Thou Shalt Lie Low
08/29/03
Staff Writer
"What are you doing Alabama? You got the rest of the union to help you along What's going wrong?" Neil Young, "Alabama," 1972 Alabama's small Jewish community has been watching the "Decalogue Debacle" with a mixture of grit and grimace. The nation this week braced itself for the next development in the campaign by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to protect a massive replica of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of his court building in Montgomery, despite a federal court order to remove it as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on government promoting a particular religion. Moore's colleagues on the state bench, federal judges and some Southern Baptist leaders criticized him last week for refusing to obey the federal order. Moore also was suspended by a state judicial ethics panel for refusing to remove the 5,300-pound black granite block. Meanwhile, a small band of Evangelicals prayed outside the Alabama Judicial Building this week to keep the monument in place. (The monument was moved Wednesday morning.) Moore installed his particularly Christian version of the Ten Commandments in the middle of the night two years ago without authorization. He contends it is his duty to acknowledge God in a public state building. Caught in the controversy is the state's Jewish community of 10,000, most of whom oppose Moore and support church-state separation. It was Joel Sogol, a Jewish attorney in Tuscaloosa, who first brought a lawsuit against Moore in 1996 to ban the judge's demand for courtroom prayers. And it was Stephen Glassroth, a Jewish attorney in Montgomery, who is the plaintiff of record against Moore in the federal lawsuit brought last year that triggered the current court crisis. "I would say the Jewish community supports the idea of separation of church and state, and a display like this is not in keeping with those tenets," said Jo Ann Rousso, director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama. Rousso said there has been no backlash against Jews and her organization has kept a low profile on the issue, allowing other groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center to take the lead. Observers told The Jewish Week that many Moore supporters seem to be religious radicals coming from out of state. Nevertheless, Jewish Alabamans are privately ashamed of the spectacle, trying to decide whether California, with its bizarre gubernatorial recall election, or Alabama is the nation's bigger laughingstock. "The consensus pretty much seems to be ëlet's get that thing out of here and this over with because this is an embarrassment,' " said Larry Brook, editor of the Birmingham-based newspaper Deep South Jewish Voice. "Montgomery right now is a three-ring circus." But beyond the circus atmosphere lies dangerous demagoguery, said Rabbi Jonathan Miller, spiritual leader for Alabama's largest synagogue, the Reform Temple Emanuel in Birmingham. He criticized Moore for refusing to meet with the state's Jewish community. "I have invited him on several occasions at his convenience to come to talk to us at our synagogue," Rabbi Miller told The Jewish Week. "I said to him, 'You're our chief justice, you talk to other groups but don't talk to us.' He has always found excuses to ignore my letters and calls." A Moore spokeswoman did not return phone calls from The Jewish Week for comment. "I think he feels uncomfortable talking to people who don't agree with him, which is the reason his monument is so dangerous," Rabbi Miller said of Moore. "It makes the assumption that if you disagree with him you are not a righteous person. To have that kind of person sitting as a Supreme Court justice is a frightening thing." In the wider Jewish world, the major defense agencies (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League) have expressed strong objections to what many Jewish leaders see as Moore's political grandstanding on the issue. These groups also see the Ten Commandments push as the wedge to open the door to more extensive and sectarian religious displays in public buildings. Orthodox groups, while sympathizing with public displays of the Ten Commandments, have largely stayed out of the Moore controversy. Brook said one of the stranger episodes came last week when Brooklyn Orthodox Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a political conservative, appeared in Montgomery to support Moore. Rabbi Levin, who told reporters he represented the Rabbinical Alliance of America and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, gave Moore an embroidered likeness of the Ten Commandments and blessed him in a special prayer. Rabbi Levin sat on the dais at a pro-Moore rally on Saturday, explaining that even though it was the Sabbath, it was important "to be seen by tens of thousands of good Christians that they should know that there are hundreds of thousands of Jews just like me" who support Moore. Rabbi Levin, who backed Pat Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign, said he was embarrassed that Glassroth is Jewish. "This to many people throughout America represents Judaism, God forbid. That's why I'm here," Rabbi Levin told The Birmingham News. "It's imperative that we of the Orthodox Jewish community express the gratitude of three quarters of a million Orthodox Jews who appreciate the courage and unwavering conviction of ... Moore." Brook said Jewish Alabamans were taken aback by Rabbi Levin. "People wondered 'who is this guy?' " Brook said. Oddly enough, Moore's monument differs from the traditional Hebrew Bible's version: in fact it contains 11 commandments. That's because the Southern jurist scripted his own construction of the sacred phrases, which in Hebrew are called "Aseret Hadibrot," or The Ten Words. Moore's monument lists the first part of the First Commandment, and then presents both halves of the Second Commandment separately. This situation reflects the different constructions and interpretations of the Ten Commandments by Jews, Catholics and Protestants. For example, the commandment that "You shall have no other Gods besides me" is No. 1 for Catholics and Lutherans but No. 2 for Jews. Catholics break up the prohibitions on "coveting" into two commandments, while Protestants and Jews keep it to one. The Jewish No. 6 says, "You shall not murder." The Catholic No. 5 says, "You shall not kill." Numerical order aside, Rabbi Miller offered that "Jews here support the Ten Commandments because the Ten Commandments are ours. It's Judge Moore we are opposed to." He added: "For some reason Alabama seems to have a tradition of demagoguery, going back to George Wallace and before. This feels like we've gone back 30 years."

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12/08/2009 - 10:50

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