Monday, March 21, 2005

The Ten Commandments Controversy

The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments about the posting of the Ten Commandments on government property. I've watched cases like this come and go for a number of years, and I think overall the courts have done a good job of assessing the situations presented: a two-and-a-half ton monument to the Ten Commandments placed as the centerpiece of a courthouse rotunda, with the explicit intent of reminding citizens of the sovereignty of G-d and His revealed law, was found to be an impermissible establishment of religion. Glassroth v. Moore, 335 F.3d 1282 (11th Cir. 2003). A small plaque that was a longstanding fixture at the disused entrance to a historic courthouse was not. Freethought Soc'y v. Chester County, 334 F.3d 247 (3rd Cir. 2003).

The Ten Commandments controversy has split the Jewish community in interesting ways. The Orthodox, who believe that the Ten Commandments were originally carved in stone by G-d's own power and given to Moses on Mount Sinai and represent immutable laws of G-d that must be followed, claim that the Ten Commandments convey a secular message. Meanwhile, Jewish groups that tend to believe the Ten Commandments were written by man but inspired by G-d or inspired by a quest for G-d, argue that Ten Commandments displays are inherently religious. Christian and Catholic organizations have largely kept silent on the issue.

The explanation of this strange division is quite simple: The United States Constitution prohibits government action "respecting an establishment of religion." If the display is secular, it is permissible; if it is religious, it is not. The Orthodox want the display to continue, so they claim it is secular; other Jewish groups do not want it to continue, so they claim it is religious. Christian organizationss apparently don't want to get caught in the awkward position of claiming that the Ten Commandments aren't religious, so they're staying out of it, though some individual Christians have staked themselves out on courthouse lawns tearfully bemoaning the removal of G-d and the Ten Commandments from public life, providing proof that this is precisely the kind of religious display that would be prohibited.

This division within the Jewish community is nothing new. The Orthodox have in general favored government policies that affected religious groups, such as religious groups using public property or funding of faith-based initiatives, while other Jewish groups have opposed such things.

In the past, however, the Orthodox groups that supported such things had something to gain and little to lose. For example, when an Evangelical Christian group sought to use an elementary school's classroom for Bible studies, the Orthodox supported it. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001). Perhaps they saw the value of access to public school space, and after all, it wasn't their children who were being proselytized.

What have they to gain here? Judaism is not a proselytizing religion; we do not try to convert people to Judaism nor even to the Ten Commandments. According to Judaism, only seven commandments are required for gentiles. We have no religious need to teach the Ten Commandments to the world.

Perhaps the motivation can be found in the Orthodox Union's press release, in which they describe themselves as "representatives of the faith to whom the Ten Commandments were initially given on Sinai." Perhaps they hope that displays of the Ten Commandments will serve as a reminder that these laws, which are a foundation of law and justice in Western culture, came to mankind through the Jewish people.

CNN article about the case:

The Union of Orthodox Congregations' press release:

The Anti-Defamation League's press release:

Judaism 101 on the Ten Commandments:

Judaism 101 on the Seven Commandments for gentiles: