June 30, 2005
I don't usually pontificate about politics. The blogosphere doesn't need another political blowhard, and my passion is religion, not political life. But when religion works its way into political matters, I figure politics becomes, briefly, fair game...
I'm speaking, of course, of the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial ruling on the display of the Ten Commandments. Apparently it's okay to display the Ten Commandments outside the Texas State Capital, but not inside a Kentucky courtroom. This raises fascinating questions about the nature of the much-bruited division between Church and State: what does it mean to display an excerpt from a particular religion's holy text in civic spaces? What if the faith (or non-faith) of constituents differs from the faith of lawmakers: would we here in Massachusetts be troubled if Governor Romney wanted to engrave a quotation from the Book of Mormon outside the State House in Boston? These important questions deserve our consideration.
I'm a little bit surprised, though, that no one's asking the burning question on my mind: which version should we be, or not be, posting?
The general perception in this country is that the "Ten Commandments" are part of the common religious heritage of Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism, part of the sacred scriptures that we all share, and should not be controversial. But most people involved in the debate seem to have missed the fact that these three religions divide up the commandments in different ways!
Judaism, unlike Catholicism and Protestantism, considers "I am the L-rd, your G-d" to be the first "commandment." Catholicism, unlike Judaism and Protestantism, considers coveting property to be separate from coveting a spouse. Protestantism, unlike Judaism and Catholicism, considers the prohibition against idolatry to be separate from the prohibition against worshipping other gods. No two religions agree on a single list. So whose list should we post? And once we decide on a list, what translation should we post?...
(That's from Judaism 101.) Here is a nifty table which compares the Catholic and Protestant versions, and here is the Jewish list with commentary interwoven. A similar passage appears in the sixth sura of the Qur'an -- verse 102, in this translation -- but that doesn't quite match any of the Jewish or Christian versions, either. To those of us who take these scriptures seriously, the distinctions matter. Each version, each translation, implies a lens through which the words are seen. If the State sanctions a particular translation of the text, does that devalue how others read it?
But disenfranchisement of those who don't share this text, or the government's chosen version of the text, is only one problem. Another problem -- at least, for me as a Jew -- is the implication that these verses supercede the rest of the Torah. Jews don't generally call this bit of text the "Ten Commandments," because we don't want to imply that they're the Big Ten and all the other ones don't matter as much. (In Torah they're called aseret ha'dvarim/ten sayings, and from Rabbinic days onward we've used the name aseret ha-dibrot/ten utterances). We place our focus on the whole path of righteous behavior, and consider it inappropriate to elevate these ten statements above the other 603 mitzvot that Torah offers. So while it's true that I'm a member of a faith-community for whom (some versions of) these words have relevance, I wouldn't be comfortable seeing them displayed in public spaces even in the original lengthy Hebrew version.
Look, Torah is full of good stuff which relates to civic life. When
asked to encapsulate Torah while standing on one foot, the sage Hillel
famously replied "What is hurtful to you, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary; go and learn it!" Others have argued that the Torah's central message is "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,"
the verse most-often repeated in the text. If one were going to
decorate government buildings with an excerpt from my holy book, I'd
choose either of those...but the truth of the matter is, excerpts from
my holy book shouldn't be hanging on courthouses or state houses or
legistlative chambers. Nor your holy book. Nor anybody else's. Because
we're blessed to live in a nation with a secular government, and our
government ought to respect the diversity of American belief by
refraining from glorifying one holy text over its fellows.
The Torah is important to me and my country is
important to me, but that doesn't mean I want them conflated. Supreme Court: kindly keep your chocolate out of my peanut butter.
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