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First down Moses: A touchdown against anti-Semitism

| Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Outside Hesburgh Library sits the tall, foreboding “Moses.” Commonly referred to as “First Down Moses”, the statue depicts the stern, powerful face of the prophet as he proclaims the one true God to the idolatrous Israelites. An important feature of the sculpture is the horns atop Moses’s head. The statue was built in the Renaissance style, relying heavily on St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible. The statue represents Moses after carving the second set of the Ten Commandments. When Moses returns, the Torah reportskaran or panav,” the “skin of his face was beaming” from his encounter with God. The Hebrew word “karan” can mean “radiant” or “horned.” St. Jerome elected the latter, leading to a horned depiction of Moses throughout history.

However, that horned depiction has been routinely used as an anti-Semitic trope. Ruth Mellinkoff, research associate at the University of California’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, explains how horns were used historically to portray Jewish people as demonic allies of the devil. The Nazis used this negative imagery to suggest that Jewish people are sub-human. More recently, in January, fliers caricaturing a Jewish person with a beard, long nose and horns were distributed throughout Boston by an anti-Semitic group.

Surely anti-Semitism was not St. Jerome’s intention. It would be illogical to suggest St. Jerome, a man who studied with Jewish scholars, would negatively portray the greatest prophet in the Jewish tradition. Rather, his translation is born from a different understanding of the symbolism behind horns. Ancient civilizations viewed horns as symbols of power and authority bestowed by a divine being. This interpretation makes sense in the context of where we are in the Book of Exodus. Moses has returned from being with God for 40 days and nights, now proclaiming the word of God to the Israelites. Obviously he would be radiating power! He is acting as the mouthpiece of the divine authority. Thus, St. Jerome’s translation is not a mistranslation, but an intentional, symbolic gesture of Moses’s strength from God. 

Even the Jewish community has recognized this imagery throughout history. The Aramaic poem “The Lord Lowered the Sky to Sinai” specifically references horns on Moses’ head. Another Hebrew poem from the ninth century portrays Moses describing himself with horns. Both examples showcase the Jewish community embracing Moses’ horns as a sign of authority. This is especially true when the Torah consistently translates “karan” as “horned.” However, even if that translation is wrong, its intention was not anti-Semitic. Rather, it was a gesture to recognize the prominence of Moses to the faithful.

Sadly, however, as demonic imagery became more popular, horns became less associated with divinity and more with evil. This led to the use of horns as a way to dehumanize the Jewish people. This misrepresentation has even led to Jewish advocacy groups combatting the use of horns. A Spanish porcelain company was pushed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to remove the horns from its Moses statues. Despite the company claiming the horns represent holy rays of light, horns have become too much of a negative connotation to allow that chance. 

The persistence of anti-Semitism has morphed the blessed interpretation of horns to a non-sensical means of perpetuating hatred and bigotry. The results are shown in everyday conversations. There are countless stories of individuals revealing they are Jewish, only to be asked, “Where are your horns?” This ignorance enables subtle jabs of anti-Semitism, suggesting Jewish people are not human. Forgetting its original symbolism, the horn is a modern attempt to bring suffering to the Jewish community. The vicious use of horns robs part of Judaism’s culture and theology. The horn was a venerable aspect of Moses, a sign of blessing bestowed by God. However, nothing is holy in the ugly, hateful imagery espoused by the horned caricatures of Jewish people. History has allowed hateful groups to desecrate Jewish culture, the worst way to defile a community. When your culture is turned against you, there is nothing to fall back on.  

Notre Dame cannot stand idly by while evil attempts to degrade those who are different. The Notre Dame community is one of academic excellence and spiritual growth. It is committed to appreciating the faith and preserving its beauty. Especially when our campus hosts a horned Moses, this community must be dedicated to bringing down this hateful imagery and reclaiming the correct understanding of the horned Moses. If we do not, allowing hatred to grow, then we must ask ourselves “Why do these horns deserve a place on campus?” Rather than allow anti-Semitism to fester, we must educate others. This is done through daily conversation, watching for bigotry in public and online and even changing one’s own perception of those horns outside Hesburgh Library. Hatred is only defeated through educating the ignorant and combating those who espouse bigotry.

Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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