Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Torah and the Cross: Supreme Symbols and the Supreme Court

I delivered the following sermon this past Shabbat / Shmini Atzeret:

Tonight and tomorrow, we’ll be dancing circles around and with our most sacred object – the torah.

Isn’t it fascinating, when you think about it, that our most sacred object is not really an object at all, but a book – an open book, one that is in so many ways a living document. It occurred to me this week that we are most careful never to turn the torah into an object – even an object of veneration. Yes people have been known to risk life and limb to save a torah from a burning building. and yes, we never discard it when it is no longer usable – we bury it, as we would a human being. But that’s the point – the torah is more of a person than an object – and we treat it that way.

So what about the kissing, then? Isn’t that almost idolatrous – to kiss an object? A kiss is a way of expressing love, not worship. In our tradition, no one kisses the ring of the rabbi. When we kiss, we kiss our spouse or our parent or our child. Most parents don’t worship their children. Well. Maybe not. But the kiss is not indicative of worship, at least. Kissing the torah is a way not of expressing love for an object, but for all that it symbolizes, and for God. So I don’t see it as idolatrous.

Torahs are not used in tradtional Jewish art very much, just as we rarely see human figures; instead you'll find lots of Jewish stars and menorahs. Ancient Jewish art, especially synagogue mosaics and coins – are filled with zodiac signs, menorahs and lulavs and etrogs. Almost never do we find a torah.

And at the cemetery, we’ll see menorahs on gravestones, and other symbols, like the pitcher of water for the Levite or the hands of a Cohen – but again, rarely if ever a torah. When a Jew dies in the military, his grave will most often be marked with a simple Jewish star. These are found most movingly among the rows and rows of crosses at the cemetery at Omaha Beach.

We’re very careful not to make too much of our symbols – they should never become more important than they are – and even the torah, our most sacred symbol, gains its power not as an object, but as a summons - calling upon us to choose life.

So what are we to make of the current case now before the Supreme Court, which was argued this week?

Salazar vs. Buono deals with the constitutionality of a 6 1/2-foot cross sitting on what originally was public land in California's Mojave National Preserve. The memorial was constructed 75 years ago to honor World War I victims, but 10 years ago it was challenged by a National Park Service employee who thought it violated the Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion (see the arguments in detail here).

Congress passed legislation in 2004 declaring the site a national memorial. The legislation transferred the ownership of the land on which the memorial sits to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for five privately owned acres in the preserve.

This week an ACLU lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia tangling over the meaning of a cross to honor war dead.

Scalia, according to media reports, responded that the cross was 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?"

Eliasberg responded, "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew."

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."

I think that is an outrageous statement!

Legal observers said the court may end up deciding the case on the narrower issue of whether Congress acted legally in transferring ownership of the land to a private entity rather than the constitutionality of the cross sitting on public land. I hope that is the case.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank argues that the case doesn't have nearly the import that interest groups suggest it does -- but there are benefits for talking about it in such stark terms:

For the interest groups on both sides, a good fight can bring in money and members -- even if that means making the "fight" appear to be something larger than it actually should be. The "injury" claimed by the ACLU was rather a stretch: that Buono, a former National Park Service official, would "tend to avoid" the area when he returns to visit Mojave. So, too, was it necessary to inflate the menace posed by the pipe cross, which stands 100 yards off of a dusty road at an elevation of about 20 feet. Congress, in one of its legislative actions to defend the cross, even gave the place the status of a national war memorial, as if it were another Gettysburg.

The other side, too, had to pretend that taking down the cross would jeopardize veterans and God-fearing folk everywhere. "We pray that those who laid down their lives will be properly memorialized with a cross so tenderly placed in the lonely desert," the Rev. Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council preached outside the Supreme Court.

A JTA summary of the case details some of the statements made by the two sides in its report on the case. Some of those statements are almost apocalyptic in nature: "What's next?" demanded Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Will we sell a few steps of the Supreme Court to some group that wants to put up a Jesus-in-the-manger scene year-round?"

On the contrary, declared Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute. "If you have to tear down a cross in the middle of 1.6 million acres of desert, then what do you do with the 24-foot-tall Cross of Sacrifice in Arlington Memorial Cemetery?" he asked. "Anything that has religious imagery now has to come down?"

Both scenarios are, of course, equally absurd. But fear and loathing fill interest-group treasuries. But as a JTA blogger quipped this week, “It is a cross they must bear.”

Why the Supreme Court took on this case I can’t quite figure out, but I also hope they won’t use it to make a broad statement about church state separation. As Wendy Kaminer 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.”

No one would question the right to having 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 – as important to Christianity as the torah is to Judaism. And the Torah is the only symbol that is analogous – it evokes the same passion (though not in a Mel Gibson kind of way), which the menorah doesn’t and certainly not the lulav or Jewish star, at least not today. There really is no parallel to the cross other than the Torah.

And that’s when it occurred to me that there is a major difference. The torah never is used in connection with death. It is etz hayyim – the tree of life. The cross is not only a symbol connected to death it’s origin as a symbol was related to a death. A death followed, in Christian tradition, by a rebirth. We have a similar Jewish story from that era, of Rabbi Chananya, who was burned at the stake wrapped in a torah scroll. We’ve got plenty of martyrs who died holding torah scrolls – still it forever has remained a tree of life – etz hayyim.

Actually, Judge, Scalia, I do believe that a cross would only honor Christian war dead! Even one erected out in the middle of the Mojave desert! I do not mean to denigrate a proud and great religion, but Christianity is simply different from Judaism. Our greatest religious symbol would never have been considered for such a memorial. We just think differently, that’s all. 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.

Neither faith is better, we are simply different. And that difference is demonstrated clearly in our supreme religious symbols, even if those differences are not recognized by some on the Supreme Court.

There is much that we share, but that is something that we do not. And that is why this case is so important. But only if the Supreme Court chooses to make it so.

We’ll all be watching.

1 comment:

Gary Levin said...

Well said, Rabbi
We have a vibrant Jewish community here.

Gary Levin TBE 1957
Savannah Georgia