Should We Celebrate?

When the Supreme Court cut the constitutional baby in half and ruled that some Ten Commandment displays are kosher and some are not, the spokesman for the Orthodox Union warmly welcomed the development. Good public relations, but bad Judaism.

What is there to celebrate when four Justices say that any public display of the Ten Commandments violates the First Amendment? What is there to celebrate when in all likelihood, the Supreme Court ruling will mean that most displays will be ruled unconstitutional? What is there to celebrate when we continue to have decisions that are hostile to religion?

I know that the Ten Commandments issue is not per se that important. People do not respect religion because a tablet is installed in a public place. No one’s belief or behavior is affected. As a practical matter it makes small difference whether the Ten Commandments can be posted in a public place.

What concerns me essentially is not what the Supreme Court did but how we as Jews – and particularly Orthodox Jews – look at the matter. Overwhelmingly, American Jews are not only secular, they embrace a brand of secularism that is hostile to religion. This may not be the conscious intent, yet it is what emerges from the totality of our advocacy against religion. This attitude strikes me as risky, both for Israel and American Jewry because it invites counter-hostility from Christian groups.

In organized American Jewish life, the most powerful imperatives are fundraising and public relations. From the standpoint of major secular organizations, being against the Ten Commandments is good business.

I wonder whether Orthodox groups are not overly driven by a similar consideration. There is in Orthodox life an unwillingness to oppose other Jewish groups, a posture that diverges enormously from what we witnessed in the post-Churban phase of Orthodox development in this country when we were far fewer in number and yet far better led by Torah leaders who were willing to be unpopular. Today, being popular is critical. How else can we explain the shameful example of the ADL’s Abe Foxman being placed in an honorary box at Agudath Israel’s Siyum Hashas, an event that occurred the evening before the Supreme Court heard argument in the Ten Commandments cases in which the ADL submitted a brief against allowing public displays.

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9 Responses

  1. DovBear says:

    What is there to celebrate when four Justices say that any public display of the Ten Commandments violates the First Amendment?

    They didn’t say this. Displays of the Big Ten that are put in a historical context (like the display in the Supreme COurt itself) are permitted.

    It also should be clear that it is sophistry to believe that a line could be drawn between monuments that are historical displays and those that are religious displays

    Okay, but that wasn’t the distinction the court made. The verdict was clear-cut: Monuments that are part of displays about history are okay in public buildings; monuments meant to establish Christianity as the State Religion are not.

  2. Marvin Schick says:

    Add as Comment

    I thought I made it clear that the Supreme Court ruling on the Ten Commandments was a split decision. It also should be clear that it is sophistry to believe that a line could be drawn between monuments that are historical displays and those that are religious displays. In fact, to one extent or another, every display of the Ten Commandments is an evocation of a religious sentiment.

    Marvin Schick

  3. DovBear says:

    I have a question for anyone who thinks the Ten C belong on courthouse walls:

    Which Ten Commandments should be displayed?

    The version in Exodus 20: 2-14, or the version in Deuteronomy 5:6-18?

    And how should the commandments be numbered? According to Jewish tradition? Catholic tradition? Protestant tradition? Because, as you choose not to recognize, the different versions of the Big 10 are not all the same.

    Absent any concensus even on what the Ten Commandments are shouldn’t government stay out of it??

    PS – Mr. Schick is mischarecterizing the courts ruling. They were clear: Monuments that are part of displays about history are okay in public buildings; monuments meant to establish Christianity as the State Religion are not. All displays are not now illegal, as Mr. Schick seems to suggest

  4. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Should there be a difference between putting the ten commandments in a courtroom and putting up a cross? If so, why? Both are religious symbols accepted by the majority of people in the US but not by everybody.

  5. Lisa says:

    Hanan:
    It’s not that most American Jews embrace that kind of anti-religious secularism. It’s that the biggest activists for that kind of anti-religious secularism are American Jews, and that that kind of anti-religious secularism is not considered “anti-religious” by most American Jews.

    In my opinion, anyway.

  6. Rachel says:

    While I understand the point you are making, another point here is critical. Leaving aside the debate about various locations for display, it is clear that displaying the ten commandments in a courtroom can potentially undermine the rule of law.

    Some of the ten commandments are not represented by equivalent laws in the US Justice system. For example, kibud av v’ eim and do not covet are not laws. It is conceivable that a judge might believe that the law of the Christian bible trumps codified state or federal law. In many states, judges are elected, and its easy to imagine certain segments of the population electing such a judge. Imagine the case where one neighbor assaults another, and in defense, points to the ten commandments on display and claims his neighbor was coveting him and therefore the assault was justified. Will the judge or jury be swayed by factors not supported by law, but rather, by religion?

    This may sound far-fetched, but just look at the Alabama judge whom the electorate put on the Supreme Court of that state. This judge was defiant of federal authority when ordered to remove the ten commandments. He felt more bound by his own moral authority than by the rule of law and respect for the judicial system — a dangerous precedent indeed!

  7. Kevin says:

    I agree with Lisa that in the long run we are better off with a strong First Amendment and without governmental endorsement of religion, even the Ten Commandments. If Jewish organizations opposing religious displays made Jews appear anti-religious, or anti-Christian, it’s regrettable, but only as a matter of tactics. This was not a battle to be fought by Jewish organizations, particularly the ADL, when it was not a matter of antisemitism and there were nonsectarian organizations to fight it.

    Our first thought as religious Jews is to be proud when “our” Ten Commandments are honored by public display. However, in Jewish tradition, it is the Seven Laws of Noah, not the Ten Commandments, that represent God’s instruction to mankind; the Ten Commandments are part of the Torah, given at Sinai and addressed to Israel alone. The Ten Commandments are universal only by virtue of Christianity’s claim that Christian believers of all nations constitute the “new Israel,” the true “Israel after the Spirit,” and rightful heir of God’s covenant with the patriarchs.

    Of course, it would be silly to begrudge Christians the Ten Commandments, or demand that Esav give back half the pottage (with interest!) if he wants to share Ya`akov’s birthright, but Lisa is right, the purpose is promoting Christianity, and displaying the Big Ten (like “Judeo-Christianity” generally) is not as Judenfreundlich as it might at first appear.

  8. Hanan says:

    I have to disagree with your statement that Americans Jews embrace a secularism thats hostile towards religion. If you really asked them what they thought about Judaism, you would probably see a more apathetic view of it, rather than them having hostile feelings towards it. You can find that kind of hostitlity much more alarming in Israel than the US.

    “There is in Orthodox life an unwillingness to oppose other Jewish groups”

    I dont understand. Are you referring to matters of financial interest, or just in general?

  9. Lisa says:

    I’m sorry, but as much as I dislike some of the reasoning behind the people who want to keep public displays of the 10 Commandments out of courtrooms, they are absolutely correct in considering it a violation of the First Amendment.

    Judaism is the only true religion. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca… these are all false religions from a Torah point of view.

    Now in the first place, most people in the US who are trying to put the 10 Commandments on display like this are doing so in order to Christianize the US. I can’t believe anyone can think that this is good for the Jews. Ultimately, we *must* differentiate between what we deem to be proper in general and what is proper for the US.

    The Torah is true. Neo-Paganism like Wicca is not. But let’s not forget that we are a small community of exiles in a country that is not our own. The moment it becomes okay for government institutions in the US to place the 10 Commandments on a special level, thereby raising Christianity (and Judaism, coincidentally) above Wica, it becomes equally okay to raise Christianity above Judaism. I submit that this is dangerous in the extreme.

    The other day, I saw a car with a bumper sticker on it that said something or other about the “Goddess”, and had a wiccan pentacle on it. Should this really bother me more than all of the JC bumper stickers and crosses I run into every day? I can’t imagine why.

    Our Sages ended the practice of reading the 10 Commandments aloud in shul because there were people who were treating them as though they were everything. We have 613 commandments; not just 10, and the displays that the Christians want to put up aren’t even divided correctly.

    Let’s not fight for Christian supremecy just because secularism is ugly.

    Lisa