to see representations of all the causes and affects of a war in a public square, the havoc wreaked by lies and propaganda on all life.


        • “I will continue to imagine what it might look like to see representations of all the causes and affects of a war in a public square, the havoc wreaked by lies and propaganda on all life.” Alongside a vision of public spaces used to commemorate a diversity of people who have made positive contributions to the furtherance of peace/justice in contexts other than war.

          Liked by 1 person

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: