Shofetim – Cutting Down Trees, People, and Monuments

Monuments mean something. They remind us of people and history. Sometimes they recall movements that are meaningful to some whilst not to others. Other times, they celebrate dictators or regimes. More importantly they sometimes represent values. Monuments can be symbols of great importance. Therefore, how societies determine when it is time to remove a symbolic monument, or to leave it in place in the name of historic preservation, is a matter of debate and heightened passions. Surely though, the overriding concern in all debates should always be life itself. When a monument is used to degrade the lives of actual living people, then it is time for it to go. People are more important than things.

The contrast between the value we place in things and people is highlighted in the Biblical laws of war (Deuteronomy 20). In relation to the wars fought in conquest of the Land of Israel the Torah demands that those that stand in Israel’s way are to be killed. The Torah, however, adds that the armies should avoid chopping down fruit trees! The seeming compassion extended to trees feels misplaced next to death of people.

Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550 – 1619, Prague), the Kli Yakar, adds an additional point. He draws attention to the Torah portion that follows (Deuteronomy 21). The Torah rules that if an anonymous body is found between two settlements, the closer town bears a degree of responsibility for the death. The Torah is emphatically stressing the value of human life. This indicates to Kli Yakar that something else is going on with the fruit trees.

The fruit tree prohibition is explained strangely by the Torah. It explains the prohibition by saying “Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? (Deuteronomy 20:19).” But literally it says, ‘Is a man a tree?’ The Talmud explains (bT Taanit 7a) that the Torah is actually teaching a lesson about people. When a Torah scholar is like a fruit tree, bearing fruit i.e. good deeds, then such a scholar is worthy of our association. However, when a scholar ‘bears no fruit’ then such a person should be distanced – much like a non-fruit bearing tree that may be cut down in the midst of war.

This principle is important. It teaches that leaders need to deserve our respect. Even if they are clever, if they don’t live according to values, then we should distance ourselves from them. In fact, this ‘fruit tree test’ isn’t only relevant for people, it also has something to teach us about the value of objects.

Renewed interest in the monuments that dot our cities has also drawn attention to other statues that at first glance seem harmless. Take for example the New York City statue of Peter Stuyvesant. He was the city’s governor in the 1650s when it was still New Amsterdam. Some however argue that despite his role in the history of the city his monument should be removed on account of his anti-semitism.


In 1654, 23 Spanish & Portuguese Jews attempted to settle in New Amsterdam following their expulsion from Dutch Brazil by the Portuguese. Stuyvesant protested their settlement in his city. He only relented when ordered to do so by the Dutch West India Company, following protests from Amsterdam’s own Spanish & Portuguese Jews. (See more about colonial Jewish New York here, and about Sephardic Amsterdam here).

Professor Jonathan Sarna, today’s foremost expert on American Jewish History, recently wrote a piece arguing to preserve the Stuyvesant statue. Whist Stuyvesant displayed great offence in his opposition to the Jewish refugees, he played a crucial role in New York’s development. He even had additional interactions with Jews during the ensuing British rule. In that sense he wasn’t all bad, and may have even changed his anti-Semitic attitudes later in life. Accordingly, one could say that Stuyvesant still ‘bears fruit’, and therefore. according to Sarna, his monument should not be ‘cut down’.

Monuments are usually just pieces of metal or stone that we ignore in a park. However, at other times they become symbols. When they become symbols of hate, they have ‘no fruit’, and need to be removed (perhaps to a history museum?). However, when monuments depict people or events that are complicated, they actually have something to teach us about the complexity of life and perhaps even about the capacity of people to change. Those are symbols worth keeping.


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