On Religion and Religious Display


By Kari Tuling

When I served a congregation in Portsmouth, Ohio, I would drive for about three hours from Cincinnati over rolling hills leading to the Appalachian mountains: corn, tobacco, and soy fields mostly with the occasional small town. And in this picturesque rolling countryside, various kinds of religious displays were popular. Near Cincinnati, for example, there once was a 62-foot Jesus with his hands outstretched to the heavens. This monument, unfortunately, later burned to the ground when it was struck by lightning, creating one of the stranger 911 calls to be recorded: ‘What is your emergency?’ ‘Jesus is on fire.’ ‘Jesus is on fire?’ ‘Yes. Lightning has struck Jesus’s hand and now Jesus is on fire.’

The giant Jesus was actually located a bit to the north of Cincinnati. But whenever I headed east toward Portsmouth, the largest and most prominent of these displays was a billboard of the 10 Commandments, towering over a field of dairy cows. This sort of thing fascinates me, because the creation of such a large billboard is a lot of effort for something few people will ever see.

What was also interesting about this display was the fact that it was not at all possible to read the commandments as you drove past. I had to assume that it was the 10 Commandments, having been given the recognizable graphic of two stone tablets, the illustration of a giant disembodied hand writing them, and the most earnest way in which they were presented.

This display did not come out of the blue: At the time, there was an issue in the national news relating to a judge in Texas who wanted to post the 10 Commandments in his courtroom. His action was ultimately (rightfully) interpreted as a violation of the separation between church and state. For a while, though, little 10-Commandments signs were sprouting up on lawns around my neighborhood.  It was a show of solidarity, I guess: a statement about the necessity of religion, perhaps?

And now, in Missouri, there is legislation in front of the voters that affirms the right to pray in a public place. It’s a right already protected; the concern is to make it acceptable to have public displays of religion in a government setting. The impulse to engage in this kind of legislation, however, comes from a Christian group that feels persecuted: from their perspective, their traditional religious displays have been under attack. In many communities it is true that a manger scene is no longer found in the public square in December, but rather a neutral ‘happy holidays’ display. And no longer do council meetings open with a prayer. I am not in a position to give advice as to how the voters of Missouri should choose, rather I am interested here in looking at the larger issue of religious displays in the public sphere.

And so, one might ask, what the source of the controversy regarding these displays?

For example, why should it a problem if a judge wishes to display the 10 Commandments in a courtroom if it is part of a shared inheritance?  This question is best answered with another question: Whose list of commandments are we using? Even though everyone agrees there are indeed exactly ten commandments in this list, Jews and Christians count them differently. What we count as commandments number one (‘I am the Lord thy God’) and two (‘you shall not make yourself a graven image’) most Christians count all as one. What we count as the tenth commandment (‘you shall not covet…’) the Christians count as the ninth and tenth – or more specifically, they separate coveting your neighbor’s wife from coveting his ass. Choosing one version over the other privileges one version over the other.

And that is not the only variation. As it happens, this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, includes the second account of the revelation of these 10 Commandments. The first time is in Exodus 20. The two versions are not identical – not truly disparate, but with enough differences to be noticed. In this version, here in Deuteronomy 5, the revelation takes place at Mount Horeb rather than Mount Sinai. It could be that Horeb is an alternate name for Sinai, the way one could say ‘Washington’ or ‘D.C.’ or ‘the capitol’ to indicate Washington D.C. Or it could represent a variant tradition; it is hard to say.

One of the more famous attempts at reconciling the two versions appears in the liturgical song L’cha Dodi: “Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad, hishmianu El ham’yuchad…” That is to say, the song suggests that God caused the Israelites to hear both versions at the same time.

For something so clearly defined as to be symbolic – a set of 10 commandments that are recognizable even when speeding down the interstate – there seems to be a surprising amount of variation in that content.

And, it would seem, the issue goes even deeper: the role of the 10 Commandments as a specific set of instructions has fraught with ambivalence within Jewish practice and Jewish thought.

There is, for example, the debate as to whether the congregation should be standing or sitting while the 10 Commandments are read or chanted in the synagogue. The argument in favor runs as follows: these commandments, in whole or in part, were the direct revelation of God to the people Israel, which is why they deserve special honor and attention. The argument against standing while they are read is made by no less a figure than the great 12th century thinker Maimonides, who argued that such a practice gives the mistaken impression that this section of the Torah is more important than the others.

Part of the problem here was the presence of a competing world-view that argued that only 10 Commandments are needed. Christianity (and, following it, Islam) had argued against the need to observe all the commandments of the Torah, especially those with less-obvious benefits, such as the prohibition against mixing linen and wool. So some of Maimonides’ concern may have been (at least in part) anti-assimilationist: Do not incorporate the veneration of specific commandments within the service, as reading them while the congregation is standing would echo the Christians’ emphasis on these ten.

Nonetheless, our basic difficulty here is identifying which ones are the most important. Are they all the same, really? Are there commandments that have mystical or esoteric meaning, so that it does in fact matter profoundly to God whether you mix linen and wool? If you are a traditional Jew, it is possible that it does. If you a modern Jew, it is possible that it does, but more likely not. But the Jewish tradition teaches that if you are not a Jew – if you are a righteous gentile – then it definitely does not.

The ancient rabbis of the Talmud, in fact, identified 7 commandments – the commandments given by God to Noah – as the basic minimum set. A person of any nation would be considered righteous if they followed these seven. Some are obvious: don’t murder, and don’t steal. Some are less-obvious but clearly sensible enough – do not eat a limb torn from a living animal. Others relate to the organization of a just society – establish a court system.  Jews, of course, have a much longer ‘to-do’ (and ‘don’t-do’) list, but the ‘short list’ is a recognition that certain basic standards matter profoundly, and that they could be used to recognize the basic decency of other peoples. Hermann Cohen (the German-Jewish philosophy professor and Reform Jew who wrote and taught at the turn of the last century) saw in these seven commandments the first dawning of a universalistic viewpoint: the idea that righteousness could be found outside of one’s own familial tribe.

So yes, I do see the advantages that a shared set of values across a multi-cultural landscape, a basic set of seven or ten commandments. And as clergy, I fully understand the value of shared prayer within a community. How could I possibly be against prayer?

Part of what is at issue here, however, is the question of privilege. As Jews, we are very aware of what it means to be in the minority, what it means to be the only kid making menorahs when the rest are making Christmas ornaments, what it means to walk into a giant display of Christmas kitsch to find the one shelf with two kinds of blue Hanukah paper. Our country is changing demographically and the white protestant majority will no longer be the majority within the span of a generation. That monumental shift is likely the source of the feeling of persecution. There is also this tendency to conflate this demographic shift and the concurrent shift in social mores – but I do not think that these two things are directly related.

It would indeed be easier for us all if religion could be neatly packaged as a list of 10 Commandments on a billboard, as something that we could all affirm without difficulty. But then religion would be nothing more than inane platitudes, no more meaningful than wishing a stranger a nice day without ever actually acknowledging them as an individual. Religion in its best, truest, most honest form is much more complicated and nuanced. It is the sort of thing that allows for both the pain and transcendent joy that comes with being human: how wonderful it is to record a birth and how awful it is to mourn a death, and the messiness of everything in between. The full expression of the real thing is greater and grander than anything a single billboard could hold, and more demanding than a simple list of ten. Perhaps that was the intended symbolic importance of the billboards and public displays. But it is so easy to reduce religion to its outward trappings and so lose its inner content. In my view, it would be better that there were no religion in the public square than there be a caricature of religion in the public square, just as it would be better that no religion were to be privileged than a specific religion be privileged.

Rabbi Tuling now serves a congregation in Plattsburgh, New York where she lives with her family and two cats. She is also working on finishing her dissertation for a PhD in Jewish Thought at HUC.


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