Thou Shalt? Re­ally?

Forward Magazine - - News - Mishkan

The sur­pris­ing Amer­i­can his­tory of the Ten Com­mand­ments.

Many of us hold the Ten Com­mand­ments to be per­son­ally sig­nif­i­cant, whether it’s be­cause we find them re­li­giously mean­ing­ful or be­cause we just love the epic 1956 Charl­ton He­ston film “The Ten Com­mand­ments.” But for historian Jenna Weiss­man Joselit, who wrote the col­umn Won­ders of Amer­ica for the For­ward for 16 years, they’re a fo­cal point for Amer­i­can cul­ture. In her new book, “Set in Stone: Amer­ica’s Embrace of the Ten Com­mand­ments,” Weiss­man Joselit delves into the com­plex, fraught, sur­pris­ingly hi­lar­i­ous his­tory of one of the world’s most fa­mous re­li­gious texts in the United States. The For­ward’s Talya Zax spoke with Weiss­man Joselit over the phone. TALYA ZAX: What prompted you to be­gin re­search­ing the place of the Ten Com­mand­ments in Amer­i­can cul­ture?

JENNA WEISS­MAN JOSELIT: Ac­tu­ally, a more con­tem­po­rary event. Usu­ally a historian like me works from a kind of his­tor­i­cal mo­ment or phe­nom­e­non. I was watch­ing TV, and I came across a group of demon­stra­tors out­side the U.S. Supreme Court who were car­ry­ing aloft a card­board, minia­tur­ized Ten Com­mand­ments. This was in 2005, and they were await­ing the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion about whether the Ten Com­mand­ments can be dis­played in pub­lic. I said there’s a story here. A bit later I saw an episode of “Night­line With Ted Kop­pel” that fea­tured what was called the “Faith and Free­dom Tour,” in which a group of veter­ans from the South took an­other Ten Com­mand­ments, this one a 5,280-pound ver­sion which had been forcibly dis­lodged from the Alabama court­house, on the road. Like the

[taber­na­cle] of old, be­ing taken through the land as peo­ple queued up to ex­press their ap­pre­ci­a­tion of it. So that’s how it started.

As you re­searched this book, did you come upon any sto­ries or facts about the Ten Com­mand­ments in Amer­ica that es­pe­cially sur­prised you?

The piece that I had no idea about was the discovery of an al­leged an­cient ver­sion of the Ten Com­mand­ments buried re­ally deep in a burial mound in cen­tral Ohio. The idea that there would ac­tu­ally be an an­cient, an­cient ver­sion of the Ten Com­mand­ments buried in an In­dian burial mound was too good. I came across that in a foot­note in a for­mer stu­dent’s dis­ser­ta­tion. And then I went to the source, of course, and just un­cov­ered a plethora of ma­te­ri­als about this discovery on the eve of the Civil War. That was de­li­cious. It’s such a hu­man story: It was clearly a hoax. It was great to have a piece with so much Amer­i­cana, in­clud­ing trea­sure hunt­ing, and the con­nec­tion to the Mor­mons, the need to be­lieve that Amer­ica is re­ally blessed and spe­cial and if we can’t find that, we man­u­fac­ture that ma­te­rial our­selves and plunk it in the land. One of the things that re­ally sur­prised me is how the story of the Ten Com­mand­ments in Amer­ica is re­ally the story of cir­cu­la­tion and ex­pan­sion from lit­tle tchotchke things to mon­u­ments. Even though I’ve ti­tled the book “Set in Stone,” the puncher in the book is that it’s not. It’s mu­tat­ing. It keeps on as­sum­ing new forms and new power. It’s that his­tory in Amer­ica, the pres­ence of the ma­te­ri­al­ity of it, that ren­ders the story re­ally dis­tinc­tive, and Amer­ica re­ally dis­tinc­tive, be­cause no other coun­try in the world, not even Is­rael, makes the same amount out of the Ten Com­mand­ments that Amer­ica does.

What are the strangest phys­i­cal ver­sions of the Ten Com­mand­ments that you’ve come across?

I think the charm bracelets, which I started to col­lect. They’re a hoot. The idea of the Ten Com­mand­ments re­duced to a charm!

The other weird item is this thing that you can get now. It’s por­ta­ble, it’s a stand-up thing; it’s called the Ten Com­mand­ments StandUp, and it’s about 5 feet tall and it’s card­board. You can pur­chase it on­line, and you can prop it up in your home. It’s de­scribed as “a sturdy dec­o­ra­tion you’ll use over and over again.” So hi­lar­i­ous. It’s not in­tended for a Jewish au­di­ence; it’s not trot­ted out for Shavuot.

The other thing that I thought was hi­lar­i­ous was that there are all of th­ese pro­to­types of the Ten Com­mand­ment props that were cre­ated for the 1956 movie. The var­i­ous char­ac­ters who were hold­ing aloft the Ten Com­mand­ments in the film had in front of their eyes, on the back of the Ten Com­mand­ments, the words “left” and “right,” so they would know prop­erly how to hold it. When I started the project I was cu­ri­ous to see where along the line I had ac­cu­mu­lated Ten Com­mand­ments stuff. There were th­ese very chintzy book­ends — I didn’t buy them — that are fash­ioned in the form of the two round-top tablets. I also have a piece of De­pres­sion-era glass, which has old Moses and the Ten Com­mand­ments fes­tooned in a kind of gilt. And then I also have a lit­tle neck­lace with the Ten Com­mand­ments in lieu of a Jewish star or chai. In the course of my re­search, I did ac­quire a pin from the Ten Com­mand­ments Com­mis­sion, which is a group that at­tempts to keep the Ten Com­mand­ments front and cen­ter. You could email their so-called ful­fill­ment cen­ter and get your­self a lit­tle Deca­logue pin.

And what rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Ten Com­mand­ments in Amer­i­can cul­ture have you found par­tic­u­larly en­dear­ing?

The one that I think is the most de­li­cious comes from the 1923 ver­sion of the film [“The Ten Com­mand­ments”], the first block­buster that re­lated to the Ten Com­mand­ments. I loved the ’23 one be­cause it’s a silent film, and there­fore the ges­tures are even big­ger and bolder. There’s a scene where Moses is set atop this very craggy moun­tain, and the fin­ger of God is send­ing out into the moun­tain­scape the Ten Com­mand­ments, and they hover in the air a lit­tle bit, and then they kind of dis­solve like fire­works. It not only lit­er­al­izes the way in which the Ten Com­mand­ments are in­scribed, but it uses the power of elec­tric­ity, which was pretty new at the time and very ex­cit­ing. Har­ness­ing all of that quite lit­er­ally to the Ten Com­mand­ments, that’s an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful mo­ment.

When you started this project, could you name the Ten Com­mand­ments?

I think I could. I had to bone up. But Amer­i­cans add to the Ten Com­mand­ments things that are not part of the Ten Com­mand­ments. I think we just sort of need to know the idea of them. Catholics have a dif­fer­ent ver­sion, and Protes­tants have dif­fer­ent ver­sions. That’s where a lot of the po­lit­i­cal mess comes in.

Since both of those re­li­gions sprung from the Jewish tra­di­tion, shouldn’t they just go with our ver­sion?

Amer­i­cans are re­ally blessed with this pro­found amount of cul­tural il­lit­er­acy. You would think that they would know that the Ten Com­mand­ments were orig­i­nally a form of covenant be­tween God and the an­cient Is­raelites, but along the line they’ve for­got­ten that and then they’re sur­prised when Jews lay claim. I’m al­ways very sen­si­tive to the way in which Jewish his­to­ries get played out or mis­un­der­stood or ap­pro­pri­ated. I was sen­si­tive to the ways in which Amer­ica has na­tion­al­ized what had once been a re­la­tion­ship be­tween one group of peo­ple and their God. That re­ally came to the fore in the chap­ter about the shul pol­i­tics down on Nor­folk Street [on Man­hat­tan’s Lower East Side]. The con­gre­ga­tion hires a very up-and-com­ing ar­chi­tect who de­signs this very large stained-glass win­dow for the sanc­tu­ary. It was fash­ioned in the round. There have never, ever been Ten Com­mand­ments fash­ioned in the round. One could see why the ar­chi­tect would have thought this a grand idea. Ini­tially the con­gre­ga­tion was fine with it, but then lit­tle by lit­tle, a vo­cal el­e­ment de­cides that this Ten Com­mand­ments is too and they want to get rid of it but they can’t, be­cause they just put it in.

I was re­ally sen­si­tive to the de­bate about why they would want it to go. It re­ally piv­oted on the idea of neigh­bor­li­ness. It’s one of the points of con­tact be­tween Jews and Chris­tians. The visual pol­i­tics of it were such that they didn’t want to have a Ten Com­mand­ments that looked like no other Ten Com­mand­ments. Why do you think the Ten Com­mand­ments have be­come such a uniquely po­tent sym­bol of Amer­i­can cul­ture?

There are two things em­bed­ded in your ques­tion. One is that it re­flects the be­lief that Amer­ica is spe­cial, that it’s heir to the bib­li­cal tra­di­tion, that it’s the new Promised Land. That’s why the busi­ness about find­ing an an­cient Ten Com­mand­ments relic in cen­tral Ohio is so key.

The other thing is that what ren­ders Amer­ica so Amer­i­can is the porous­ness of the di­vide be­tween reli­gion and cul­ture. If you’re a purist you could read this book and groan at the prospect of a Ten Com­mand­ments bracelet, or Moses as an ac­tion fig­ure doll; you could see it as a cor­rup­tion or a diminu­tion. I ac­tu­ally think it’s the other way around: It speaks to the power of reli­gion. Reli­gion doesn’t stay put; it man­ages to seep into ev­ery as­pect of Amer­i­can cul­ture. And I think that’s a fas­ci­nat­ing bit of busi­ness. And we’re reap­ing the con­se­quences all the time. There’s a sweet­ness or in­no­cence or will to be­lieve that’s very op­ti­mistic. Amer­ica does not, at least no­tion­ally, have an es­tab­lished reli­gion. I think the Ten Com­mand­ments [do] the work of pro­vid­ing a shared re­li­gious iden­tity, at least un­til re­cently. Th­ese days, they are largely the prop­erty of the folks on the re­li­gious right, who in­stead of see­ing the Ten Com­mand­ments as an op­por­tu­nity to be more in­clu­sive see them in more co­er­cive terms, like, “This is Amer­ica.” Those who are in­sis­tent that they con­tinue to fit the mold are re­ally try­ing to hold change at bay, I think.

This book has come out at a time when is­sues of reli­gion in Amer­ica, as well as reli­gion-based ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion, loom large. How do you think your book can in­form this mo­ment, and help us un­der­stand it?

I would hope that it would pro­vide the larger his­tor­i­cal con­text. Th­ese things that are go­ing on to­day don’t pop out of nowhere. I do not hold any hopes that the book is go­ing to change any­body’s be­hav­ior, but I would hope that as it’s be­ing dis­cussed and taught, those who are at­ten­tive to its mes­sages will re­al­ize the tra­jec­tory of reli­gion in Amer­ica is very fraught and com­pli­cated.

How would you de­scribe the spe­cific role of the Ten Com­mand­ments in shap­ing Amer­i­can Jewish cul­ture? How do you see that dif­fer­ing from how they’ve helped shape Amer­i­can cul­ture at large?

‘Reli­gion doesn’t stay put; it seeps into ev­ery as­pect of Amer­i­can cul­ture.’

On one hand, Amer­i­can Jews over time have been enor­mously heart­ened by the way in which the Ten Com­mand­ments have been em­braced by the rest of the cul­ture. On the other hand, there have been a cou­ple of in­stances in which the Jewish com­mu­nity takes the lead in strongly sug­gest­ing the Ten Com­mand­ments are swell when lim­ited to a re­li­gious con­text, but when they’re planted on pub­lic grounds, that’s an­other is­sue. So for lib­eral pro­gres­sive Jews, the sight of the Ten Com­mand­ments on pub­lic ground is cause for con­ster­na­tion, both be­cause they feel it sets up a po­ten­tially very messy prece­dent and also be­cause it does a dis­ser­vice to reli­gion. They’re very mind­ful that the Ten Com­mand­ments have an in­tegrity and dig­nity that might be com­pro­mised if they’re planted on pub­lic prop­erty.

You con­clude your book with the ob­ser­va­tion that the Ten Com­mand­ments took deep hold in Amer­ica be­cause they gave the coun­try, in your words, “pedi­gree.” How do you think that par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance has changed over time?

I think in cur­rent Amer­ica, that pedi­gree doesn’t hold as wa­ter­tight. The Ten Com­mand­ments are in­creas­ingly be­ing taken off their lofty pedestal. I think the point is that that pedi­gree, as all pedi­grees, [will] hold fast for a very long time, and then other forces come in and chal­lenge it. For Amer­i­cans, the Ten Com­mand­ments fur­nished them with tan­gi­ble proof that they were dis­tinc­tive and blessed.


2005 Protest: Democrats gather in front of the Supreme Court to sup­port the right to dis­play the 10 com­mand­ments.


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