For many of my friends, I’m that guy they ask about the Bible, God, religion, and spirituality in general. Being an observant Jew in Oklahoma – a place where many people of my generation are fairly burnt out on religion from certain people forcing their faith on them, I guess many ask me for feedback because I’m not trying to convince them of anything. I’m not trying to convert them to my religion and they probably find that makes me an unbiased source with no ulterior motive. Being that I’m that guy, I started receiving some questions about the State of Oklahoma’s back and forth disputes about having a monument depicting the Ten Commandments on the State Capitol.
My response? Take it down.
I know that seems like a strange response from a religious person, much less a Jewish person, but I feel that the display is simply unnecessary…and frankly, a bit offensive.
To explain why I want the Ten Commandments removed from the Oklahoma State Capitol, I probably need to explain the motivations of the proponents of such a display. I understand perfectly well that Christianity is the majority faith not only of Oklahoma, but of the United States in general. Many will argue that the very basis of our legal system is directly inspired by the Hebrew Bible. In order to maintain this link to our nation’s heritage, the motivation to display the Ten Commandments seems to make just as much sense as displaying the Magna Carta. The argument from proponents is that the Founding Fathers were mostly Christians and therefore founded our country’s legislation based on Judeo-Christian values. According to that logic, the Ten Commandments are a list of rules that both Jews and Christians can get behind. Seems reasonable enough, right?
From Hallowed To Hollowed
I could start off on a rant about how many of the most influential Founding Fathers were not only not religious, but were anti-religion ( “Priests and conjurors are of the same trade.” – Thomas Paine. “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson), but that’s not really the reason I don’t personally care to see the Ten Commandments on the Capitol lawn. The problem I have with displaying the Ten Commandments on government property does not stem from any qualms I have with the Ten Commandments themselves, but rather the opposite is true – these hallowed concepts are being reduced to a hollow symbol.
As Jews, our lives can be compared to that of professional organizers – spiritual organizers. Part of our observance has traditionally been to acknowledge God in the world where He normally goes unnoticed. Part of the way we do this is with b’rachot (“b’rah-khot”), or blessings. We don’t bless objects such as food, religious articles, or periods of time, but we bless God for His setting certain things of concepts aside for specific purposes. As Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen once said, “A b’racha is a protest against taking something for granted.” As the Shabbat (Sabbath) begins, we make a b’racha (“brah-kha” – singular version of b’rachot) to separate that day from the rest of the days. This is one way that we observe the 4th Commandments – “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The word for “holy” is “קדוש” which means literally to separate for a specific purpose. The same word is used in the b’racha we say to open the Shabbat, “Baruch atta Adonai, m’kadeish haShabbat” – “Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctifies (separates for a specific purpose) the Sabbath.” When the Shabbat has come to a close, we again sanctify it by blessing God in order to praise Him for separating it from the rest of the days of the week. “Baruch atta Adonai, hamav’dil bein kodesh l’chol” – “Blessed are You, Lord, who separates between the sacred and the secular.”
The majority of individuals who are in favor of the Ten Commandments monument being displayed could not, off the top of their heads, tell you the significance of why the 4th commandment should be displayed on government property. Why? Because to display this commandment on government property stands in opposition to the concept of “קדוש” – to separate for a specific purpose. These are not secular guidelines for living. Sure, half of them are great guidelines for how to interact with your fellow man (“Do not murder” , “Do not steal” , “Do not bear false witness”…) but the first half of them are specific instructions for a specific people on how to interact with their God. These are not to be subject to a cherry-picking which one’s are most convenient. To push these commandments on people who do not acknowledge this God is to make these commandments no longer “קדוש” – no longer, by definition, holy.
Most dangerously, the modern motivation for erecting such a monument on government property is not to promote the values corresponding to the 10 Commandments, but to hijack them for political sway. Many feel that religion and God are falling out of popularity so the obvious choice is to erect monuments to ensure this doesn’t happen. Erecting monuments as a means of preserving an ideal is more closely tied to the Egypt the Israelites fled than the ways of the God they ran to. God doesn’t look down on the monuments we make to Him with pleasure; the evidence being where He originally chose to dwell with us – a tent.
When a people attempt to make a secular government more holy pushing religion into it, it is not the government that becomes more holy but the religion that becomes more secular.
(Photo credit:JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World)