Divine Law states: “Do not carve for yourself a graven image…nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or the water beneath the earth.” The essential meaning is clear to the Kabbalist: do not turn things of this world into a god!
We do this all the time, both literally and metaphorically, in the form of statues and paintings, by naming awards, buildings, streets, anything we like, after our good and great. We project our hero-worship onto these figures, before eventually forgetting about them; or, worse, discovering they are not the heroes we thought they were, and tearing them down.
We have seen this recently with the statue of Edward Colston – a politician who made part of his fortune through the slave trade, later bequeathing it for the benefit of the sick and needy, albeit those who shared his political and religious convictions. We see it also in the campaign to pull down the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a nineteenth century politician whose activities in southern Africa have won him admiration and revulsion in seemingly equal measure. At his funeral, men from the Ndebele tribe gave the “Bayethe”, or Royal Salute, and wept over his grave. Yet he was responsible for the appalling massacre of large numbers of Black Africans, whom he believed were racially inferior.
Perhaps this demonstrates why such a Divine Law exists. No human being is either all good or all bad. Shakespeare writes (albeit ironically) that “The evil that men do lives after them/ The good is oft interred with their bones”. Perhaps we put up statues to convince ourselves that this is not true.
Seen in terms of the Tree of Life and Jacob’s Ladder, the law regarding graven images functions on the upper face of Yetsirah, which overlaps Beriah, the world of archetypes. The activities of men like Colston and Rhodes belong very firmly in the lower face of Yetsirah; the world of money and tribalism. In spiritual terms, politics is always a low-level activity; and anything that ends with an -ism is politics. This includes every religion, every dearly held belief; it even includes the Black Lives Matter movement. And if that statement is hard to swallow, consider that we also turn political movements into graven images, gods that cannot, must not, be criticised.
To understand this, consider another recent story in the news. Marcus Rashford, a 22-year old professional footballer and, as such, a person well-known to the British public, took up the cause of financially disadvantaged children. Having raised £20 million, he eventually persuaded the government to spend a further £120 million to continue providing free school meals for them during the summer holidays. Within days of the announcement, politicians of every hue were claiming Rashford as their own, even those in government whom he had, arguably, shamed into action.
In terms of the Tree, Rashford was inspired by something higher than himself. His aim was not political; he did did not seek power or fame, he already had these things, and he used them for a greater good. A young man who, as a child, had experienced hunger, played his part in preventing others from experiencing the same.
What struck me about him was the calm, mature manner with which he conducted himself. There was no shouting, name-calling, threats, accusations, just a clear and intelligently stated intention. A single, beneficent purpose, to feed children. There were no statues to pull down, because he was not attacking a system but pursuing a specific outcome. Working from Tiferet and the upper face of Yetsirah, he channelled the lower face of Beriah, thereby transcending the political and tribal conflict of the lower face world of politics. The fact that he is Black was never mentioned.
I am glad the statue of Colston is no longer on its pedestal, and I would like to see all but one statue of Cecil Rhodes removed. There are two reasons for this: first is that they unnecessarily cause offence to others, and secondly that neither of these flawed men holds any real status in the bigger scheme of life. The best reason to pull down a statue is because it no longer matters. Rhodes has no power now, except as an archetype, which is kept alive as much by those who hate him as those who like him. If you project your hatred onto a graven image, you give power to what it represents.
The killing of George Floyd that filled our TV screens for a week was a shocking example of tribal conflict and systemic racism, not only in America but world-wide. How many times has this happened, not just in America but everywhere. I do not doubt that the souls, who this time were George Floyd and his killer, in some previous life played out that same event the other way round. Victim becomes persecutor becomes victim, an endless cycle of violence, hatred and stupidity.
Until we recognise that every human being is part of Adam Kadmon, made in the image of the Divine, these cycles will continue. When I hurt my neighbour, I hurt myself. So I have come to see that I am George Floyd, but I am also the policeman with his knee on another man’s neck.
A momentary buzz of power, pulling down a statue, burning a flag, killing a man, does not change the reality of our lives. Far better to consign the attitudes they represent to the past and to create a reality within ourselves in which every human being, indeed all life, not only matters, but is acknowledged as sacred.
A little bit of me would like to see the bust of Cecil Rhodes at the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town left in place. Look it up, it’s the one with the broken nose. For me it signifies most powerfully an archetype that transcends the politics, rather like Shelley’s Ozymandias. The broken nose is a wonderful symbol of how the mighty fall. Take away the oppressor’s power and he is harmless. Pull down a statue and all you will do is put up another in its place. It does not free the one who pulls it down, because it doesn’t change the past, or what we hold within.
To fulfil the law concerning graven images, we must remember the law that precedes it: I am YVHV your God, before me you shall have no other gods. Hear Oh Pilgrim, there is one God in Heaven and Earth; and no statue, or protest movement, can take God’s place.