Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Cross And The Torah: Supreme Symbols, Supreme Court (Jewish Week, 10/22/09)

The Cross And The Torah: Supreme Symbols, Supreme Court

by Joshua Hammerman

On Simchat Torah night, I received the greatest compliment of my rabbinic career, if not my life. As the sacred scrolls began their sevenfold journey around the sanctuary, a young child pointed to me and asked his grandfather, “Is that Hashem?”

My first reaction was to laugh, as President Obama must have done when he heard about his Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve been called many things in my life, but never before have I been called God, except maybe once or twice by my kids, and not reverently.

But then it occurred to me that if ever anyone were to call me God, certainly this would not be the time. On Yom Kippur, maybe, when I’m all decked out in my while kittel, summoning all the power of the pulpit to deliver my message.

But on Simchat Torah? With everyone fussing over the scrolls, kissing and caressing them, dancing with them and around them, making such a holy to-do? If anything could be called God at a time like that, surely it would be the Torah.

And that’s precisely why it was such a compliment. This child understood, instinctively, that even as we celebrate the Torah, we don’t venerate it. The scroll is so sacred that we risk life and limb for it, and, when it is no longer reparable, we bury it as we would a human being; but that is precisely the point. The Torah is our most sacred object, and as such, we treat it not as God, but as we would treat the most sacred creation we can imagine: a human being.

We don’t worship it. We love it.

Our tree of life gains its power not as an object but as a summons. It’s a living document, one that calls upon us to choose life, to celebrate the brief moment when our little lives intersect with its eternal message.

Although it is our most sacred object, the Torah is rarely seen in ancient Jewish art; the menorah, incense pan and lulav are much more prevalent. The menorah is also often found on tombstones, along with the Star of David and priestly hands and water pitcher for a Cohen or Levite. You’ll rarely find a Torah at the cemetery, unless it is being buried.

Compare our “tree of life” to Christianity’s most sacred and omnipresent symbol, the cross. It is not surprising that the cross is often found in connection with death, since its derived its original meaning from a death. Jewish martyrdom stories from that era involve Torahs, like that of Rabbi Chananya, who was burned at the stake wrapped in a scroll; but the Torah symbol has remained for Jews a tree of life — etz chaim, not a symbol of death.

Judaism is all about the affirmation of a life that is. Christianity focuses much more on life hereafter. We are about redemption, they are about resurrection. The two faiths are simply different, as are our most sacred symbols.

But those differences are not recognized by some on the Supreme Court.
Salazar vs. Buono asks whether it is constitutional for a 6 1⁄2-foot cross to serve as a World War I memorial when it is sitting on what originally was public land in California’s Mojave National Preserve. It was erected over seven decades ago and went virtually unnoticed until 10 years ago, when it was challenged by a National Park Service employee claiming that it violated the Constitution’s prohibition of government establishment of religion. Congress tried to evade the problem by transferring ownership of that land to the VFW. I might have suggested selling it to my custodian. We Jews know how effective legal fictions can be in dealing with walls of separation and cupboards filled with leaven.

Problem solved. Or not.

If the Court simply intends to rule narrowly on the constitutionality of the congressional action, church-state separatists will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. But as the Roberts court swerves rightward in its course of judicial activism, there is cause for concern. While it is unlikely that the Court could use this case to justify selling space on its front steps for the erection of a manger, I agree with Wendy Kaminer, who wrote in The Atlantic, “If the Court seizes the opportunity and denies taxpayer standing to challenge federally sponsored religious displays, then constitutional prohibitions of such displays will be effectively unenforceable.”

In an exchange with a lawyer, Justice Scalia’s comments were particularly alarming: He called the cross the “common symbol of the resting place of the dead” and asked whether the lawyer would instead want erected “some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David and, you know, a Muslim half-moon and star?”

The lawyer responded, “I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”

To which the justice retorted, “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.”

Actually, Judge Scalia, I do believe that a cross would only honor Christian war dead. No one would question the right to have crosses at individual people’s graves in military cemeteries. That’s free expression of religion. And no one should question that the cross is a powerful religious symbol.

It’s just not my symbol. My most sacred symbol would never have been considered for such a memorial.

Neither faith is superior; Christianity is simply different from Judaism. And that difference is demonstrated clearly in our supreme religious symbols; one celebrating a person called God, and the other the spark of God that resides within all people — the divine spark that one youngster saw in his rabbi on Simchat Torah night

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