Sunday, December 2, 2012

Praying too loudly!

In October, Anat Hoffman was arrested for praying too loudly. The arrest took place in Jerusalem, at the Kotel—the Western Wall. She was taken to jail and held overnight.

Anat Hoffman is the leader of Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall. This is a group of women in Israel who have pressed for years for equal religious rights for women at the Kotel.

By government policy, the area in front of the Kotel is administered as if it were an Orthodox synagogue. There are separate sections for men and women, with a high barrier separating them, just like a mechitzah in a traditional synagogue. Traditional Judaism forbids men from seeing (or hearing) women while they (the men) are at prayer.

It may be hard to imagine that women don’t have the right to pray as they wish, at least in the women’s section, but that’s the case. The Women of the Wall go to the Kotel every month on Rosh Hodesh and attempt to pray the full morning service, including the reading of Torah, with some women wearing tallitot. Once in a while it goes smoothly; often they are forced to move away from the Kotel, to a location called Robinson’s Arch; sometimes they are attacked violently.

They say, “As Women of the Wall, our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

An Israeli law—nominally secular law—enacted in 1981 however, prohibits “conducting a religious ceremony contrary to accepted practice” and “wearing unfit attire.” In fact, it prohibits conducting any religious services without permission from the local official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. A provision forbidding “a religious ceremony not according to local custom, which may hurt the feelings of the worshipers toward the place” was added to the regulations especially to limit the worship by the Women of the Wall.

What got Anat Hoffman into trouble was, ostensibly, that her voice could be heard on the men’s side. In addition to not seeing women while at prayer, Orthodox men consider themselves prohibited from hearing women’s voices. In a traditional synagogue, if the voices from the women’s section or gallery become audible, men will shout “Kol isha! Voice of a woman!” until all is quiet. Other women have been arrested just for wearing tallitot.

There was no gender separation at the Kotel before 1948. I have seen photographs from the days in 1967 just after the reunification of Jerusalem when separate men’s and women’s sections at the Kotel didn’t exist. Today, however, it is divided, with  police authority behind the separation. The Kotel even has its own police force.

There is no easy solution when some Jews feel unable to pray as they choose if other Jews are allowed to pray as they choose, and there is only one Kotel. The Women of the Wall do not consider Robinson’s Arch an acceptable substitute: it was built during Herod’s expansion of the Temple around 20 B.C.E. and is not considered a sacred area, and because it is an active archaeological site, there are other restrictions on access to it.

The next Rosh Hodesh, for the month of Tevet, falls on December 14. The easiest way to keep up with activities of the Women of the Wall is to “like” their page (Women of the Wall Nashot HaKotel) on facebook.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The film and my grandmother

My grandmother held some beliefs that now strike us as slightly odd. One was that we Jews should go out of our way to respect Christian religious sensibilities.

For example, if she saw a home with laundry hanging outdoors on a Sunday, she would say, “I hope those aren’t Jewish people.” Because Sunday isn’t our Sabbath, we are certainly allowed to do laundry on Sunday. But she felt that conspicuously violating our neighbors’ Sabbath was wrong.

Most of us would no longer have that concern. I’ll admit, however, that I still feel uncomfortable about mowing my lawn on Sunday morning—but in a climate where it can easily rain for six consecutive days, I cut the grass whenever I can.

Most of us still try not to give deliberate and unnecessary offense.  That seems not to have been the case with the film Innocence of Muslims, the Arabic-dubbed trailer for which seems to have provoked riots in several countries and led to the assassination of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his staff.

Reports are still coming in about both the film and the assassination. The producer of the film, who called himself Sam Bacile, claimed to be an Israeli Jew and an American citizen, although the government of Israel denied any knowledge of him. The online magazine Tablet reports that the president of the production company was listed as Youssef Basseley, which sounds somewhat like Bacile. A man named Yousseff M. Basseley was convicted of bank fraud in Federal court in California in 2010.

Accounts of the film itself describe it as badly written and crudely produced. Actors say that they were duped about the nature of the film, and one actress states that her lines, originally not referring to Mohammed or Islam, were dubbed in post-production to change their references into religious ones. A posting at the On the Media blog confirms the dubbing, saying that it is obvious to both eye and ear.

There was more reason to doubt Bacile’s claim to be an Israeli Jew. In the U.S.. Bacile or Basile is usually an Arabic name, and postings on a YouTube account from which the film trailer was uploaded, associated with a Sam Bacile, are all in Arabic, not Hebrew or English. That account’s only “favorite” on YouTube is a video posted by a conservative Egyptian political party.

At this point it’s impossible to tell what the producer, whatever his name is, hoped to accomplish. I found it hard to believe that he thought such a bad film would have widespread influence in the United States, or that any Israeli would think that it would somehow help Israel. I didn’t reject the idea that the real purpose was to support radical Islamist parties in the Middle East.

However, it was eventually reported that his real name is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and that he is a Coptic Christian.

Whatever the intention was, some things are clear.

First: it’s wrong to kill anyone because of a film, novel, or painting that you consider blasphemous. That applies not only to our diplomats in Libya, who had nothing to do with the film, but also to the actual authors, producers, and artists. It’s wrong even in cultures that say it’s right.

Second: although the First Amendment guarantees our right to say and publish almost anything we want, there are times when restraint may be the most effective strategy. We don’t need to make public criticisms of those aspects of another religion that don’t affect us directly, and anything we do say needs to be 100% accurate.

Third: we should try not to confuse religious and political disagreements. The theological differences between Judaism and Islam are small compared to those between either of them and Christianity. The conflict between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries is political, not religious.

Other points are less clear. We generally wouldn’t object to a joke that made fun of Moses or Jeremiah (although it is hard to think of anything funny about Jeremiah). Christians might tolerate a joke about Jesus or the Virgin Mary, but many would consider it inappropriate for most settings. Many have protested works of art that they felt showed disrespect for Christianity, Jesus, or the Cross.

Muslims, however, would not tolerate anything that appeared to ridicule or defame Mohammed, even if it were clear that the intent was humor. Does this make it more objectionable to joke about Mohammed than about Moses?

A realistic answer seems to be yes. If my grandmother wouldn’t even hang laundry outdoors on Sunday, I think I should avoid deliberately causing serious offense. Remember that the objection is in the mind of the recipient. There are some jokes we might tell one another that we would consider anti-Jewish if others told them.

Does this mean that Islam is off-limits for criticism? The answer to that has to be no, the same as it is with respect to any other religion. For example, if a student in our religious school were to ask “Is Jesus the same as God?” his or her teacher, although avoiding disrespect for Christian belief, will reply that Jews believe otherwise.

There are certain questions that should be asked whenever we speak about other religions: Is what we are saying true? Are we saying it to express our own beliefs, or for some other purpose? Is there a genuine need to say it at all?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Right to pray?

Did my fifth-grade teacher, in public school, cross the line when she taught a lesson about the story of Palm Sunday?

My parents thought that she had. So did the parents of the two other Jewish students.  On the other hand, my parents didn’t object to the school’s having a Christmas tree, as long as we weren’t instructed in the Christmas story.
This happened when school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading were still permitted in public schools; the Supreme Court ruling that ended them was a year away.

The situation today is different. Many Jewish parents are pleased if a teacher asks them to teach the class about Hanukkah. (It is rare to be asked to teach a class about Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or any other Jewish holiday.) In general, we support multicultural education as long as it doesn’t become indoctrination.

Some states, in fact, require multicultural education and have set curricula for it. Where multicultural education is required, school children will be taught a certain amount about each of many cultures whether or not there is a child of that background in the class. Ideally, the presentation is accurate and neutral: it should be a form of social studies, not a form of religious education.

A different issue arose recently in Missouri, where the legislature has voted to place a “right to pray” measure on the November ballot. On the surface, this seems unnecessary, because the right to pray is already guaranteed.
The Missouri measure includes something else: in essence, the right not to learn. It would exempt children from having to learn anything that was contrary to their family’s religious belief. They could be excused from attending certain lessons and, presumably, from being tested on that material.

The issue, of course, is evolutionary biology, although it could extend to other subjects. A friend who teaches classical mythology at the college level has had problems with students who wrote Biblical rebuttals of the myths instead of answering the questions on her tests.

I have toyed with the idea of creating a religion that is opposed to division (in mathematics) and, therefore, to any mathematics that might require it. The reasoning goes like this:

  1. The Bible says, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
  2. Nowhere does the Bible command humans to divide.
  3. God, however, divides (for example) the light from the darkness.
  4. Therefore, division is reserved for God and humans aren’t allowed to do it.

Accordingly, children brought up in this religion should be excused from math classes beginning in the grade in which division is introduced, and should be allowed to graduate without knowing any math beyond multiplication.

Does this sound ridiculous? I hope so.  But I don’t see science education as indoctrination, nor does my classicist friend see mythology classes that way.

Similarly, I don’t see a grave threat if our children are required to learn a bit about other religions. I would object if they were required to practice any part of another religion or if a school requirement interfered with their practice of Judaism.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Good for the Jews?

In May, Congregation Kol Ami was the starting point for an “Abraham Path” walk, organized by the Southern Tier Interfaith Coalition. About 50 people of all ages and various faiths walked from CKA to The Park Church and back, and then carpooled to the Islamic Center in Big Flats for a meal and a presentation.

An Abraham Path walk recognizes Abraham and Sarah as the common spiritual ancestors of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The original idea is for groups of people to walk parts of the actual route that Abraham and Sarah would have taken from Ur, to Haran, and then to the Land of Israel. Think of Bruce Feiler’s book Walking the Bible, but with interfaith groups. The route passes through remote areas of several countries and is becoming an important source of tourism in those areas.

An alternative, for those who can’t travel to the Middle East or walk for weeks on end, is to walk a local route that includes a synagogue, a church, and a mosque. Even that is difficult here: there are plenty of churches within walking distance of either the synagogue or the mosque, but CKA and the Islamic Center are seven miles apart, with no safe walking route between them.

A confirmation class from the Caton Methodist Church arrived early with Rev. Beth Bouwens for a tour of CKA. In addition to pointing out the artifacts in the large sanctuary that would be found in any synagogue, I explained how the stained-glass windows depict the Jewish holidays in calendar sequence, plus Shabbat. Then I took out a sefer Torah, explained how one is written and how the reading is done, and invited everyone to take a close look.

As we were finishing, a group from the Islamic Association of the Finger Lakes arrived with Imam Zaman Marwat and I repeated the lesson for them. How often has a group of Muslims been invited to the bimah of a synagogue to examine the Torah scroll, here or anywhere?

As we talked, both on the bimah and during the walk, I was struck by the similarities between Jewish and Muslim practices.

To begin, we both have holy books written in a language that most of us have to learn in school (A majority of the world’s Muslims live in countries in which Arabic is not the vernacular.) Furthermore, both the Torah and the Koran were originally written in forms of Hebrew and Arabic that even native speakers of the modern forms of those languages can’t necessarily read easily. We’re both supposed to pray together several times a day—three for Jews, five for Muslims—but not all of us do so. And we both have traditions of chanting our sacred texts according to fixed melodies that aren’t indicated in the texts themselves.

We have special dietary rules that no one else follows. Furthermore, the rules of kashrut and of halal are very similar. At Mt. Holyoke College, there’s a dining hall in which all the food is both kosher and halal.

The similarities should not completely surprise us. Both rabbinic Judaism (the modern, not Biblical, form) and Islam originated in the Middle East and in about the same period. Our rabbis completed the writing of the Talmud only shortly before the composition of the Koran.

Through much of history, Jews and Muslims got along better than either did with Christians. In the Middle Ages, Jews living in Muslim countries had it better than those living in Christian countries.

A few days after our Abraham Path walk, Kansas enacted a law intended to preclude the use of Muslim religious law—sharia—in that state, not that anyone has attempted to impose it. Unlike an Oklahoma law that has already been set aside by a Federal court, the Kansas law does not specifically bar sharia. Instead, it bans the use of any law not originating in the United States. As a result, it is possible that it will meet Constitutional tests and be allowed to stand.

This should concern us because it would also preclude the use of Jewish rabbinic law. Although communities like ours convene a bet din, a rabbinic court, only to formalize conversions to Judaism, Orthodox communities also use a bet din to resolve disputes between their own members.

In New York, the decision of a bet din can, if necessary, be enforced in a civil court. That’s possible because a bet din constitutes a form of binding arbitration: it will only hear a case if both parties consent and if both promise to abide by the decision. That apparently won’t be possible in Kansas. How many Orthodox Jews are there in Kansas? More than you might think, because most of the Jewish community of Kansas City lives in the Kansas suburbs, not in Missouri. There’s a thriving Orthodox community in Overland Park.

Numbers, however, aren’t the point. We tend to ask about anything, “Is it good for the Jews?” Although the Kansas legislators expressed no fear that there would ever be an attempt to impose halachah—Jewish law—on the populace, civil laws intended to prevent the use of religious law even by adherents willing to abide by it are not good for Jews.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Vilna Gaon did not invent Judaism

This is part of a drash that I gave on Shavuot morning at Congregation Kol Ami.

In Hebrew school we teach our students that Shavuot is the anniversary of our receiving the Torah. Sometimes we teach specifically about the Ten Commandments, which are part of the Torah reading for the first morning of Shavuot. 

We also teach them about the historical function of Shavuot in celebrating the spring grain harvest. So: how many of us brought a sheaf of fresh-cut barley as an offering this morning?

I suppose I could have come up with an offering of fresh-cut lawn grass, or perhaps asparagus, the only produce of my garden that's ready this early. The Torah does not say anything about bringing offerings of asparagus.

In The First Jewish Catalog, Rabbi Everett Gendler suggested that we resume the practice of cutting an offering of spring grain for Shavuot, waving it heavenward since there are no Temple and priests to receive it. He recommended planting winter rye in the Northeast, as the most likely grain crop to produce in time.

The point of this is to make a connection with the history of Judaism as a religion concerned with agriculture. Not many of us are farmers and herders these days, and we tend to lose track of that. 

Furthermore, it's not easy to teach students about the aspects of Jewish practice that have, or had, to do with farming: the offerings at the pilgrimage festivals, the sabbatical year, and so forth. It's not even easy to teach children how to choose the correct brachah for each kind of food, because that requires knowing how the food is produced. For many of our students, all food comes from the supermarket, end of discussion.

On top of that, a full understanding of the pilgrimage offerings and of many other laws pertaining to agriculture requires some knowledge of ancient Near Eastern agriculture. That would also be an important corrective to our (mis)understanding of Judaism as European culture, when its roots are in the Middle East, not central and eastern Europe.

The Vilna Gaon did not invent Judaism! Jewish life did not originate in the yeshivot of Poland and Lithuania, any more than it originated in Berlin and Vienna. To the extent that we can identify a specific origin for what we think of as modern Judaism, it's in the Land of Israel in the time of the mishnah (second century C.E.). That's when the transition from Biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism became codified.

Too many of our congregations treat Jewish life as a celebration of Jewish ethnicity, by which they mean mostly eastern European Jewish ethnicity. That has been a continuing problem in Israel, where many of the early Zionists took pains to identify themselves as European, and it's a problem in North America today.

Our ties to the shtetl world grow ever more tenuous. That world means little or nothing to most of our students and not all that much to a lot of adults. Most students in my school have one parent who did not grow up Jewish and to whom the whole "Yiddish" business means nothing at all. Some, children of Jews by choice, have no Jewish ancestry.

So we need to rethink our misguided emphasis on ethnicity. If that's all there is to modern Jewish life, we're doomed.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What science and religion are really telling us

Delivered on Evolution Shabbat, 11 February 2012/18 Shevat 5772,
at Congregation Kol Ami, Elmira, NY

My father hated the metric system. With a passion.

Because he died in 1976, you might think that the metric system should have had little or no effect on him, that it might even have escaped his notice.

The truth was that the metric system wouldn’t leave him alone. The state highway director—this was in Ohio—at that time thought that the United States would soon adopt the metric system, and he began installing highway signs that used kilometers as well as miles. Along with


a sign would read

COLUMBUS 100 km.

(Those numbers aren’t exactly equivalent, but it’s close enough for government work.)

My father’s blood pressure rose every time he saw one of these signs, and it was high enough already.

Worse, he did business with some Canadian companies and traveled to Canada several times a year. Worst of all, my mother often went with him, and she hated the Queen of England almost as much as he hated the metric system.

You may wonder what this has to do with religion and science. My sense is that many people who dispute the theory of evolution or oppose teaching it are reacting the same way my father did to the metric threat. That is, I think that my father’s antipathy to the metric system grew out of fear: the fear of having to adapt to something he didn’t understand.

It’s certainly clear that most religious people who are hostile to science don’t understand science very well. And many of the so-called New Atheists—atheists who actively and publicly oppose religion—don’t understand religion very well. Typically, when atheists attack religion, they’re attacking a form of religion that you and I wouldn’t comprehend, either: something overly simplistic, reductionist, and arbitrary.

This is why Rabbi Harold Kushner, when someone proclaimed to him, “I don’t believe in God,” would answer, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God, either.”

But it doesn’t stop at that. It makes a certain amount of sense that traditionally religious people might not understand science or that scientists might not understand religion. If you listen to their arguments, however, you have to ask whether either group understands their own subject all that well—that is, whether religious people understand religion and whether scientists understand science.

Rabbi David Kay suggests an example that draws from the Torah. There are many statements in the Torah that a modern, scientific person might question. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. degree–our sixth-graders ask these questions. For a traditionally religious person who inclines to Biblical literalism, as do both Protestant fundamentalists and some Jews, these questions cannot be asked. It is a matter of principle to interpret every statement in Scripture absolutely literally. Some would call this hewing to the faith of their fathers.

But it should be apparent to us that our ancestors, both our forefathers and our foremothers, were not such literalists. The second paragraph of the Sh’ma, part of every worship service, quotes from Deuteronomy 11 (it’s on page 112 in Slim Shalom):
If you will earnestly heed the mitzvot I give you this day, to love Adonai your God and to serve God with all your heart and all your soul, then I will favor your land with rain at the proper season, in autumn and in spring, and you will have an ample harvest of grain, wine and oil. I will assure abundance in the fields for your cattle. You will eat to contentment. Take care lest you be tempted to stray, and to worship false gods. For then Adonai’s wrath will be directed against you. God will close the heavens and hold back the rain; the earth will not yield its produce.
Now, the ancient Near East didn’t provide a lot of privacy. For safety, people lived packed closely together. Even farmers lived in towns and walled cities, and walked to their fields each day; in Biblical times, the sukkah served as a temporary shelter for sleeping in the fields during the harvest season. Grace Metalious said that she got some of the material for her novel Peyton Place by eavesdropping on the party line. Our ancestors didn’t need to do that; everyone already knew what everyone else was up to.

Contemporary theologians might disagree with the statement that, if we follow God’s mitzvot, then God will provide rain at the proper seasons. To the ancient mind, that presented no particular problem: propitiating one or more gods to ensure a good harvest was what everyone did. The problem for our ancestors was with the second part. Again, if there was no rain and the harvest failed, there was no theological problem: God was punishing us, and you couldn’t prove that it wasn’t so.

The inherent problem is that sometimes there would be adequate rain and a good harvest even though sin and sinners were plentiful. If the neighbors were worshipping Baal or some other false god, you knew about it, just as Grace Metalious knew who was sleeping with whom. People might even have realized, however dimly, that they weren’t totally righteous themselves. And yet the rain came when it was needed and there was plenty of grain, wine, and oil. That’s the theological problem, and it’s why our ancestors did not take everything in the Torah quite as literally as we might have thought.

The idea that literalism is the only way to interpret the Bible is a comparatively modern one. In Jewish tradition, a literal strain of interpretation has always coexisted with other ways of reading.

Strict literalism is a largely Christian response to advances in science. We can think of Galileo’s problems with the Catholic Church, although Catholic teaching in modern times is more sophisticated than it was in Galileo’s time.

In the same way that what we now call “Orthodox Judaism” did not exist until the stirrings of Reform Judaism early in the nineteenth century, what we now call “fundamentalist Christianity” came into existence only after Darwin. As Jews, we do not write dates using the abbreviations B.C. and A.D., but in the history of religious thought, “After Darwin” is an almost equally important form of “A.D.”

The reaction that followed Darwin’s work and everything that grew from it changed an orderly, comprehensible world into one that seemed altogether incomprehensible, but it need not have been that way. The basic attitude of fundamentalists today is that, because God created the world, science cannot and should not explain it. The world that God created has to be incomprehensible.

It wasn’t always that way. In 1604, the astronomer Johannes Kepler was developing an astronomical theory that explained the elliptical orbits of the planets. In that year, a new star, a nova, appeared. Nothing in his theory predicted it; nothing in his theory could explain it.

Kepler need an explanation. And he was religious, a Catholic. According to the Paul Wallace, a physics professor,
He began to consider special creation: a deliberate, separate act of God unconnected with any other natural event, direct and special tinkering by the divine hand. But in the end he withdrew from that conclusion, writing "before we come to [special] creation, which puts an end to all discussion, I think we should try everything else." Over 400 years ago, Kepler understood that to claim special creation is to put an end to scientific inquiry.
In other words, Kepler’s conclusion was that, rather than impose a narrow explanation, we should keep trying to understand what we observe. Kepler believed that, because God created the world, it must be comprehensible, even if we don’t understand it yet. Modern fundamentalists seem to believe that, because God created the world, it has to be incomprehensible: any scientific explanation that makes sense has to be wrong.

I will say that it is arrogant for anyone to use the Bible to dispute science. One of my friends in the clergy who will be speaking about evolution tomorrow in her parish encountered some resistance: a churchwarden worried that she would “place Darwin above God.”

I’ll also say that scientists who oppose any and all religious teaching are being arrogant, and in a way that is contrary to the principles of science.

Oddly, the politicians who introduce laws to restrict the teaching of evolution or to advance the teaching of creationism in public schools, appear to understand scientific principles better than some of the scientists. Because this is an election year, the volume of the shouting on both sides is increasing and the number of new laws being introduced seems to be multiplying exponentially—not only in the Bible belt, but also in states like New Hampshire. The proposed laws typically require teachers to state the evolution is a theory, not a fact.

Which is completely true. Science works by advancing theories that explain the facts that scientists have observed, and right now the theory of evolution is the best one we have. It has been modified since Darwin’s time, because new observations and further thought often cause changes in scientific theories. From the point of view of scientists, the best theory available stands in the position of fact, but it may still be changed if new data require that. If a theoretician of the stature of Einstein comes along, an entirely new theory might replace it. That’s the way science works.

Scientific theories develop out of observed facts. In antiquity, so did religious theories. Religious theories—the stories of creation and pre-history—had to be compatible with the world that could be observed, had to explain what people knew to be true according to the science of their own time. For example, some stories in the Torah explain the origins of neighboring peoples such as the Edomites. If there had been no Edomites or the Children of Israel had never encountered them, or if they had not exhibited a degree of kinship to the Israelites, there would be no story of their descent from Esau.

One ostensible advantage of Biblical literalism is that it simplifies the world: in the view of religious fundamentalism, believing everything exactly as the Bible states it answers every possible question. Science, on the other hand, keeps raising new questions, making the world harder and harder to understand. In the nineteenth century, many advances in scientific knowledge were made by members of the clergy. In our time, scientific knowledge has grown so immensely that even professional scientists can’t keep up with all of it.

Nevertheless, the New Atheists want to tell us that science can and does explain everything. Almost the opposite is true: every question that a new scientific discovery answers leads to more and more questions. That, I think, is what most disturbs Biblical literalists.

It is possible that science may eventually explain everything, but it shows no signs of doing so now. Furthermore, knowing the origins of life would leave the basic question of religion—the purpose of our lives—still unanswered.

What I’m suggesting is that the role of religion, the role of Torah, is not to answer every possible question, but to teach us that we don’t know all the answers.

That’s also what science teaches us. Each new scientific discovery opens the possibility of rethinking all that preceded it. Evolution is “only” a theory because, in good science, no theory is ever final. There is always the possibility of learning more and understanding it better.

In other words, science and religion are telling us the same thing: that we don’t know as much as we might like to think we do. Rather than fear scientific advances, a religious person should be grateful for them.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Government and us

Jewish tradition refers to the Ten Commandments, the Torah reading  for February 10–11, as aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Statements, not Commandments, but both Jews and Christians revere them.

The Ten aren’t exactly the same for Jews and Christians. In fact, they aren’t exactly the same for all Christians.

I’m not referring to the two versions found in the Torah, one in Exodus and the other in Deuteronomy.

Exodus tell us to “remember” the Sabbath day, while Deuteronomy says to “guard” it.

The difference between Jewish and Christian versions is in what is stated in each commandment, regardless of which text you follow. All versions start and end in the same places, and cover the same ground, but the division into commandments is different for Jews, Catholics and Lutherans, and most Protestants.

That’s only one reason that I’m uncomfortable with proposals to post the Ten in public buildings. Somehow I doubt that our version would be used.

The more important reason is that doing so is disrespectful to Americans who follow other religions or no religion.

The Torah tells us to write certain verses on the doorposts of our houses; it doesn’t say to post those verses, or any others, in secular government buildings.

Today, too many extremists are eager to force their religious views on others. They demand that others, not of the same beliefs, follow their religious dictates, and in some cases, that secular governments recognize and enforce their practices.

These extremists aren’t limited to any one religion. It’s not just Muslim governments in the Middle East, some of which use government power to enforce what we would consider religious law. The number of Christian and Jewish examples of extremism and intolerance is disturbingly large.

In the United States, for example, there have been repeated political demands to prevent the imposition of sharia (Islamic law), even though there has been absolutely no attempt to establish it here. More to the point, many of the politicians who call for a ban on sharia seem all too eager, themselves, to establish some form of Christian religion as the law of the land.

Some of them want to establish civil and criminal penalties for violations of Biblical laws. Many of the laws that they want to enforce come from the Hebrew Bible, but no rabbi would recognize their interpretations.

For example, the Torah states that parents may take a disobedient son to the town elders and have him stoned to death. Centuries of rabbinic interpretation prohibit this, but some radical Christians want American law to allow it.

These radical interpretations set the Christian extremists apart from all mainstream Christian denominations.

Most Christian denominations believe— for reasons different from ours—that these laws no longer apply.

Jews, unfortunately, are not immune from this kind of extremism.

Recent news reports from Israel describe haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conflicts with Jewish neighbors in Jerusalem who are merely modern Orthodox.

These reports include attacks on an eight-year-old girl on her way to school, and harassment of women who refuse to move to the back of the bus (literally).

Nor is it only ultra-Orthodox Jews. In several American cities, liberal and secular Jews have opposed the construction of new Orthodox Jewish facilities on grounds that seemed disingenuous.

As Jews, we have been served well by a society that saw religion as individual, personal, and to a considerable extent, private. Government involvement in religion, even in Israel, isn’t good for Jews or Judaism.

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...