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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.


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