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Convergence on Commandments

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s long fight appears to be ending. Moore’s eight colleagues on the state Supreme Court, facing a federal court order and the prospect of $5,000-a-day fines, last week ordered the removal from the Alabama Judicial Building of a certain notorious 5,300-pound block of granite he had previously planted there. And what did that block of granite, removed Wednesday, depict that was so problematic? The Ten Commandments.

If you thought that a pair of stately tablets each bearing five immortal commandments is something Jews and Christians ought to be able to agree on, of course you’d be wrong. Leading Jewish organizations have vigorously opposed Moore and his desire to show that there is a religious foundation to secular law. Conservative Christians, meanwhile, love him.

Now, there are two aspects to this case. One is mundane, and it’s been getting all the attention. The other is rather interesting, and so of course has been completely ignored.

The legal side of the Ten Commandments brouhaha actually goes beyond mundane: It is stunningly trivial. The Anti-Defamation League, however, insists that “governmental posting of the Ten Commandments flies in the face of the Constitution’s guarantee of separation of church and state.” Really? But a frieze of Moses and the two tablets, upon the walls of the United States Supreme Court itself, seems safely ensconced. It is not being challenged by the Iron Curtain Between Church and State Brigade. Why? Because it shows Moses in a “historical” context, alongside other lawgivers.

If Moore, in installing the Alabama monument, had merely stuck a picture of Hammurabi or Confucius next to one of the tablets, he would be on very secure legal grounds. If he has crossed a line that the Constitution forbids, then he has done so by micro-millimeters. Is this worth going to the barricades over?

Maybe so if there were a religious or philosophical dimension to the case. While there is such a dimension, it casts a fresh light on the facts here, offering a perspective that would lead us to welcome what Moore has wrought rather than seek to tear it down.

There was a time long ago when the Ten Commandments represented a point of harsh contention between Christians and Jews. When the Temple stood, says the Mishna, it was the practice for the priests to recite the two chief crystallizations of Jewish belief: the Sh’ma and the Ten Commandments.

The sages wished to extend this practice to the synagogues. However, as Christianity developed into an independent religion in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple, Christian propagandists started drawing a distinction between so-called ritual and so-called ethical laws, a distinction entirely foreign to the Torah. These disputationists argued that while the Ten Commandments were indeed given to Moses at Mount Sinai, the rest of Jewish observance (the “ritual” stuff) was fabricated later on.

As the Talmud recounts in Berachot 12a, the rabbis chose to abolish the practice of saying the Ten Commandments — a painful decision that would fundamentally affect Jewish liturgy down to today — solely because of “the arguments of the minim [sectarians].” They wished to deprive these sectarians of a propaganda tool, which could be used to falsely argue that Jews, too, recognized a distinction between “ritual” and “ethical.” Modern scholars agree that these minim were early Christians.

Today, the Christian attitude toward the Ten Commandments couldn’t be more different from what it was. At least in America, Protestants and Catholics alike recognize the integrity of Jewish belief and practice.

American evangelicals, for example, support the State of Israel more fiercely than many of their Jewish countrymen precisely because the former read the Bible, with grave seriousness, starting from page one of the Hebrew Scriptures. Anyone who spends time with evangelicals, as I do, knows how much they admire and want to learn from Jews about Judaism — not in order to convert us, but for its own sake.

Moore himself speaks of God in inclusive terms, arguing that all law derives its authority from Judeo-Christian tradition. “To do my duty,” he says, “I must acknowledge God. That’s what this case is about.” By “God” he clearly means the God of the Old Testament too, since the Old, not the New, is the one with all the law and statecraft in it. The Christian Scriptures distinctly lack that element.

We Jews, then, have a choice. We can either celebrate how far Christians have come in the direction that we must want them to come — closer and closer to our understanding of the Bible — or we can bray and shout about a legal technicality, meanwhile further alienating our Christian neighbors. The better choice, I think, is clear.

David Klinghoffer’s new book is “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday).

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