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The Mysterious (Jewish) Monoliths

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Nathan Abrams considers the religious symbolism of the mysterious monoliths that have been recently appearing.

Strange monoliths have suddenly started appearing and disappearing at various locations around the world. No one knows who put them there or why.

Immediately, the lyrics of the immortal Spinal Tap came to mind:

In ancient times,
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people, the Druids
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock, of Stonehenge

Many people have compared these strange monoliths to those in Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 1968 science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, that were sent by extra-terrestrials to the Earth and buried on the moon.

2001 A Space Odyssey – Tycho moon crater model. Photo: Wikipedia

Or they have been likened to the work of sculptor John McCracken.  

One report, though, gives a religious twist to these mysterious monoliths. According to the New York Times, the one in California was dismantled by a group of young men whose mission was to show ‘how much we love Jesus Christ’ and chanting ‘Christ is king!’. ‘Tell the alien overlords they are not welcome’, they added. 

The triangular monolith at the top of Pine Mountain. Photo: Connor Allen’s Twitter

By removing the Californian monolith and replacing it with a wooden cross, they erased – deliberately or otherwise — the implicit Jewish meanings of the monoliths.  

The wooden cross on Pine Mountain, placed by Christian vandals.
Photo: atascaderonews.com

As I wrote in my book, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, the monoliths resemble the pillars or standing stones that dotted the Bible’s desert landscapes. As foci of worship for the ancient Canaanites and Israelites until the reign of Solomon, monoliths played a key role in the Bible. Purposely arranged and carefully selected stones set vertically into the ground, individually or in groups, had cultic significance in early Israelite religion and were a principal element of ancient worship, associated with abodes of deities.  

They also served as markers of graves, boundaries, to signify an important event, or to mark out a sacred area where God could be ‘found’, where prayer could reach Him. Such stone monuments marked places where God had appeared and were thus originally legitimatized for worship. The monoliths also recall steles, upright stones often used in ancient times as funerary markers.  

John McCracken in his studio, Costa Mesa, California, 1966. Photo: John McCracken.
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London

John McCracken’s sculptures earned their first fame in the 1966 survey ‘Primary Structures,’ that helped launch the Minimalist movement, at the Jewish Museum. 

John McCracken, Six Columns, 2006. Polyester resin, fiberglass, and plywood, 6 elements, dimensions variable. Photo: sculpturemagazine.art

The monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which these more recent ones have been compared, also carried religious symbolism. 

The monoliths in the film resemble doors, gateways, or ladders. As Hollis Alpert wrote in the Saturday Review, ‘the slab’ serves as ‘a sort of “gate”’ to knowledge. It’s probably for this reason that Andrei Tarkovsky placed Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Tower of Babel in what can be considered his companion piece to 2001Solaris (1972). Babel itself means ‘gate of God’.  

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Tower of Babel. Photo: Wikipedia

The monolith has been thought to stand for ‘something of a deity’. Kubrick’s decision to portray the monolith as omniscient and blank made it appear ‘godlike’. Geduld’s description of the monolith – ‘infinite, indivisible, ideal, unknowable’– are precisely the same terms in which Jews have described God.  

Joseph Morgenstern asked, ‘But what was the slab? … Maybe God, or pure intelligence, maybe a Jovian as we perceive him with our primitive eyes and ears’.  

Contemporary viewers of 2001 certainly associated Kubrick’s monoliths with the Ten Commandments. Harry Geduld described it as ‘the science fiction equivalent of the handing down of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai’. In the Christian Advocate, Willmon K. White, advised his readers, ‘If it has even crossed your mind that the tablet in the sky might be chiseled with the Ten Commandments, don’t go’. ‘Even to atheists, the slabs wouldn’t look simply like girders’, said Penelope Gilliat. ‘They immediately have to do with Mosaic tablets or druidical stones’. John Simon felt that it was ‘a Mies van der Rohe version of one half of the Tables of the Law, this Pentalogue has no writing on it’.  

Mies van der Rohe. His furniture is known for fine craftsmanship, a mix of traditional luxurious fabrics like leather combined with modern chrome frames, and a distinct separation of the supporting structure and the supported surfaces, often employing cantilevers to enhance the feeling of lightness created by delicate structural frames.
Photo: dallasadex.org

It might be more convincing to compare the monolith to what Hillel Halkin described as ‘the whole vast edifice of Jewish law’, both the written law handed down at Sinai, but also the accompanying oral law codified in the Talmud. As he said, ‘It suddenly towered above me, this edifice, in all its architectural immensity, dizzyingly tall, explication upon explication, disagreement upon disagreement, complication upon complication’.  

In its characteristic satirical style, Mad magazine suggested the monolith was a giant book, ‘How to Make an Incomprehensible Science Fiction Movie & Several Million Dollars by Writer-Producer-Director Stanley Kubrick’ (the director was not pleased with this characterization). 

Monolith as displayed at the École normale supérieure in Paris, France, 21 June 2020. The monolith has been erected by unknown authors. Photo: Wikipedia

Whatever the meaning of Kubrick’s monoliths, or those that have mysteriously appeared this week, by removing the one in California and replacing it an unmistakably Christian symbol, these men have made a strong religious statement by erasing its implicit Jewish symbolism.   

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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