Ear­li­er this week, Zev Eleff wrote about reli­gious dis­putes in Amer­i­can advice columns and how social media is impact­ing Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism. He has been guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

In 1951, Con­gress moved back into the Unit­ed States Capi­tol, dis­placed for more than a year to repair a poor­ly con­struct­ed iron ceil­ing. The ren­o­va­tions pro­vid­ed a chance to attend to a num­ber of key updates: instal­la­tion of bet­ter acoustics, improved light­ing, and a state-of-the-art air con­di­tion­ing sys­tem. Far less prac­ti­cal but con­sid­er­ably more sym­bol­ic was a set of 23 engraved plaques, the Por­traits of Law­givers, hang­ing on the walls above the doors of the House Chamber.

The Law­givers required a stud­ied opin­ion. The Archi­tect of the Capi­tol and a Philadel­phia-based firm assem­bled teams at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, the Colum­bia His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and the Library of Con­gress to help select the sub­jects for sculp­ture por­traits: per­son­ages who were, rel­a­tive­ly or mar­gin­al­ly, pro­to­types dur­ing his­to­ry of activ­i­ties being con­duct­ed in said House Chamber.”

The out­come of this assign­ment tells a lot about how Amer­i­cans viewed their intel­lec­tu­al under­pin­nings at the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry — and the sub­tle pol­i­tics of this impor­tant space offers much to con­sid­er for our own time.

The Capitol’s cri­te­ri­on elim­i­nat­ed founders of reli­gion. Per­haps Jesus Christ should be includ­ed in the list of an avowed­ly Chris­t­ian Nation in a leg­isla­tive hall in which each of its ses­sions opens with Chris­t­ian dec­la­ra­tions,” rea­soned the Wash­ing­ton group, but there was some feel­ing that Jesus Christ is too exalt­ed a char­ac­ter to be includ­ed.” The same sort of log­ic nixed Bud­dha, Con­fu­cius, and Muhammad.

The final list of Law­givers cho­sen to inspire the House was well-round­ed but still well-ensconced in clas­si­cal intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tions. Thomas Jef­fer­son and George Mason rep­re­sent­ed the Amer­i­cans. The bal­ance was com­posed of ancient Greeks and Romans, and the men (no women were picked) typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the legal foun­da­tions of Christendom. 

Still, the list also demon­strat­ed an effort to include fig­ures of oth­er reli­gions, very much in line with post­war Judeo-Chris­t­ian sen­si­bil­i­ties. Suleiman the Mag­nif­i­cent rep­re­sent­ed the Islam­ic world while Judaism received a pair of Moseses — the prophet Moses and Moses Mai­monides, the Sephardic physi­cian and legal cod­i­fi­er of the twelfth cen­tu­ry. Of course, oth­er reli­gions claimed Moses of the Bible; Mai­monides (or any oth­er Jew­ish legal­ist), on the oth­er hand, was some­thing of a sur­prise. In prepar­ing its list of law­giv­ing can­di­dates, one of the appoint­ed teams was under­whelmed with the Jew­ish choic­es, con­clud­ing that the Hebrew sys­tem has been giv­en undue cred­it — too much for too little.”

Most mem­bers of the House applaud­ed the plaques and their reli­gious inclu­siv­i­ty. Some, though, were near­ly impos­si­ble to please. John Rankin, for exam­ple, object­ed to all the for­eign law­mak­ers except Moses.” Report­ed­ly, the South­ern Demo­c­rat from Mis­sis­sip­pi would have replaced them with Con­fed­er­ate heroes like Jef­fer­son Davis and Robert E. Lee. Then again, this was typ­i­cal of Rankin: years ear­li­er, in response to Albert Einstein’s calls to cease all ties with Hitler’s allies, the Mis­sis­sip­pi­an, an anti­semite and all-around big­ot, dis­missed the Nobel Prize physi­cist as a mere for­eign-born agitator.”

Nativists like Rankin found it more chal­leng­ing to get their way in the post­war peri­od. Save for the anti-Com­mu­nists, peo­ples of all types gained rel­a­tive­ly stronger footholds in the Unit­ed States. In the par­tic­u­lar case of reli­gion, pop­u­lar writ­ers like Will Her­berg con­vinced mil­lions of Amer­i­cans that Catholics and Jews were equal share­hold­ers with Protes­tants in the nation’s reli­gious-cul­tur­al foun­da­tions. In this time, the num­ber of Mus­lims in the Unit­ed States was small, but ges­tures like the House Chamber’s Law­givers indi­cat­ed that this reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty was also on the minds of thought­ful Americans.

The Law­givers sculp­tures also reveal anoth­er qual­i­ty of post­war cul­tur­al open­ness. Amid pres­sure to shed dis­tinc­tions in the Amer­i­can Melt­ing Pot, reli­gious and eth­nic groups per­se­vered and placed con­sid­er­able val­ue on retain­ing their own cul­tures and symbols.

Con­sid­er the Moses Mai­monides plaque. Bren­da Put­nam sculpt­ed the rab­bi of Islam­ic Cairo. The not­ed sculp­ture artist and scion of an impor­tant Amer­i­can fam­i­ly, Put­nam was eager to etch Mai­monides in the image of the increas­ing­ly more rec­og­niz­able Amer­i­can Jew. To do so, she wished to place a yarmulke atop Maimonides’s head rather than a tur­ban or noth­ing at all — two more accu­rate pos­si­bil­i­ties for an Egypt­ian Jew in the High Mid­dle Ages. 

In the Unit­ed States, few Jews adorned the reli­gious skull­cap out­side the syn­a­gogue, but it was one of the best known attire-sen­si­tive iden­ti­fiers of this reli­gious group. Put­nam queried rab­bini­cal schol­ars whether there was any chance that Mai­monides might have worn a small cap such as you and your col­leagues wear.” To plead her case, the artist admit­ted that I should like to add this small, rec­og­niz­able insigne — not only because it adds dis­tinc­tion and a dec­o­ra­tive line to the design, but because it would make him the more read­i­ly iden­ti­fi­able to the thou­sands of vis­i­tors in the galleries.”

But Mai­monides did not resem­ble America’s Jews, nor oth­er Amer­i­cans. In the end, Put­nam relent­ed. She sculpt­ed the rab­bi with Arab head­gear, a more approx­i­mate head cov­er­ing than the yarmulke. Her deci­sion — as well as the selec­tion of a reli­gious­ly diverse set of law cod­i­fiers — con­firmed that nation­al iden­ti­ties and lega­cies were com­plex con­cepts. What is more, the indi­vid­u­als cho­sen to hang above America’s top leg­is­la­tors did not need to appear all that sim­i­lar to the women and men debat­ing on the floor below.

Zev Eleff is the chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer of the Hebrew The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege, Chica­go. He is the author of five books and over thir­ty scholas­tic arti­cles. His book Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism: A Doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry was recent­ly pub­lished by the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Society.

Relat­ed Content:

Zev Eleff is the chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer of the Hebrew The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege, Chica­go. He is the author of five books, includ­ing Liv­ing from Con­ven­tion to Con­ven­tion: A His­to­ry of the NCSY, 1954 – 1980, and edi­tor of Men­tor of Gen­er­a­tions: Reflec­tions on Rab­bi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He has also authored more than thir­ty schol­ar­ly articles.

The New Dig­i­tal Dis­course and Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism

The New Dig­i­tal Dis­course and Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism: How Online Media Is Chang­ing the Jew­ish World

In Whose Image? Mai­monides Among the Por­traits of the Lawgivers