Most Japanese Shinto shrines seem to organically arise out of a forest or a small grove of trees. Even in the midst of a giant city, there always seems to be a mystical peace, as if one is escaping modernity and extreme materiality, as one enters (at least symbolically) the forest primeval. Echoing the colors of the bark, the shrines are almost always wooden structures, where the wood, though often carved (sometimes animals, or mythical beasts such as dragons) is varnished to a deep brown that blends into the trees. The early Toshogu shrines, on the other hand, utilize a much larger palette of colors, from red and white to gold and silver and everything in between. Buddhist temples are found in the midst of the city (or town) itself. Though they are often painted – usually red, the Gold and Silver Pavilions in Kyoto excepted – they lack the riot of colors found on the external walls of the Toshogu shrines.
Carvings and colour are the most noticeable aspect of the Toshogu aesthetic. While the architecture often utilizes the traditional forms, the rich carvings and multiplicity of colours make all earlier (and later) shrines look plain. Earlier carving, for example, was almost always in relief. While this is often true in a Toshogu shrine, one wall of richly carved three dimensional lifelike – if such can be said of mythical creatures – dragon’s heads stands as a dramatic contrast to traditional forms.
Even in relief, rich colourful painting and a vast new vocabulary of images, renders Toshogu carving innovative and exciting. The variety of birds in naturalistic settings carved and painted on the outer wall of the Ueno Toshogu (1651) pre-empts Audubon’s Birds of America by at least one hundred and fifty years. Life-like monkeys, appropriate to the rural mountain setting of the shrine (where live monkeys are even today not unknown), abound on the walls of buildings in Nicco. While three monkeys famously embody Buddhist traditional imagery (see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil), others are engaged in more monkey-like affairs. There is also a carving of a sleeping cat which is particularly beautiful. The wall of elephants, however, was not realistic in the least, but much closer to an image from a Medieval European bestiary. This is not surprising, however, as it is extremely unlikely that anyone in Medieval Japan had ever seen an elephant.
The new directions, and seeming breaks with tradition, expressed by the artistic innovations of these shrines was not an accurate reflection of the new regime established with the Tokugawa Shogunate. Instead, the Edo Period (as this era is denoted) was characterized by limitation rather than expansion. It was marked by the closing of the country to foreigners and foreign cultures. Social stratification and caste were also fixed, and there was a strict imposition of codes of behavior, which affected nearly every aspect of life, from travel, the clothes one wore, the person one married, and the activities one could or should not pursue. It was a period of strong centralized authority, with little personal freedom. Rather than expressing new freedoms, Toshogu shrines (there were many beyond the three discussed above) were utilized to institutionalize the regime and its founder, granting both religious imprimatur and authority to the Shogun and his officials. They created both a sense of unity and inevitability to the regime, where resistance would not only be viewed as against a humanly imposed structure but against the Gods (and Buddha) themselves – Ieyasu was no longer the human founder of a powerful dynasty, but instead the Gongan Toshu, an embodiment both of Buddhist and Shinto truth.
Our Parasha Va’eira also depicts a similarly powerful regime, Pharaonic Egypt, which also used art and architecture to publicly establish its power and inevitability. The slave built great structures such as the Pyramids or the Temples in Karnak or Abu Simbel exhibit the almost “godlike” power of the Pharaoh, discouraging resistance and rebellion. Symbols and iconography were utilized to create a sense of unity (especially between Upper and Lower Egypt) and no doubt were meant to engender a sense of futility and wonder by tribes and nations from outside Egypt’s borders.
Like in Japan there also was a cult of the leader. Just as the divine spirit Ieyasuasu rested on and gave legitimacy to his descendants, so too the Pharaoh also was established through divine sanction. He (and rarely she) was the embodiment of the god Amon, ruling Egypt as an incarnation of the divine. Unlike Japan, each Pharaoh was the “god,” and the center of a cult of personality. Great monuments with monumental statues of the pharaoh established him as godlike in the minds of his people, often with the erasure of the past – statues would be re-inscribed with the name of the current pharaoh, erasing the name and deeds of past leaders. Each new pharaoh was the guardian of Egypt to whom all sovereignty was due.
The danger posed by such a cult of personality, and absolute power vested in an individual is demonstrated in the parshaotthat begin Sefer Shemot(Exodus). In Bereshit(Genesis) one Pharaoh welcomes the Israelites and values the far reaching (and somewhat draconian) contributions made by Joseph during the famine. But then as Exodus begins, with the change in dynasty, another pharaoh, forgetting the past, arose, “who knew not Joseph.” This new pharaoh not only enslaves the Israelites, but also attempts to annihilate
them, commanding the death of all the male babies. In the following parshaot we again see the danger of bad decisions, as Pharaoh again and again hardens his heart, allowing and to a great degree ignoring the suffering and danger until it hits his very home.
The Jewish tradition’s treatment of Moses both poses and then rejects a similar cult of personality. Moses was prophet, lawgiver, and liberator – we could have perhaps been “Mosians” instead of Jews. Yet with each action and miracle, a distinction is made. It is God, not Moses, who is the ultimate source of power and authority. At the beginning Exodus, and echoed in our parasha, Moses is a modest man, almost afraid to speak. At the end of the Torah, though Moses is the only human who knew God face to face, he is buried in an unknown grave, and new leadership takes over.
Regimes built on personality cults, and the danger they pose, are not only a relic of ancient history, but instead continue to be a fabric of human society. In the twentieth century Stalin, Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini and Pol Pot represent merely the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, any perusal of the news demonstrates its current relevance on every continent of the globe – tragically not only in countries with historically repressive regimes, but also in so called liberal Western democracies. Like such regimes of the past, the leader is merged with the nation, and limited self-interest trumps the long-term needs of individuals and the world (just look at arguments against climate change, and the environment). Great monuments are still built or proposed, be it a space race or wall, which aim to impress and establish the legitimacy of the regime. Truth and historical accuracy lose all meaning, fact is no longer fact, and truth is no longer truth. Leaders are trusted, despite crimes and corruption, given a pass by their voters and even, like Pharaoh and Iayasu, the imprimatur of religion.
Yet within the Jewish tradition, no human being should been seen as divine, and no human or regime is above the law. Even a king, we are taught, is required to study Torah, and to live by its teaching. Buildings and art may impress, but actions for the long term that speak to our dreams and hopes will carry humanity to the future.
here to edit.