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Removing the Ten Commandments in Alabama

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-09-01

There has been an almighty row in Alabama because the Chief Justice of Alabama put up a massive (and ugly) monument of the Ten Commandments right in the middle of the state rotunda and he has been ordered by the Supreme Court to remove it because it infringes the separation of Religion and State.

He refused. He was suspended. The Ten Commandments have been removed. What’s the fuss? Every American Dollar bill carries the phrase ‘In God we trust.’ Apparently 90% of all Americans believe in God, far more than in Britain. There is something unusual about religion in America.

I was stopped on a New York street last week by this smiling black face who grabbed my arm and called out ‘Mishpocha, I love you!’ He told me that the survival of the Jewish people was all predicted in the bible that other empires and civilisations would fall but the Jews would survive. And he loved me and loved Israel and that this was proof that the true messiah was coming and all the Jews would be brought back to their land to fulfil the biblical prophesy. There would be a final battle of Gog and Magog against the opponents of God (who he said were the Muslims, they must be delighted to know) and then everyone would witness the Second Coming and Jesus would be king! Remember that when Christians talk about the bible they mean their New Testament as well as ours.

I am not a fan of using the Bible for proofs. Yes, for guidance, inspiration and authority, but texts can be misused by anyone. The term ‘proof’ itself isn’t even mentioned in the Torah. Is it a proof of anything that the Dominican monks who argued with Ramban claimed that the punishment of the Jews was predicted in the bible? They argued that the Jewish condition of exiled distress was the result of their sins in rejecting Jesus who the bible proved, according to them, was the true Messiah. Does it prove that God loves Muslims more now that Muslims outnumber Christians, or the Chinese more because they outnumber Muslims? People believe all kinds of things. One of the fastest growing Christian denominations, the Mormons, believes that the prophet Moroni delivered gold tablets of new revelations to the founder of the Mormons in the nineteenth century. The Muslims all believe that Mohammad was given the word of God just as we Jews believe that Moses was. No amount of arguments is going to persuade anyone to the contrary. Yet we all like to look to or holy books for proofs.

In the United States today you will find millions of bible toting Protestants who believe passionately that the State of Israel is the culmination of the suffering of the wandering Jews and now, gathered in Israel the Jews are ready to meet their Armageddon and then will be ready to accept the true messiah!

This is a powerful lobby that has been given a tremendous boost by the Bush presidency because he is one of them. Many have welcomed it because with it comes support of Israel and with it comes the only group of people on earth that are ready and willing to go out into the world to counteract Islamic fundamentalism on an ideological level. I must admit that compared to the way most of the European Churches are distancing themselves from Israel and the Jews, the American experience is rather reassuring. But of course everything comes at a price. The price is increasing religious interference in a range of areas of freedom of choice. And every move in one direction causes an equal push in the other.

The fuss over a sculpted monument of the Ten Commandments is symptomatic. The commandments are pretty generalized, though some of the messages carved around the base have a definite Christian message. The Christian aim is to push its agenda as publicly and aggressively as it can get away with. They have been surprisingly successful, for example over abortion, in claiming that they are pro life while the others are pro choice and trying to repeal laws that allow freedom of choice even though they are defined and limited. The fact is that most pro choicers are also pro life as well. But arguments nowadays are about Public Relations campaigns not the arguments themselves.

The anti religion camp that wants to call a halt to the increasing confidence of the religion lobby. They are infuriated that Bush actually prays, talks about his religious life and uses religious terminology. This they claim goes against the great American tradition of separating State from Religion. The religious founding fathers would be astonished by this claim. They wanted freedom of all religious expression not freedom from any!

I am worried about the religious agenda of the Christian right, not just wanting to use us Jews as a vehicle of the second coming but actually stopping others making choices of their own in the way they live.

I’m equally annoyed about the narrow-minded stupidity of the anti religious lobby going to extreme lengths to ban any form of spiritual expression in public. The Jews, as always, are split between those who want more support for religious institutions and support state involvement in religion and others who are terrified of anything smacking of a public display of religious spirituality.

The battle of Alabama shows both sides at their worst. The God Squad pleading ‘freedom of expression’ is prepared to defy the Law. They know damn well they have turned the Ten Commandments into a Christian theological battle. And the Devil’s Gang pleading the separation of Religion and State, prepared to eradicate even the good in religion for fear of the bad. If ever there was a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water this is it.

As usual I am caught in the middle. I love religion but not religious interference. I love freedom but not when it is used as an excuse for pushing a valueless society.